ToeJam and Earl
Normally, when rolling back the time machine's calendar in my mind, I like to incorporate a look at a video game by describing what that game is and it's impression on me. Then along came ToeJam and Earl, the 1991 video game for the Sega Genesis, and I was at a loss. There's really not much to say about it, to be honest, in terms of actual gameplay. It's a top-down game where you wander aimlessly in randomly generated worlds looking for pieces of ship, avoiding enemies and opening "presents" that could contain either power ups or items that could hinder you (or kill you instantly).
It's not a game I would call "fun" however. Truth is, I never actually beat the thing. I would always make it to a high level, or a level I assumed was kind of high up because if there's anything that ToeJam and Earl did, it was make you not realize how long you've been playing, and I would end up falling off the edge of one of the level to two or three levels below, get angry that I have to retrace my steps and just turn the genesis off - sometimes by throwing a controller at it in hopes of hitting the power button.
Another truth: I also never actually owned it. I had to have rented it a half-dozen times when I first got a Sega Genesis, though. There was a local rental store that allowed you to rent two games for three days at a time. None of the other places, keep in mind this was before a Blockbuster or Hollywood Video opened up in my hometown, allowed such freedom. This place understood how people played games.
ToeJam and Earl kind of became a standard fixture when doing the dual-renting. Had a new game, but can't figure out what else to really play? Well, ToeJam and Earl it is, then. It was a simple enough game and a great time-waster. Plus the aspect of it being different every time you played it thanks to randomly-generated levels always made it seem a little fresh no matter how many times you plugged it into your console.
ToeJam and Earl has a great sense of passive-aggressively insulting its heroes with namecalling as well. The further you go, the less likely you are to be a wiener.
It was an original game, unique for its time as there wasn't really a usual "direction" for you to go, but was amazingly frustrating. However, the frustration of the game isn't why I remember it. ToeJam and Earl made an impression on me not with the specifics, but in the generalization of its creation. ToeJam and Earl had style. More specifically, ToeJam and Earl had early 1990s style.
If there a game that seems to embody the early 90s more than ToeJam and Earl? Just look at the box. Backwards hat. Big gold chain. High-tops. The phrase "Jammin"
The early 90s was a weird time. It was trying to recover from the 1980s but still hadn't quite made it. Art style and fashion still echoed the previous decade. Slang consisted of words like "radical" and "tubular" and "cowabunga." "Bad" meant "good," people would say "not" after a sentence to be sarcastic and everything good was "da bomb." It was the look of the 80s mixed with surer-dude slang and African American culture...and it was all just confusing. Watch a handful of early Fresh Prince of Bel Air or episodes or the movie House Party and you can pretty much get the entirety of the early 90s fashion and terminology in about 15 minutes. This, with bit of 70s funk thrown in, is what ToeJam and Earl is trying to emulate. I wish I could find a commercial for the original game, but this commercial for its often overlooked and sometimes unfairly judged sequel in 1993 is essentially the same approach to style and pop culture trend.
You see, the early 90s was an odd blend of 80s style and excess with a sudden interest in African-American music and culture. The most popular shows, music and fashion trends were consumed by white suburban kids and influenced by what they saw on television, and what they saw on television were rap and R&B music videos and awesome sitcoms like The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and The Cosby Show. Music acts like Whitney Houston and Boys II Men were at their most popular as well and influenced an entire generation.
What was pretty standard in black culture began to transition to, well, white kids like me. It was easily digestible and began to influence the way everyone talked, what they watched or listened to and what they wore. ToeJam and Earl is inspired by this exact trend. It isn't just a time-capsule of a game that looks back to the style of the early 90s, but it's a look back and a moment when the influence of urban black culture became socially accepted without presumptions (something we take for granted now).
I mentioned that ToeJam and Earl is more an interesting experiment and time-waster than something necessarily "fun." I think it would be a stretch for me to call it "fun" actually. It wasn't a game I felt determined to ever finish, kind of like an Angry Birds of its era where you played it for a while, enjoyed what it did, maybe laugh a bit at some of the crazy enemies, powers and animations of our heroes. It was an experience of style more than a game I felt determined to finish.
As a defining game of the early 90s, though, it not only came down in style but also music. And if there's anything anyone with a Sega Genesis in the early 90s remembers, it's the music of ToeJam and Earl. It was a mix of funk, rock and hip-hop styles. You know, the exact type of thing you would have heard from the era it originates from.
A mix of rock guitars, slap bass and heavy drums with repetitious beats. It's like Bootsy Collins meets Red Hot Chili Peppers meets A Tribe Called Quest.
ToeJam and Earl is one of those few retro games from my childhood that I love, but I'm also perfectly fine just leaving in my memory banks. I have no desire to really go back and play it. I know because I've tried and simply couldn't get into the game anymore. It was a time and place, I suppose.
I think we need things like that. Think back to your childhood and the things that aren't really around any more. They probably hold a special place in your heart but, when it comes down to it, it wasn't particularly great or nearly as good as your fuzzy memories say they are. It's nostalgic appreciation and not much more. Hell, maybe you're even a bit afraid to revisit it in fear it's not going to be nearly as good as you remember. I remember that happened when I re-watched the 1986 Transformers Movie.
But I certainly applaud the originality and ingenuity of ToeJam and Earl. It didn't make a huge impact and wasn't influential in the world of gaming, unlike some other games I think back to, but it was still a defining element of my youth and, more importantly, a look back to a specific time and place. Now whether or not you want to return to that is up to you, but I do know that even though I don't have a huge desire to play the game in terms of gameplay, I do still like to play it as an interactive memory of an era twenty years in the past. A time when everything was totally rad.