Does ‘ToeJam and Earl’ for Sega Genesis hold up?

Let's get weird on Earth

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Does It Hold Up is a chance to re-experience childhood favorites of books, movies, TV shows, video games, and other cultural phenomenon decades later. Have they gotten better like a fine wine, or are we drinking cork?

Opening presents is one of life’s few consistent pleasures. I enjoy it now as much as I did when I was a little kid. But does the joy of shredding the wrapper off a box to see what’s waiting inside translate into the virtual world?

23 years ago I became obsessed with virtual presents through ToeJam and Earl, a game for the Sega Genesis that was kind of like Zelda for everyone who didn’t buy a Nintendo — only weirder and more complicated. Today, we’d probably call it a rogue-like, comparing it to games like Spelunky and Shiren the Wanderer. Back then, it was just a much needed adventure. On a system defined by its action titles, this was a game about exploration and opening up presents to avoid dying. It was slow, strange, and surprisingly deep. There was also a hot tub level.

LevelZero

With its nostalgic ’90s art style and sudden genre popularity, the question stands: does it hold up?

Your goal as ToeJam and Earl, two aliens who crash-landed on Earth, is to find all the pieces to your spaceship. They’ve been scattered around the planet, which in this case are floating islands in the middle of space. Gradually, you explore the map (which is entirely invisible, at first), collect your ship pieces, then make your way to an orange elevator to progress to the next layer of floating island. When you’ve found all of the pieces, you can return to your home planet Funkotron. But until then, you’re met at every corner with death that comes so swiftly, you’ll want to throw your controller across the room.

Finding the game all these years later is incredibly easy and legal. I bought a copy of both the first and second games off Xbox Arcade for 10 bucks, and was quickly whisked off to a 16-bit version of Earth. These are unchanged from the original versions, short of the fact that you can actually save your progress, and play with strangers over the internet. For the sake of authenticity (and also because I’m a masochist) I decided to sit down and play the whole game through in one sitting. I immediately regretted that.

The first thing I was struck with all this time later was how my memory has degraded into a small pile of kibble. I seemed to remember this as a rather relaxing game filled with some funny fart jokes and strange enemies, but it’s actually a gauntlet of trolling. On each stage, you’re handily outmatched by everything you run into, and there’s little respite.

Elevator

Sometimes, after just barely making it onto the elevator to get to the next level, you’ll pop up in the middle of three or four lurking bad guys. You’re safe as long as you stay inside. Enjoy the peace, because a few moments after stepping out, that elevator will disappear. Climbing upwards through the game’s world is an exhausting exercise where the only reward is the journey. If you’ve never played it before, I won’t spoil the ending for you, suffice to say that it’s at least better than Mass Effect 3. But not by much.

Then there are the presents.

To help you on your way, beautifully wrapped presents are scattered across each level. The mystery of why is answered a few levels in. Presents let you do things like move faster, teleport around levels, fly, and even fight back against bad guys, all of which make short work of you otherwise. Presents can also drop your health, or kill you entirely. And by design, you won’t know what a present does until you open it.

Presents

Six levels into ToeJam and Earl’s 25 levels, I remembered the main shortcoming of the game: it’s just incredibly repetitive. Once you’ve played a few levels, you’ve played them all, and it gets markedly less fun. The early thrill of discovering what the presents do quickly becomes an effort to manage them correctly. The later levels just add more area for you to navigate, and a more complex array of bad guys to deal with — or rather, run away from. Therein lies one of the things that hasn’t held up well in this game: there is no point where you suddenly feel like you have the upper hand against your environment. In fact, the later levels are frequently designed to put you through a gauntlet that will break your spirit. There is seriously an enemy that consists only of an ice cream truck that moves way faster than you, and can teleport. By the time you see it, it’s already too late.

My breaking point came from the bees. This bad guy is almost laughably simple, but also emblematic of this game: a relentless enemy that seemingly has every advantage. Bees can be easily outmaneuvered, but can fly over open spaces of the map to get you, and are such jerks that they’ll wait for you if you try to hide from them by jumping in water. They’ll also keep stinging you over and over again, often pushing you off the level back down to the next one, where there are probably more bees waiting for you.

That’s right, there are holes in each stage, and if you fall into a hole, you land on the stage beneath. Sometimes you can fall through then another and then another, setting you back multiple stages.

Bees

So why is this game actually amazing, even after all these years? It’s all about playing with another person. Going solo is missing the point. I decided to give it another try, this time with a friend, and the difference is pretty remarkable. The game is still frustrating enough to make you want to suplex your controller, but you’re sharing that frustration with another person. Better yet, they can bail you out. Every present is shared, as is the onus of trekking around the map. You can divide and conquer, or team up to try and confuse the tidal wave of bad guys. Because of that, the second go-through was not only faster, but markedly less stressful.

Would I recommend this game in 2014? Unequivocally. Just bring a friend. After all, it’s better to give a present than to receive.

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