The in depth, hour and fifty minute interview can be viewed directly below. Following the video is my personal account of the interview and what I consider the “highlights.” Also, if you want to help make this game happen, please consider donating to the kickstarter campaign.
Audio Version Coming Soon!
I have a confession to make: When it comes to ToeJam and Earl, I lose my ability to be subjective. In video games, I honestly have no bigger fandom than this series. The first in particular holds a profusion of intimate memories for me. I use the word “intimate” because the game has helped shape my life in so many ways. It was the quintessential game my brother, sister and I would play at our beloved grandmother’s house back in the early 90’s. For years when we would visit her island home, ToeJam and Earl would come right along with us.
Now, many years later, when I switch the game on and hear that familiar funky tune, I am immediately taken back to her 1950’s era Florida home. I often think about how my life would be different if she’d never taken us to the mall that day back in 1991 and picked out the game with the funky alien dudes on the cover. I loved my grandmother for so many reasons, first and foremost; her generosity. But every time I play ToeJam and Earl, I am reminded of how important a person she was in my life.
ToeJam and Earl is also a game my brother and I have continued to play for over two decades. It’s one of the few games my parents took an interest in, and also one that I play with my wife. My niece isn’t old enough yet to hold a controller, but when she is, you can be assured that Uncle Zack will make sure she gets a chance to blast off a cliff on rocket skates. Everyone deserves that joy!
For those that were unaware, there have been three major ToeJam and Earl games thus far (and a fourth if you count a light gun mini-game released on the Sega Genesis), the original ToeJam and Earl, ToeJam and Earl: Panic on Funkatron and ToeJam and Earl 3: Mission to Earth. Since the release of TJ&E3 in 2002 on the Microsoft Xbox, (of all things) the franchise has been silent, well, until February 25th of 2015. After long last we have a new TJ&E game in development entitled: “Back in the Groove”, a fitting name for a long dormant franchise. However, things are a bit different in this fourth outing. Gone is Sega, a name that has been practically psynonemous with ToeJam and Earl for nearly 25 years. This time around, TJ&E mastermind Greg Johnson has decided to go directly to fans for support via kickstarter.
How can he do this without Sega’s involvement? Well, Greg and Mark Voorsanger (who is the co-creator of the first three games but will not be involved with Back in the Groove) own the rights to TJ&E. And with Sega’s current downgraded state, I would say that this is most certainly a good thing. It also enables Greg to create the true sequel TJ&E fans have been clamoring for for decades, completely free of big studio interference. Not to mention ecstatic fans are more than happy (myself included) to toss money his way to make that game happen (over 200k and counting as of the time of this writing). And with screen shots like the one below, what TJ&E fan wouldn’t get excited about the prospect of a completely modern version of their classic game series?
When my brother and I sat down in front of our computer screens to interview Greg Johnson himself, I couldn’t help but marvel at how I had come to this point. I was about to interview one of my gaming heroes! I was giddy, terrified and elated all at once. Would I chicken out? Would I have a panic attack on air? Would Greg be a jerk? (yeah right!) A million ideas gathered in my brain and randomized like a rolodex of unidentified presents. But when the connection began and I finally met Greg, all my fears were instantly abated. I mean, look at this guy!
When Greg’s unshaven, jovial face first appeared on my screen, I knew right away that we were going to have a good time. Throughout our discussion I discovered that he is a truly kind hearted and passionate man. Someone who really loves what he does, after all, he’s been in the games industry for 34 years. And not only that, but to Greg, ToeJam and Earl are personal. They are his creations, he is protective of them as a father would be of his children (although it should be noted that he has 2 real life children as well). It is evident in his face every moment he speaks of them and in every extended monologue he presents. It was readily apparent to me now that there are few men like Greg Johnson. I knew right away that all the feelings I had about the old game as a kid— and all the feelings I have about the upcoming game as an adult— are well founded.
As I mentioned at the head of the article, this interview was nearly 2 hours in length. For that reason, my brother an I have picked what we felt were the most relevant and interesting questions and answers and summarized them below. If you would like to watch or listen to the entire interview, you can at the top of the page.
So before we talk about the new game, I was curious: How are ToeJam and Earl doing? I mean, as people or as aliens or what have you? I ask this because when my brother and I first played the original game, ToeJam, Earl, my brother, and myself were all basically just kids. Since that time, my brother and I have entered adulthood, gotten jobs, gotten married, and had kids. At the start of the new game, are ToeJam and Earl still the same funky youngsters that they were before or have they, too, grown up in that lengthy hiatus just like their fans have? Does Earl own a burger joint? Does Toe Jam chase around a three legged toddler? If they have matured in some way, how might this influence the story and the game play.
Okay, good, you get the award for the first person to ask me that question. Huh. Well, ToeJam and Earl have continued their lives in some other dimension that I don’t have so much visibility in until such a time that I can call them forth. In regards to the story and back story for this game, I’ve had a variety of ideas for some fairly elaborate stories revolving around the notion of funk and the deeper themes of the game and what ToeJam and Earl represent. They represent an outside satirical perspective about who we are as earthlings. They are kind of making a statement about how crazy, self destructive, and self involved we earthlings are. That’s what all of that silly comedy is underlying. I’ve had some ideas about how I might convey that with different stories about how the funk is in great need among the earthlings. In a broader sense, the funk is more than just music. It’s a joyful freedom and acceptance of themselves and of others. It’s a warm, welcoming spirit of just letting go when you dance. That’s what funkifying the earthlings was supposed to represent.
So as a follow up question, do you think at the start of the game, story wise, that they may even have left behind the funk, you know, they quit the band and now they’re getting the band back together, dusting off the old hotrod spaceship, and getting back in touch with the funk. Can we expect some kind of story arc like that?
Maybe. That is to say, I like that idea. Even though I love the characters and would like to see them grow, the real magic of Toe Jam and Earl is the way in which it facilitates play on the player’s side of the screen between people as they cooperate. So far, I’ve ended up going with a simple story about how ToeJam and Earl decided to go for another joy ride in the ship and Lamont was probably messing with the ship, trying to fix it in unnecessary ways and they notice there is a new button on the ship: “Black Hole button, do not press.” Of course, Toe Jam, who knows everything, decides to show off with their friends and decides to press the button while they’re around Earth. That basically tears the Earth in pieces and those pieces get stacked up. So that provides a rational for why the Earth is stacked as it is, and also introduces us a reason for why time travel is in the game.
Well, yeah, so I was thinking too that this process actually creates an alternate Earth. In the new game you’ll be popping earthlings again rather than funkifying them like in the third game. In any way that I can I want to go back to the old school way. The idea with the new game is that you’ll be popping the earthlings like in the first game, but popping them sends them back from this alternate Earth to the real Earth.
It’s funny that you ask that because it’s a question that can be answered just as capably by any ToeJam and Earl fan as I can. I can take a shot because I can see a lot of e-mails and feedback from a wide variety of fans. More than my opinion I can represent what I’ve read from others. As you would guess, it’s a variety of things. One thing is the funky music of course, which is really big. I’ve gotten a lot of e-mails from people who have told me it got them started with their musical careers. The attention we paid to the music in the original was unusual for its time.
I think one of the most lasting, entertaining aspects about the first game wasn’t necessarily one specific feature, but how they all came together. The open, procedurally generated environments, the sandbox mentality, the multitude of distinct presents and varied enemies all had a tendency to come together at unexpected moments to produce hilarious results. For instance, you might use a random present in the hopes of getting away from the Lawn Mower Man, only to ironically kill yourself with a total bummer. Or you might get hit by a cupid while you are running around with super hightops, causing you to lunge to your death into shark infested water. After decades of playing the first game, we’ve far from exhausted new forms of these frequent, fun, side splitting situations. How will new mechanics help add to this potent cocktail?
Ahhhh. Well, let’s see. There were a lot of elements in the game that were rogue like and they weren’t specific to ToeJam and Earl. The procedurally generated environments, the player freedom, etc. But the thing that ToeJam and Earl did was turn those elements light hearted and cooperative. Those two things in conjunction made people smile and laugh together. Those elements of surprise and exploration became almost qualitatively new because it became a thing that people could share together and made them feel good. The new game will take that aspect and take it even further. So the problem here is I could go on for the next 45 minutes about that…
There’s a number of things I have planned. I want people to feel like they are working together as a team. I want it to be a good single player game, but it has always been at its best when it’s shared. There is a list of new presents that are specifically designed for multiplayer games, like a present that allows you to switch bodies with the other player. So if your friend is in trouble and surrounded by dentists and such, you can use a present and swap so that you deal instead with their danger. Or things like a present that lets you pray or meditate which lets you feed some of your life to the other player or give them a protective bubble while you yourself are vulnerable.
You’ll also be able to toss your team mate or, at least, Earl can toss ToeJam. If you get to a gap you can’t get over you can do an alley-oop and ToeJam can get tossed over. ToeJam can ride on Earl’s shoulders, too. So if Toe Jam has a rapid fire tomato gun, he can get on Earl’s shoulders.
There’s also a change in the game as far as how offensive you can be. In ToeJam and Earl 3, players had the ability to use their funk fu and go around attacking the Earthlings and get stuff from them. I think I want to go back, in the new game, to the old school game. You only have offensive abilities when you use a present, but I do want to give players more presents that are offensively effective. I also want to give players a better sense of leveling up, so we’ll have a wider variety of skills and attributes that define who you are as a character. We’ll have things like speed and luck and a whole list of things. I think we have 7 attributes listed so far. So yeah, you’ll be able to level up but you won’t be able to attack all the time.
One of the things I’m really excited about is we’re thinking about a system, like in the old rogue games, where there is some turn taking. In Back in the Groove, we’re going to have stop signs. Some levels will have numerous stop signs and in some levels just a few. When you stand near the stop sign, all of the earthlings will stop so you can take a breather and think about what you are going to do. So you can run from one to another and it changes the game play to a faster arcade style. I’m not quite sure how it will work out, but we’ll see.
I’m not going to say that there won’t be any modern elements at all. I love hip hop music and I feel that’s appropriate for ToeJam and Earl since they are kind of growing up a little. You’ve probably noticed their new look. They are taller and thinner and ToeJam is actually wearing clothes now. In the first game they were kind of pre-teens and now they are teenagers. I think there might be some break dancing while you are doing their rhythm matching. I want players to be able to rhythm match like they did in the third game where you do it on the move, but if you stand still, you dance and it becomes more powerful. There may be some hip hoppy stuff in there but musically, I do want to dial it back to the game one vibe. How they talk will also not be updating. They’ll still be using old school vernacular from the 80’s and 90’s.
To many, the Jam Out sessions were one of the best parts of the second game and you managed to predate the “rhythm craze” by more than a decade. On the Kickstarter page it says that you will be bringing it back. How will this feature manifest itself in the new game?
I’m going to take advantage of the R and B in the third game. I’d like to do that style of rhythm match while moving but I also want the static jam outs from game 2. You know, when you put a coin in the coin meter and then have a dance off. I hope to be able to do both, because they both serve their own roles.
Probably, there’s been a little bit of talk about that, but I think almost certainly the answer is yes. That’s about the extent of how interesting that answer is at this stage. I can tell you about the game’s structure. We’ll have some meta-game elements so that every time you come back and play the game again you get new stuff. And also, there will probably be an infinite game mode where you can see how far you can get and there will be some surprises far in the game for those devoted players. We won’t expect you to reach the end.
Will there be different types of game modes? For instance, classic mode as in the first game or “race mode” where you get timed? Perhaps a game mode where, every ten minutes, the lowest level collapses away, along with anything else that was on it (players included)? Can we expect game modes that might add a sense of urgency to the experience?
Order of business one will be making the basic game and blowing it out with all the features I want with that before thinking about other play modes. But even just drawing from the three games there’s so much diversity already that I kind of feel like we’ll be already building a bunch of games at once. So I’ve got my hands full trying to figure out how I’m going to get everything I want in the game with all of the new stuff without making it feel too complicated. I want the game to feel simple even though there’s a lot you will be able to do. You can have a lot of complexity in the game as long as you aren’t forcing players to use things in their decision making process. So for instance, in the new game there will be world events, good and bad, that players will have to react to. So if you remember tomato rain, that’s one, but I want to have a whole wide variety of things like tornadoes all over or presents raining down.
Well, the Earthlings will go to sleep and the cow ghost will come out. Also, secrets will be easier to find at night. I’m sure I’ll come up with more things, like Santa Claus might come out at night. Oh, and I was thinking you might be able to hit Santa with tomatoes and steal his jet pack. I want to have a lot of little surprises like that.
You’ve mentioned bringing customizable skills into the equation. Does that mean we can expect a Toejam and Earl RPG? Should we expect the usual “more life” stat and “more speed” stat, or can we expect upgradeable attributes that are quirkier?
Yeah, okay, so let’s go down the list. There will be speed, life, what your skill with presents is— because some presents will be broken and those broken presents can backfire or they can be amped up. Also, as an aside, some of the presents will be amped up if you use your presents more often to discourage present hoarding. We’ll have rhythm skill, luck, better deals from the mailbox.
Actually, ha ha, I think I’m going to add that! And of course we have stealth and perception for finding secrets. And of course different characters will be defined by different attributes and special abilities specific to them. Like in the third game, Earl could eat anything and still get life.
One of the advantages that the second game had over the first was the multitude of secrets. This was due, presumably, to the fact that the second game had static levels and the first game had procedurally generated levels. If environments will be procedurally generated, how might you use modern resources and perspectives to integrate secrets into the new game?
That’s not too hard. You can procedurally generate a level and have secrets stuck into the level and then have levels procedurally generated around it. It wasn’t in the first game because I probably didn’t think of it at the time.
Based on the kickstarter and other interviews you have done, we now know that you are going for the look, feel and style of the first game with some features from the second. Although it seems that you have distanced yourself a bit from the third game, what are your thoughts on TJ&E 3? Is there anything about it you would consider bringing back? And how do you feel about the third game overall?
I have mixed feelings about the third game. Although I think it was an awful lot of fun to play once you really got a handle on it. I think there was a lot in that game that I’m going to pull into this one, especially the extra characters and also some of the rare presents. For instance, the burning up present that lit you on fire when you used it or the presents that gave you away to all the Earthlings in the vicinity and they would converge on you. We want to bring a lot of the Earthlings in too like the cowboy singer and the sushi guy. The issues that I have with game 3 that made it not work so well was the overall complexity. There were structural changes we did at the behest of our publisher, like moving away from the stacked level structure. We’re a bit ambivalent about having all the presents locked at the beginning and the “fed ex” quests where you had to find the guy in the human suit and deliver presents. It was kind of too much and too scattered and made the player lose their focus. There was a lot of good stuff in the third game, content wise and mechanics wise, that we can pull to enrich the new game.
From our understanding, the first game generated an enduring legacy while the second one generated better sales but also disappointment among most fans. With Back in the Groove, will development be driven by “uncompromised vision,” sales, or both?
It’s funny to say “uncompromised vision” but I know what you mean. My priority on this new game is very clear. It’s for the fans. My criteria for success is whether ToeJam and Earl fans feel like it hits the spot for them. If I were building this for a publisher they would be very interested in appealing to people who don’t know the previous games. The publisher would say that you could make the old school fans happy but you are building this game to maximize sales.
There will be moles, for sure. Don’t they make you want to throw your controller through the window? You get that present you want and you are waiting to use it and then it’s gone. But here’s some good news. Just like in game 3, you can pop a mole and get all of your presents back. You can go mole hunting. Part of the reason they were in the game at all was because it got people to use their presents, to clean out their stash of presents. Another earthling from game 3 was the geek brothers that had a remote control robot that made you randomly open a present in your inventory. It kept the presents moving.
It must feel pretty good to own the rights to ToeJam and Earl. How has this influenced your freedom in the creative process? In other words, if you were in Richard Garriot’s shoes and Sega owned the rights to ToeJam and Earl, would you still be making this game?
It’s kind of the indie dream to make enough money so that you can make the next game that you want to make without having to go with your hat in hand to publishers and instead live the life of creative freedom. People are always shocked when they learn that Sega doesn’t own the property. But I need to give a nod to Sega because they could have been more difficult about it and aggressive, but they’ve been supportive and they know all about the indie thing. I’ve been checking in with them and showing them what I’m doing. The head of their legal counsel even reassigned the trademark to us. Sega still sells ToeJam and Earl 1 and 2 digitally and Mark and I are still getting some funds from that.
Since we’re on the topic of Sega, in your interview with Chris from Sega Nerds you guys talked about the fun idea of putting a new ToeJam and Earl on the actual Sega Genesis hardware. I don’t know if you are aware, but companies like Watermelon Games are developing and releasing brand new games such as Pier Solar which is a massive RPG, as well as a brand new beat em up in the vein of Streets of Rage. What do you think of this and is it something you would ever consider doing yourself?
Yeah, I would for sure be interested in finding out more about that and talking to Watermelon. That sounds fun although obviously it wouldn’t happen until and unless we can deliver the new game on the platforms that people actually want to play it on like the Xbox One, PS4, Wii-U, 3DS, Vita and of course the first order of business, the PC. We need to concentrate on finishing the game first before we could consider porting it. But yeah, I am going to look into that, that’s a fun idea. I also wonder if the people at Sega would like that because it would make me very happy if we could sort of give them a nod.
I’d like the last question to shed light on the fact that this franchise will soon straddle multiple generations. I just had my first child recently and I’m thrilled by the fact that I’ll be able to introduce an important part of my childhood to hers. I hear that you have children of your own. Have they shown any interest in ToeJam and Earl, or do they find it boring because it’s “part of Dad’s job.”
My son is 14 and my daughter is 20. He’s a total gamer and she’s a total non-gamer. But yeah, my son is a heavy duty gamer and he plays ToeJam and Earl with his friends. He’s excited about the new game and they talk about it all the time. Making a game that he’s going to like is a big motivator to me. I want to make a game that he is going to like and that I can share with him and ask his opinion of. This is going to be a good one for that. I’m excited about that. And that’s neat. Congratulations about your daughter.
Yeah, well, these games that you’ve been a part of or been lead designer of have infused themselves into not just our childhood but who we are today. You’ve wiggled your way into the people we’ve become. I was so happy to hear about the new game because I want to be able to introduce a contemporary version of the game into my daughter’s own childhood one day. So that kind of has a double meaning to me.
Yeah, you know I’ve actually heard that a lot. It’s one of the more touching things I’ve heard from the fans. A lot of them have kids and want to share that experience with their kids. Because it’s so playful and bright and cooperative, it’s something people really want to share. I didn’t really expect the outpouring of memories that people have had and what the game has meant to them. It’s really sweet and it takes me by surprise. When you make a game you don’t necessarily expect that. I guess you spend a lot of hours playing the game you love and it happens in a time of your life when you are very impressionable, when a lot of memories are forming. In retrospect I can see why it means so much to people. I’m still very surprised.
Yeah, well ToeJam and Earl is different because so many games are all about imposing so many rules, rules, rules, and sending you on a specific trajectory through the game but ToeJam and Earl has the opposite approach, kind of opens up the game and opens up the rules and allows the player to play within the game. It’s interesting, but when my brother and I and our sister used to turn the game off, we’d “play” ToeJam and Earl and pretend that the boogie man was chasing us around and stuff. The way we played when we turned off the game, it feels like we could only do that with ToeJam and Earl because of the kind of the game it was because you were encouraged to play in the game itself. It invited the player in that way.
If you would like to help make this game happen, please contribute to the kickstarter!