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'Roguelike' from another planet: The big ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove interview

We speak with Greg Johnson, developer behind the original ToeJam & Earl games and the recently-released ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove about laid-back, funky games and roguelike design.

John Harris, Contributor

April 3, 2019

13 Min Read

1991’s original ToeJam & Earl for Sega Genesis took people by surprise by following its own funky beat. It had no blood; indeed it was largely pacifist. It wasn’t super fast like Sonic; its characters were content to saunter along. It didn’t have the varied and intricately-designed worlds of Mario, as its worlds were randomly generated. It eschewed many of the then-fashionable trends in game design, and in so doing, charted its own course.

Developers Greg Johnson and Mark Voorsanger had created a legitimate sleeper hit. Players were charmed by ToeJam & Earl's style, animation, humor, music, and gameplay, and it’s now recognized as possibly the very first of the “roguelite” games -- the genre that borrows elements from classic roguelikes while bringing other design concepts into the mix.

Since the original, there have been three other ToeJam & Earl games, none of which quite recaptured the appeal of the original, mystifying its publisher Sega. Fans have been clamoring for a game that more closely followed the original for over 25 years, while others looked and wondered what the fuss was all about.

Greg Johnson, with the aid of Kickstarter, was able to successfully fund ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove, which released last month. The new ToeJam closely follows the original, and like the original, reactions have again been across the board, with some reviewers loving it and some hating it. Here in his own (lightly-edited) words, Johnson tells us about the new game's design, about making a fun party-styled co-op experience, and why he thinks some people love the game, and some just don't.

A long history of game development

My name is Greg Johnson and I am the designer of the ToeJam and Earl games. I am an indie game developer, and have been an indie dev for about 36 years now. I’ve originated and contributed to many games over these 3.5 decades, and I’ve watched the game industry grow from pretty much nothing. I have seen so very many changes, always from the perspective of someone struggling to survive as an independent developer, and someone swimming against the mainstream current.

Some of my games include: Starflight 1 and 2, Caveman Ugh-Lympics, Orly’s Draw-A-Story, ToeJam and Earl 1, 2, 3 and Ready Aim Tomatoes, Kung Fu Panda World, Doki-Doki Universe, and now Back in the Groove. I’ve also contributed to games like Deluxe Paint, Sims 2, Spore and World of Tanks. I also created a show on the Disney Channel called Choo Choo Soul with Genevieve.

Why are roguelikes so popular?

The main reason is that they provide a really solid framework for a generalized mechanic but still offer a lot of room for creativity and modification. Developers can easily bring their own themes to a roguelike and their own special twists and mechanics, while still building on a very well-understood foundation. This allows for a lot of efficiency and creative freedom, two things developers love.

Roguelikes (or lites) have such a strong mechanical foundation they don’t require really impressive graphics to be fun. This frees up developers to build with lower budgets, or go for a retro look that is easier and more doable with shorter time frames and smaller staffs.

Who doesn’t love D&D? That’s basically what roguelikes are, only with lots of random elements and less story. Fans love it. Devs love it. Finally, as a well-established genre, roguelikes have carved out a place in our collective gamer psyches, and people think of what they know.

Nothing wrong with nostalgia

I always find the comment amusing that “all it brings is nostalgia.” What makes people nostalgic are wonderful memories. No one gets nostalgic over things they don’t care about. “OMG!! That’s that game I loved when I was a kid! I played it with my parents or my brother and sister and remember staying up late and laughing our a%#es off!” That’s nostalgia. If that’s all this “game brings,” then I think I’m pretty darned happy to help people relive that and share it with a new generation of people they care about.

For people who have no connection with this and don’t understand why others have such fond memories of it--well, fine. No worries. But respect the love others have for something. Or maybe just go see The Grinch who Stole Christmas. I think that might be the movie for you.

Creating an accessible, replayable game

One of our goals was to make it accessible and playable by all levels of players, and to let all of these players play together at the same time, cooperatively. Literally, I’m talking about three-year-olds and very advanced ToeJam and Earl players.

We have Toddler Mode, Easy Farty Mode and Normal Mode that you can set any player to at any time, and players can jump into games and drop out of games. And we have Tutorial Mode, Fixed Mode, Random Mode, and Hard Mode, which are difficult in ascending order. The whole idea here is for players to play at whatever level they want. It’s all about bringing people together… families and friends.

One of our goals is definitely replayability. We want players to be challenged to finish a game so they can feel a sense of accomplishment, but we were also shooting for about a two-hour playtime for a whole play-through so that friends and families could play together and get some closure in a social setting. Giving players meta-rewards that cross over from one game to the next and make each playthrough feel different certainly isn’t unique to our game, and while I’d love to claim that was all my brilliant idea, we lifted that from any number of roguelites.

Still, I think we brought our own flavor and humor to it. Another core idea behind TJ&E was “don’t try to be funny -- just make the gameplay ridiculous so weird things happen, and humor will naturally fall out of that.” We have a few other things in the game that span one game play to the next, like winged presents you unlock that stay unlocked, or presents Santa gives you at the North Pole that you can start your next game with.

Co-op first, single-player second

Yes. A co-op adventure with a single-player mode! I have always liked that description of our game. It’s very true. I tell people that as a single-player game, it “doesn’t suck.” It really is meant as a game to play with someone though. Grab some good food, get comfy, crank the funky music up on some speakers, and just enjoy some relaxed time with a friend. That’s where TJ&E shines.

Sometimes I will see reviews of people who play the game as a single player experience. I am always pleasantly surprised when those people give us glowing reviews, but on the occasions when they have played single player as their first TJ&E experience and they don’t love it, I think, er, didn’t you hear this is a co-op adventure with a single-player mode?

We put a tremendous amount of effort into trying to create an experience that that lets two people be playful with each other. That means that players can come rushing to each other’s aid, and also means they can totally mess with each other and be devilishly mischievous. High-fiving to share life when your life is low, opening presents together so both players will get the results, shouting “over here!” to lure the Earthlings away from your partner and having the freedom to say “I’ll meet you at the elevator,” and then split up via the dynamic split screen, or even just controlling your character to speak to each other with speech bubbles over their heads (you type what they say or select from menus) were a few ways we help players be playful. That’s what make this game memorable.

We did have more challenges for sure trying to get four-player working and fun. One of our challenges had to do with making it so players didn’t need to wait so long for players who were slower. Many other things, too. Still we felt very strongly that playing together is at the heart of this game and we wanted three- and four-player. As for online play, we wanted to let people who were on their own match up and play with new people, and perhaps even more than that, we wanted to let the fans who had played together as kids and no longer lived near their old friends play together again.

Why some people don’t “get it”

First off, to each his or her own. I don’t expect everyone to love this game and that’s OK. Still, it is clear that some players don’t really get that the gameplay in TJ&E is all about using your presents [TJ&E’s items that give characters special abilities or changes environmental status].

Many new players don’t collect enough by searching bushes and trees, or they do but they hoard their presents and don’t use them. If you don’t use your presents in this game, it is boring as heck. (Can I say that about my own game?) You really can’t do much. You don’t have any way to attack or protect yourself without them, and your movement is slow, especially before you have ranked up, and poor you if you happen to be slow Earl. And yup, you will get knocked off a lot. So, well, also maybe don’t walk near the edges.

I will grant that this game is a bit atypical and sometimes the tutorial simply isn’t enough to get players up to speed quickly. Its fail states are part of the fun in this game. Leaping off the side because you are burning up, or having mean Rocket Skates launch you off, or even sneezing yourself off the side can be part of the fun: it gets you laughing and doesn’t happen too often.

There is a fine line between challenging and frustrating, and we want to always be on the challenging side. Just FYI, after watching thousands of games... most players develop a proficiency pretty quickly and death in this game isn’t usually from falling off the sides. (cough cough...Ice Cream Truck!)

Designing items for maximum mayhem

As to how I came up with them… well, I started with the presents from game one. And many from game three. I created a list of about 30 of these, and then added about 30 more, and then created descriptions of what each one of these do when “amped up” (i.e. supercharged). Looking back, I feel pretty sorry for our poor programmers, Jeff, Ko, and Chall, who kept having to see these ridiculously long lists of impossible things to implement (“and then I want this and this and this and that!”).

To be honest, I didn’t come up with all the ideas myself. Our team did a lot of brainstorming and we got many ideas submitted from our fans via our TJ&E forum. I did select the ones I wanted and modified or changed them. The guiding principle was “make something interesting happen to mix up the gameplay, the crazier the better.”

They don’t all need to be obviously good or bad. Here are a few examples: “Swap Bodies” isn’t really good or bad, but it makes gameplay interesting. In a two-player game this all of a sudden makes the players swap bodies and control each other’s characters. I originally expected a more senior player might use this to help a more junior player by stepping in to take over and get them out of a pinch. But I have yet to see this happen. What I do see are players stealing other players bodies and then ripping open all of their presents, so when they get back their inventory is empty. Ha!

Another present that can be either good or bad is the “Light Switch” present. This makes an entire level go dark from some time period, or if it is already dark, toggles it to being lit. The amped version makes this permanent. One of my favorite presents is the “Earthling Disguise” present. This puts a really stupid Earthling head-mask onto the player character and all the Earthlings you pass by leave you alone and say dumb things to you like “Hello other normal Earthling!” This present is always good, but I still like it a lot.

An action about avoiding physical conflict

If you ever played ToeJam and Earl 3 you will remember that we did experiment with giving players an attack all the time. In fact, two attacks, “Funk Fu” and “Musical Notes,” that they could shoot. This was fun in its own way, but our fans asked us to go back to the roots and make the game more like the original where you were avoiding Earthlings.

Getting chased and dodging can actually be a lot of fun, and there are enough factors keeping it fresh. We have a lot of environmental elements like paths, roads, hills, ice, sand, snow and water that makes chasing unpredictable. Also, the density of the Earthlings is a bit higher in this game, so while you are fleeing you are likely to run into new things that always keep you having to change your trajectory and strategy.

Add to this dead ends and secret pathways, and give player objectives like the ship pieces that force them to take indirect paths through the levels… and finally dump on top an entire truckload of presents that change up the movement of the players and the behavior of the Earthlings, each with unique ways of moving, and voila! you have a chase experience that changes from moment to moment.

Designing for the player’s pace in a more laid-back action game

It is true that TJ&E has a more laid back and mellow vibe than most games. In the original game you spent a lot of time covering ground over open areas, and there wasn’t much there. In this new game we did change that a bit and we made the world more dense, both with more dangerous and friendly Earthlings, and with searchable bushes and trees and mini-games like the HyperFunkZone and Rhythm Matching. It starts off slowly, but it ramps up pretty quickly, and isn’t nearly as slow paced as the original game was. Some of our fans like this more and some prefer the slower pace of the original.

Still, even with more going on, there is a sense that it’s all very mellow. A big reason for that is actually the music. The slower-paced funky beats set sort of a tone and rhythm for play in this game. Also, we give players the ability to essentially stop the action any time they want and get a breather by bringing up their present menu or their map.

We even sprinkle Sunflower patches in this new game that are safe spots that let the players seem invisible to Earthlings (you hold a sunflower in front of you and the Earthlings assume you are one - not so bright). Ghandi-Ji is also a walking safe-spot of love. It’s supposed to [help] you sneak past sleeping Earthlings, which slows the pacing down. So the pace really does change a lot.

[Interviewer’s Note: I noted that TJ&E tended to be a more thoughtful and slower game than other roguelites.] Yeah, I’m not sure. Most games are all about survival and fighting type action and adrenaline. TJ&E is more about exploration and surprise and silliness. It also gives you enough breathing room to allow two players to talk to each other while they play. I remember realizing at one point when we sped things up that we lost a lot of this dynamic. Well…I guess I would like more games that let me take things slowly and enjoy the ride a bit more. More funky music wouldn’t hurt either.

About the Author(s)

John Harris


John Harris writes the column @Play for GameSetWatch, and the series Game Design Essentials for Gamasutra. He has written computer games since the days of the Commodore 64. He also maintains the comics blog Roasted Peanuts.

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