ToeJam & Earl are back, and they’re going to be just as groovy as they’ve ever been. It’s been ever so gently teased over the last month that the classic Mega Drive characters were making a return, but now series co-creator Greg Johnson has broken cover and announced the development of ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove alongside a crowdfunding campaign.
But what does it all mean? When can we expect to see these alien rappers land back on Earth and, perhaps most importantly, which of the three previous games does it take after? We caught up with Greg Johnson to find out.
TSA: It’s been a while since we last saw ToeJam & Earl. Why did you decide to bring them back?
Greg Johnson: It’s actually something I’ve been wanting to do, and trying to do for many years now. Of course, it takes a lot of money to make a game, and that has to come from somewhere. I’ve approached publishers in the past without much luck. I tried to tell them that there was a big ToeJam & Earl audience out there, but they were skeptical.
Now, because of the advent of crowd source funding I have a very direct way to find out whether or not there are really enough people out there who want a new TJ&E game. And I get the added huge bonus of getting to make the game I want, and not what a publisher tells me. Well, assuming I manage to get funded. We’ll see what happens.
TSA: What’s the name of the game, what platforms are you targeting and do you have a release window?
Greg: The game is going to be called “ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove”. The engineer I’m working with, Jeff Kreis came up with that. I really like it.
Platforms? Well, initially just one – the PC, (including Mac and Linux) and after that hopefully all platforms. That’s one reason we’re building in Unity. We are a very tiny team though, and I want to keep it that way. My goal is to make a single game and play the heck out of it before we start porting. That’s how you make a truly awesome game. You make it for the fun and the love of it, and you play it and play it, and watch others play it and you tune it to pieces. That’s the most awesome of awesome things about being an indie developer, as opposed to being funded by a publisher – you can actually do that.
As for release date? I don’t know. Sorry. I’m gonna say 2 years just so people won’t yell at me. Like I said, the priority is awesome fun, not out the door fast.
TSA: What can we expect, broadly, in terms of gameplay and what’s the story? Gimme the elevator pitch.
Greg: The Elevator pitch! For ToeJam & Earl. That’s funny! Did you do that on purpose? Ok, well let’s see…
There isn’t really a big new concept, mainly because if I take the property in some majorly new direction again the fans will sort of kill me. And I wouldn’t blame them. What I keep hearing from them is… “Make it like game one (and maybe a little like game two), but only updated and better….and DON’T MESS IT UP!” I’m paraphrasing there.
Well TJ&E came from my brain, and so I know what’s at the heart of the game. My plan is to build from there. TJ and Earl and their friends have come back to check out Earth, where all the crazy $%* went down before, and TJ, the eternal show off, can’t resist pressing a button in his ship labeled “Black Hole – DO NOT PRESS!”. The Earth gets completely ripped apart and scrambled in the resulting time warp displacement thingy that happens, and now TJ and Earl and their other friends are once again picking up the pieces (ship pieces), but this time they also are travelling back in time.
So what’s it all mean? All of the old Earthling and presents – game play mainly like game one – but features pulled from game two and game three (think buttons, coin meters, hyperfunk zones, moving while you Rhythm match, and lots of other stuff). I also have a lot of new presents and features planned, but I think I’ll save the rest for later.
TSA: T&E was the first Roguelike I played and the genre has exploded in recent years. Will Back in the Groove return to Roguelike?
Greg: That’s the plan. Back to the roots. That said, I don’t plan to take it in the direction of more fighting like most Rogue-likes, and certainly not thematically with dungeons and monsters and treasure etc… Toejam and Earl is sort of it’s own thing, and I’m going to be true to what makes it unique.
One of the things I do plan to lift from the recent batch of Rogue-likes is the concept of a meta-game. That is, of course, the idea that each time you play the game you make progress in something that carries over from game to game, and/or is outside of the game. I have a bunch of ideas for how I’m going to do that.
Here’s one of many… At the end of each game, players will meet Lamont on Funkotron and get the next installment of a comic book Lamont is writing that tells the origin story of TJ&E. While on Funkotron they will also get to spin a spinner that will yield a cool prize, one of which is a “power hat” that adds to the players collections of hats (you can wear hats and clothes in this game). Hats can give you persistent abilities and attribute boosts.
TSA: What have you made of the popularization of Roguelikes in recent years? Are there any that you’re cherry picking for ideas?
Greg: Oops! I already answered that I think. So what other ideas am I stealing… er… I mean cherry picking from recent Roguelikes? Hmmm. The Meta-game thing is the only concept that comes to mind at the moment. Along those lines we are also going to have a special class of hidden flying-presents that are hard to find, and they fly away from you. Once you manage to get one of these, then that present becomes available from then on for all games.
Also, I don’t know if other games do this, but along the lines of going really old school, we are probably going to have an infinite play mode, which is basically a “how far can you get” mode. This would get unlocked after you have completed the game enough to get the entire comic book. Stuff like this could always change too. Our first order of business is simply to build the game.
TSA: Have any of the original team returned for this game? Or is it just you?
Greg: Mark Voorsanger engineered the original games, and I did the design for all of the games and most of the art for game one. Mark is off on another career path these days, and he gives us his blessings. John Baker did the original music along with Mark Miller, and John says he may be able to do a song or two for this one, which would be awesome.
Speaking of music we may also work with a group of musicians in Brazil called “The Gameboys” who I discovered on YouTube performing ToeJam and Earl music, and we’ll work with Burke Trieschmann who did all the music for TJ&E 3, as well as many other games of mine.
Our lead engineer (and right now, only engineer) is Jeff Kreis, a friend who was lead on another game I did some years back. His wife Maida was my lead environment artist on TJ&E 3 and she’s been providing invaluable aid. And then there is Nathan Shorts, the talented young artist from the SF Art Academy who has defined our retro comics look.
That’s about it. Depending on how well we get funded we’ll grow more, but probably not a lot more.
TSA: Presumably you own the rights to T&E? Have you always done so? Is there a story there?
Greg: Not much of a story, I’m afraid. Mark and I have always owned the property. We brought it to Sega back in 1990, and they liked it and licensed it for the games, but they have never owned it. That’s pretty much the story.
People have simply assumed it’s a Sega-owned property because it’s a sort of a classic. For what it’s worth, I’d like to give a shout out to Sega. They are great to work with and I thoroughly appreciate the history that we share with them. We currently have a deal in place with Sega to license and publish games one and two digitally. Hopefully all of the media attention we get for the property will make for a bump in sales and be good for them.
TSA: You’ve been indie for a long time now, I believe. Not many can claim to have survived for so long. What’s it like now, compared to the old days?
Greg: True dat. I’ve been making games now as an independent developer for maybe 34 years. Yeesh!
Oddly enough, things seem to have come kind of full circle in the industry. I’ve heard others comment on this too. For many years it was all about bigger and bigger dollars and bigger teams for blockbuster console titles. In the last 5 years or so there has been a tremendous resurgence in smaller, more experimental, or art-driven games, and smaller teams.
Indie game development was pretty tough going for a few decades, but now it’s gotten much more common and more feasible. There are quite a few reasons for this, and it would take too long to go into that right now, but the bottom line, and answer to your question, is that I feel a powerful sense of déjà vu these days. It feels a lot like it did back in the 80’s and 90’s when there was so much potential for little developers. It’s an exciting time to be making games and I’m feeling very hopeful.
Thanks to Greg for taking the time to answer our questions, and we wish him the absolute best of luck in making ToeJam & Earl’s return a reality!