In 1991, “ToeJam & Earl” brought hip-hop to video games.
And then … not much happened with hip-hop in gaming. Despite the genre dominating pop charts for much of the following two decades, “ToeJam & Earl” remained an outlier. It’s the too-rare game that explores music and the culture surrounding it, and it does so with humor rather than violence.
Consider it the missing interactive link between cosmic artists such as George Clinton and Janelle Monae. “ToeJam & Earl” features two fallen rapper aliens who traverse Earth looking for pieces of their broken spaceship. There are obstacles but nothing a little bass can’t handle. Players, for instance, blast enemies with beats from a boombox rather than with bullets.
Now these two alien hip-hop heads are making a comeback. Greg Johnson, the game’s original designer and co-creator, has taken to Kickstarter in an effort to bring the funk back to video games.
His proposed game, “Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove,” has raised more than $230,000 of its $400,000 goal in its initial week. At press time, 20 days remain.
For Johnson, this is an opportunity to correct some of the sins — corporate compromises, in other words — of the game’s two sequels, which served as attempts to add action and edge to a game about silly exploration. It also fulfills his lifelong mission to bring diversity to games.
“The whole game is not just a celebration of funky music, which I’ve loved and have always loved, but a celebration of the culture of black American music and everything that comes out of it,” Johnson says.
“There’s a joy of gospel music, and there’s hip-hop and dance and rap and just that ‘cool’ sense you feel when you hear a deep, funky bass. Then, ‘Yo, what’s up?’ There’s a sense of brotherhood and warmth that infuses that culture. That’s what has appealed to me, and that’s what I wanted to celebrate.”
As a 30-year-plus veteran of the entertainment industry — Johnson’s credits include 2013’s “Doki-Doki Universe” for Sony platforms and the Disney Channel‘s “Choo-Choo Soul” — the designer, who comes from a mixed-race family, has found that bringing a bit of multiplicity to the game industry hasn’t always been easy.
“Touchy” is the word Johnson uses to describe the game community’s approach to diversity. His titles, which at varying times have featured a robot visiting tribal worlds or a young Jamaican storyteller, faced occasional criticism.
Some found the Jamaican patois spoken by the star of “Orly’s Draw-a-Story” to be condemning black dialect as a whole, this despite hiring a Jamaican native to voice the character. As for “Doki-Doki,” at least one prominent game site took issue with the planet Afri, which featured indigenous people who didn’t understand technology and had outmoded ideas of courtship.
“They decided that was insulting to all black people,” Johnson says. “What can you say to something like that? ‘OK.’ It’s a catch-22 that has baffled me for decades. With games like ‘Grand Theft Auto,’ the portrayals of Latinos and black people are of total thugs. People are used to that, but you have to scratch your head and wonder why people would have such acceptance of that and then a problem with something I had in ‘Doki-Doki Universe.’”
“ToeJam & Earl,” however, has been largely universally loved. And never copied.
“People don’t want to see stereotypes portrayed, and anything that’s slightly offensive is carefully guarded against, so I understand why there’s not more of it,” Johnson says when asked to contemplate why others don’t use games to explore different cultures. “It’s risky. You have to be brave if you want to step outside of the norm because you pretty easily become the target. But it’s worth it.”
Perhaps the adoration for the game comes from the outrageousness of the characters — the plump, beanie-wearing orange Earl or the hot dog-red ToeJam, a three-legged gold chain-sporting goofball. It also looks like few other games, with slices of earth stacked upon one another and levels traversed via elevator. It plays at a relaxed pace, and it’s best with two players.
“It’s broad enough that people can bring to it what they want,” Johnson says. “I think that’s part of the key to success in pushing the boundary of diversifying in our industry — just do it incrementally and gradually and give people enough of a taste without going all out. The focus is more on the music than on specific African American cultural aspects.”
Part of the reason for starting a Kickstarter, Johnson says, is his desire to finally make the sequel that he’s always wanted to create. Each subsequent “ToeJam & Earl” game was made with more input from publishers, investors and console-creators, resulting in games full of concessions.
The second in the series, for instance, switched from a top-down view of the world to a side-scrolling one more similar to “Super Mario Bros.” The characters were bigger and the action was faster. For the third, 2002’s “ToeJam & Earl 3: Mission to Earth,” there were significant alterations in tone, all in the name of adding more edge to the game.
Some of the changes forced Johnson to just grin and bear it. “We had to appeal to the real hard-core early Xbox audience,” he says. “We walked the line. We made the characters swear more. We made Latisha’s breasts bigger. We made the game more violent.”
At one point during the making of the third game, Johnson recalls being handed a copy of a 3-D “Donkey Kong” game and being told to “study” it.
“I stared at it open-mouthed and I said, ‘Are you sure you want ‘ToeJam & Earl’?’”
The desire to make the series completely independent, then, is a long one. Johnson envisions “Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove” eventually being released for all major game systems, but if the Kickstarter is successful, he will release it on PC first. He’s not putting a time frame on the game’s completion, but it’s designed to appeal to those who miss the original, complete with retro art and stacked levels with an emphasis on cooperation.
Oh, and lots of hip-hop-inspired grooves.
“Anybody should be able to celebrate any culture,” Johnson says. “If you want to go out and make a game about Japan or Jamaica or anything — any type of music — if you have a genuine love of it and are respectful of it, that would be wonderful. It would be wonderful if there was more of it in the interactive industry.”
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