Rogue Agents: How The Sega Genesis Created the Rogue-Lite

For the past few years, every other game released outside of the mainstream has been described, in one review or another, as a “roguelike”. The term has become synonymous with certain game mechanics, such as randomized levels and weapon drops, extreme difficulty, and the inability to continue after the player character dies. But the roots of the term come from the game Rogue which came out in 1980 on Unix-based systems and, many people believe, established itself with NetHack in 1987. In fact, purists of the “genre” argue that a game is only a “roguelike” if it mimics all of the factors set at the 2008 International Roguelike Development Conference in Berlin, Germany. This list of factors has been nicknamed the “Berlin Interpretation”. Any game that doesn’t include all of these factors (such as turn-based actions, resource management, and the ability to interact with items in a multitude of ways) can only be considered a “rogue-lite” or a “roguelike-like”.

One of the earliest, more popular “rogue-lites” came from the Sega Master System/Sega Genesis. This premiere issue of The Backlog is going to reminisce on this game, explore its importance in the canon, and delve into a little bit of the history behind the game, its creator, and the future of the franchise.

What is ToeJam and Earl?

ToeJam and Earl is about two rapping aliens (one tall, one fat) who crash on Earth and have to search for the 10 pieces of their ship in order to escape. The game is played in an overhead perspective. The duo start on a tiny island and take a magical elevator to the first level, which is actually just floating over the island. In fact, every level consists of land masses floating over the previous levels. If the player falls off of a level, they will land on the one below it and then have to find their way back to the elevator. It’s even possible to fall several stories, which could lose several minutes worth of progress.

As Toejam and his buddy search for the ship pieces, they find a slew of gift-wrapped presents lying around. The presents are shaped in one of a few different ways, but the items are always randomized between playthroughs of the game. During one game, the flat, blue box might contain running shoes. During the next playthrough, it might have Icarus wings. Regardless of what item shows up, once that item appears in a particular shaped box, it will always appear in that box through the rest of that particular playthrough.

As you might have guessed, the randomness of the items is a large part of how this game compares to Rogue. Aside from the items, every map is randomized so that every playthrough is unique. The fun comes from exploring the areas and slowly uncovering the map while also discovering which items are contained in which box, thus allowing the player to eventually save certain items and trash others.

What makes this game unique, however, is that it can be played cooperatively. The game uses a unique (in its day) process of dynamically splitting the screen. When the player characters are close to each, they appear on one screen. When they get far enough away, the camera will split horizontally. While the graphics were never technically impressive, the multiplayer remains an achievement to this day.

Written reviews of the Sega Genesis game ToeJam & Earl. Scores include overall ratings of a 9 and 9.5.
from Game Informer issue 002 in November 1991

During its release, critics unanimously agreed that ToeJam and Earlwas worth the price of admission. In its second issue, Game Informer placed the odd-looking creatures on the cover and then, throughout the magazine, placed “Terrific ToeJam & Earl tips” (such as the one on the previous page), even during reviews of other games. The game warranted a sequel, so Johnson Voorsanger Productions started one similar to the first game. Sega had them scrap this and start fresh on a mediocre platformer called ToeJam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron. In 2002, the company (now called ToeJam & Earl Productions) released ToeJam & Earl III: Mission to Earth, of which GameSpot’s Jeff Gerstmann said,

“Anyone looking for a ToeJam & Earl fix would be better off digging up a copy of the original.”


ToeJam & Earl is about two hip-hop aliens who wear sunglasses and walk around with the same strut as Robert Crumb’s “Keep on Truckin’” man. On its surface, it’s the kind of thing that a very uncool person might think is “cool”.

In a 2006 interview with Gamasutra, game designer Greg Johnson said that he first met the other half of Johnson Voorsanger Productions, Mark Voorsanger, at the top of a mountain and told him about his idea for the game. Johnson said that Voosanger “thought it sounded hecka fun.”

Johnson started working at Binary Systems for a pittance and had to borrow money from a friend, who he promised a cut of the royalties on his first game. He became the designer for Starflight(1986), but says that he “hates to hog all the credit” because there were “some pretty bright guys on that team and they contributed a lot to the design.” Once the game was picked up by Electronic Arts, he paid his friend a portion of the royalties. When Electronic Arts changed his role from design to creating graphics, he says he loved it. “It still amazes me that I got paid for doing art.” (Wallis)

In a 2015 Kickstarter trailer for a revival of the abandoned sequel, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove, two musicians rap on top of the original game’s soundtrack, with the following lyrics: “My name is ToeJam/and I’m big Earl/We come from outer space, whoa!/We crash down on this planet./It was an accident/This is a crazy place!” The cringeworthy trailer isn’t helped by the awkward animation that looks cheaply made, yet incorporates an impressive amount of detail. In any video interview with Greg Johnson, he is smiling, energetic, and polite. To say that he matches the stereotype of a nerd might sound like an insult. When people talk about “cool”, they also talk about grace under pressure, a relaxed physique, and the ability to ignore that which does not matter. In that last respect, Johnson is the definition of cool. In an interview with SEGA Nerds, Johnson speaks with meditative calm. Even when the interviewer apologized for prematurely announcing the success of the Kickstarter, Johnson laughed and said, “It’s all good.”

TJ&E is not cool because of its early ’90’s premise and aesthetic that would have been a cynical wisecrack in a mid-90’s episode of The SimpsonsToeJam & Earl was cool for the same reason as Greg Johnson: it invites you to play, but if you aren’t down for what it’s presenting, it keeps doing what it does.

The popularity of roguelikes are, in part, because the punishments are firm and absolute. Most modern games will force you to play a tutorial, include gameplay tips during loading screens, and constantly bombard you with visual, aural, or haptic messages that help you correct your course before you are able to meet a fail state. And then, once you fail, you start back at almost the same moment of your last mistake and you get to try again. Roguelikes make sure that, if you make a mistake, you know it. Hopefully, the second time around, you will not make it again. A lot of games confuse this “sink or swim” mentality with a high level of difficult, and while they often go hand in hand, they don’t have to. TJ&E runs at a relaxed pace. The characters “keep on truckin’” until they are trampled by a pack of wild “nerds” or get distracted by and dance with a hula girl. The game is difficult if you are easily frustrated because some NPCs are friendly and it’s not always clear how characters will behave or what effect different items will have when used. And the other characteristics of Rogue that TJ&E chooses to ignore don’t really matter. The reason TJ&E wins you over is because it knows what it is, pretends to be nothing else, and keeps on truckin’.

Since Then

Black and white screenshot of a newer ToeJam & Earl game.
photo from Doki Doki Universe (2013)

As I’ve said before, the two sequels to TJ&E were not particularly well-received. However, Greg Johnson worked on a game for the PS3, PS4, and PS Vita called Doki Doki Universe that, according to the Wikipedia page, is essentially an “interactive personality test”.

In 2015, Greg Johnson began the Kickstarter for ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove, which he promised would be a true return to form. It reached its $400,000 goal on March 25, 2015. It promises to include upgrade systems and a “new game plus” mechanic, as well as other characteristics that modern roguelikes have adopted.

Living in the Past

Regardless of how that game pans out, we will always have TJ&E on its original consoles. They can be found on new digital stores, such as the Wii Virtual Console or Steam. They will always be available in an emulated state along the internet’s vast ocean floor. And heck, cartridges can be found and popped into old systems, or brand new systems such as the RetroN. The reason we look back at games we love isn’t to want more of the same; it’s to love and appreciate what already exists. We will always have ToeJam & Earl. We will always have our experiences.

photo by Michael Miller, CC 2.0 Attribution


Images courtesy of , Game Informer, Doki Doki Universe and Michael Miller


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