A conversation with Greg Johnson, the creator of ToeJam & Earl

Twenty-one years ago, Greg Johnson, along with programmer Mark Voorsanger, made one of the most unique and delightful games in the short history of the medium. ToeJam and Earl, the story of two crash-landed alien rappers trying to collect the pieces of their spaceship, is both a hilarious document of the early 1990s and an incredible testament to what happens when creators get a chance to follow their ideas through to the end (as is its sequel, Panic on Funkotron). The games were rereleased for PSN and XBLA in October. Still a designer, Johnson is currently working on a game for Sony, about which very little is known. He was gracious enough to answer our questions.

Kill Screen: It took a few years for people to realize this, but TJ&E shares a lot of DNA with Roguelike games. Can you explain how much you wanted the original to resemble a Roguelike?

Well, it’s certainly true that TJ&E was built on top of a very Rogue-like game mechanic. I can’t exactly say that my goal was for it to be perceived as a Rogue-like game.  I never really thought in those terms. I just like the mechanic so I used it. Randomly-generated rooms, secret passages, progressive levels with harder monsters, magic potions, identify spells, inventory, fighting or running away, risking spells you haven’t used yet, and bad spells that damage you. It’s all there if you look for it. 

Did you worry that the difficulty associated with the genre would keep people from playing TJ&E?
Nope. I knew we were sort of outside the box in terms of other games on the Genesis, but I never thought the difficulty of the game would be a barrier for people. It does get hard in the upper levels but I think the first half of the game is pretty easy.

Early 1990s hip-hop culture is indivisible from the TJ&E aesthetic. Can you get into what you were listening to and what you were watching that led you to create a game about two aliens that seem to have more in common with Kid n’ Play than Kodos and Kang?

I don’t even know what Kodos and Kang is. But yes, Mark and I were listening to Kid n’ Play, “Jump!” and Young MC, and lots of other hip-hop artists every day while we worked on the game. Poor Mark. I’m not sure the music was as much his thing as it was mine, but he let me crank the funky tunes up and was always a great sport about it.

What other narratives and styles influenced the game? I totally see Bill and Ted in these two.

I suppose I can see a similarity with Bill and Ted too, but I think that’s mainly just coincidence.  I think we all read more into the game than is probably there, but that’s sort of the nature of cooperative play. I wish there were more games out there that were both cooperative and light- hearted. People who love those games really love them, but unfortunately they don’t sell as well as more serious, adventure games with darker themes.

I’m not the first person to notice this, but the original game is almost totally non-violent. Was this a conscious decision, and if so, why?

Sure it was.  The answer is simple: because I can’t stand violent games. Generally I hate anything that is bloody and gratuitously violent. I love martial arts and enjoy violence when it’s in a historical context – the past was often brutal – but I can’t stomach violent games in contemporary settings, especially if the violence is graphic.  Mark Voorsanger is just the same as me in this regard.

The first game achieves a really funny effect, which is that the humans ToeJam and Earl encounter end up seeming much more alien and threatening than the two outer space aliens. Is this something you thought about while creating the game?

Yeah that’s kind of the theme of the game. That’s why it’s satirical. It sort of flips things around and the humans are the crazy scary ones.  That was part of the original concept.  Crazy, huh? 

Fans were initially disappointed by the decision to make the sequel a platformer, but Panic on Funkotron is now considered a classic of the genre. How did you make this decision? And does it make you feel vindicated that Panic is now seen as basically the equal of the first game?

Well I’ve always had mixed feelings about that. Mainly I’m sorry we switched tracks on the fans. People who love game two are often people who came to that game first. Once you love something it’s tough to change your expectations, and it’s not what people expect from a sequel.  Vindicated? Mmm not really. I am glad some people liked the second game though. We didn’t really want to change but at the time it seemed like Sega wanted more of a standard platformer so we did our best to maintain the TJ&E spirit.

What do you hope a new generation gets out of TJ&E when they play it now, some twenty years after its release?
Oh, I’m always pleasantly surprised that people still play the games. They are pretty darned old. It’s nice to know that so many people have fond memories of TJ&E though.  That’s always nice to hear that it was a memorable part of someone’s childhood. It does make me and Mark feel pretty old though. Well, I suppose we are.

I think a lot about humor in games, and why today’s mainstream games (and I think it’s important to remember that TJ&E was very much a mainstream game) are so humorless. Do you think you could make a game with that humorous and, frankly, weird, spirit, today? Why or why not?

Sure. I am right now. It’s pretty off the wall. I’m not supposed to talk about it much yet though. My publisher will get annoyed at me. Most publishers don’t give you the creative freedom to get silly. I’m very lucky right now; my publisher is great. Besides, humor and silliness are subjective and generally those types of games don’t do as well in the market as more serious games. They are percieved as “light” and usually don’t command the same price-point. Also, they run the risk of offending people, or simply not being perceived as funny, so they don’t get funded as often. Every now and then really funny people get some money to make a game – like Tim Schaefer for example, or some indie games I’ve seen, and you get some real gems. I’m glad some people found TJ&E funny, but not everyone did.

What games and what kinds of games do you enjoy playing today?

My favorite all time game is Age of Empires.  Weird huh?  It’s nothing like TJ&E.  When I want to relax I still play AOE with my wife cooperatively.  I love being the Native Americans and tromping on the Europeans who come and try to take our ancestral lands.  Whooop! Whooop! Whooop!  I also like playing Rock Band (Beatles Version) and Mario Kart with the family. I check out new games when I can but mostly enjoy playing things with my family.