(CONTENT WARNING: This post will go briefly into serious subjects, such as cancer and death.)
My mom was into video games for a really long time. Played the Atari 2600 before I was born, played stuff like Super Mario Bros. 3, Monopoly, and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 when I was young; we were both also hardcore You Don’t Know Jack fans, owning practically every edition that came out. She was really into fairly casual games, such as when DirecTV had a channel specifically for playing casual puzzle games. FarmVille 2 was something she was really into in the past few years.
By the time the Nintendo 64 came around in the mid ‘90s, the complexity of Super Mario 64 alongside the bizarre three-prong controller pushed her away from most console video games until we got a Wii in 2009. She still played Jack and the aforementioned casual games, but nothing particularly complex.
Yet out of the many games she played, there was one game, a 16-bit classic, that she was really into, one that you wouldn’t expect considering the other games I mentioned. That game was the wonderfully Jammin’ ToeJam and Earl.
An exploration-based game where the titular ToeJam and Earl travel through various areas on planet earth to recover the pieces of their destroyed ship, ultimately to get back to Planet Funkotron. This was developed by Johnson-Voorsanger Productions, a couple of guys who had previously worked at Toys for Bob on the Star Control series of games.
ToeJam and Earl on the surface is a fairly simple game: Find ship pieces in specific levels without running out of lives from various hazards. Yet there’s also a bit of complexity: one could play with a fixed world of 25 stages, or a random set of levels that could be a cakewalk or a punishing challenge. Along the way, our heroes must avoid the aforementioned hazards such as bees, crazy dentists and hula girls while finding the elevator to the next floor. The two also have presents they can open to give items that could help or hinder progress, from defensive weapons like tomatoes and rose bushes to hazards like school books, rain clouds, and present randomizers.
Since the elements of presents and ship pieces could change from game to game, ToeJam and Earl is practically a rogue-like, where not every game plays the same. Pretty damn impressive for 1991.
My mom was basically obsessed with ToeJam and Earl. She’d play countless co-op sessions with a friend of hers, it being one of the more casual games to play when there wasn’t much else to do. This continued for a number of years, when I had moved on to bigger and better systems. This kept up until about the early 2000s, so while she wasn’t keeping up with gaming as it was happening anymore, she still played ToeJam and Earl.
After playing the original a whole lot, she was really hoping for a sequel, one that would basically be the original game and a whole lot more. We did have a “my uncle works at Nintendo” moment where a clerk from a family-owned video rental store said that ToeJam and Earl 2 would have over 40 levels, and be on the Super Nintendo.
Sadly, the ToeJam and Earl sequel we did get, Panic on Funkotron, was a by-the-numbers platformer that I heard wasn’t very good, and it was on the Genesis. I’m pretty sure mom never played that one, and if she did she would be pretty disappointed at the change of genre. From what I’ve seen, the game wasn’t well received by fans of the series, platformer enthusiasts and retro gamers. She lucked out by skipping that one.
In the mid 2000s, we had gotten a second-hand Xbox for reasons I don’t quite remember anymore, and sure enough, there was a new ToeJam and Earl on that system, since Sega was pretty much BFFs with Microsoft for a good few years of the system’s life. ToeJam and Earl III: Mission to Earth was developed by members of the original game now under the name ToeJam and Earl Productions, alongside Visual Concepts, a development studio more famously known for making sports video games.
I bought a copy of ToeJam and Earl III for her to try. I didn’t watch her play it that much, but she didn’t seem to like it, agreeing with the general consensus I’ve seen for that game. Despite her not touching a game controller in a long while, she seemed to get to grips with the common dual analog controller fairly easily.
Cut to 2015. In late February, Greg Johnson, one of the creators of the original game, announces a Kickstarter for a new installment in the series: ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove. After sharing this on Facebook to which she was super excited, I backed it for $15. It successfully passed its $400,000 goal, and ended up with over half a million dollars in pledges when the Kickstarter ended in March. Pretty impressive in an era when games on Kickstarter were getting a bum rap due to constant delays and disappointing games.
Even though I wasn’t nearly hyped for it as mom was, I was actually interested in a new game in the series. They tried making two games that were more like platformers rather than the exploration driven rogue-like the first game was. Now they could try to revive the genius concepts of the original game, and bank on a bit of nostalgia as a bonus. We were both excited.
So we waited, and waited. Video games take time to make, especially from small independent studios. Regardless of how long it was gonna take, I was patient enough to wait years for it, as long as mom got a chance to play it.
Then tragedy struck. In early 2016, mom was diagnosed with cancer. Anyone who’s ever had a loved one be diagnosed with cancer knows the challenge and pain of fighting it. We were hopeful and optimistic she’d successfully beat the cancer and keep on rocking.
She passed away in June of that year. The rest of the year was a fairly somber one.
After mom had passed, I still kept an eye on the Kickstarter for updates on the game. I’d get occasional e-mails from the development team about the game’s progress. It ends up being slow going, which made me concerned if it was even going to be released.
After Back in the Groove got successfully funded, it goes through several delays. They announce a publishing deal with Adult Swim Games that eventually peters out due to said delays. They get sponsored on Games Done Quick, a speedrunning event. At one point Home Alone actor Macaulay Culkin gets involved somehow. The game finally released on February 28, 2019, four years after the Kickstarter was announced.
The $15 tier that I backed gave me a copy of the game, and a “thank you” shout out in the backer credits. When I booted up the game for the first time, I scrolled past the backer credits to find the thank you message. I almost broke into tears when I found it.
That was basically the reason I backed the Kickstarter, as a gift to my mom. She was gonna be memorialized in a game series she loved. Since she passed away, she doesn’t get a chance to play it, or see the thank you message. It’s a different feeling now than it did in 2015, a bit more of a memorial than a dedication.
It’s a shame too, considering Back in the Groove is probably the sequel she wanted all those years ago: Lots of levels, new items and characters, even characters from past games make a re-appearance. It’s got a quirky sense of humor, and a wonderful art style to boot. For a sequel to an almost 30-year-old game, it’s a blast.
I’m posting this article on her birthday as a dedication to one of her favorite game series. She was a wonderful mom, with a good sense of humor and a friendly personality. She treated anyone she met as if she had known them forever. She had a sense of kindness that I admired.
She loved video games of various kinds, from party games to FarmVille 2, and was really excited for ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove. Now there’s a dedication to her in a game in her favorite series. My mom may have passed away, but it doesn’t erase my memories of her. Especially the memories of how she loved this silly little Sega Genesis game from 1991.
I will end this post with this message: Cancer has taken the lives of many, including close friends and family. It’s one of the top ten causes of death in the United States. It’s a terrible disease and I’d love for it to be gone in my lifetime. Please consider donating to causes such as the American Cancer Society. To quote a friend of mine: Screw cancer.
(I usually write more lighthearted content on this blog. I wanted to write about this as far back as March, when Back in the Groove released. I held off because the subject matter is more personal to me than, oh say, writing about energy drinks. I wanted to be careful with how I wrote this. The next post will go back to the more lighthearted affairs of games, mods, or anything else that comes to mind. I promise.)
Some screenshots courtesy of Mobygames.