Thursday, March 13, 2008

Welcome to Special Console - Toe Jam & Earl

I've been meaning to make an obligatory post about the Wii's Virtual Console service for some time. What in the jibba-jabba's a virtual console? Let's genuflect in Wikipedia's general direction!
Virtual Console (PC)
In some operating systems such as UnixWare, Linux and BSD, a virtual console (VC, sometimes virtual terminal, VT) is a conceptual combination of the keyboard and the display for a...
Oops! Wrong virtual console! I meant this one:
Virtual Console
Virtual Console, sometimes abbreviated as VC, is a specialized section of the Wii Shop Channel, an online service that allows players to purchase and download games and other software for the Wii gaming console. The Virtual Console lineup consists of titles originally released on now defunct past consoles. These titles are run in their original forms through software emulation. The library of past games currently consists of titles originating from the Nintendo Entertainment System, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and Nintendo 64, as well as Sega's Mega Drive/Genesis, NEC's TurboGrafx-16 and TurboGrafx-CD, and SNK's Neo Geo AES.
Basically, you can pay $5-10 to download and play old games on the Wii, bringing my reasoning for quoting wikipedia into question along the way. But what games should you buy?!

I'm trying not to overstep my bounds, and I really hate lists, so let's compromise: I'll write about a game I really like on the service every once in a while, and you'll get a much better, fuller article instead of a bunch of unenthusiastic, poorly researched ones strung together. Let's get to it!

Toe Jam & Earl - Platform: Sega Genesis
My goodness, this game is fantastic. The titular heroes are two guys from a planet that looooves funky music. They crash on Earth, which is filled with over 20 randomly generated levels of insane dentists, hula girls, obese stay-at-home mothers, and phantom ice cream trucks. Somewhere in there are the many pieces of their exploded (and extremely funky) spaceship. Do they have what it takes to survive?

That's what I'd write on the back of the box. Yes, this is a great premise, but mostly it's just an excuse to take early 80s mainframe computer classic Rogue and funkify it.

Rogue had randomly generated levels, and so does Toe Jam & Earl. What's interesting, though, is that while Rogue and its ilk typically involve duking it out with increasingly ferocious fantasy monsters, Toe Jam & Earl are both nearly pacifists! Indeed, the only way to survive a game of TJ&E is by avoiding the numerous caricatures of American society that dot the randomly generated landscape, while searching desperately for loot.

"Loot," in this case, means gift-wrapped presents. They're everywhere, and at the beginning of the game their contents are completely unknown. In one game, the polka-dot package might contain a pair of invaluable hi-top shoes, allowing a speedy getaway from danger. In another game, however, that same package might contain a "Total Bummer," which outright docks one life from whoever opens it. A lot of the strategy in a game of TJ&E comes from careful identification of the 25 items in the game world, while even more carefully avoiding the deadly ones.

There's a character who shows up every couple o' floors - the Carrot Wise Man (no, I don't know either) - who you can pay to identify any mystery items you may have. He's a lone island of sanity in a sea of madness, and the only way to take advantage of his services is to use up some "bucks," which are fairly sparse. Beyond that, though, you're on your own.

TJ&E is not an especially interesting game playing by yourself. Toe Jam & Earl both move pretty slowly (which is half the point, considering how essential avoiding enemies is to the flow of the game), and it's easy to dismiss the game as being a little unnecessarily clunky and goofy for its own good.

What makes TJ&E a great game is its cooperative mode. Playing with someone else opens up a lot of avenues for interaction that aren't present when playing alone. Pooling information on presents together, arguing about the best route to the exit in a given stage, yelling obscenities when one player gets sucked into a tornado and dropped to a lower level.

Better than that, even, is that playing with someone else allows you to give the other player a high five (in the game, natch) in order to equalize both players' lifebars. If Earl gets pretty beat up, all it takes to get him back up to speed is a high five. Best play mechanic ever? It's up there.

Also fantastic is the game's crunchy FM funk soundtrack, which the below Youtube video will demonstrate far better than my attempts to replicate a fake slap bass with combinations of random syllables.

That should just about wrap it up. It's $8 (or 800 wii points, I guess) on the Virtual Console, which is totally worth it. Listen to some George Clinton in advance.


nabbercow said...

Pity that tournament didn't work out, but really, playing with friends is where it's at with this game. I hooked up Brawl a couple weeks ago and have been putting in a couple hours daily since.. best game for the wii so far!

Matt Brown said...

Eff that, I'm downloading the free ROM on my fancy new DS R4 baby! Allow us a moment to raise our glasses to piracy... Ah...