Roguelike column thumbnail ['@ Play' is a bi-weekly column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre.]

As a special treat to our readers, this column contains.... screenshots!

Out in the distant reaches of interstellar space lies the appropriately-named planet of Funkotron, a world somewhat allied with the philosophy of George Clinton. One day a teenage Funkotronian, the red, three-legged, besneakered, cap-and-medallion-wearing ToeJam, out on a space jaunt in his Righteous Rapmaster Rocketship, allowed his friend Earl to drive it through the asteroid belt of a certain backwater solar system.

tjetitle.gifEarl wasn't a very good driver. They crashed.

When everything came to rest they found their ship smashed into ten pieces, scattered throughout 25 regions of the most unfunky planet in the galaxy, with a wide array of alien-hating natives out for their hides. The name of the planet: Earth.

[Click through for the full article.]

This tale sets up one of the finest console games ever produced, Greg Johnson and Mark Voorsanger's ToeJam & Earl for the Sega Genesis. Although I consider it a roguelike (which is why we're covering it here), it's entertaining for other reasons than just that. It has an awesome sense of humor, music fully worthy of the game's premise, wildly imaginative enemies, and terrific graphics considering the platform. And it is the best two-player co-operative game that exists anywhere. It's slated to be one of the early releases for Wii's Virtual Console feature, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

That Evil Dentist Wouldn't Be Laughing If I Had A Sword

tje1.gifThe game upsets many of the more commonly-held notions of what a roguelike should be, and I'm not just talking about graphics here. Players are barely capable of attacking the enemies! Without a suitable present at hand there is no way to harm the Earthlings, and even with an offensive item (Tomatoes or Slingshot) most of the opposition is so dangerous to be around that unless the player has a lake or gap to stand behind it's wisest to just run. None of the traditional rewards for defeating an opponent are here either: points and experience levels (or "ranks" in this game) are instead earned through exploration and opening presents.

Aww, You Got Me Rocket Skates For Christmas

tje2.gifPresents are the game's random item class. A present that shares the same wrapping paper as another in the game will always contain the same effect. Many of them have excellent enemy evasion or distraction potential, with some (Super Hi-Tops) easier to use than others (Rosebushes), but again, getting real use out of them requires the player find out what they are first. There are fewer always-bad items in TJ&E than most roguelikes, but those there are are very bad. "Total Bummer!" causes a player to lose one life, regardless of his health, yet it's not the worst of the lot. That distinction goes to the devious Randomizer, which scrambles the identity of all the presents.

tje3.gifThe first game of ToeJam & Earl I almost won, on which I got to level 22 (of 25) and had more than enough resources to see me through the end, was ruined by a Randomizer. The implications it holds for the player's game make the tremendous "orchestra hit" noise that plays upon opening a Randomizer among the most dreaded sound effects in video games. The Randomizer even randomizes itself, so it's possible to recover from it, then hit it again, and again. The only way to find out what a Randomizer is ahead of time is to get it identified, or ID the other 25 types of present first and then guess its identity through elimination. This process is made more difficult due to the only source of identification in the game being the infrequently-appearing Carrot Wise Men, who charge a lot for their services.

The Dual Ghandis of Funk

tje4.gifTJ&E is an unusually pacifist game for its class. Avoiding Earthling attack is the key skill of the game, and it's made more difficult due to the alien pair's slow walking speed. The trick to survival lies in realizing that many of the faster Earthlings tend to attack in straight lines, so they can often be avoided through a series of sidesteps. The consequences for failure are harsh though, and it's not uncommon to take multiple hits from a late-game enemy, like Lawnmower Guys, Boogie Men or (worst of all!) Phantom Ice Cream Trucks, and lose a life even if the player was at full health before. But even weak enemies can quickly slaughter the player if he is unwise in his movements near them. Successful ToeJam & Earl players have learned that hostiles should be given as wide a berth as possible.

tje6.gifThe most instructive thing about ToeJam & Earl's rogue-likeness, in the end, is the absence of almost all elements that trace back to Dungeons & Dragons. Most roguelikes have D&D accoutrements, equipment, attribute scores, spellcasting, and so forth, sufficiently ingrained in their being that it seems almost nonsensical to think one need not be a roleplaying game at all, yet ToeJam & Earl has none of these things.

Other than money, presents are the only collectable in the game. The best advantages a player can get out of one are an instant promotion or an extra life, useful to be sure, but far from obtaining Greyswandir, or Ringil. There are no items (other than Randomizers) with the power to change the nature of the game. Because players cannot find armor or weapons that provide lasting bonuses, there is not a whole lot a player can do, over time, to improve his state other than collecting more presents and getting them identified, but the game's balance takes that into consideration. It would be just barely survivable with no items at all, so with presents added to the mix the game moves into a mortal realm of challenge.

But Is It A Roguelike?: Point By Point

tje7.gifSo with all those differences, what is it that even qualifies ToeJam & Earl as being a roguelike in the first place? The tremendous difficulty, randomized world, permanent death (players may have extra lives, but running out is easy and there is no way to continue so "lives" are more like a special kind of health), plentiful monsters with attacks that can mess up the player in ways other than damage, emphasis on survival in a hostile environment through canny use of limited resources, and above all that process of discovery, those are the things that make TJ&E more like Rogue than many games that define themselves by that quality.

What ToeJam & Earl is is an outlier case, a game that defines what it means to be roguelike, not through all the things it has, but from the things it doesn't:

  • It's not turn-based. But: you can always pause the game to think of your next move, and the action isn't all that fast paced, so in this case the action doesn't interfere with game in which some thought is required to progress.
  • It's not a one-player-only game. But: its two-player co-op mode is so well-integrated with the roguelike play structure that, should someone finally make a true multiplayer roguelike work, they'll probably do it after studying
    TJ&E. Players near each other both get the points and effects (good and bad) from presents, and can share health and lives too, but they can also mess each other up and race to get the good stuff on each level.
  • It's not a roleplaying game. Players gain points and ranks, but they don't really gain anything that could be called statistics. But: there is little in the way of combat either, and players do gain maximum health, and once in a while an extra life, as they earn promotions.
  • It does have unknown items and randomly-generated player resources, but it does not, interestingly, have an item that identifies stuff. But: there is a character who identifies things, and he charges enough so that it is a serious decision whether to buy knowledge or risk Bummers and Randomizers to gain it through present-opening.
  • It's not ASCII. But: neither is Shiren the Wanderer.

The Triumph of Sir Nose*

ToeJam & Earl had two sequels, but neither game is quite the equal of the original, and in both cases it is due to the degree they stray from the roguelike formula. The second game, Panic on Funkotron, has incredibly vivid and imaginative artwork and ingenious platformer gameplay, and if it hadn't been the sequel to such an interesting game it would be remembered as one of the highlights of the Genesis. As for the third game, Mission to Earth for X-box... while it does have some roguelike aspects, they are severely hampered by the fact that the game defaults to fixed worlds, and it starts out with all objects identified: item scrambling only occurs due to the attacks of a certain enemy. (It has a couple of other major flaws too, likely due to publisher meddling, but they are beyond the focus of this column. I'll just say "Poochie" and trust you'll get my point.) Both of these games have the original's sense of humor, but neither works the act of discovery into its gameplay nearly as well as the first did.

Greg Johnson talks about the game, mentioning Rogue in the process, in an interview he did with Sega-16 last year. It's available at http://sega-16.com/Interview-%20Greg%20Johnson.php.

tjeend.gif


Well, that's six columns behind us! If there are any of you who think a column on roguelike games would rapidly run out of material, then think again. Next time, we'll talk about death and life (but mostly death) in the Dungeons of Doom, in a recounting of the rarest, coolest, and most condescending causes of sudden mortality to be found in Nethack, so be sure to come back in two weeks. Look for that guy under the tree, opening boxes, looking for Icarus Wings.

* If you get that "Sir Nose" reference you are probably much cooler than I am.