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Game Design Essentials: 20 Mysterious Games

January 14, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 12 of 21 Next

11. ToeJam & Earl

Random objects, identification risk.

Developed by Johnson-Voorsanger Productions (ToeJam & Earl Productions)

Designed by Greg Johnson

Reason for inclusion:

Roguelike in its item identification game and random levels, it is a strange experience to play it now simply because players aren't used to figuring things out for themselves as much anymore.

The game:

Rogue and NetHack were created by, and for, college students. ToeJam & Earl on the other hand was made for typical console gamers, then mostly kids. It's got randomly generated levels, objects that must be identified (including some very bad items), no continues, and rather high difficulty. Now just guess how well it did in the marketplace.

Actually... eventually... it did pretty well! Bill Kunkel (writing as "The Game Doctor") called it a favorite of his around that time. It did so well, but was so different than everything else in stores before or since, that when it came time to make the sequel Sega second-guessed the creators, telling them to make a game completely different from the original. The result was by no means a bad game, but now most everyone agrees is inferior to the first, despite having much better graphics and an actual storyline.

ToeJam & Earl's mysterious aspects come from the level layouts and the presents laying around. Levels are not just randomly arranged (which is a fairly shallow way of randomizing a game) but have environmental obstacles and aids that sometimes require expending resources to get through. The presents work like the scrolls in Rogue: using one causes it to take effect immediately.

There's some additional nuance in ToeJam & Earl. It can be played as a two-player game, and if the players are far from each other the game goes split-screen, letting them explore where they want without being tethered to each other. However, if the players are both on the same screen when a present is opened, it affects them both, whether it's a good present or bad. Opening one type of present results in the immediate loss of a life, and its effect will hit both players if near each other, just like the others, as will the Extra Life present.

One of the game's best design choices is that it ameliorates one of the flaws of the roguelike design with the inclusion of its Randomizer present. Opening that one rescrambles all the other presents in the game! It is a tremendous setback for the players, not the least because it randomizes itself in the process. However, it does fix the big problem with relying on an identification game in the design, for it's not true that, once an item is known, it is known forever and need never be identified again. Until the Randomizer is identified, the player must be more careful the more presents he IDs, not less.

Design lesson:

Identification games are interesting only so long as there are still things to be learned. Rogue solves this problem by having a relatively small dungeon, so it's very unlikely that every item will appear even in a victorious game. ToeJam & Earl presents the chance that items could become re-randomized. But it's not fair to just reset known items "just because," the scrambling must always be the result of some mistake made by the player. In the later ToeJam & Earl III for Xbox, for example, the attacks of one of the enemies can scramble items.

Links: An interview with designer Greg Johnson.


Article Start Previous Page 12 of 21 Next

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