Toejam & Earl in Panic On Funkotron | Principal Platforms: Sega Mega Drive | Developer: Sega, Toejam & Earl Productions | Publisher: Sega | Genre: Platformer | Year: 1993
Toejam & Earl in Panic On Funkotron is one of those sequels that lives in the shadow of a superlative predecessor. In this case, there’s little doubt that the first Toejam & Earl delivers the more uniquely enjoyable experience of the two games, but the bigger picture is an ‘apples and oranges’ type situation. These are two very different games designed with two very different audiences in mind. Whereas the first game was a quirky roguelike focused on dynamic gameplay, Panic On Funkotron is a 2D platformer with a greater emphasis on narrative and visual appeal.
In his musings over the years, designer Greg Johnson has been quick to blame Sega for this change in genre. He claimed that the publisher found early prototypes of Toejam & Earl II (which kept its prequel’s formula intact) to be too “old school”; thus demanding the switch to a more commercially viable genre.
It sure sounds like something Sega would do …
When considered exclusively in terms of style and presentation though, Panic On Funkotron is a small triumph. It has pristine graphics, jumbo character sprites, and a vibrant colour palette that would make competing Mega Drive titles feel downright jealous if they could.
The improved animation has added buckets of character. You can see this in the extended intro movie, the enemy variety, and in smaller ways; like how Earl casually saunters along with a big grin on his face. Funkotron itself is also beautifully realised; the wild colours; the low gravity; the background inhabitants who wander by just to give the world a sense of density; it all looks and feels rather splendid.
The game also excels in the audio department. John Baker’s soundtrack improves on his previous work by quite some margin, and the voice sampling is better too, with collectible presents, for example, prompting pickup lines of “YES!”, “COOL!”, and “AWESOME!” depending on what points or power-ups they contain.
Panic On Funkotron also tries to be more accessible. Whilst the platforming gameplay is generally more beginner friendly, features like an in-game tutorial, a password system, and an easy mode aimed at children all feel like positive steps.
Other than the graphics, perhaps the most improved element is the story. It begins on Planet Funkotron, where our homebound heroes are blamed for a sudden Earthling invasion. The entire planet has been overrun by human pests who have scared many of the local inhabitants into hiding. One of those inhabitants is the Great Funkapotamus himself; a powerful being whose absence now threatens to drain all the funk from Funkotron if TJ&E can’t fix things in time.
Players will try to complete this daunting mission by clearing several levels full of dangerously weird Earthlings who are busy laying siege to Funkotron. From nudist yodelers and filthy construction workers, to annoying brats and pompous poodle owners, Toejam and Earl must trap these meddling humans inside magic jars and ship them all back to Earth. In-game this comes across as a standard 2D blend of exploration and platforming action, but the whole capture and contain angle does create a fairly nonviolent gameplay loop that is somewhat uncharacteristic for a game of this period.
But with talk of gameplay must ultimately come talk of why this sequel is so often criticized. Let’s begin with the 2-player mode. If you read my previous retrospective on Toejam and Earl, then you’ll know how highly I thought of that game’s 2-player functionality. I’ve always enjoyed seeing games from this era take the time to include 2-player stuff, and the same is true with Panic on Funkotron. The only trouble is that playing with two players in this game just isn’t as much fun as it was before.
The prospect of playing through this sequel with a friend doesn’t fit nearly as well in a platformer whose confines are more cramped. Because both players share the same viewing area — presumably split-screen was too resource intensive considering the graphical overhaul — it’s very common for two players to get in each other’s way. The camera can only remain locked to one player at a time, so the moment the secondary character wanders (or more likely falls) off screen, their position is lost until they manage to climb back into frame. A togetherness button allows the lost player to quickly regroup with their partner, but there are still many more foibles to worry about.
Quite often the game will task you with careful platforming ill-suited for the lack of split-screen, and there are several aggravating sections where our duo must balance on a bubble floating through the air. With two players present, these bubble riding segments are even worse as one player will need to precariously balance on the other’s shoulders. When the game then asks you to ride a bubble to the very top of a tall chasm without falling off (meaning you’d have to start all over again), it doesn’t take much to imagine the broken controllers that would be lying in the wake of some angry teenager who didn’t know what he was getting himself into!
Not all Earthlings roam around in the open either, so players will often need to search interactive pieces of scenery like palm trees and manhole covers in order to flush them out. Sometimes a present or a food item will fly out, and other times you’ll reveal harmful junk like a trash can or car tyre that will sap your health if you make contact with it. Dodging flying garbage is a bizarre slice of gameplay to be sure, but again it only gets worse in 2-player where there are twice as many alien heads that need to scramble out of the way.
Lives gets lost more easily because of this, and since two players will share lives and other power-ups, the game starts to get quite difficult. There are activities that allow players to score bonus points in the hope of earning a 1-up, but again, some of these don’t work very well with two players. The “fungus olympics” mini game is a nightmare to control under these conditions, and other activities like the rhythm sessions or hyperfunk zones only allow a single player to take part at all. This reminds me of when I looked back at Three Dirty Dwarves — another game that couldn’t always to live up to its multiplayer promise.
And we haven’t even got to the worst problem yet; what is perhaps the “ultimate platforming game sin” of not showing the next platform that the player is expected to jump to. Panic on Funktron isn’t the first video game to commit this sin by any stretch, but it’s a consistent problem throughout, and a problem that is once again exacerbated when you have two players expected to make such leaps of faith simultaneously. Sometimes you’ll be forced to land on a burning floor and watch your health bleed away unfairly. Other times the platforms you need to jump to are literally invisible by design!
Quite a lot of gameplay revolves around this odd design choice of having things appear from out of nowhere. Power-ups and presents like to randomly pop up as you explore; hidden warp gates only show up if you Funk Scan them first; and you’ll often encounter interactive buttons that result in unpredictable effects if pressed. These gripes can easily be endured, but they can create sessions that feel frustrating to play.
In the end though, I still think Toejam & Earl in Panic On Funkotron is a worthy sequel. There are lots of secrets to find in this game; you could Funk Scan every square inch of the levels looking for secret doors and you’ll usually be rewarded. There are diverse moments of outer space platforming, swimming and sleuthing, and it’s all backed by lovely visuals and even the odd romance angle!
This kind of stuff is what allows this sequel to look its best. It’s still a game with substance and feeling, even if it doesn’t always show in the moment by moment action.