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A conversation with ToeJam & Earl co-creator Greg Johnson

[Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Mega Visions Issue #01 and is the full, uncut version]

By Blake J. Harris

ToeJam & Earl, SEGA’s beloved 1991 Genesis game, garnered a cult following for numerous reasons. It was fun and funny, cool and subversive, critically acclaimed and currency for street cred. And yet it’s hard to imagine that, at first glance, anyone’s reaction to this game was anything other than: What the funk?

I mean, it’s a game about two aliens (one oddly named, both oddly shaped) who love hip-hop, high-tops and slinging slang. Hailing from the planet Funkotron and having crashed on something akin to Earth, they use a Bill-and-Ted-like elevator to scour various islands and search for the scattered pieces of their spacecraft. Oh, and along the way, they encounter giant hamsters, man-eating mailboxes and evil, drill-wielding dentists. WHAT. THE. F*CK.

What were the creators thinking? What was SEGA thinking? And, most importantly, why does all this madness work so well together? To find out, I spent a few hours chatting with ToeJam & Earl creator and Greg Johnson …

Prologue

Blake J. Harris: Greg, I’m psyched to chat with you about the origins of ToeJam and Earl (and the origins of your career in video games). But before we travel back in time, I had a question about something much more recent.

Greg Johnson: Sure. What would you like to know?

Blake J. Harris: Last year, you launched a Kickstarter campaign to bring back ToeJam and Earl. To make a 4th game. So my question: why now? Why 25 years after the original (and 10+ since the previous incarnation)?

Greg Johnson: Oh, that’s a simple answer. I’ve been trying to bring it back for years. I think that for most creative people—and I’m sure you must feel this way—there’s a pull to old things you love. So in between new projects, whenever I had some free time and was thinking about what to do next, there were a number of times I took ToeJam and Earl to different publishers. To SEGA and EA and Ubisoft. A whole bunch of publishers, but I could never get traction. Everyone always said something like, “Yeah, we don’t know. Game 3 didn’t do that well. I think that might have killed the property. Plus it’s old. How many people out there even remember who ToeJam and Earl are?”

Blake J. Harris: Interesting. Well now I’m tempted to ask why this was the project that stuck with you. Why, of all your games, ToeJam and Earl is the “old thing that you love.” But I suspect, as is often the case with histories of love, it’s not the kind of thing that can be answered in a paragraph. Nor, really, can it be answered directly.

Greg Johnson: Right. Like: why do I love my wife? Because I love her!

Blake J. Harris: Exactly. And the reasons why have as much to do with you as they do with her herself. So on that note, let’s start at the very beginning…

Part 1: A Perception of Depth and Peacefulness

Blake J. Harris: Tell me a bit about your childhood. What was your family like? And, since video games didn’t yet exist in the ’60s, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Greg Johnson: [laughs] Really? It’s flattering that you would ask that at all, and surprising. But I’m happy to answer. Let me see… it’s a rather melodramatic story. I grew up with my mom raising me and my sister. My dad, well, he was an alcoholic; and my mom ran away from him when I was about four or five. His story is like a movie.

Blake J. Harris: In what sense?

Greg Johnson: So he was a black man. And it was a dramatic life that my parents led. My mother came from a very traditional Jewish family that had escaped from Russia during World War II. And they disowned my mom for marrying a black man.

Blake J. Harris: Wow.

Greg Johnson: He was a brilliant man. A professor. Had a couple of doctorate degrees in philosophy and musicology, I think. And then in a time when abortion was still illegal, his wife—his earlier wife—died from the abortion. I think it was at his urging. So that’s what launched him into his drinking and he never came out of that hole. My mom loved him but couldn’t take it any more so she fled with me and my sister when we were little. So I grew up just being raised by my mom who was an amazing woman. Very strong. She ran a school in Southern Cal for kids with emotional disabilities. She was just a real inspirational person. And it was really because of her that I grew up with the confidence to pursue creative things. In fact, in my graduating high school yearbook I won “Most Creative.”

Blake J. Harris: Really?

Greg Johnson: Yeah! I went to a pretty big high school in LA. We had 1,500 kids in our graduating class. So it was quite an honor.

Blake J. Harris: What was it based on? How did people know you were creative?

Greg Johnson: One thing I remember I did was I wrote this science fiction story. And then I got a friend of mine, who was a really talented artist, to illustrate it and create a slide show. And then I got another friend of mine to compose the music and I put on a show in the auditorium at the end of the year.

Blake J. Harris: That’s awesome.

Greg Johnson: So I guess that was one way. There were other things too. And I wrote for the school journal. I wrote a lot of poetry.

Blake J. Harris: Typically, I would imagine social life to be tough for a mixed race kid who was into science fiction books, but it sounds like that wasn’t the case here. Did you feel like an outsider when you were growing up?

Greg Johnson: Not really. I had a small, but tight circle of friends. I wasn’t part of the popular crowd or the jocks crowd, but I was in all the honors classes so I hung out with the geeky kids. And I always kind of hung out with the Asian kids too. I don’t know why, but I was always kind of an Asia-phile.

Blake J. Harris: Yeah?

Greg Johnson: It’s funny, I’ve been told by people that I was Japanese in my past life. When I was young, I used to ride across town. A long way across town, on my bike. And I’d just stand in the Japanese market. Just because it felt comfortable; it felt like home to me. And then I married a Japanese woman. And I’ve learned to speak Japanese. And one of my great creative heroes is [Hayao] Miyazaki. Anyway…

Blake J. Harris: Well, wait. Why do you think that is? Or was, I suppose, I mean. Why did it make you feel comfortable? Why did Japanese culture feel like home?

Greg Johnson: I’ve thought a lot about it over the years. It would be easy to rattle on at great length about my feelings on Japanese culture. But if I go back to those days: I really didn’t know. I didn’t have a clue. Maybe it had something to do with what I perceived to be a depth and peacefulness. And, I suppose, a kind of simplicity to the aesthetic. It kind of called to me. I’ve always loved the Japanese themes of innocence and purity. And the quiet small moments that I see in Japanese work that are so missing in American work. American work is always so darn fast-paced; we seem to have to fill up every space with something.

Blake J. Harris: Yeah. As both reader and writer, I like trying to find those moments. Those “kind of quiet small moments.”

Greg Johnson: Yeah. Anyway, I should jump back. In college, I moved my major all around. I was an Asian philosophy major for a while. And then an animal behavior and bio major. And then I was a linguistics major. And then I read a book that was transformative for me.

Blake J. Harris: What was the book?

Greg Johnson: It was a book by John Lilly. The Mind of the Dolphin: A Non-Human Intelligence. I don’t know if you’re familiar with John Lilly, but he was kind of a fringe scientist who did a lot of work with marine mammal communication back in the ’60s and ’70s. He pushed the boundaries, but was only partly respected by the scientific community because he took a lot of acid, and he wasn’t terribly rigorous in his approach. He was criticized a lot, but he had some incredible anecdotal stories about the things he had discovered in regards to what dolphins could do.

In particular, how they could communicate with each other. It completely sparked my excitement. Like wow, there’s an alien race living on this planet; another race of intelligent beings living right next to us here (who, by the way, we were destroying and exploiting). And I remember that moment—I was just sitting next to the window in the library at Colorado College—and I had this feeling of: that’s what I’m going to do with my life. I’m gonna be the one who breaks the barrier and talks to dolphins for the first time and figures it all out.

Blake J. Harris: Ha! That’s awesome (and quite ambitious).

Greg Johnson: [laughing] Then, I had another thought too. It was a little more out there, but I was a big sci-fi reader in those days. I thought: wow, if I succeed and I really become a total expert at this, then when the aliens land and they need someone to talk to them, who are they going to call? It’ll be me!

Blake J. Harris: That’s amazing.

Greg Johnson: Yeah, so I got really excited by that too. But I thought: okay, that’ll be my secret goal. But my actual goal is going to be to talk to the dolphins. So I transferred to UC San Diego, started preparing myself with an independently designed major I called Bio-Linguistics and I got a job at Scripps Oceanographic Institute.

Blake J. Harris: Did the experience end up being what you had hoped it would be?

Greg Johnson: There were a handful of magical moments. Like I remember I was out on a Scripps research boat for a month or so. I would get up round the clock to collect water samples. One night, at around 3 a.m., I noticed there was this school of dolphins riding the bow wave of the boat. I laid down on my stomach with my face hanging over the front of the boat to watch them. At first I didn’t understand what I was seeing, because as the dolphins swam there were bursts of light all around them in the water. After awhile I realized what it was: certain kinds of bioluminescent phytoplankton glow when they get agitated. It was one of the most magical things I’ve seen in my life.

Blake J. Harris: That’s beautiful.

Greg Johnson: Yeah, it was. And there were other great things about my time at Scripps, but I also ended up getting a firsthand view of how difficult it would be to make a career out of pure research. I realized that researchers spend most of their time chasing funding, and that it was going to be a real rough road, especially in the political climate of the time. So I took a little time off. Then I ended up getting involved with a project my roommate was helping out on, for some new home computer entertainment company no one had heard of [laughing]. This new publishing company [laughing even harder] had about 20 people on staff and called themselves… Electronic Arts.

Part 2: Electronic Arts

Blake J. Harris: At that time, the early ‘80s, Electronic Arts was exclusively focused on computer games. Had you played many during your oceanographer days?

Greg Johnson: I had spent a lot of my time in college staying up till 3 in the morning playing Rogue on the mainframe computer. I mean, I’m 56, and this was in 1980 so it was pretty old school. But I remember that igniting my imagination and me not sleeping because I wanted to see how deep I could get into that dungeon. I got a little obsessed with it. So when I encountered the idea of 8-bit home computers that had actual graphics with 16 colors … I was entranced. I was like: How can get in on that?

Blake J. Harris: Nowadays, when we think about EA, we think: Madden, FIFA, Command & Conquer, etc. But this was a real different era. The Can-A-Computer-Make-You-Cry era. What was it like to be there?

Greg Johnson: I have very fond memories of EA in those early days. The whole artist community was very tight knit. And, you probably know this already, but GDC started as these small EA conferences from back then.

Blake J. Harris: Yup!

Greg Johnson: They were so great. There would be 30 or 40 people and everybody knew everybody. We’d get up and tell each other what we were working on, or what we were dreaming about making, or lessons that we had learned. I remember being the new kid on the block and fantasizing about actually finishing a game so that I could stand up there and speak too. How exciting that would be.

Blake J. Harris: You liked computer games, that’s what led you to EA. But you had pretty limited programming experience. So was it intimidating when you started?

Greg Johnson: It was. But for the most part, none of us had ever made a game before. Nobody really knew what they were doing. And for some reason, Paul Reiche—man, he is such a sweetheart of a guy—he took me under his wing right from the beginning. I never understood why he became my mentor, but his help was invaluable. He preceded me at EA; he had made Archon with Anne Westfall and Jon Freeman. And he ended up guiding me through the whole process of my first game: which was called Starflight. It was released in 1982.

Blake J. Harris: And what about the game-making process itself. Was it exciting?

Greg Johnson: Well, I was having so much fun I kept thinking “I’ll go back to grad school next year.” But, you know, was a really intense period. I was living in an apartment with no furniture; sleeping bag on the floor and a pile of clothes in the corner.

Blake J. Harris: Why?

Greg Johnson: Because I had no money. I was working for next to nothing. And the game went on and on. It almost got cancelled so many times by EA. It was a struggle, but also a really exhilarating experience. And we had a bunch of fascinating people working on the project. Like our lead engineer. He was something of a genius. It was really his genius that let us put an entire universe onto that tiny floppy disk. Remember this was 1980. But genius kind of keeps you on the edge. I remember, at one point, he got so entranced by the idea that we could create a universe algorithmically from a single seed number, that he stopped sleeping for a week.

Blake J. Harris: Really?

Greg Johnson: Yeah, he ended up in the hospital. Took him about a month before he could get back to coding the game. And our original lead designer, he was an interesting guy as well (but in a very different way). He had never designed a computer game before. He ran a role-playing shop; like a board game shop. That was his background. And all he ate were these giant kielbasa sausages. He’d stock up for a month and then not leave his apartment. Anyway, the game he wanted to make was kind of disjointed. I came in and I was like: Where is the backstory? What’s the player’s big purpose? What are the relationships between the aliens like? He didn’t want to do any of that. He just wanted a bunch of unconnected random battles. So I ended up swaying the team to the game that I wanted to build. I’ve always felt a little guilty about that.

Blake J. Harris: I realize that you probably weren’t an actual employee at EA, as they were all about empowering [outside] artists, but how long were you “with” them?

Greg Johnson: Oh, gosh. I worked with EA for many years. I did a number of titles with them. Starflight 1 and Starflight 2. Caveman Olympics. In addition, I contracted for them as a pixel artist. I sat in the back room with a few other people and did pixel art for a bunch of their products. One of those was Dan Silva’s Deluxe Paint. At one point, they offered me a full-time job as a designer. I’ve often looked back and thought: Maybe I should have taken the offer and gotten EA stock.But, you know, you make your choices.

Part 3: Welcome to Funkotron

Blake J. Harris: Crazy as it may seem, ToeJam & Earl was made by only two people. You and Mark Voorsanger. How and when did you first meet Mark?

Greg Johnson: We were introduced by a mutual friend, Matt Sarconi. [lightly laughing] We went on a hike together, on Mount Tamalpais, in Marin county. It’s a beautiful mountain that overlooks the ocean. We shared our history and talked about what kinds of things we both wanted to do. Mark had been in the game industry for a few years already, and like me, he was more about heart and characters than about fighting and action. He wanted to do things that would make people happy; make them feel good. I had this idea and I just sort of threw it out there: “How about if we build a game like Rogue that has these crazy funky aliens in it and is kind of a satire of humanity?” To sort of poke fun at all the insanity in the world, from the viewpoint of these aliens who just are trying to get the heck away. Thankfully, it appealed to Mark’s funny bone and his general rebellious aesthetic. It seemed like we might be able to have a lot of fun and he was totally up for it.

Blake J. Harris: Ah, okay. So you already had the idea before you even met.

Greg Johnson: Yeah, it was something I’d been thinking about a little bit.

Blake J. Harris: I’ve read interviews in the past where you talk about how you came up with the idea for the game. That it came from a dream. Is that right?

Greg Johnson: Well, I’m sure you’ve had this experience where you have looked at a photo so much or you’ve talked about a memory so much that you’re not really sure if what you’re remembering is the actual event or just all the things that you’ve said in the past. It’s kind of like that. Because I’ve been asked that question so many times before. So I have a memory and a recollection of it that feels clear, but I don’t’ know if it’s real or not. For what it’s worth: I used to have a lot of very intense and extended story dreams. Like crazy dreams and I would wake up with these amazing stories to tell.

Blake J. Harris: Interesting …

Greg Johnson: Yeah. In those days, that was a part of my life. And I remember having a crazy weird dream about these aliens who were, like, from the hood. I woke up with their voices in my head “Yo wha’sup. My name is ToeJam and this is my homeboy Big Earl.” I wrote that down and went back to sleep. That might seem weird or even perhaps offensive for a white guy, but …

Blake J. Harris: Well, not really. Given your background…

Greg Johnson: Right, yeah. Exactly. Like I remember one summer I went to high school in East LA. At Dorcy High, where I was the only white-looking kid in an all-black school. And it was the summer of the “Low Rider.” [Johnson belts the beginning of “Low Rider”] I remember telling a few of the other high-school students there: I’m half black. And people going, “Yeah, right. Sure you are!” So I suppose I had sort of a quest for my own identity. I think that’s just always been part of my psyche.

Blake J. Harris: You know, I think one of the reasons why ToeJam and Earl made such an impression at the time and why it’s aged so well is because for it’s time—back in the early ‘90s—it felt like such an authentic depiction of black American subculture. And, you know, back then—if you ever even saw that culture represented somewhere in entertainment—it always felt very inauthentic. Artificial and superficial. It felt like white guys writing black dialogue. Whereas ToeJam & Earl felt like it was capturing something without necessarily trying to capture it.

Greg Johnson: I’m glad you felt that way. It’s what I … it feels good to me because I never intended it to make a statement. It just kind of came out, you know? Out of the part of me that loves the brotherhood of black culture and wishes I was more connected to it I guess. In a way I always felt like I got cheated out of that, because I look so white and was raised that way. And these two characters, I kind of wanted it for them. It wasn’t ever a conscious thing.

Blake J. Harris: No, that totally makes sense to me. That’s really cool. And what about …well, in terms of their personalities, how did you see them at the time?

Greg Johnson: Well, there are lots of kinds of “cool,” but for whatever reason, there’s nothing much cooler to me than the laid-back cool of black funk music and the people that played it, especially back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Earl, to me, embodies that kind of “cool.” He’s big and overweight, but it never occurs to him to notice what people might think about him. Big Earl has got a really good heart too, he’s kind of pure. Like he can walk through all kinds of chaos and be completely chill. ToeJam is sort of his counterpoint. He’s high-energy and unlike Earl. He stresses about everything. TJ maybe tries a bit too hard, and he talks a lot, but he’s also the funny one. I see him a bit like Chris Tucker or maybe Chris Rock. Big Earl is like Ice T. They complement each other and their bond is true and solid. They have each other’s back and they know it.

Blake J. Harris: So you’ve got this idea, you’ve got the tone/style and you’ve got Mark. What’s next?

Greg Johnson: So we both left that hike feeling very excited and kind of elated. Then I sat down and wrote up a description of the game play and how things like the random terrain generation would work. I got out a bunch of 3×5 cards and colored ‘em with markers, and then me and Mark headed over to SEGA of America. To SOA, who was just getting established at the time. We had a meeting with a fellow named Hugh Bowen.

Blake J. Harris: Actually, before you tell me about his reaction, I had a quick question: why SEGA? Why for a console? Meaning why not EA and/or a computer game?

Greg Johnson: Hmmm … that’s a really good question that I don’t have an answer for. One thing I do remember was after building Starflight and dealing with all the complexities of different PC configurations, I remember looking at consoles and thinking: oh man, that’s gotta be so nice. To have one system. People plug it in and it’ll always work the same way. So I knew I wanted to do that. And Mark did too. And I also remember looking at the console games that were out those days and talking with Mark about how incredibly simple they were and saying, “Oh good, the bar is really low. We can do that!”

Blake J. Harris: [laughing]

Greg Johnson: We can totally do a game that’s at least as complex and as good as these other games I’m seeing. And I also remember talking with Mark and wishing that there were more cooperative game experiences out there for people. And wanting to build a game that people could play together.

Blake J. Harris: Well that was definitely appreciated in the Harris household. Anyway, back to Hugh Bowen at SEGA. What did he say?

Greg Johnson: So I got on the floor and showed him how the random terrain generation would work with the 3×5 cards. We also showed him a couple really rough drawings of the characters. Talked about Funkotron and funky music, and the social parody of it all. And he loved it. He was like, “This is awesome, we’ve gotta make this game.”

Blake J. Harris: Really? I mean, that’s kind of crazy. I say this with affection—and as a lifelong TJ&E fan—but when I first heard about the game, it seemed like the stupidest idea ever. A weird, what-the-huh mishmash. Kind of like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

So I’m surprised that anyone would say, “We gotta make this game!”

Greg Johnson: Well, to be quite honest: I was too. I knew it was a little out there and I didn’t expect a big official company like SEGA to get it and like it. We left there going: wow, what a cool guy. Hugh absolutely got what we were trying to do. That it was funny and fun. And I don’t think we knew this at the time, but a number of months later, we heard that SEGA was looking for a mascot. Some kind of lead product and character that could become their Mario. Maybe Hugh was thinking about this at the time. So SEGA assigned a producer to us, Scott Berfield, who totally got the whole vibe of it too. And we were on our way…

Part 4: You Don’t Know What’s Inside, But It’s a Happy Thing

Blake J. Harris: You mentioned earlier that you viewed the game as a bit of a satire. How would you have described the satirical aspect and tone at the time?

Greg Johnson: Oh, it’s pretty straight-forward. It’s the same thing that you see in a lot parody type shows like The Simpsons or Rick and Morty (which I love). There’s a kind of healthy cynicism there that helps us see ourselves more clearly. We wanted to create a bunch of characters who would feel very familiar, and then view them from an alien perspective to highlight how bizarre the world we live in really is.

Blake J. Harris: Like what kind of characters?

Greg Johnson: Characters like the Nerd Herd, the sexy Hula Dancer, the annoying Cupid, or the maybe the Shopper Lady with the screaming kid. I also remember thinking that I wanted to include characters, and other elements, that would evoke an immediate visceral reaction. To do that, sound was key. Like if you were a child of the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was almost impossible to hear an ice cream truck song, or a ringing telephone, or high-pitched dentist drill without having a knee-jerk reaction. 

Blake J. Harris: How Pavlovian of you!

Greg Johnson: [laughs] Yeah, but honestly, I didn’t think too hard about a lot of this stuff. These were general goals but anything that hit my funny bone got tossed in. I mean: we also had characters like the Little Devil, the Wiseman In The Carrot Suit, Angry Bees, and the Hamster in the Rollyball. Where is the social parody in them? Heck if I know.

Blake J. Harris: What about the gifts? Going around and collecting mysterious gifts. Do you remember where that came from?

Greg Johnson: That was all part of the knee-jerk response idea. A wrapped present is another one of the things people simply respond to immediately. You don’t know what’s inside it, but it’s a happy thing. It’s an image we all associate with happy memories and fun surprises, so it seemed perfect.

Blake J. Harris: Was there anything that almost made it into the game, but didn’t?

Greg Johnson: You know, this sounds weird but I think this might be the only game I’ve ever worked on in my 35 years in the industry where I didn’t have a list of things I wanted that I couldn’t do. Because that’s the norm, right? You get to a point where you have to draw a line on your list and you say: everything below this point is not getting in. Or, even worse, you start cutting things that you consider to be vital. With ToeJam and Earl, I think Mark and I got in everything I was hoping for.

Blake J. Harris: That so rarely ever happens.

Greg Johnson: I remember I had some fantasies about letting players go inside the homes of the Earthling characters. But I never expected that to get into game one. When we started working on a sequel that was one of the first things we started building. I think we got about four months down the road of building the sequel in the same style. And we had buildings that you could go into. The roofs would disappear and you could see top-down into the buildings. And we were starting to build caves too. We also had snow and ice in the sequel. And swampy terrains. That’s when SEGA said, “Hey, would you guys consider changing course and doing a side-scroller instead?” We weren’t exactly excited about the idea. We had already gone a ways down the road we were on. We said, “Um…are you sure?” They were pretty sure that could sell more if we went in that direction. So we agreed to do it. You know, we were young and wanted to please our publisher. Didn’t want to be contrary. We said okay we’ll follow your lead and do our best. So we junked what we had and started over.

Blake J. Harris: It sounds like you started work on the sequel before the first game even game even came out. Is that accurate?

Greg Johnson: Oh yeah, that was right away. Even before we finished the first one we were certainly talking about the next one. Everyone was assuming we were going to go on. And I think that was in part due to the fact that Mark was so incredibly conscientious. We never missed a deadline and we didn’t go over budget. Never asked them for more money. Personality-wise, I’m much more inclined to want to make the game I want to make and push the deadline if I’m not happy with what I’m delivering. Mark wasn’t like that. He was mega-responsible. So I just followed his lead on that score and that made SEGA really happy with us. They knew they could rely on us. And I think they were also generally really impressed with our work. Like they had told Mark he wasn’t going to be able to do the split-screen thing. They said it was not possible on the Genesis/Master System. Then, what’d you know? Mark pulled it off anyway.

Blake J. Harris: Oh, wow.

Greg Johnson: Yeah, and they were kind of blown away by that. So I think they were kind of like: okay, these guys can deliver.

Blake J. Harris: And prior to the sequel, what was the workflow like with you guys?

Greg Johnson: Me and Mark shared an office in Novato. We were upstairs from a Chinese restaurant. Ming Yen. Odd that I remember the name when I forget so much other stuff. In terms of division of labor: Mark did all the engineering single handedly, and I did all the design and pretty much all the art. Oh, and the voice work too (which I felt a little embarrassed by at the time). After people would clear out of the office at night, I would pull out my microphone and, you know, [singing] Tra-la-la!

Blake J. Harris: Ha!

Greg Johnson: It was audio on the cheap … I remember having fun with sharing that with Mark the next day. I’m sure our development wasn’t without its stresses. But I don’t remember have any crises or having to change directions in any major way. It was pretty much straight ahead. And fun. We played the game a lot as we developed it, and just came up with ideas.

Blake J. Harris: And what do you remember about the game’s release? Was it exciting? Surreal? Anticlimactic?

Greg Johnson: I remember seeing the game on the side of the SEGA box for the first time; seeing a screenshot of our game among the others. That was huge and thrilling. And then seeing it on a shelf in a store was a really emotional moment. And seeing some of the commercials that SEGA did. One of the coolest things was not expecting it; just watching TV and seeing a commercial for our game come on. They did a bunch of commercials, actually; Mark and I were surprised and really pleased by how much SEGA was doing for the game.

Blake J. Harris: Did the game get a lot of coverage? How was it reviewed?

Greg Johnson: We got a lot of great reviews. I still have them all in a box in my office somewhere. Let’s see, what were they saying about the game? It was generally well received. Most of the people found it funny and weird and interesting. Not surprisingly, a certain percentage didn’t get it at all. Like: What is this? In some reviews they would say things like: What kind of drugs are these guys taking?! We got a laugh out of that. But overall, you know, I just remember it being an exciting, exciting time. But then, after the initial release, there was a little bit of disappointment. Despite all the great press we got, the game didn’t sell that well initially. It really was sort of a slow-starter and I remember SEGA was a little disappointed in the sales. It wasn’t due to a lack of effort on their part.

Blake J. Harris: Well it was a weird game! It was a tough marketing challenge.

Greg Johnson: Yeah, that’s exactly right. It wasn’t until the game hit the rental market that it really took off in terms of numbers. It was really a word of mouth game that you had to hear about from your friends. So by the time SEGA realized it was a hit, we had already gone too far down the side scroller-route and it was too late to turn back. 

Part 5: Homeboys for Life

Blake J. Harris: Late last year, you emailed me to say that you were bringing back the game through Kickstarter. I was obviously very happy to hear this. But one thing I couldn’t help but wonder: How did you avoid giving the rights to SEGA?

Greg Johnson: [laughs]

Blake J. Harris: To your point earlier, this was maybe going to be a mascot character for them. And they began development on a sequel right away. You would think that SEGA would have locked up the rights…

Greg Johnson: Oh yeah, you would think, right? But things were different in those days.

Blake J. Harris: True. But not that different!

Greg Johnson: Well, it was partly because Hugh was such a fair-minded guy. Also: they didn’t actually have on-staff lawyers yet, that’s my recollection. Their legal was still in Japan. So we negotiated with Hugh and then he sort of acted on our behalf to get the deal approved with SEGA of Japan (SOJ). They hadn’t really done that many third-party U.S. deals yet so they didn’t have a very strong policy in place. Also, Mark and I had a good lawyer. Hugh agreed it seemed reasonable for us to retain the rights as long as they could get a long term exclusive.

Blake J. Harris: That makes sense. And, in fairness, SEGA wasn’t in a particularly powerful position at that point. When you first met, you know?

Greg Johnson: Exactly right. Yup. I think that’s really worth mentioning too. Because It’s all about leverage, isn’t it? Who needs what? And they really needed some good properties at the time because they were the small guy on the block, trying hard to grab a little bit of the market share away from Nintendo.

Blake J. Harris: Ha! Awesome. Just a few more questions.

Greg Johnson: Whatever you need. I haven’t thought this deeply about a lot of this stuff for, I don’t know, decades. You’re forcing me to really dive into my memory banks and discover things that I didn’t even know I remembered.

Blake J. Harris: Like the name of the Chinese restaurant below where you and Mark worked!

Greg Johnson: [laughing] Exactly!

Blake J. Harris: Speaking of Mark, how much longer did the two of you work together?

Greg Johnson: We started in ’90 and kept going until, maybe … ToeJam & Earl 3 was released in 2002. So 12 or 13 years. I don’t know.

Blake J. Harris: And why did it come to an end?

Greg Johnson: It just felt like it was time at the time. We’ve always been good friends. We’ve stayed close and love each other to pieces. But Mark had a certain amount of angst in those days. Even though he’s a really good programmer—he’s a really great, clear-structured thinker—he is also a real people person. Bottom line is he loves people more than he loves coding. Also I think maybe he’d had enough of the stress of coding.

Blake J. Harris: In what sense?

Greg Johnson: Back when we were building for the Genesis in 1990, toward the end of the project when our code base was big, Mark would make some changes to the code and then hit the compile button and wait 45 minutes to see if the changes worked. Crazy right? Can you imagine? That meant he had to really be compulsive and think everything thing through first very carefully. You can’t just cross your fingers and hope it works. Anyway Mark happened to be really good at this but it was pretty stressful. Deep down he yearned to working with people-issues more than code-issue, so he jumped tracks and became a counselor for individuals and businesses. He focuses these days on something called “Collaboration Theory.” He hasn’t been making games for many years now.

Blake J. Harris: Is it weird working on the new game without him?

Greg Johnson: Well, we haven’t worked together in so many years. But TJ&E is his baby too so I really want to make him proud with this one. He checks in every now and then to see how we’re coming along with this new game, and it’s always fun to share the latest with him.

Blake J. Harris: So you’re not working with Mark on the new game—which, I should mention, is called ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove—but I assume you’re not doing this solo.

Greg Johnson: No, and I am so grateful to the team that’s been working on this with me. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with such a consistently nice, easygoing, low stress group as this. It’s three artists and three engineers: Jeff, Nathan, Rick, Chris, Ko, and Conni. Everyone loves what we’re doing and there isn’t a trace of cynicism in this bunch. It’s also testimony to how passionate and skilled this group is that we can build such a complex game with such a small group.

Blake J. Harris: Speaking of the actual game, you said at the very beginning that you’ve been trying to bring it back for years. But had been receiving tepid responses from SEGA, Ubisoft, etc.

Greg Johnson: Yeah. They were worried that the property was dead. Which, you know, was a pretty fair thing for them to wonder.

Blake J. Harris: It was. And on some level, I have to imagine that you must have wondered the same thing. Did anyone care about ToeJam and Earl anymore? So I’m curious what your expectations were when you launched the Kickstarter campaign.

Greg Johnson: I really didn’t know. Part of the reason I jumped into it was because I was just curious about that and I wanted to get an answer. And I totally thought it could go either way; maybe the Kickstarter would skyrocket and we’d end up generating way more than we asked for, or maybe those game publishers would be proven right and we’d completely tank. I had a conviction though that there were a lot of ToeJam and Earl fans out there. Whenever I’d wear my old ToeJam and Earl Productions jacket, people would often recognize it and shout something to me. “Dude! I loved that game.” “That was one of my favorites!” Or “SE-GA!” Stuff like that. 

Blake J. Harris: You ended up passing your goal, which was great. But even greater was the news from last month: that Adult Swim Games would be publishing the game.

Greg Johnson: Oh my gosh, I’m so ridiculously thankful for the folks at Adult Swim. They saved our butts! We did pass our goal and make over half a million from the Kick Starter but we had to spend almost half of that on the rewards. Accurately estimating costs for a heavy physical goods campaign where each backer gets something different and they get shipped all over the world is close to impossible! And I was starting to realize that we might not have enough money to deliver a version of the game that the fans (and especially the backers) deserve. Then in steps Adult Swim to save the day. Like literally. They were glowing and back lit and I heard this echo-y voice saying “Just make the game you want to make! And we’ll put it on console and have TV commercials and sell it across the worrrrld … world … world. I had to rub my eyes to see through the tears.

Blake J. Harris: [laughing] I don’t know how much you can (or want to) say about the new game. But, like finding a mysteriously-wrapped gift, I’d prefer to not know much going in…

Greg Johnson: [laughing] I respect that. But hmmmmm … There are a couple things I can mention that I don’t think will spoil the surprise!

Blake J. Harris: Excellent.

Greg Johnson: So earlier on, we talked about some of the Earth characters from the original game …

Blake J. Harris: Oh, like the dentist and the nerd herd?

Greg Johnson: Yeah, exactly. So for the new game we have characters who represent updated social parody. Things that are relevant to today. A bunch of these ideas actually came from TJ&E fans.

Blake J. Harris: That sounds great. Can you tell me about a few of the characters?

Greg Johnson: One of my favorites is the “Internet Troll.” He hurls insults at you and he’s this nasty little troll but whenever you get close to him he turns into this scared little teenage boy who runs away shouting, “Help! Help me!” And we’ve got a character who stands on the street corner with a clipboard and she just says, “blah blah good cause blah blah” and then she takes your money and she puts you to sleep.

Blake J. Harris: [cracking up]

Greg Johnson: And we’ve got a “Selfie Woman.” She likes to hide and leaps out of the bushes to ambush you and get a picture with you. Also I wanted to broaden the range too so that it was a bit more historical and cross cultural. So King Tut helps you find things that are hidden. And we’ve got a Caveman who is always hungry and tries to steal your food and Gandhi Ji is a walking safe zone of peace and love.

Blake J. Harris: That sounds great. Let me just ask you one more thing. Something a bit broader: How has the relationship between ToeJam and Earl changed over the course of 25 years? Are they still the same to you as they were in 1990? Have they matured?

Greg Johnson: Their basic personalities, and their relationship to each other hasn’t really changed but it has certainly become a lot clearer and more detailed in my mind. In the first game of course they didn’t really talk much. When they’d get together, in the elevator, they’d say little things so you’d kind of get a flavor of who they were. People read into it a lot, which was maybe a good thing. It was kind of shocking for some fans when Game 3 came out.

Blake J. Harris: How so?

Greg Johnson: In Game 3 it was the first time I really gave them a voice you could hear. So, at that point, it became pretty clear they were black alien characters. And some of the TJ&E fans were like: no, no, no, that’s not what I heard in my head from Game 1 and you just ruined it for me.

Blake J. Harris: That’s wild. I’m sorry to hear that.

Greg Johnson: Well, you can’t please everybody. And, to be honest, I’m not interested in trying to please people who would get angry about something like that. Although I will admit that the characters [as voiced in that game] were a little more edgy than I had ever really envisioned them.

Blake J. Harris: How come?

Greg Johnson: We were quite pointedly asked by Visual Concepts [who were speaking for SEGA, our publisher] to age up the game and make it edgier for the Xbox audience. Make Latisha sexier, for example. And to make their language a little more PG-13. It was their money at risk to make the game, and they were paying our salaries, so we wanted to accommodate them. Ultimately, we took it as far as I felt comfortable. But the truth is that if they hadn’t had asked for that I wouldn’t have taken them there.

Blake J. Harris: Right, right.

Greg Johnson: But getting back to your question. In terms of who they are, that’s never changed, really. I guess, in a way, they’ve grown up. In the first games I used to think of ToeJam and Earl as pre-teens. Like 13 or 14ish. Now I think of them as more like 17 and 18. [laughs] I guess time must pass more slowly for Funkotronians.

Blake J. Harris: [laughing]

Greg Johnson: Seriously though, ToeJam and Earl have deep roots in my psyche. I love coming back to TJ and E, and the whole funky lighthearted rogue-like spirit of this game. It feels a lot like coming home after being away for a long time. I just know these guys so well; I can see them each so clearly. ToeJam is the energetic leader. He’s the thinker, though he has a tendency to pull Earl in lots of directions. But Earl is okay with that. He’s cool and confident and happy to just follow along and enjoy the ride. They are both two sides of a coin, and homeboys for life. I love those guys.

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