ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is a game that I’ve wanted to play for a very long time—about a quarter of a century, to be specific. That’s a while to wait for what is essentially the first real sequel to the 1991 original’s core mechanics and design, and in that period roguelikes have popped up in the indie scene like moles on a farm. That’s because going roguelike is a convenient way for indie studios with limited budgets to make their games more challenging, interesting, and everlasting. Randomized worlds make every playthrough different while cutting back on development time, and the threat of permadeath adds some necessary challenge and stakes to otherwise simple mechanics and design.
This is the world that Back in the Groove enters. The series’ original concept as a hip-hop-flavored, satirically sci-fi roguelike doesn’t seem as original as it did back in 1991, and its side-scrolling and 3D action-adventure sequels mean that the series didn’t grow up so much as it went through different phases. Nearly three decades have passed since ToeJam & Earl originally debuted its particular brand of permadeath and randomly assembled levels. Even if you never forget how to ride a bike, 28 years is a long time to go without riding one.
Fortunately, some things never change. ToeJam and Earl once again end up stranded on Earth, this time with Lewanda, Latisha, and several other playable characters along for the doomed ride. ToeJam accidentally presses a button on their friend Lamont’s ship (which they are “borrowing”) that creates a black hole, ripping apart the fabric of reality, the Earth, and Lamont’s megawatt cruiser. After that, the only thing to do is find the 10 pieces of Lamont’s ship scattered around Earth’s 25 levels of increasing difficulty.
In a purely nostalgic sense, Back in the Groove hits a lot of the right notes for this diehard TJ&E fan. Many of the original trilogy’s Earthling enemies make a return in one form or another. There’s the cackling dentist, the barely visible boogieman, the trickster mailbox, and many more old favorites, including some of the more memorable enemies from the second and third games. The giant hamster in the rolling plastic bubble is gone, replaced by more relevant enemies like the texting person, the internet troll, the Segway guard, and the clipboard volunteer who takes your money and puts you to sleep. While most of the returning enemies act exactly the same as you remember them from other games, the friendlier Earthings mix things up a bit. The opera singer you can pay to pop enemies now follows you around, making her even more valuable. The wiseman in the carrot suit still reveals the contents of your presents for $2 each, but you also need to visit him if you want to level up.
Oh, yeah: There’s leveling up now. This is one of the ways that Back in the Groove tries to modernize the ToeJam & Earl formula, along with searching through plants and bushes for items like presents and food. Every action like this will earn you a little XP, and every time you level up, you’ll gain random stat boosts among the game’s six categories. This adds the appearance of progression that is apparently necessary in every game now, but it just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in a game like Back in the Groove. Beating all 25 stages doesn’t take very long compared to the original due to the levels’ smaller map design, and none of the stats carry over to new games. There’s just not enough time for the stat boosts to make that much of an impact, and getting assigned them randomly means you can’t even role-play your favorite character. The stat boosts will seem more helpful once you unlock the Random Harcore mode, which is when Back in the Groove really starts to show you its teeth, but even then they seem like a perk rather than an integral part of the game’s design. It doesn’t really take away from the core experience, and having to find the wiseman to level up adds a neat sort of secondary objective, but it doesn’t modernize the experience in the way that I think the developer was intending. It’s mostly an inoffensive new problem to manage.
There’s a lot more interactivity packed into Back in the Groove, too. One of the things that blew my mind as a young gamer back in the early ‘90s was the original game’s sandbox nature. You could high-five your friend to give them a little life, fall asleep and have to scream at your character to wake him up, or use the Icarus wings to knock Cupid out of the sky. These were the small touches that stuck with me, and Back in the Groove has plenty of them. Not only can you now search through bushes and houses to find stuff (like I mentioned above), but you can also interact with parking meters to get a random event. Sometimes, you’ll spawn a new enemy, but other times you’ll open up a portal to the side-scrolling bonus level where you can pick up extra XP. The boombox-based dancing rhythm minigame is also back, except this time you’re following a Guitar Hero-style prompt to hit all the right moves. Back in the Groove smartly integrates some of its predecessors’ weirdest mechanics in a way that feels like a nod to the series’ history without diverting too much from its main goal of giving players a true ToeJam & Earl experience. You’ll still sink into sand in the desert levels, as you will with the snow in the debuting winter levels, but iced-over ponds and sunflower patches add a new way get creative with your evasion tactics.
Another major change is in the game’s art style. Gone are the pixel art versions of ToeJam and Earl with their stuttered but more physical walking animations, and in their place are hand-drawn iterations. The art style is exactly my cup of tea, somewhere between ‘90s Nickelodeon cartoons and the simple yet exaggerated flavor of graffiti. While motionless, Back in the Groove’s characters are some of my favorite in gaming. When they’re walking, however, ToeJam, Earl, and the rest of the playable characters seemingly float along the ground, and their hitboxes are more difficult to determine than they were in the original game. It’s not game-breaking by any means, but you also might take a hit from a shopping cart lady when you could have sworn you dodged her attack, and it can be a little annoying. Still, most of the game’s humor comes in the caricaturistic nature of the Earthlings, and Back in the Groove nails those designs. Seeing the Segway cop coming at you full steam is equal parts terrifying and hilarious, even if the amount of enemies on screen at times seems annoyingly dense.
Does every new thing ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove attempts work in terms of creating a more satisfying roguelike experience? Not really. Could it have used 28 years of refinement to become the ultimate ToeJam & Earl experience? Sure. But as a long-awaited return-to-form for the series, the latest ToeJam and Earl will tickle your nostalgia bone. For dedicated fans of the original, the moment you start a game and find yourself on that iconic first level, your memories of how to play will come rushing back and you’ll immediately begin searching for rocket boots to get you to the game’s secret level. I guess playing Back in the Groove is sort of like riding a bike after all.
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is a literal return-to-form for the series, and longtime fans should be happy about that. While it might not be a hardcore roguelike or fully integrate its more modern design choices, it does exactly what it sets out to do: give players a true sequel to the original Genesis classic. It’s hard to say how far this formula could have come in 28 years if the series hadn’t taken detours into other genres, but for now I’m just happy that it’s gone back to its roots.
E10+ - Everyone 10+
|ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC. Primary version played was for Xbox One. Code/hardware was provided by HumaNature Studios for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|