Prior to the age of the Internet, few games would naturally attain notoriety for being bat crap crazy in design. One such game was ToeJam & Earl – an incredibly bizarre roguelike adventure that hit the SEGA Genesis in 1991. And by bizarre, I mean “the protagonists were alien rappers that crash landed on Earth, and must rebuild their spaceship by scouring procedurally generated levels, filled with mortar-equipped avians, demonic ice cream trucks, and other oddities.” Yeah, it’s that weird.
Though the series has spanned multiple decades, long have fans awaited the next entry in the franchise – ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove, to be exact, which released earlier this year (thanks to Kickstarter) after a 17 year hiatus. Led by series co-creator Greg Johnson, the latest entry aims to return to the series roots: thumping music, wacky creatures, and lots of roguelike goodness. The premise and presentation are undoubtedly unique, even to this day, but is there room for something like this among the sea of other roguelikes?
What better way to impress someone than to borrow a spaceship you barely know how to drive? Well, that’s apparently what led ToeJam and Earl to crash land on Earth once again – old habits die hard, and whatnot. After pressing a button on the ship – the one clearly labeled as “DO NOT TOUCH” – ToeJam, Earl, and their cohorts become stranded on Earth, forcing them to hunt down ship parts in order to return to Funkotron once more. It is dumb – in fact, really dumb – but it embraces that zaniness unashamedly and wholeheartedly, and this shows through all facets of the game.
ToeJam, Earl, and friends must traverse the Earth via randomly generated levels to find ship parts, which then must be put back together – apparently without tools, but whatever – in order to head back to Funkotron. Likely no surprise many roguelike fans, however, is the fact that you’ll encounter many things along the way that want to kill you- the caveat being that you are ill-equipped to reciprocate that action… most of the time.
Back in the Groove tip-toes around combat rather than making it a focal point, meaning you are actually meant to avoid most dangerous situations rather than facing them with reckless abandon. Outside of a few items you can acquire – mostly of the tomato variety – the team have very few means to deal with opponents head-on, instead having to run away or hide in a sunflower patch until an enemy no longer has their sights on you.
The anti-combat approach iconic to ToeJam and Earl definitely feels odd, even coming from someone that played the original game, but has since played tons of more traditional roguelikes. It is commendable to be unique, especially in a heavily competitive subgenre, but the lack of combat isn’t really a boon either. It makes sense within the context of the game to NOT emphasize combat, but that doesn’t make the experience better for it. Either way, it is a nice vacation for those that want to put combat on the back burner, and things can still get hectic – in true roguelike fashion – despite skirmishes not being a core mechanic. Enemies will wear you out, particularly on higher levels when there are mobs of them everywhere. This is where the game’s craziness really shines, as each of the many enemies – or “earthlings” – have their own look, feel, and things to watch out for. From the basic devil, to the portly cop on a scooter, you’ll constantly be avoiding these creatures while chuckling throughout the process. It is quite enjoyable to run into an elevator – the means of traversal between floors – with an angry mob behind you, making them spout angry comments when you evade their grasp at the last minute.
Not all earthlings are bad, however. The wise man in the carrot suit is the most useful, as he is responsible for identifying presents, as well as handing out promotions. In the spirit of anti-combat, ToeJam and Earl do not gain experience by killing earthlings, instead accruing it through exploration and opening presents. Presents are essentially “loot” here, and can be helpful items, or terrible things. Initially, they are received in an unidentified state, and the player must either pay the wise man to safely identify them in order to avoid opening something disastrous, like a storm cloud that continuously drains your health for a period of time. Subsequent presents of the same type, when collected, will automatically be identified, so things do get a bit easier on that front as you go.
Either way, presents are key in character progression because of how lucrative they are from an experience standpoint. Reach a certain experience threshold, and you can receive a promotion from the aforementioned wise man, which grants three random stat upgrades each promotion. In addition to the wise man, other notable earthlings include, but are not limited to: the shady character (swaps presents), runaway elf (grants random present when caught), sushi chef (restorative items for a price), Gandhi Ji (ring of peace), and more. There is a ton of variety to the earthlings you will discover here, both good and bad, ensuring surprises around every corner.
While ToeJam and Earl do not have any traditional equipment to use, power hats are awarded upon completing games, which add an additional – but optional – random element to the game. These various power hats tend to come attached with both good and bad traits, making things easier (or more difficult) depending on the hat worn (and the level in question). From my experience, when turned on, these hats are randomly selected on each level based on your current collection, offering a truly random layer of flavor to the gameplay experience.
Back in the Groove, while completely different than the everyday roguelike, offers a truly enjoyable gameplay loop if you know what to expect- and aren’t put off by- its anti-combat design. Where it has real potential to shine, however, is when considering running through with friends. You can join with up to three additional players either locally or in multiplayer for some real madness. Though I was unable to test the multiplayer for the sake of this review – the online lobby was completely empty, unfortunately – I suspect that it is great, should it live up to the multiplayer mechanics from previous games in the series. My brothers and I had a blast playing multiplayer in the original, and I see no reason why it would be any different here.
Graphics and Sound
The crazy, colorful, cartoony presentation of Back in the Groove may not be for everyone, but should be quite pleasing for those who appreciate the style. Characters and assets are animated wonderfully, and the warped, bizarre take on planet Earth consistently remains a joy to explore because of the aesthetics. There may be too many “green” areas in general, but the occasional biome change – like tundras and deserts – help break up the monotony a bit. Ultimately, the stars of the show are the over-the-top characters and their often silly animations, rather than jaw-dropping environments.
True to the franchise’s roots, Back in the Groove continues the tradition of funky hip hop influence in its soundtrack. Like the graphics, this is something that may not appeal to everyone, but I personally was a fan, and particularly enjoyed the remixes of older, iconic themes made popular by previous titles in the series.
It is awesome to be able to experience a ToeJam and Earl game on modern consoles that doesn’t sacrifice the integrity of what makes the franchise so appealing. Back in the Groove adheres to series traditions while injecting enough new into the mix to make it potentially appealing to fans and newcomers alike. There are numerous game modes, items (like the hats), and even playable characters to unlock, ensuring that the player has quite a bit to do for the foreseeable future. That said, the nature of the game is so odd that it makes it difficult to recommend wholeheartedly, but if you want to play something that is completely ridiculous, and may even be fun for you and your friends, then Back in the Groove is a totally tubular experience.