In 1991, a strange new game released for the Sega Mega Drive: ToeJam & Earl, a title that defied conventions of both genre and style. That original spaced-out adventure became known as a classic of the era by way of its distinctive presentation and roguelike gameplay. Could a similar formula work as well in a revival 28 years later?
ToeJam & Earl Back in the Groove finds our two favourite eponymous intergalactic funkmasters in a bind. They have crash-landed their Rapmaster Rocketship on Earth, and the darn thing broke into a dozen pieces now scattered across the planet. In order to find them, you’ll take a bird’s eye view and guide your an extraterrestrial across Earthy landscapes, trying to recover all twelve ship pieces. Along the way, you’ll encounter Earthling enemies along with hostile landscapes.
Like the 1991 original, Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove is a cartoony, sci-fi twist on the classic roguelike genre. Like an old ASCII dungeon-crawler, you go through the world one level at a time. There’s a minimap, which is unlocked a section at a time when you tiptoe into new territory. Character stats like health, inventory size, speed, and luck can slowly build through gaining XP and levelling up with the Wiseman. The characters have different strengths from the beginning; ToeJam moves fast but has little health, for example, while Earl is slow but beefy.
In Random World, the levels are generated randomly, leading to some potentially tricky situations. In Fixed World, there’s more of a solid expectation for the 25 levels, but you will still deal with enemy-placement oddities and present arrangements.
Oh, right, the presents. In ToeJam & Earl, you don’t get to just pick up an item and use it all willy-nilly. Each new present (literally, like, a Christmas present, all wrapped up) is unknown until you try it, although after trying a present variety once you’ll have it identified for the rest of your adventure. The problem is, not every present is good, so trying new ones can be potentially harmful. One present sounds an alarm, alerting enemies to your presence and ruining the usual light-stealth mechanics at work. Another present gives you 'bad food' instead of healing food, so it takes some health away. Then there’s the 'Total Bummer' present, which kills you instantly.
And that’s where you might begin to detect ToeJam & Earl’s design philosophy of randomness and redundancy. The games throws so much zany stuff at the player(s) that it’s easy to be continually charmed by new shiny things, but ultimately can be pretty iterative. There are systems within systems, and the ingredients don’t always add up.
For example, each character can ‘Search’ with the Y button, which sends out a pulse-wave thing that shows which of the surrounding plants or structures contain something (they’ll wiggle if they do). You can then search them and get a present or something else, like money.
So you slowly gain money. With the money, you can purchase services from ally characters. For example, you can fix presents! But why do your items ever need fixing? Why, that’s because sometimes your presents are broken and can’t be used. It’s just another random thing, like the harmful presents you might run into when trying them for the first time. But if you pay the right friendly Earthling, your presents can be identified.
So the solution (an entire in-game economy!) exists solely for problems that don’t need to, only to add difficulty through randomness. There’s one character that instantly sends you back down a level, necessitating some annoying backtracking. Does this really add a fair kind of challenge, and enhance the feeling of reward to play through? Why are some stages cast in darkness? Did we mention that each level ends by finding the elevator, but there’s an enemy that mimics the elevator in order to take you back a stage instead of forward? At least you can escape it, if you notice the teeth in time.
If you look at this game in a slightly different light (is it fun to discover a hidden path, or is it strange that I should have to walk around an entire landscape edge just to finally find my way across the gap?), you begin to perhaps see how session time is inflated in cheap ways.
However, this is all very true to the original 16-bit game, and that had its share of fans. As long as you can accept that zany randomness is just part of the ToeJam & Earl experience, there’s a good time to be had here. It’s fun to see all the bizarre enemies, from the Insane Dentist to the Cow Ghost and the Man in Black who will make you forget what your presents are. The presents themselves are amusing, from rocket skates that are a little too fast to be helpful to random teleports and Icarus Wings to enable glorious, freeing flight.
Beyond the randomness, there are layers of strategy to figure out, too. Enemies that seem like major threats turn out to have movement patterns to be exploited. There’s a certain satisfaction in gaining XP efficiently (grab the telephone whenever possible!) and getting a good set of stat boosts in a level-up. The game presents a measure of wackiness, yes, but there’s still a solid roguelike design under the hood somewhere.
One refreshing developer choice is the extensive documentation on deck. Right from the start, the Game Manual section of the options presents comprehensive galleries and descriptions of every variety of present, food, Earthling, player-characters, and other lists. There are in-game achievements, a solid dose of unlockables, credits featuring the Kickstarter backer names, and a well-executed Tutorial. These features definitely help prevent the game from feeling overwhelming.
In fact, while honouring the franchise legacy (you’ll see the Hyperfunk Zone from ToeJam & Earl 2: Panic on Funkotron, and characters like Latisha from the third title) as a whole, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove sets out to be as good as it can while sticking to the original formula faithfully. Nostalgic fans should be happy to see an experience that feels like the first game finally got a fresh coat of paint. Enjoying it to a new funk-flavored soundtrack of slap bass jams and hip hop tracks is just icing.
We did not get a chance to try the online multiplayer, but ToeJam & Earl is a solid choice to play with a friend to cover more ground and find ship parts more quickly. If it wasn’t for occasionally penalizing the player with randomness, this would be the perfect game to kick back and chill with. Still, it’s a fun reimagining of an iconic entry in games history, produced smoothly and delightfully. Even at its most random, it’s never as bad as being just-plain bad, and helping ToeJam & Earl get back home still feels rewarding.
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is a faithful enhancement to the classic original. It might not satisfy those looking for their next big blockbuster or 'prestige indie' title as the design may feel somewhat dated, despite the game’s own attempts to obfuscate the obsolete with the arbitrary. This funky, distinctive game should please the nostalgic while being unique enough to attract, and satisfy, the curious. Details such as the exhaustive documentation and varying minigames definitely show some heart in the development. Ultimately, this is a package that is designed to appeal to pre-existing fans rather than create entirely new ones, but if you're a fan of this kind of game and don't mind the odd spot of randomness, then you should give it a try.