ToeJam & Earl (TJ&E). Mannnnnn that combination of names brings me back—way back. Memories of Genesis games back from an era when the box art consisted of a single image surrounded by a black and white grid come flooding in. This recollection of the first TJ&E surprises me, because I actually played ToeJam & Earl: Panic on Funkotron before I played its predecessor, and that game had the artwork with the red-lined case. However, ToeJam’s idling animation while trapped on Earth is etched into my brain; he bops on rhythm to the background music as if he is freestyling.
When a TJ&E sequel was announced in 2015, I decided at once that it would be a game that I would acquire. After a successful Kickstarter, and some legalese, the prototype for ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove became public. Four years later, and a total remake of the Genesis original is ready to be unleashed upon the world!
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is inspired by a game from an era before the kind of content that would give the prudent pause would become popularized (shout-out to Splatterhouse for making the cut before the ESRB). The worst one might anticipate here are giggles from kids when they see the exposed buttocks of imps and cupids who represent the humans that will need to be avoided. A mid/late game character who looks like a Spanish inquisitor will condemn player-characters to “hell,” which actually sends said character down to a previous level. Lastly, a power-up grants players with flatulence, granting an AOE effect that scares enemies away with an “eww” of disgust; in the old days, a root beer power-up would make TJ&E belch, which wakes up nearby sleeping humans.
Such are examples of the lighthearted nature of Back in the Groove.
Fans of ToeJam & Earl on the Genesis will remember during the opening cutscene that ToeJam says to never let Earl drive. Well, to start Back in the Groove, he does precisely that. Things are moving along just fine until ToeJam tells Earl to crank up the auxiliary mega sub-woofers on the Righteous Rapmaster Rocketship, bumping up the funk near Earth. Instead of paying attention to Earl, ToeJam busies himself gy making googly-eyes with Lewanda in the backseat, to the chagrin of LaTisha who is also riding in the rear. Rather than dropping the bass, Earl activates the black hole generator—a common mistake that everyone makes on occasion, right? This sends the crew and planet Earth through the black hole, tearing the ship to bits. Once again, TJ&E (and/or Lewanda and LaTisha) must find the ship pieces to escape a planet full of crazy humans and return to their home planet of Funkotron.
I am typically not a fan of multiplayer, but with up to nine playable characters and, from what I have read, up to four simultaneous players, I might have done Back in the Groove a disservice by going alone. Shout out to my wife, VicariousGamerWife, for being a good sport and playing co-op along with me. Before we could get started, she pointed out the game’s 90’s, vibrant, Nicktoons-style aesthetic. Cartoons have evolved since 1993, and I appreciate the fact that HumaNature Studios has updated familiar sprites with an art direction that reminds me of Cartoon Network, but without any trace of inappropriate innuendo. I do wish, however, that the game ran at a higher framerate than 30 fps, and that the sprites themselves had more animation frames than they do currently.
The option of new and classic versions of the titular characters while revising other options since the ill-regarded ToeJam & Earl 3 that we shall not mention again strikes me as a thank-you to fans. While I prefer new ToeJam’s shoes resembling Jordans, and his open-finger gloves, I am also a fan of his classic look, with the relaxed eyes and oversized gold medallion suspended by gold chain; I also favor Earl’s larger shades on his the classic look, but I like the fact that modern Earl’s jorts are appropriately-sized, meaning no butt crack when he faces away. I rarely complain about customization because too many options overwhelm me, but that would be a welcome addition here. The Mrs. naturally settled on LaTisha, because unlike Lewanda, she has two eyes.
Those familiar with classic TJ&E will feel right at home. Back in the Groove‘s gameplay loop consists of the player’s chosen character being placed on a 3/4 perspective board that is 3D, but most of the assets are in 2D. The objectives are to locate one out of ten pieces of the fragmented rocket ship—if they are available on the level—and find the elevator that will take the player to the next stage. This sounds simple enough, but those pesky earthlings will prove to be hazardous to the health of our intrepid extraterrestrials. Aforementioned imps will poke TJ&E with pitchforks; cupids shoot arrows that, when they hit their intended target, scramble directional controls; hula dancers hypnotize with their hips, enticing player-characters to dance with her, making them vulnerable to more aggressive humans; a dentist gone mad frolics about while poking with his needle; a mom packing a child in a shopping cart flattens any alien who gets in their way; the boogieman stalks and boogies. New humans include a Man in Black who uses his neuralyzer to make TJ&E “forget” about their presents, an overweight mall cop on a segway who flattens aliens who move too slowly, and an alien in a baby play seat who demands kisses. This list is not exhaustive, but serves as an example of the kind of wackiness players should expect to encounter while collecting ship pieces and finding the correct elevator to advance in the game.
As humans become more numerous, aggressive, and strong, TJ&E will need some abilities of their own. The “roguelike” aspect of TJ&E stems from the fact that levels are randomly generated (traditionally—in this game, one must play the fixed set of levels before unlocking the harder random generators), including the types of earthlings and presents found. These presents are mostly power-ups, and they include: rocket shoes allowing players to speed through a board; tomatoes that can be thrown at humans to make them “pop” (die); teleporters that place players in random locations on the map; telephones that reveal the “fog of war” from the map screen; and balloon decoys or boom boxes that distract earthlings away from the real aliens. But there are bad gifts too, such as rotten food, a thunderstorm cloud that shocks with lightning bolts if one moves too slowly, or a present randomizer that scrambles gifts that one might have wanted into an undesirable set. Back in the Groove encourages players to use presents because they are the easiest way to gain experience to level-up stats like speed, health, and luck, and generally assist players in reaching their goals.
New to me in Back in the Groove is the AOE “search” effect that indicates if a bush or tree could be shaken down to find something interesting, such as money, a present, or a dangerous earthling. Money can be used at vendors for health-restoring food presents, or at parking meters for a chance at some other randomized event. Some humans are also good, such as the opera singer who “pops” other earthlings—good or bad—when she sings. A King Tut is a supercharged version of the regular search ability, providing quality information so that players can make better choices in progression. Ghandi ji’s AOE effect prevents earthlings from doing any harm within his aura, while player-characters within this circle of peace levitate in meditation.
Of course, key to a TJ&E game is its music, and Back in the Groove does not disappoint. Spanning at least thirty-one tracks, this music is a collection of tunes from the original TJ&E as well as Panic on Funkotron. “Lewanda’s Love,” “Mellow Groove,” “Big Earl Bump,” and “Rocket Rap” remain high on my list of favorite tracks, and while I typically pour a few lines on why I like each, I will instead say that HumaNature are so confident that Cody Wright and Nick Stubblefield’s arrangement here will be in 2019 OST of the Year mentions, that they sold a studio album set of music spanning over a set of three vinyl records, including a bonus CD. I am hoping that when Back in the Groove goes live to the general public on Steam, I will be able to purchase the digital soundtrack.
Because it is a remake, Back in the Groove does suffer from the problems present in the original game. Randomization, on one hand, creates variety; on the other hand, the very nature of procedural generation can create a repetitiveness that becomes unexciting over time and multiple playthroughs. The added roguelite elements such as save files, unlockable characters, and “super” items that can be permanently activated during future runs helps to alleviate a sense of monotony should one desire to grind out achievements or unearth the yet-to-be-discovered presents, but the basis of ship piece collection and elevator-seeking does not change.
As implied by the very nature of the franchise consisting of a duo, it is highly recommended that Back in the Groove be played with multiple players. I was unable to test the viability of online multiplayer due to playing a pre-release copy (for which GUG is grateful to Stride PR for their generosity), but I hope that the enclosed videos of my wife and me playing in local co-op will give gamers an idea of what to expect with the famous (now dynamic) split-screen effect. We had a blast, and I think that others will experience the same.
The Bottom Line