How ToeJam and Earl got their Groove back
Nostalgia is a funny thing. It can make the games you played as a child feel as though they were amazing works of art when you look back on them with your rose-tinted glasses. Nostalgia also made almost 9000 video game fans spend over $500,000 to fund a Kickstarter campaign for one such game – despite almost twenty years passing since its heyday. Back when SEGA still did what Nintendon’t, ToeJam and Earl helped perpetuate the edgy, cool image, that SEGA of America leveraged to make the Mega Drive a huge success, especially in the teenage market. Two aliens with a surfer-dude attitude making their way through an off-the-wall co-op adventure played perfectly to this image and the game and its 1993 sequel (to a lesser extent) are obviously still fondly remembered.
Greg Johnson – half of the creative team who brought us the first three ToeJam and Earl games – returns with his own development team at HumanNature Studios to bring the series kicking and screaming onto modern day consoles. I should be clear to state that Back in the Groove is an evolution, not a revolution however. The title plays almost exactly like the first title, eschewing both the side-scrolling platform gameplay from TJ&E2: Panic on Funkatron, and the 3D game world from TJ&E3: Mission to Earth. Played from a fixed isometric view, the latest game could easily be mistaken for being simply an high definition remastering of the original game in the franchise. Instead, it is an entirely new game, and one that has been infused with some of the more successful aspects of the sequel.
Those who played the first iteration will be very much at home here, however. The titular pair crash land on Earth (again) – whilst trying to impress their girlfriends- and now have to trek across 25 procedurally-generated levels to find the 10 missing parts they need to fix their spaceship and return home. Each level stacks above the last and players proceed by finding an elevator up to the next one. This layering aspect is taken further by the ability to both peer down over the edge of the level to see the one below, and even jump back down if there is something you missed on that stage. The game is generous enough to let you know if the level you are currently on does contain a spaceship piece or not, so you know whether you need to explore every inch of said stage, or if you can just find the exit and continue moving on up.
Sounds easy right? Don’t speak to soon, as each level is inhabited by a strange collection of “Earthlings”. These can be both helpful and a hindrance – most often the latter. To help you out, there are characters such as the Sushi chef who you can buy health items from, the Opera singer whose ear-piercing screeches eliminate all enemies on screen and the mysterious Carrot-man, who helps you level up your characters. But the wide cast of bad guys includes an array of hazards to avoid – the caveman who will knock you off the side of the level, down to lower floors, the internet troll who hits you with insults that reverse all game pad inputs or the near-invisible Boogeyman, who inflicts high damage via sneak attacks. These earthlings are all vividly animated and full of character, helping the who experience feel like a nineties Saturday-morning cartoon come to life, even if they are trying to kill you.
Thankfully you collect a bountiful supply of presents throughout the game, which can help you out of a bind – or sometimes make things a whole lot worse. Each present is a mystery until opened, and when you open it, you have to use it there and then. If you are lucky, you might get a power-up that makes tomatoes fall from the heavens, eliminating all of the evil-doers who are surrounding you, or you may unwrap another gift that locates the level exit for you. On the other hand, the power-up may just end up making you burp loudly, waking up sleeping enemies and letting everyone know just where you are. You can choose to pay some characters to identify presents for you in advance – but that won’t always be an option. Making use of these always inventive and sometimes confounding presents is key to successfully avoiding an early death and escaping the planet in a fully-repaired spaceship.
The whole game is packed full of strange quirks and secret pathways that urge you to explore – with each stage feeling unique and keeping you on your toes. Add to that several mini-games such as the rhythm-action “Jam Out” dance -off, or the side-scrolling HyperFunk zone where you an rack up extra XP, and you realise that Back in the Groove offers up a lot of extra features that round-out the core gameplay. Of course there are a lot of modern comforts added to make the title more palatable; the option to save your progress being the most welcome addition, but XP levelling up to increase your health bar and speed, for instance, also help add some purpose to making sure you comb over each level and collect what you can.
Thankfully two player split-screen co-operative play has remained (as well as the obligatory online mode that allows for four players). The split screen mode was always the best way to experience the madcap nature of ToeJam and Earl on Mega Drive, and remains so too here – all the way down to the little touches like high-fives that you can perform together to replenish your health. The space funk soundtrack is probably a bit too repetitive and some of its sound effects a bit grating after some time, but the animation and total commitment to theme make it a visual delight. As previously mentioned, the aesthetics are a welcome shock the the system. Bright, bold and unapologetically nineties, Back in the Groove screams at you to play, explore and uncover its secrets.