In 1991, SEGA received a second wind. The formerly faltering company finally saw success in North America – the then-biggest video game market in the world – and the Console War began in earnest. The key factor behind SEGA’s comeback was its entry into the 16-bit world: the Mega Drive. It would go on to help SEGA become a true rival to the Nintendo juggernaut, but for now it was just a scrappy console packaged with a very good game.
One of the sleeper hits on the upstart system was ToeJam & Earl. It was (and still is) very popular with the people who played it, granting it cult status despite small sales relative to its Mega Drive contemporaries. Two sequels (another Mega Drive game and one on the Xbox) would follow in the years ahead, neither of them being quite as good. Another sequel hits our screens today after a 17-year-long break, though, with ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove.
Back in the Groove already has one thing going for it; it plays absolutely nothing like its sequels. In fact, it’s almost the same game as the original. In this new story, ToeJam and Earl have ‘borrowed’ a spaceship to impress some girls, taking it to Earth for a spin. Inevitably, the ship is ruined after it – and the Earth – are accidentally sucked into a black hole created by the bumbling duo. The world is then spat out to form the game’s levels, and pieces of the ship have been scattered across them. Now, the duo are stuck on the remains of an alien planet and must rebuild their ship to return home.
Cow and bunga, doods
The game’s tongue is permanently grafted to its cheek
The basic gameplay of the original and, thus, Back in the Groove, is pretty simple. You’ll explore different horizontal slices of the Earth in ‘worlds’, each one containing 25 levels, collecting pieces of the spaceship and avoiding the Earthlings that have survived…and want to kill you. To beat a level, you have to find an elevator that’ll take you up (literally) to the next one. Not every level has a piece of a spaceship within, so most levels are a basic race to the finish. There are no secrets or frustrations in the game’s UI or objective indicators, but the tutorial could have used more work. It’s bare-bones in the wrong kind of way, where a newcomer could find themselves scratching their head.
The way I’ve worded that makes it sound like that’s really all there is to ToeJam & Earl, which is far from the case. Along the way to rebuilding your ship, you’ll collect mystery ‘Presents’ that act as items. What do they do? It depends; there are dozens of different ones and their purpose isn’t revealed until you use them. Some help you and some hinder you. It sounds wacky, and it is, but that’s part of the game’s emphasis on being a fun co-op game above a ‘serious’ one. And it is a fun co-op game. The real charm lies in it being as easy to lend a hand to your partner as it is to kick them off of the level’s edge and send them back to the last one. You even get to see them run around on it!
Wacky is central to Back in the Groove’s identity, as it replicates to a tee the bubbly energy of late 80s/early 90s street culture. ToeJam and Earl may have new outfits (unless you choose to play as their older selves) but they’re still the same wise-cracking brothers-from-other-mothers they’ve always been. The visual style uses bright and vibrant colours to take you straight back to 1991. My personal favourite example of this is the elevators, which spring this way and that like a building in a Sesame Street opening while they take you to the next level. The music bops to fly funks and radical rhythms that make me wish that the game had a standalone soundtrack release. That’s apart from the (cassette!) version found in the physical collector’s edition.
Levels are also littered, as I mentioned before, with us Earthlings. I told a little bit of a fib earlier; not all of them are out for your blood. Some do nice things for you, despite destroying the planet, like fix your ‘broken’ presents and heal you in exchange for money you find lying on the ground. One Earthling – a wise old man wearing a carrot costume – levels you up once you’ve obtained enough EXP. Levelling up improves your stats, helping you face yet more challenging levels. It’s a very basic model, but it works.
ToeJam, look out behind you! Oh no he hasn’t got ears, he can’t hear us oh god oh jeez
Back in the Groove is a simple game, yes, but as I’ve said in the past; the simpler games tend to be the most gripping. In that regard, Back in the Groove shows refreshing simplicity in not only objective and gameplay, but in attitude as well. The game’s tongue is permanently grafted to its cheek. At no point did its approach to itself feel out of place or obnoxious. With that in mind, I do have some pretty big gripes. Firstly, Back in the Groove is all too short. Even with co-op, random world generation, unlockables and achievements it’ll get stale in a good while. Its simplicity doesn’t quite translate to a higher skill ceiling either, so it doesn’t take too long to master.
But that’s not the point of ToeJam & Earl, even when it first appeared in the year I was born. It’s a game from an era where the average age of a ‘gamer’ was under 20, when all games had to be was fun. Back in the Groove emulates that idea, for better or for worse. Sure, there’s little actual depth in the gameplay or the replay value and it’s unbalanced…but it’s fun. Just don’t expect every person born after 9/11 ruined everything to ‘get’ the appeal of a game like this.
I have very little against the idea of Back in the Groove, to be perfectly square with you. A ‘soft reboot’ approach to a classic franchise that’s been down on its luck for more than two decades is a welcome return to old-school gameplay ideas. Outside of the slew of original indie games that we’re (thankfully) getting these days, there’s very little to inspire younger generations of potential future developers. I mean, do you think that they’re going to draw radical new ideas from Anthem? Or think outside the (loot) box because of Star Wars Battlefront II? Back in the Groove is the type of game that’s resurrecting older ideas and championing their merits to people that may have missed out on them the first time.
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is a blast from the past whose charms and laid-back simplicity may be a bit ‘before your time’. I never quite got into the series back in the day – I couldn’t quite play video games in the womb – but Back in the Groove gave me strong impressions of my completely legal first playthrough of the original, and I can’t quite say no to that.
Reviewed on Windows // Review code supplied by publisher
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