ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove is another entry in a long line of sequels to the original 1991 rogue-like cult classic. Unlike the lackluster attempts of the previous sequels, this game manages to capitalize on the family friendly and chill vibes of the original. The game is made with care to the original source material that few things get these days. This may be attributed to the fact that it was crowdfunded through Kickstarter by fans. The developers sought to make fans of the Sega classic happy and they succeeded. It is able to take the original formula and add things that only improve the experience.
The game begins with our nonchalant protagonist accidentally sending the world into a black hole generator which in turn makes thinks increasingly wacky. The black hole generator turned the earth into various flat planned levels for the heroes to explore. This set up is just a little touch that gives context to a ludicrous game. Being able to make it make sense why alien bros are exploring earth-like levels in space is no easy feat, but the developers managed to do it with a simple concept. This is just another example of the care and love that went into crafting this game
The gameplay is simple and straightforward. This sometimes can be seen as a fault for games. however, ToeJam and Earl promote its chill nature in every way it can so it only makes sense that the gameplay is relaxing as well. The player character mosies through the various randomly generated levels to gather up the pieces of their spaceship. Populating these levels are hostile earthlings that act as the game’s enemies.
The enemies in this game are nothing short of hilarious. All of them are some sort of harmless earthling twisted in a way that makes that threatening. Security guards on Segways patrol around looking for any chance to run you down and end your progress. Giant cavemen lumber about with clubs wanting nothing more than to smash your head with it. It is fun and inventive and gives even more life to levels popping with color and personality.
Another key component of the gameplay is the presents. These presents serve as power-ups that give the player various buffs such as attacks or mobility boost. These presents do come with a catch though. The player does not know what’s inside until they open them, while this may sound obvious, it can be costly. There is a present known as the Randomizer which can change every secret package in the game and can really put a wrench in the power you’ve already acquired. Luckily there is a wise old man NPC that can tell the player what’s in a present before you open them, but this cost money. The player will find themselves in many situations on whether they should opening a present or cough up the cash and be safe. It’s a great risk and reward system and is the only thing in the game that can cause even an ounce of stress.
Along with these presents this game has introduced stats for the six playable characters. The stats are randomized each run and make playing each character new and interesting. While this isn’t a drastic change and stats won’t completely change the gameplay its a nice twist on the original formula.
The game is incredibly replayable even by roguelike standards. The randomly generated stats help this but it’s the present unlocks that really make each run fun. Every time the player sets out they are more likely to find an even more powerful or goofy present that makes gathering ship parts unique. The game may just be walking around a flat plain but the sheer variety in each run keeps the game from ever getting monotonous.
The art style is a treat as well. The game boasts many bright colors and cartoonishly creative enemies that make every environment pop. But once again it’s the love for the original that makes the art stand out. This is no easy feat either as indie games often flaunt some outstanding visuals. The game is able to pay homage to the days of blast processing and Sega’s heyday. With characters resembling their 91′ counterparts in an uncanny way while being able to up-res each frame to fit on modern televisions and monitors. Character design, color palates, and enemy movement are both nostalgic and forward-thinking giving this game a mass appeal that few have.
The music in “Back in the Groove” is not surprisingly phenomenal as well. With chill beats bumping as your character cruises through the map. The bass-heavy rhythms will have the player’s head bopping the entire time. The music is yet another reason of this game that leans in heavily on the themes of happy relaxation.
ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove is not breaking new ground or changing the indie games landscape. This game doesn’t seek to do that. Instead, it aims to appease fans of the series and bring in new ones with what made the original a cult classic, easy-going fun. Everything in the game weaves together in a perfect way that can make even the sourest of gamers happy. With most roguelikes being centered around a stern figure setting out to kill everything this game is a refreshing change of pace. Back in the Groove is begging you to put your sunglasses on kick your feet back and enjoy the ride. You won’t regret it.
ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove is available now on PS4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One and PC.