**Review copy provided by the publisher**
I’ve been playing roguelikes for twenty-eight years now, although I didn’t realize that until I played ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove. I was eight years old when the original ToeJam and Earl was released in 1991 for my brand new Sega Mega Drive and at the time I only grouped games into genres of Sonic and not-Sonic.
I played ToeJam & Earl with a friend and we had no clue what we were doing. We took it in turns to play as either ToeJam or Earl and wandered around collecting presents, hula dancing, and falling off the edge of the world. I don’t think we ever beat the game or really cared.
As it turned out, I was playing a roguelike. Probably. Some people like to get really strict with the definition and restrict it to turn-based dungeon crawlers, but ToeJam and Earl has enough of the rogue-ish elements that I think the definition applies. There’s permadeath, randomized worlds, and a focus on exploration and item management. If it’s not a roguelike, then it’s a roguelike-like and I can’t be bothered to keep saying that.
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is perhaps best described as a sequel to the original game, or maybe even a straight up remake. It certainly has nothing to do with the two older sequels Panic on Funkatron and Mission to Earth which have been consigned to history alongside other sequels we love to forget like Devil May Cry 2 and Deus Ex: Invisible War.
As a remake, Back in the Groove has all the charm of the original with a hip visual style and funky soundtrack and all the classic enemies and items have returned. As a modern sequel, there’s the addition of a bright cel-shaded visual style, a bunch of new characters, each with their own stats and abilities, and a tutorial to teach the next generation of eight-year-olds what they’re supposed to be doing.
The main goal is to collect ten pieces of your spaceship which are scattered across roughly twenty-five levels after Earl crash-landed on Earth. You’re not limited to playing just as ToeJam or Earl this time. From the start, you can play as two different versions of ToeJam and Earl, plus their friends Lewanda and Latisha, and you unlock a new character each time you complete the game for a total of nine.
Gameplay is simply walking around and exploring the map until you find one of the ship pieces or an elevator that takes you up to a new level. In the tutorial, there are fewer enemies and a ship piece on nearly every level, so it’s a lot shorter, but you don’t get any unlocks for completing it. There’s a couple of easier difficulties available from the start although hard mode has to be unlocked by completing the game.
Like the original, Back in the Groove is an incredibly chill experience that moves along at a slow and relaxing pace most of the time. Enemies leave you be unless you get close, so you can slowly wander around collecting presents and money, and uncovering more of the map, with hidden paths revealing themselves if you walk close to the edge.
Each level is filled with a mixture of friendly and not so friendly characters, although at first glance it can be hard to tell them apart. The Wiseman levels up your character, giving you a bunch of random stat points in the process, and the scientist will repair any broken presents. However, the hula girl forces you to dance for a few seconds leaving you vulnerable to enemies like the eager fanboy desperate for an autograph or the angry man mowing his lawn. On my first playthrough, I didn’t always know who I could talk to and who I should run from. A sushi stall sells food, however, an ice cream van is deadly. Even the elevators play tricks on you, with many levels having evil versions that will take you down instead of up.
There’s a similar uncertainty with all those presents you pick up. You won’t know what’s inside until you open one of each type or pay someone to identify the present for you. Most presents are good. There are benefits like extra lives, speedy shoes, pogo sticks, and tomato rain, however, you can also lose lives or throw all your presents away. The randomness isn’t meant to be a huge problem or hurdle to overcome. You rarely need specific items to get past levels or find ship pieces; presents are just optional variables to make your life more exciting by giving you tomatoes to throw at enemies or a rubber ring that helps you float in water.
The visual upgrade won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I personally love it. The bright colors and mad animations are a joy to look at and the small addition of being able to see the level below you adds a lot to the experience. Everything looks like a comic book come to life and the simple act of moving characters around can bring a smile to your face. If you stop near a Gandhi-esque character you will meditate and if you hang around large dandelions, you’ll hold one up in front of you to hide from enemies. There’s a small amount of level variety with dark levels that require you to navigate by torchlight, as well as snow and sand sections that slow you down if you leave the beaten path.
The soundtrack is also absolutely sublime. The smooth funky beat couldn’t fit the characters or the gameplay any better. The end credits let you listen to all the tracks and there’s hardly a duff one amongst them.
In keeping with the relaxed style, Back in the Groove is a touch easy, at least until you unlock hardcore mode. You can comfortably run from most enemies even when playing as a slow character like Earl. I completed the game on my first attempt and only came close to dying once when I got cornered by an ice cream van. There are plenty of health items around to heal you from the odd hit you might take from stumbling into enemies, so you only lose a life if you get particularly unlucky with enemy placement or a bit careless with where you go.
As with the original, you can play in two-player mode with a split-screen popping up if you move far enough from each other. You can even mix up difficulty settings so one player can play on normal, which is required to unlock new characters and power-up hats, while the other plays on toddler mode. Online is also available so you can jump into someone else’s game or leave your game open for others to enter.
As you’d expect with a roguelike, death means death. If you lose all your lives, you have to start again from the beginning. Given that even my first run only lasted for an hour, and it can be done a lot quicker, this doesn’t have to be a huge deal, however, the slower nature of Back in the Groove makes starting from scratch a little more frustrating than usual.
This is where Back in the Groove’s relaxing nature works against it. Starting again doesn’t present a new challenge to overcome or ways to improve your performance. You just have to slog through all those levels again and hope that the next time you don’t take a few unlucky hits. Admittedly, I’m not the most patient person out there, but I know that if I had died to that aggressive ice cream van half an hour or so into my session, I wouldn’t have just started another run immediately like I would have in, say, Binding of Isaac.
After one playthrough of the normal mode, you unlock the random mode which gives you procedurally generated levels to play around in. After completing random mode, you unlock hardcore mode. The hardcore mode is obviously harder, but the joy of the game doesn’t come from the challenge. It comes from chilling out and listening to the incredible soundtrack as you explore visually chaotic levels and avoid characters crazier than the aliens you play as. My first playthrough provided plenty of fun moments, not all of which were based on nostalgia, but the novelty does wear off quickly.
Completions award you new character unlocks and abilities, but this wasn’t enough to keep me playing and is partly why I settled on the three-star score even though I did enjoy my first run.
Ultimately, I enjoyed playing through the tutorial and completing one playthrough to the end, but that only took ninety minutes and if I wasn’t reviewing the game I wouldn’t have felt the need to play it again. As it was, I played a few more times and didn’t get much from it on those repeated playthroughs. Back in the Groove is fun while it lasts but there isn’t enough here to make it an essential purchase.