Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Hook, The Addams Family, Metallica, The Clash…I was about to write “These are a few of…(and now that song is stuck in my head). 1991 was a pretty good year for pop culture. You may have heard of some of these video games released that year as well: Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Castlevania IV, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Mega Man 4 and, of course, ToeJam & Earl. Fast Forward almost 30 years…
Sonic the Hedgehog has a live-action movie coming out (why??), Castlevania has been made into an excellent Netflix series, Zelda’s latest entry, Breath of the Wild, is one of the greatest games this generation, Mega Man just came out with Mega Man 11 and we finally get a follow-up to one of the great co-op games of the Sega Genesis era in ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove!
Developed by HumaNature Studios, founded by ToeJam & Earl creator Greg Johnson, the game was successfully funded through Kickstarter. Also, Kevin McCallister is the executive producer. Yes, Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin is involved. Total 1990s overload!
I was a Nintendo kid growing up. Sure, I had a Game Gear but I never owned any of the mainline Sega products until the Dreamcast (RIP). Fortunately, my best friend Chris did have a Genesis. Sleepovers consisted of American Ninja 4, a modified form of scooter hockey in his kitchen, Joe Montana Football and ToeJam & Earl. I can still hear those whistles blown and the “wake up…wake up…WAKE UP!” in all their 16-bit glory.
ToeJam & Earl is a roguelike (co-op) dungeon crawler. Roguelike because every play will randomize the starting point and presents, (co-op) because, with modern technology, couch co-op can be two couches thousands of miles away and dungeon crawler because, while not looking like your Diablo/Torchlight/Spelunky dungeons, just like those games, the levels are completely randomized and there is tons of real estate to explore and secrets to uncover.
For newcomers to the series, the object of the game is to help aliens ToeJam & Earl recover the pieces of their spaceship. Pieces, because, well, they crashed into Earth. In the 2019 edition, you can play as ToeJam or Earl, classic (read Genesis) versions or their friends with unlockable characters available through gameplay. Each and every level is filled with random NPCs who will help your character as well as Earthlings who are not too keen on you “visiting.” Ever find cash just on the floor and get super excited? It will seem like every other bush and tree has cash waiting for you to find (ok, not every other but you get the point). The presents from the original game make their return as well. Not all presents are good though – looking at you evil rocket skates! The presents can help in various ways: gain the ability to fly short distances, to jump excessively high, to run real fast, bonus experience to help you level or uncover some of the current map you are on. Each level ends with an elevator heading up one “floor.”
Speaking of leveling, this game brings back the ridiculous leveling up titles like Homey and Rapmaster and Funklord. As you level, three of your stats are randomly leveled up increasing your health or speed and the like. Leveling up is not automatic though. Upon gaining enough experience, you will have to find the Wise Carrot NPC (picture a carrot that looks like a wise old man) and he will ask if you want to be promoted. Other NPCs will identify presents for you or buy a broken present you may have picked up in your travels.
Similar to most roguelikes, aspects of ToeJam & Earl can be infuriatingly frustrating. Nothing beats falling off a level only to recover and immediately knocked down another level. Luckily, the maps for the previous levels remain uncovered and you can easily find the elevators. Found Icarus Wings behind a house? They will not be there next playthrough. Such is the life of a roguelike. Fortunately, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! plays much like the titular characters: laid back. There is no real sense of urgency and you will not be punished for moving at a snail’s pace.
This should be the part where I say “if you were a fan of the Genesis….” Fond memories are not a requirement to enjoy the game. Sure, I would bet money that the majority of backers on the kickstarter were huge fans of the original game. ToeJam & Earl is the type of game that anyone can enjoy. It is not a terribly long game (it can be beaten in a couple of hours – couple meaning two, yes two) but it has the type of replayability appeal that makes multiple playthroughs something you want to do and not something you begrudgingly do. Nothing beats running around collecting presents, avoiding the devil as you look for presents and play the two types of minigames (a 2D sidescroller that nets you more experience and presents or a guitar hero styled game) all the while listening to a fantastic soundtrack by multi-talented Cody Wright (check out his YouTube page).
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! is nostalgia done right. This new incarnation even resorts to the three button scheme just like the Sega Genesis had back in 1991. The art style and music track make a rather simple game extremely enjoyable and help you forget that the game loop is awfully short. Being that it is 2019, as mentioned earlier, online multiplayer is a thing. Nothing beats couch co-op but the ability to have an all-night Funkotron session with friends from literally anywhere does help. Hell, you can even play with strangers if your friends are not around. Do yourself a favor and pick this game up. Just remember, Macaulay Culkin executive produced this game.
I tell Dad jokes much to my wife’s chagrin. Sometimes, I write movie reviews. I love all video games. I am really bad at fighting games. I co-host Nerds Gone Platinum every Tuesday night at 9PM EST on https://www.youtube.com/channel/UChL_c9NSP_WtWydh3L7rQKQ. You can e-mail the show at firstname.lastname@example.org, tweet us at NG_Platinum or call into the show at (929) 333-5762. I can be found on PSN, Twitter and Instagram at Gimpyjayy and emailed at email@example.com.