I’ve never played anything quite so bizarre as ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove.
Originally a game released in 1991 for the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, ToeJam & Earl has been given a modern-day makeover and brought back to life for our modern-day consoles. Does it still hold up with its quirky charm nearly 28 years later? I’m not quite sure. But that’s not to say that ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is completely without merits.
Even trying to describe the gameplay of ToeJam & Earl is quite a task, but the basic storyline is pretty simple: essentially, the titular pair are aliens from another planet, who’ve crash-landed on Earth. Unfortunately, their ship has broken up into 10 parts, and so before they can head home they need to find all 10 parts.
That means navigating your way through various levels, all littered with weird and wonderful ephemera, in order to find those ship parts. “Enemies” come in the shape of, usually, humans, who’ll set out to attack you. You are an alien, after all – you can hardly blame them. A mother with a baby in a pushchair will try and ram you off the edge of the level; another claims to be your biggest fan and will chase you around the area. There are less human-looking enemies too; a cupid-looking demon will fire arrows at you from above, while a gremlin type monster will chase you down should you get too close.
The world of ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove, then, is pretty hostile at best. If this was a typical video game, it wouldn’t be too much of a problem; a melee punch here, a gunshot there, and they’d be sorted out in no time. Sadly, you come equipped with no weapons. As standard, you can only move and search nearby bushes/trees/houses for items. No running, no jumping, no attacking.
That’s where “presents” come in. The main gameplay facet of ToeJam & Earl is presents. You’ll find these dotted around the world as you play, and there’s certainly no shortage of them. There are a wide variety of present types, each with its own unique property. Some presents will allow you to jump, some will allow you to fly (giving you access to new areas of a level), others will give you health, or allow you to attack enemies. The effects don’t last forever though; they’ll wear off after a few minutes. And not all presents are good. Some will spawn enemies, and others can be “broken”, meaning there’s a chance they’ll damage you when you open them.
You don’t always know what a present is, either. Many presents are unidentified when you find them. You can take a chance and open it blindly, or visit an NPC who will reveal it for a small fee. Basically, he’s the game’s answer to Deckard Cain. Except he’s a giant carrot.
Progress through ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove can be quite laborious. You don’t move at a very fast pace, and although no single level is ever too big, it can still take quite a few minutes to walk from one side to another. Add into that the time spent rummaging around in trees to find presents, food or money, and the time wasted by attempting to dodge enemies, and it can be pretty tiring. Despite the game’s eclectic style and the appearance of being inherently random, the gameplay itself quickly becomes rather monotonous.
Some NPC encounters help to vary things a little, however. On some levels, you’ll find a fellow alien wanting to challenge you to a music battle, thus ensuing a short 15-second rhythm game. You’ll also find groups of D&D players, where you can place a bet and roll a dice. These provide small diversions for a minute or two, but too will become repetitive once you’ve had the same interactions four or five times.
There are a few different game modes, with a tutorial world easing you into the game with shorter, easier levels. The main mode is “Fixed”, which is a set series of levels to progress through. Reaching level ten in Fixed world unlocks “Random”, which gives you a procedurally-generated set of levels. Beating Random then unlocks Hardcore, which is a much harder set of levels. But by that point, you probably have little desire to do everything all over again.
ToeJam & Earl Back in the Groove is essentially a roguelike game. You do get a number of lives, with more to find as you play in the standard difficulty of the game, but should you deplete those lives, you’ll find yourself met with a “game over” screen. That means starting all over again from scratch. Outside of the game’s Hardcore mode, there’s nothing too difficult, but as levels progress, enemy density increases. The slow pace of your character matched with more annoying foes on screen often means there’s no way to escape damage if you don’t have a suitable present to escape or attack.
The game has both local and online co-op play as the main focus of the game – according to its Steam page, it’s “the ULTIMATE multiplayer game”. Hmm. In reality, playing with a friend doesn’t do much to shake up the gameplay. You’ll have a companion to help you search for the ship parts, allowing you to cover more ground – but that’s about it. There’ll be some different presents, designed with two players in mind – like healing your companion, swapping bodies, or warping to their location – but everything else remains the same. There’s little in the way of interaction or actual co-operation besides from “you search this way, I’ll go that way”.
ToeJam and Earl may have gained cult status for their past escapades, but unless you’re a hardcore fan of the series, the magic doesn’t quite carry over to the 21st century. ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is initially charming thanks to how offbeat it is, but it soon wears thin when you realise how barebones the gameplay is.