Oh, those sweet, sweet 1990s. A decade that defined and refined the pop culture tastes of an entire generation. American youth were caught up in the fads of Blossom hats, the Disney Afternoon, and the romantic trials and tribulations between Ross and Rachel. As a kid of the 90’s, consumerism ran high as brand ambassadors found every which way to capture my attention whenever and however possible and no flash in the pan mascot was safe. The 90’s was a time that really solidified my interest in video games largely because there was never a time I wasn’t glued to my TV playing Sega Genesis games. If there was ever a video game that bottled the essence of the era (outside of Greendog: The Beached Surfer Dude), it was Greg Johnson’s ToeJam & Earl.
As two rap loving, totally awesome hip hop devotees, ToeJam and Earl find themselves stranded in a bizarre recreation of Earth after their ship crashes because of Earl’s poor piloting skills. By all accounts, ToeJam and Earl was as bizarre as video games come. “Earth” is represented as a collection of loose islands floating unsupported in the vacuum of space and populated by eclectic characters, like crazed dentists, devils, monsters disguised as mailboxes, mole people, and angry bees all looking to harsh the alien’s urban grooves. Played in either a “fixed” or random mode, it was entirely possible that no two playthroughs would be alike as the roguelike nature of the game ensured that level design, enemy placement, and item and ship part locations would be different every time. ToeJam and Earl was totally a product of its time and as the 1990’s eventually faded into myth like JNCO Jeans, overalls, and slap bracelets, the game that I loved so much earned its place in the pantheon of cult classic games and was largely never heard from again after its sequels.
The past couple of years has seen a rise in 1990’s nostalgia and once more, everything old is new again. After all, the year 2020 will mean that 1990 was thirty years ago (apologies to my fellow millennials for making you feel old). It seems apt, then, that 2019 would play host to the return of ToeJam & Earl with Johnson once again at the wheel. And that brings us to ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove. The game is both a sequel and a reboot as the alien gods of funk once again find themselves back on Earth and forced to locate pieces of their busted ship. What’s fascinating is that Back in the Groove actually provides context as to why the game’s levels are designed the way they are: instead of slamming down the hyperdrive button to escape, Earl triggers a black hole that sucks them and the planet into a vortex, regurgitating Earth and its denizens in its own little pocket universe. Outside of that, Back in the Groove captures a lot of the elements that made the original game so wonderfully strange. The quest is pretty much the same: find the ship pieces, avoid the dangerous earthlings, and don’t be a wiener.
Ship pieces are scattered in different levels so as either ToeJam, Earl (or both if you’re playing with a friend) or their respective girlfriends, you’ll spend the game hunting them down by exploring islands connected by elevators that take you to the next level. There are very few allies on Earth, leaving you to largely fend for yourself by scavenging and running through bushes, trees, and homes in search of snack food and presents. Presents are mystery boxes that offer positive and negative goodies. You won’t know what these presents do until you use them or seek out allies who reveal their contents in exchange for money. Helpful items like wads of cash, inner tubes to help safely cross bodies of water, rocket shoes, and weapons can get you around the map quickly and provide you with means of self-defense. Conversely, you’ll find stuff that can zap away health, randomize your presents, and other bad stuff. Avoiding enemies becomes a real challenge as levels are more densely populated than in the older game and to my delight, many of the classic bad guys supplement a healthy amount of new and dangerous Earthlings, like crazed fans, present-stealing FBI agents, insane dentists, influencers, and more. At higher levels, these enemies become far more aggressive and do a lot more damage, forcing you to think on your toes. Should you get knocked off the edge, you’ll be dropped in a random location in the previous level and are forced to find your way back.
Back in the Groove offers a lot of callbacks, from enemy design and elevator transitions to re-recordings of unforgettable sound effects and music, but it also adds some new mechanics to the mix. Like the older game, you can play the adventure in fixed or random mode, though the latter doesn’t unlock until you’ve completed at least ten levels in the fixed version. Earning promotions is handled differently as you must track down the carrot suit wearing wise man to trigger the change instead of it happening right on the spot. Apart from a name change (graduating from “wiener” to “doofus”, for example), promotions give you a shot at a prize wheel for extra experience points, cash, presents, and boosts to random character stats, increasing movement speed, inventory space, and health among other things. These are not permanent rewards and should you die or fall prey to some truly nasty presents, it’s possible to see your rank and stats demoted.
The game’s visuals are evocative of the original game but instead of its pixelated beauty, Back in the Groove looks like a Trapper Keeper folder sprung to life. ToeJam, Earl, and their girlfriends are more Saturday morning cartoonish in their design, as are the level elements and enemies. As someone who fondly cherishes the look and sound of the old Genesis game, I like the new look well enough, though I can’t help but hide the pangs of not seeing ToeJam and Earl in their pixelated forms. Given the simplicity of the visuals, the game runs really smoothly and does well with its bright and colorful visual palette. That said, the frequent stuttering that happens when you hop into an elevator and sit through the level transitions are hard to ignore. Especially when you think the original game, running on antiquated equipment, had absolutely no trouble.
When it comes to nostalgia, there’s a fine line between “loving homage” and “trying desperately recapture former glory.” Fortunately, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is a fantastic and faithful attempt to bring a nearly thirty-year old game into relevancy. It’s more than just a flashy reboot of the original title, adding in new elements as well as those adopted from its sequel, Panic on Funkotron, to make something that feels fresh, new, and stand shoulder to shoulder with the kind of roguelikes available today. A blast from the past that never feels forced or at odds with itself, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is a delight from start to finish. Word to your mother, yo.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.