Remakes, reboots and reimaginings are big business. You only have to look at the success of Resident Evil 2, Crash Bandicoot and Spyro to see that’s true, but does that mean that absolutely everything should get a reskin? It’s a tough question I pondered while playing ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove, the “fourth” game in the TJ&E series. I used air quotes there because it really doesn’t feel like a sequel.
Back in the Groove kicks off with ToeJam and Earl taking a trip with their girlfriends to go scope out Earth once more. One of them presses the wrong button and before you know it, they come crashing down to Earth and the ship smashes to pieces. Sounds familiar, right? Well, it should do as that’s pretty much the plot of the first game. Once again, you’ve crashed on Earth and have to traverse randomly generated levels looking for pieces of your ship while dodging various enemies.
You start off on a small island and use a magical elevator to proceed to the next area which is a randomly generated piece of terrain surrounded by space. If you fall off one of the edges, you will drop down to the previous level and have to make your way back up again. In your first attempts at the game, the levels are actually fixed and you have to get to the tenth level before unlocking the true roguelike mode.
Enemies start off easy to dodge, but as you proceed they become more and more difficult to deal with, reminding you at every turn that old games were really hard. Thankfully you have a raft of abilities (gained via presents) at your disposal to deal with them. Presents are everywhere; you can find them in bushes, gifted to you by friendly NPCs and obtained by levelling up, so you are never in short supply. They range from spring boots which help you get around, to the tomato rain which will annihilate everything on screen, even those friendly NPCs.
NPCs come in all shapes and sizes, from an old man dressed as a carrot who will level you up, to an Einstein-looking nutty professor who can fix any broken presents you find for a fee. Along the way you will also find NPCs who will play the ‘Jam Out’ minigame with you, one of the few returning features from the second game, Panic on Funkotron. My favourite interaction by far is that, if you are getting hassled by evil characters, you can go and stand by Gandhi who will protect you from all damage. He floats in mid-air, professing peace and love while conjuring flowers all around him. It’s quite a sight!
A lot of comedy is present here and that’s part of the charm. I mean, ToeJam and Earl are alien rappers, for Pete’s sake, and they want to spend most of their time getting funky! It takes many cues from the original with its larger than life parody characters, transformed by an excellent art style that pays homage to early 90’s underground comics, and it’s all been topped off with a funky soundtrack that’s been lovingly put together to celebrate the original.
It’s definitely a game best played with friends and this version certainly improves on that formula by letting you play with up to four people, whether split screen or online (we were unable to test the online aspect). There are nine characters to choose from, two of which are just alternate versions of ToeJam and Earl, each coming with different abilities and stats. These abilities grant bonuses when using certain present types, like ToeJam gaining a bonus that means he can run for longer when using hi-tops. It adds a little variation, but ultimately doesn’t really make too much of a difference to how the game plays. You still have access to all the presents, regardless of who you play as.
The aim of the game is to put your ship back together and you need to collect ten parts before you can take off again. Not every level will have a ship piece, so you will need to do a little exploring to find what you need. There are plenty of things to distract you along the way, like collecting money, shaking trees for more presents, the Hyperfunk Zone, which is a side-scrolling bonus level, and the aforementioned Jam Out minigame.
There’s also a hardcore mode, but you’re still doing the same thing, just with slightly more infuriating enemies that can feel downright unfair in later levels. If you want something to do on the side, there are unlockables in the form of hats which provide bonuses and you also have the rest of the nine characters to earn. Most runs can be completed in just over an hour, even with the randomised levels, and once you’ve done it a couple of times, you may start to question whether there’s any incentive to go again.
For the nostalgia buff, this game is excellent. It’s everything you want to be able to experience TJ&E in 2019, and exactly what fans wished for and funded into existence. Calling it a sequel is a bit of a stretch though. It feels more like a remake and I think if it was labeled that way I’d be more comfortable with it. I know that Greg Johnson wanted to make the sequel that fans have been looking for because, let’s face it, two and three were let downs, but a good sequel takes the formula you love, keeps its core elements and changes it just enough to keep it fresh. This hasn’t changed enough. It’s filled with nostalgia, but that’s about it.