After the original ToeJam And Earl game on the Sega Genesis, the sequels have been pretty terrible. With the second game straying so far from the original that it was a side scrolling platformer with some of the worst controls I’ve ever played, and the third trying to bring the series back to its roots with a 3D version but with a really bad early 2000 rap overlay… Gone was the funk and replaced with the lamest “yo MTV Raps” for what your grandparents thought rap culture was. Also a bizarrely large focus on Gospel singing as well. It was weird even for Toejam and Earl standards and even though it was very familiar in its level layout and general premise, it was just a very bad game and felt like the groove was officially gone and led out to the back and shot.
Fast forward almost 2 decades later and we have a new ToeJam and Earl game that take the best parts of the sequels (not much to grab really) and mixes it all into a randomized world of the original’s gameplay. Simply put, Back in the Groove is the best of what a ToeJam and Earl game should be. You have a co-op game that allows you and a friend to explore “Earth” collecting pieces of your blown up spaceship. All the while, earthlings roam the levels, some who are out to get you or some might even help. As you explore you uncover presents, they start out as unknowns, not knowing what they contain.They can either make your life easier or a nightmare. Some might be high tops, allowing you to outrun earthlings who are trying to take your picture and blind you, or poke you with a syringe. Some might be a little black rain cloud that will follow you around and slow you down or even have lightning shoot out and shock you. The procedurally generated nature of the game allows you to play through the game multiple times and it’ll never be the exact same. It’s a game that you are meant to go back to over and over again and even though I’m never a big fan of that in most games, this is developed to make it nice and easy to hop right back into, but is also deeply complex with the randomness of everything.
Being able to pick from a original roster of 6 characters and 3 unlockable ones, all with different starting stats, and pros and cons and different starting presents, really shows off how much this game can change. I had a much easier time with Latisha getting through the game than I did with Old Skool Earl. Latisha was extremely quick and had great luck with presents. Old Skool Earl was a lot slower making it a pain trying to outrun a ice cream truck, even though he could eat rotten food. Once you complete a run of the game, you are allowed to unlock one new character and one power hat. A Power Hat, which gets randomly selected during every level, give you special powers, some allow you more money, more health, invisibility to earthlings or immuity to dancing hula girls. All these elements add to making the game so unpredictable and fun when you do replay it over and over again.
This game should be played Co-Op as that is where you will get the most out of your time with it. Going solo is fine, but with another person to share health, unlock more presents and even help explore, it’s just a much better experience. For a small $20 game at release, there is zero reason not to pick this game up. If you’ve never played the TJ&E games before, this is the best jumping in point. It’s quick, easy, and just a blast.
I have a personal and deep connection to the ToeJam and Earl series. When I got my genesis I remember playing the first one a ton at my friend’s house who lived across the street from my Grandma. I rented the second one over and over again on my own trying to understand the game since it was so different. I remember getting the Xbox and being super excited to learn that 3 was on it. Even when 3 had such a hard lean into lame rap and gospel music, I still had fun playing through it in my cold room in the garage.
A decade and a half later I pick the series up again and really started to learn how these games were played. There is a draw for me with the unique style, gameplay and humor. It really is unlike any other series out there. Playing through the first and part of the second with my friend Andrew online and recreating part of that couch co-op experience that had faded into obscurity in recent times.
Back In the Groove gets it right. It gives everyone what they want, gameplay from what made the first game so special, The roguelike elements, exploring, surprise presents, planning and co-op gameplay and also inserting the few good parts about the second and third games that make this more of a “best of”. This game should be held up as how to bring back life into an older game franchise and remove that bad parts and improve the good parts of a series. I thnk this is the way to do it. I want to see this game get a proper sequel