Social media would no doubt erupt with confusion and laughter if SEGA ever attempted to resurrect Mega Drive heroes Greendog The Beached Surfer Dude and Kid Chameleon from the 16-bit graveyard. While both games were popular in their heyday, many would consider their quintessentially ‘90s stars positively passé nowadays.
Funk loving aliens ToeJam & Earl are from the same era, yet their return – following a 17-year hiatus – has been a cause for celebration. Reasons for this are numerous. Firstly, they weren’t your typical attitude-filled mascots. The three-legged ToeJam and his portly pal Earl may have sported baggy shorts and wide shades, but their personalities were kept low key. That’s to say, they didn’t rattle off corny catchphrases at every given opportunity. They also had a passion for hip-hop – something still relevant today.
Secondly, the ToeJam & Earl games were ahead of their time, with the original adventure being lightyears ahead. It featured a structure similar to many of today’s popular indie games – including The Binding of Isaac, Enter the Gungeon, Dead Cells and Spelunky – being a ‘roguelike’ inspired by the genre’s granddaddy at a time when copycats were few.
Not only were stages randomly generated, but also the mystery box power-ups ToeJam & Earl came across, some of which more beneficial than others. This meant each game was slightly different from the last due to varying chances of success, based on level layouts and the usefulness of items found. Throw in a warped sense of humour, a funky soundtrack, and some of the most memorable speech samples of the 16-bit era, and you’ve got yourself a bona fide classic.
If only SEGA knew how to market it, which ultimately lead to the sequel being a more core-audience pleasing side-scrolling platformer. This too wasn’t without its fair share of innovations, however, boasting a bigger focus on exploration than most Mega Drive platformers. The third game, meanwhile, sunk without a trace following a rough development cycle that saw it change from Dreamcast to Xbox, and a second developer (Visual Concepts) brought in to wrap things up.
This long-awaited, Kickstarter funded, fourth entry uses the same set-up as the fan favourite original. Rather than being a mere remake, it’s more of a complete modernisation. Fancy new trimmings include online play, a bevvy of difficulty modes, and permanent perks in the form of unlockable headwear. Both ToeJam and Earl have also received a makeover. Bermuda shorts are out, cargo shorts are in. Word.
Clearly to please retro purists, classic ‘old skool’ ToeJam and Earl are still playable characters, looking a little dorkier than their modern-day counterparts. Joining them are a few new faces – at the end of each game, an additional playable character can be chosen. This helps with replay value, as does the fact there are both fixed and random worlds to complete. The list of achievements/trophies has had some thought put into it too, as many encourage playing a little differently. We absolutely approve of this. The same can be said for TJ&E 2’s auto-running Hyperfunk Zone mini-game making a comeback, which still provides a decent challenge.
For the uninformed, ToeJam and Earl’s quest entails finding missing parts of their orange-hued space ship so they can return to Funkotron. Each stage also contains an elevator that’ll take our heroes to the next world. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and find both the elevator and ship piece pronto, while other instances require most of the map to be uncovered first. The pace is a lot quicker this time around, thankfully, resulting in an average game time of around an hour.
A bigger emphasis on looting is evident, as mystery boxes are now hidden in trees and bushes, and the landscapes also feature houses with doors you can rudely bang on. The world may seem abstract in design, but it’s actually Earth viewed through alien eyes. Biomes include grass, desert, and slippery snow worlds, along with new night-time stages with limited vision. A few other ideas will catch veterans off-guard, which we won’t spoil.
Those pesky humans are still the biggest cause of concern, roaming around without a care. They’re quick to gang up on ToeJam and Earl and can only be disposed of after opening a present containing throwable tomatoes. Thankfully, it’s easy to elude their grasp by leaping into water, sneaking past, or by hiding in sunflower patches. Some of the other presents can also assist here, such as decoys, teleports, and invisibility paint.
Adding a modern twist, some of the new enemy types include drone enthusiasts, selfie-takers, and Segway driving mall cops. As for other forms of modernisation, upon finding a ship piece a random bonus is doled out, and a trio of stats are improved including luck and speed.
Other players can jump in and out of your game (an optional feature), and there’s a new radial chat menu to assist in communication. Joining an online game towards the end isn’t advised – you’ll start with no XP, stat boosts or health bar extensions, which often resorts in one hit deaths. The later stages are absolutely swarming with enemies – a major downfall when it comes to difficulty balancing – and as such, they can be incredibly frustrating if you don’t come prepared or haven’t levelled up a few times.
Online play is a little unstable too with notable lag, and if a host disconnects, you’re abruptly thrown back to the menu. With nothing to show for our efforts, this made us feel as if we’d wasted valuable time and perhaps should’ve tackled things alone.
Indeed, there are telling signs the developers struggled with the online components. Coupled with the slightly crude animation, it’s clear Back in the Groove was put together on a tight budget. Generally, though, the presentation is bold and colourful, including a fully voiced animated intro and an assortment of new and arranged music.
The developers have, without question, done their utmost best with the limited tools and budget at their disposal – this is a game packed with fan service, and a surprising amount of new content and fresh ideas. It brings the funk back, but not without a few bum notes.