I come to you today in possession of an ancient and powerful knowledge – and just as Moses came to a man bearing the ten commandments upon stone tablets, this knowledge to is sealed in a bulky grey rectangle; it’s called a Megadrive cartridge. For I am one of the lucky few to be gifted with a special ability, an ability I shall now pass on to you – recognising the video game characters ToeJam and Earl. ToeJam is the red one.
I didn’t get the luxury of playing the original ToeJam and Earl, mainly on account of being minus four years old when it came out, but I hopped aboard the hype train for the Wii Virtual Console re-release (may it rest in peace). It’s a “cult classic,” but not like one of those popular cult classics like Okami or Beyond Good and Evil, but an actual cult classic like, say, Ghost Trick for the Nintendo DS (P.S. play Ghost Trick for the Nintendo DS). It’s an odd mix of Roguelike, dungeon crawler, and biting satirical commentary on ’80s and 90’s culture – well, as biting as you could get on a 16-bit console – that was well-received at the time but many would agree hasn’t aged quite as well as they would have liked. So, enter Back in the Groove, the indie successor to the franchise – yes, franchise, look up the Xbox game, it’s terrifying – I never knew I needed.
I could talk about the history of ToeJam & Earl for ages; like how I thought they were SEGA-owned, but the original creators retained the rights to them and are the brains behind HumaNature Studios, the new(ish) developer making this new game, but I suppose I’d better get on with actually talking about the game. For those of you (most of you) who haven’t played ToeJam & Earl, the premise is very simple: ToeJam (the aforementioned red one) and ‘Big’ Earl (the orange one) have crash-landed their spaceship on Earth, and must avoid the irritating Earthlings (and work with the helpful ones) to collect the scattered parts of their vessel and return home to Planet Funkotron. So far, so 1991. In Back in the Groove, the dangerous dyad is back in Earth’s orbit so ToeJam can impress his girlfriend (what exactly about Earth is so impressive isn’t stated – isn’t alien culture fascinating?) when the exact same thing happens again. It’s obviously an excuse plot to facilitate the gameplay, but the opening/closing cutscenes have got a cutesy retro charm to them so it gets a pass from me.
Speaking of the gameplay, it does stick to it’s “roguelike” moniker fairly closely – while Back in the Groove does have a “set” world mode, the random mode is where the meat of the gameplay’s at – even the items, helpful or otherwise, or hidden in randomised presents until you identify them in that “run.” While looking for your spaceship parts and the elevator to progress to the next level, you can also gain money, used for a myriad of things, and EXP, which on leveling up can randomly improve on a myriad of stats. Each of the starting characters also has unique traits and different stats, which combined with the randomness makes no two runs alike. You’ve also got helpful Earthlings to aid you on your quest – wise carrot suit man, an enormous lady singing opera that kills people, Gandhi, you know, the usual – but to compensate your foes include the absolute worst humanity has to offer; internet trolls, tourists, obsessive fanboys, the Spanish Inquisition, the lot. As such, gameplay mostly consists of navigating your way around the world, collecting and managing resources, and interacting with objects and NPEs to further your quest. It sounds quite dry when reduced to its component parts like that, and perhaps in any other game it would be, but ToeJam and Earl has an ace up its hypothetical sleeve: the presentation.
The atmosphere and personality present in Back in the Groove in among the best in a game I’ve seen in quite a while. All the loading screens and menus have a spot-on “Saturday-morning cartoon” vibe to them that sets the “this is going to be a 90’s throwback with a modern twist” mood absolutely perfectly. The characters, too, all have an expressive, 2D cel-shaded look about them that hammers this home better than Hammerhead the West Ham Hammer. The music (of which there is a thoroughly copious amount of, by the way) is laden with funk, something the titular two laid-back aliens would be proud of. The NPCs banter back and forth with the player character and between themselves, and everything has a bit of that smarmy, in-your-face 90’s tone about it – in short, everything surrounding the gameplay is constructed so well that the gameplay can be carried a little bit, because just taking in the sights and sounds is so darn enjoyable.
I’m not without my criticisms for the game; transitioning to and from loading screens can stutter quite badly, which is a bit jarring, and the gameplay at times can be a little slow, and before you unlock hardcore mode or get to later levels, a little bit easy, but it almost doesn’t matter. It’s almost like Mario Party in a way; sit down with a friend and it’s such a random, ridiculous ride that win or lose you’ll have a totally radical time. Back in the Groove is an excellent torch-bearer for that archaic knowledge I was once burdened with – it wants you to know who ToeJam & Earl are, and it’s going the right way about it.