ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove

I consider Greg Johnson to be a friend. We’ve got a good rapport with each-other and I was one of the few who was positively gaga over Doki Doki Universe. Nobody bought Doki Doki. Hell, most fans of ToeJam & Earl don’t even know about it. It’s a lot like TJ&E, but it’s not exactly the same game the developmentally stunted among us played as children in 1991, and thus they had no interest in it. But, I like Greg and I like his team. So this wasn’t the most fun review for me to do. Consider this a trigger warning for all you old people who have ventured to my blog: the following review will, in no way, harm the memories of your childhood spent being a latchkey kid raised by a Sega Genesis. It’s perfectly reasonable and logical that I, an individual who was two-years-old when the original ToeJam & Earl came out, would not be swayed by nostalgia for a game that meant nothing to my childhood. And trust me, in the case of Back in the Groove, that nostalgia is absolutely necessary. You know how sometimes I wonder out-loud “who exactly was this game made for?” Not here. I know exactly who TJ&E: Back in the Groove was made for: fans of the original. And only fans of the original. I really feel like an uninvited party-crasher here.

I do like the idea of Back in the Groove and what it represents. Here’s a game from a franchise that failed over and over again to maintain or cultivate a substantial audience and claw its way out of cult-status. One where the fan base is rabid enough and starved enough that they can raise half-a-million via crowd-funding, but not on big enough to justify a revival on its own merit. There is a sect of snobs out there who believe Kickstarter should be reserved only for new developers bringing new ideas. Nuts to that, says I. In fact, I would say that Kickstarter is tailored specifically for these sort of comebacks, where the angry and demanding fan-bases can step up to the plate, pony-up their dosh in advance, and assume all the risk that a publisher would have to be off their rocker to take. ToeJam & Earl, dare I say, is quintessentially a crowd-funding project. Fans can buy the creators a truckload of shovels to dig up the corpse, tie electrodes it, blast it with lightning, and then admire the unholy abomination they brought back from the dead together.

Back in the Groove feels like a game that’s been in a coma since 1991, and consequently is oblivious to the whole concept of being “woke.” Tons of fat-shaming present. I’m not outraged or anything. It’s just sort of jarring to see a new game in 2019 not give a shit about political correctness. Earl can eat anything, even toxic food. Why? Because he’s the fat one. And, as we all know, conventional wisdom tells us fat people can and will eat anything. That’s how they got fat in the first place, right? It’s almost refreshing how out-of-fucks to give it is.

Credit where it’s due: Back in the Groove feels just like the Genesis original. For fans of series, that’s probably all they need. It’s best to think of Groove as a remake. You walk around sprawling randomly-generated maps looking for parts of your ship. Along the way you run away from enemies, engage in lots of item-hunting, and, if you’re me, ask yourself what all the fuss is about. ToeJam & Earl was certainly ahead of its time. It was released in 1991, years before games like Mario 64 or Banjo-Kazooie popularized adventurous collect-a-thons. But, besides a misguided Xbox release in 2002 that honestly wasn’t that bad, the series has been dormant ever since a 2D platform sequel that I personally liked more when I played both games as part of Sega Genesis Classics. Panic on Funkotron had a weird Dr. Seuss quality about it and felt like a polished product. 1991’s ToeJam & Earl felt like a proof of concept that hopefully someday would see its potential fully realized.

That’s not what Back in the Groove does. Combat, for instance. Back in the Groove, especially in later levels, spams the screen with enemies that move faster than you and take a LOT of health off (or steal the goodies you’ve collected). You get things like tomatoes or slingshots that you throw at enemies to fight back with. But, in order to call them up, you have to bring up a menu of all the “presents” you’ve collected. And the game doesn’t tell you what the presents you collected are. They’re labeled with question marks, and the only way to find out what they are is to either open them, thus using them, or find a character to pay a relatively large amount of resources to tell you what they are. You’re basically reliant on luck to be able to get the right present that allows you to fight back. Oh, and while you’re fumbling through menus hoping to find something defensive to use, the game doesn’t pause. The enemies are still coming at you. The ones that already moved faster than you and were at a major advantage to begin with. You can skip that and run, but in many levels the only means of escape is jumping into water. Water which will, itself, start to drain your health. Yeah. Combine this with the fact that the mystery presents might not help but themselves spawn even more enemies or bullshit to deal with, and you suddenly have a game that is just outright fucking with you.

Why is it like this? Because that’s what the original was like.

The fact that half the items will absolutely fuck you over is infuriating. Games are supposed to be fun, right? But at one point I opened three straight presents which, in order: spawned more enemies, put a giant neon sign above my head that drew the enemies to me, and then put a rain cloud above me that caused lightning to strike down upon me and warned me I couldn’t go back into the water to hide. Fucking really? I know the running gag with me is I have bad luck with RNG, but COME ON! How is this shit supposed to be fun?

When I complained about this, fans of the series were aghast. “How dare you complain that this unfair, clunky shit is unfair and clunky? That’s what we wanted! It’s what we paid to make!” And you know what? They’re right! This is exactly what they asked for. They wanted all the cheesy, crappy mechanics that made most people abandon the series decades ago to return intact and unaltered. They got their wish. Consequently, ToeJam & Earl is the perfect remake. It was shitty and borderline unplayable in 1991 and it’s shitty and borderline unplayable in 2019. Bravo.

And that makes it hard for me to discuss it. Sometimes I say a game wasn’t made for me, but this time it’s specifically true. I can’t remember a Kickstarter project that has been made just for one core set of gamers to this degree. Even Shenmue III looks like it aspires to evolve past its deeply-flawed origins. ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove rejects progress and advancement. It plays and feels like an early 90s project that was too ambitious to work as desired, but hey, at least it’s ambitious. And if this were 1991, that would be fine. But it’s 2019, and it’s not. Bringing all the problems back, deliberately this time, would be like a family bragging about how webbed toes are passed through the generations like they were a priceless heirloom.

Take the levels. They’re randomly generated, so we shouldn’t expect too much. But there’s a very limited amount of set pieces. A normal grassland, a desert, a snowfield, and levels that are dark where you use a flashlight to see. I played through 19 levels and that was the extent of the variety. The themes repeated over and over again. Because the levels are randomly generated, they all feel samey and very, very bland no matter what the theme is. Sometimes the elevator would spawn in a screen that was absolutely saturated with enemies, like the men in black that zap you with a cattle-prod and steal all your presents. Or sometimes a level would begin with a screenful of enemies AND a hula-dancer that stun-locks you, because apparently you can’t resist doing the hula with her even if there are enemies chasing you and eating you right at that moment. I’d go so far as to say ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove has the worst randomly generated levels for this kind of game I’ve ever seen. They’re never interesting, which completely undermines the whole “never the same game twice” shit that random levels are supposed to assure. Who cares if it’s never the same twice when it’s dull at best to begin with?

Greg Johnson is a cool dude. One of the classiest acts in gaming. I was, and still am, a huge fan of Doki Doki Universe, his unsung magnum opus that never got is due. The weird thing for me is that ToeJam & Earl is one of the more remembered duos in gaming. Not Mario & Luigi level, but not obscure either. Yet, unless you play co-op, there’s no interplay with them at all. Meanwhile, Doki Doki Universe turned even the most stonehearted of owners into mush with the genuine and moving relationship between a robot and a sentient balloon. Because of that game, I know this one phoned it in. Over the course of Doki Doki, its stories are fleshed out, its characters get development and arcs, and we, the players, form a personal connection to them.

ToeJam and Earl, on the other hand, get no development at all. Besides an opening cinematic that shows them to be so stupid that they’re practically mentally handicapped, they are defined entirely by their character models, not any writing or story or interaction with other characters. They’re aliens. They like music. They fart. But the thing is, after Doki Doki I know Mr. Johnson is capable of better than this. These aren’t characters. They’re cynical, lazy brand mascots designed to appeal specifically to children from 1991, at the height of Nickelodeon and Ninja Turtles. Again, I can’t help but wonder if the reason this game forgoes character development and an actual story is because the original didn’t have it. The only reason this bothers me above all else is I fucking know Greg is better. This shit is beneath him.

When I was whining about how the enemies are faster than me, the solution given to me by fans was “don’t pick Earl.” Yea, what was I thinking? Picking one of the main characters in a game that bears his name? Well, I’ll have you know I picked Earl because it seems like half the food you find is spoiled, which makes all the characters but Earl take damage and throw up. In my last run, I counted the rotten food v non-rotten food. It was 12 for fresh, and 14 for rotten. That’s just how this shit works. It seemed like most of the bushes I shook led to either spawning more enemies or dropping bowling balls on me.

So why isn’t Back in the Groove better? There’s so many buttons on game consoles today. Each of the major three platforms has two rows of shoulder buttons. Why not let players shuffle through the presents with the triggers while they’re trying to run from enemies? Because the original didn’t have that. Why does seemingly most of the shit you can uncover while searching the world turn out to be a trap? Because that’s how it was in the original. Why was almost no effort made to tighten the controls and make the exploration and combat more comfortable and responsive? So it would feel more like the original.

You know what? Why didn’t you fucking people just keep playing the original one? If you wanted to pretend that thirty years of design innovation or gameplay conventions didn’t spring into existence since ToeJam & Earl came out, why even bother asking for a remake, let alone raise $500,000 for one? So you can play the same game with fancier graphics? Wait, aren’t you the same generation that completely lost their shit when Lucasfilm added CG clutter to the original Star Wars movies? Will you make up your mind on what you want? Same old shit with a fresh coat of paint or a real sequel that fully realizes the potential of the game that was important to your childhood? The best remakes are ones that pay tribute to the spirit of the original while righting all the wrongs that were a result of technological limitations. Look at the Resident Evil 2 remake. Part of the reason for the fixed camera angles was to “direct” players and create more effective jump-scares, but the bigger reason was the technology wasn’t there to give players full control without too many compromises being made. By 2019, the tech was there and had been perfected for over a decade. Now imagine if fans said “that’s cool, but you better bring back the horrible fixed cameras, or else.”

I didn’t even realize that you had to talk to a guy in a carrot suit to level-up. That’s another issue: you can’t tell good things from bad things. Dude in a carrot suit = good. Hula dancer = bad. Update: you can tell because good characters have a very subtle sparkly effect. I double checked and yea, it’s there.

So, while I’m genuinely happy that ToeJam & Earl fans had their successful campaign and got exactly what they asked for (that’s not a joke, for all the bitching I’m doing, I’m always happy to see long-suffering gamers get their day in the sun), I question whether this is really what they should have asked for. If I had been a fan, I’d wanted to see the series catch on with gamers of all stripes, sell a ton of copies, and finally be here to stay. Isn’t that the best way to show your love for something? To want it to be successful? Not that I think ToeJam & Earl fans want it to fail. They clearly love the series. But they only want it to do well on their own terms. I’m sorry, but that’s not reasonable at all. Those are not the type of fans who should be catered to, Kickstarter or not. It’s no different from music fans who discover a band, fall in love with them, and brag about them to everyone. It’s their band. Until they get successful, have their albums go gold, and get big gigs. At that point, they’re sellouts, and you spend the rest of your days telling people how they used to be cool. No, you used to be cool. They’re still cool, mostly because they’re making more than just a small group of disloyal people happy. ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove could have been a good game, but “fans” didn’t challenge Greg Johnson and the development team to bring the concept to its fullest potential. They wanted a remake. They got a remake. They’re happy with it.

And it assures ToeJam & Earl will always be just their thing, and theirs alone.

Well, they can have it.

ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove was developed by HumaNature Studios
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Steam

$19.99 challenged Greg and crew to do DLC with *hand-designed* levels in the making of this review.

About Indie Gamer Chick
Indie game reviews and editorials.

5 Responses to ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove

  1. mrericness says:

    I loved the original game when I played it as a kid, but have to agree that it’s a play style that probably hasn’t aged well (to say nothing of rewarding the player with health for eating junk food). The first game was easily the highlight of the franchise for me, though it would have been cool to see a more modern take on the exploration and discovery aspects.

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