ToeJam & Earl fans will often argue about which of the first two games is better. The first is an isometric roguelike in which you guide the funk loving aliens through randomly generated levels looking for pieces of their crashed ship, using presents to temporarily imbue them with power-ups. The second sees the double act packing up Earthlings and sending them back to their home planet in a 2D platformer. If the two sides of the debate are like bickering siblings, their parent, creator Greg Johnson, has stepped in with ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove to explain there's room for both.
Although this crowd-funded revival leans much more heavily on the first game for its inspiration, it weaves in elements from Panic on Funkotron to create a Greatest Hits compilation album of a game. If you've played either or both of the Mega Drive titles, you'll instantly recognise how they've been spliced together here. Thankfully, it works out pretty well, but we're not entirely convinced Back in the Groove updates things enough for a more discerning 2019 audience.
If you've never heard of ToeJam & Earl, it's a cult classic series that's heavily embedded in 90s culture. The pair of titular aliens crash land on Earth in the first game, and must piece together their busted spaceship in order to fly home. A true roguelike, it was inspired by Rogue itself, with random level layouts, power-ups, and baddies making each run different. It also introduced a dynamic split screen which meant two players could either stick together or separately, and the screen would adapt on the fly.
We can afford to go through all of this, because it's all very much present and correct in this PlayStation 4 entry, albeit with a couple of mod cons. You can play alone or with a friend in couch co-op or online, and you will indeed be exploring isometric floating islands connected by elevators in search of ship parts and presents. For better or worse, this sticks very closely to that 1991 blueprint, but there are some refinements and additions to the gameplay sprinkled on top.
An easier Tutorial mode eases new players in with less populated levels and hints dotted throughout, and there's a Fixed world to play through before you unlock the traditional Random world. You can choose from a few different characters, each with their own set of stats that are buffed when you're promoted by, er, the man in a carrot costume. Instead of having the map fill the whole screen, it can be displayed as a mini map in the bottom right, although you can still balloon it up for a closer look by holding triangle.
As we said earlier, some Panic on Funkotron features have made their way into Back in the Groove. Trees and bushes can be shaken to find hidden items, for example, or the Hyper Funk Zone, a twitchy, sidescrolling bonus stage, will occasionally appear. It's clear that a lot of effort has gone into making this a faithful, nostalgic game, and fans will surely find a lot to love, but it's certainly not without its flaws.
Unfriendly Earthlings will chase you down for quite a distance, and though you can hide from them in groups of sunflowers, they quickly grow in numbers as you reach later levels, making it hard to avoid them. A lack of ways to fight back can make enemies very frustrating to deal with, and flinging tomatoes at them is imprecise -- it's often best to just get away from baddies as quick as you can.
Gameplay as a whole is imprecise, in fact. You can move in eight directions, which works for the viewpoint, but you'll very frequently need to interact with NPCs and objects, and occasionally it can be clumsy finding the right position the game wants you to find in order to trigger the animation. Some levels can get very busy, too, and this makes it hard to keep track of what's going on, with so many enemies to dodge, items and presents to find, and a cacophony of "funny" sound clips all happening at once. What's more, performance isn't great either, with the game struggling when there's too much chaos. It just feels clumsy.
However, it's not all bad. The ToeJam & Earl vibe and aesthetic is perfectly captured with nicely drawn assets and familiar but updated music that'll definitely get stuck in your head. The random element of the presents and stages also means replayability is pretty high, even if a run from start to finish can be accomplished in an hour or so. Not knowing if the present you're going to open will help or hinder you is part of the fun, and as mentioned, fans will feel right at home. This is every inch a ToeJam & Earl game, with all the good and bad that comes with the territory. It's a shame it isn't a little more polished, as with smoother gameplay, this would be more fudge sundae and less old cabbage.
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is a relentlessly faithful retread of the 90s classics. Fans of the funky alien duo are sure to enjoy it, but clumsy gameplay and some frustrating design choices date it in a bad way. Mixing elements of the two Mega Drive titles works well, and the oddball stylings and music are as good as ever. However, it just feels a bit tired, and maybe could've benefitted from a modern shot in the arm. If you love ToeJam & Earl, this is well worth a look, but fans of other PS4 roguelikes might be less impressed.