PAX East 2017: Return to the Funky Earth in Toe Jam & Earl: Back in the Groove

Way back in the Genesis days there was the co-op adventure game Toe Jam & Earl. Two funky-cool aliens straight out of 90s pop culture-ified hip-hop landed on an Earth filled with weird humans and helpful gift-wrapped presents, sauntering after the lost pieces of their broken spaceship. The world was made of flat areas with twisty connecting land between each section, a series of elevators took you from the first level all the way to the top, and falling off the side took you down again. It was a low-key classic for the Genesis, but its sequels never quite captured the charm of the original.

That’s all set to change with Toe Jam & Earl: Back in the Groove. The fourth game in the series is a return to basics, dusting off the original design and updating it with a modern set of features. New characters, presents, secrets, and Earth-based weirdness expand make Toe Jam & Earl’s unexpected detour a more in-depth adventure than any they’ve had in the past. The focus is still on exploring the multi-layer world with a friend or three, but elements from all three games in the series are being fused into the new game.

The original Toe Jam & Earl was a roguelike decades before that term got coined.  A randomized map and the presents taking the place of mystery potions made it a fairly direct analogue to its inspiration.  While Toe Jam & Earl 2 was a compete departure from the design of the first game, the Xbox TJ&E III was supposed to be a return to the series roots.  Greg Johnson, the series creator, had a great anecdote as to exactly why that didn’t happen, but it all boils down to Donkey Kong 64.  Sega got it into its head that the new TJ&E needed to be more like Nintendo’s collectathon, just when Rare was going off the rails a bit, and made the development team play DK64 and retool the game to be as close as possible.  The goal was for Sega to have its own Donkey Kong 64, which obviously didn’t happen, but TJ&E III also wasn’t the planned-on return to the series roots.

And then a good number of years passed and it was time to try again, this time dipping into Kickstarter to help lock the design into place.  Toe Jam, Earl, and a number of friends and family are stranded on Earth and have to explore a series of randomly generated areas stacked one on top of the other like seismic pancakes, connected by elevators and patrolled by humans and critters both helpful and troublesome.  Some people have helpful advice, offer presents, or sell you goodies, while others chase after you like they’ve never seen alien life before but know it needs to be kicked back to the stars.  While you can play single-player, Toe Jam & Earl is best with friends, collecting presents together and sharing the effects when opened.

Presents are power-ups, for the most part, and they’re a mystery until opened.  Once opened a tall purple box with yellow ribbon (for example) will always have the same item inside, but unless you’ve found or purchased an identifier it could be anything the first time its unwrapped.  One present works on both players if they’re close enough together, but they can wander apart to explore individually if the spirit of sharing isn’t so important.  Dividing effort does lead to more efficient secret-finding, though, and Toe Jam & Earl has plenty to find.  While the basic map is fairly straightforward, there’s weird stuff hidden all around.  Hitting the Search button sends out a pulse that checks anything in range, so if a tree starts shaking you know there’s something in there worth shaking it down for.  It might be a present, or a hidden doorway to a bonus level, or some other strange reward or event.

It’s probably best to not stray too far apart, though, because part of the fun is seeing the characters interact.  Toe Jam and Earl are joined by classic versions of themselves plus friends and family, for nine characters total (no word on hidden characters yet), and every pairing has unique interactions and dialogue.  Earl is going to say different things to Toe Jam than to his mother, after all.  Each character also comes with their own stats, ranging from speed to inventory size and present-finding ability, and these can be given permanent upgrades over time.

Other new touches include a hi-res art style, broken or amped-up presents, new characters, and a funky soundtrack comprised of remixed old music and all new tunes to keep the action flowing. It took a long, long time for Toe Jam & Earl to get its true sequel, and while there’s still a bit of a wait for the indeterminate 2017 release, Back in the Groove brings the odd, funky aliens back to their natural Earthly stomping grounds.