PAX East 2017: Adult Swim’s ToeJam & Earl Serves Up a Jammin’ Slice of Nostalgia Pie [Preview]
ToeJam & Earl is one of the most beloved games in the Sega Genesis library. The weird little action roguelike crash-landed in 1991 with a funky soundtrack, fluorescent visuals, and two memorable alien protagonists just trying to find their way home. The two sequels abandoned the isometric exploration in favor of side-scrolling platforming and more traditional action, so it’s safe to say there’s never been another game quite like it. That’s poised to change this year when Adult Swim’s ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove hits.
With original designer Greg Johnson at the helm, Back in the Groove plays like a love letter to the 1991 release. There are more characters to choose from, but the basics are the same: stranded aliens explore level after level of Earth in hopes of finding missing spaceship parts to get back home to Funkotron. Randomly placed elevators take the Funkotronians from one level to another, and the map is slowly uncovered as you explore. You need enough spare parts to create a new vehicle, and not every level has one; those that do will challenge you to survive against monsters, weaponized poultry, and the elderly, to name just a few of the strange creatures you’ll encounter. Not to worry, though, because you’ll find presents, scraps of food, and men in carrot suits to help you on your way.
In other words, it’s almost exactly the same as the original, just with a fresh coat of paint and a few new twists. Whether or not that’s a good thing depends entirely on your perspective. ToeJam & Earl was a weird game sometimes plagued with obtuse objectives and finicky mechanics. That doesn’t mean its fans are simply wearing nostalgia goggles when looking back with fondness; it’s just not as easily accessible as, say, a side-scrolling platformer. It’s cheap to say that fans of the original will love Back in the Groove, but in this case, it’s also completely accurate—if TJ&E was never your thing, Adult Swim’s resurrection isn’t going to sway you.
From the perspective of someone who adores ToeJam & Earl (and has replayed it recently enough to know how it holds up), Back in the Groove was one of my favorite games on the PAX East show floor. I couldn’t stop smiling at the snappy one-liners, I bopped my head along to the music, and my face lit up when I recognized familiar elements. I almost didn’t even care about the spaceship parts; I just wanted to walk around and explore this terrifying isometric Earth again.
Aside from the character line-up (which I didn’t spend much time exploring), the biggest addition I saw was the rhythm-based minigame naturally called “Jam Out.” It’s actually inspired by 1993 sequel Panic on Funkotron’s side-scrolling, and the fast-paced movement works wonderfully to break up the slower parts of the game. I didn’t get to try it out, but Back in the Groove will also have four-player co-op—online and local—which is key. ToeJam & Earl was always best played with a friend, and now you can bring along up to three.
There’s obviously enough nostalgia for the 1991 classic to fund a Kickstarter revival to the tune of over $500,000. Adult Swim picking up publishing duties has only made Back in the Groove more promising—its own line-up has been increasingly impressive over the last couple of years. ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is a delightful return to the series’ roots, and I’ll definitely be exploring more at some indeterminate point this year.
ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove will be available on PC in 2017.