ToeJam & Earl: Back In The Groove

User Rating: 6 | ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! PC

Back In The Groove is a remake/reimagining of a Megadrive game, but this version is still very early 90's style in its music and art/colour style. In terms of gameplay, it is a roguelike before roguelikes were cool. There's a few game-modes: a shorter and easier Tutorial World, a few difficulties for the Fixed World (preset maps), and a Random World.

You can play a full run in one-sitting but there is a save system to temporarily stop. It's one of those systems where your save is wiped upon load.

The basic story is that Toe-Jam & Earl blast music from their spaceship towards Earth. They press the wrong button and suck it into a black hole which splits their ship and warps the earth. The Earth now consists of landmasses with elevators going between them. The land is generally flat but there's some sections of elevation. There's trees, bushes and a few buildings; a few types of surface: grass, ice, sand, water; and there's good humans and bad humans, with a variety of traits. Your aim is to collect 10 ship parts across 25 levels (tutorial world is shorter though). The final part is always in the final level so you always have to reach the end.

You have a map which is uncovered as you explore. Sometimes there's hidden paths that only appear when you go close to the edge, so it is often beneficial to follow the perimeter. You can find a telephone item which uncovers a random selection of squares. Each revealed square gives you experience to level up.

You complete the levelling up process by finding and talking to the wise man on each level. You then increase a few randomly selected traits: Health, present identification, speed, luck. I think it would have been nice to at least be allowed to select one of these to have some control over customising your character.

The enemies in the game are incredibly annoying. Enemies are often around the same speed as you (or faster than most characters) which makes them a pain to escape, especially in confined areas with multiple enemies about. When enemies hit you, they either do large damage, knock presents out of you, randomly open one of the presents, steal your cash/presents, replace your presents, and often have large knock back. When many parts of the level are narrow, you will often get knocked down to the level below which then has you slowly re-treading the same level to get back to the elevator, then going back to where you were. It is extremely tedious, and when you have made the effort to dodge many enemies - having to dodge them a second time is infuriating.

As a side note, there are fake elevators too which will also take you to the previous level.

If there are Sunflowers around, you can hide there which will cause all enemies to stop following you. A rare Invisibility present is very beneficial, and the Boombox will cause nearby enemies to stop on the spot to dance. Other presents like the Icarus Wings or Spring Boots are brilliant for fleeing too.

Sometimes you are forced to leap off the map just to avoid taking damage. You only have a few lives and can't afford to throw them away early in the game. Another thing you can do is to leap into the water if it is nearby. Many enemies are smart and will move to where they think you will climb out, so sometimes it is even hard to avoid them anyway. Your time in the water is limited and is restricted by your current health level. So having low health will see you drowning quickly. Another way of dealing with enemies is to use certain presents. “Rocket boots” give you an insane boost of speed which can bounce enemies but you have the risk of easily leaping off the map. You also have “Tomatoes” that come in a few forms, standard ones that you throw, I think the “Slingshot” is more powerful, then there is “Tomato rain”. However, hitting enemies with tomatoes is easier said than done and most enemies take a few hits so they will probably hit you anyway.

You shake bushes, trees and houses to possibly find hidden cash/presents/food, although some negative objects can pop out like a bowling ball or humans. You have a button to "search" which animates nearby objects that have hidden items in.

There's good food and bad food, good presents and bad presents. You can easily learn which food items are bad and good, although if you use a present containing "food" then there is a chance it can be bad.

When you pick up a present, your character may automatically identify it, or you can pay the wise man to identify it. Opening presents gives you experience points to help you level up, and since you can only carry a certain amount, you are encouraged to use them. Most presents in your inventory won't be identified though; which leads to chaotic gameplay.

Using unidentified presents can be chaotic, like when I activated rocket shoes when I was at the edge of a map. I fell to the ground below, then instantly fell to the ground below....and went down 5 floors and it was tedious to get back up. Another time I expected to die because I was on low health, in a confined area with a few enemies. I tried my luck with a present and unleashed a "human horde" which placed even more enemies in an enclosed space - guaranteed death. Wishing you were stronger but activating "Instant Demotion" will bring you to tears.

There are also "amped" presents which increase the effect of the present. The best ones are when you have an amped version of "Show Elevator" or "Show Ship Part" because it also teleports you there which is a major convenience. Using "Amped Show Ship Part" straight away on Level 25 is a satisfying end to the game.

I really wanted to love this game but it tries way too hard to be unfair. I think if they made a few tweaks to reduce the unfair aspects of the randomness; and give you better ways of avoiding/disposing enemies (e.g. reduce the speed of the enemies, decrease damage they do, or increase tomato attack) - then the game would be much better. I persevered with the game and played for 12 hours - it certainly has a certain level of charm.