I wasn’t even born when ToeJam & Earl dropped like a funky missile onto the MegaDrive (or Genesis for our American readers) back in March 1991. Let that sink in, at time of writing, it has been nearly 28 years since our beloved B-boy heroes first crash landed on their first isometric plane. Since then, there have been two sequels, including a decent foray into three dimensions but for this fourth entry into the series and they’ve gone back to basics. Thanks to Kickstarter backers, here we are again on Funkotron. It’s unashamedly old school, for better or worse, but mostly better.
The ToeJam & Earl formula is all here: our two heroes, this time joined by their girlfriends Lewanda & Latisha have crashed their ship on a confusingly multi-layered Earth and quite inconveniently their ship has split into ten pieces, divided over a series of 11 levels that they must traverse by travelling via a series of lifts and trying to avoid the multitude of angry earthlings in their way. This is all done with the aide of various friendly humans, a good selection of power-ups, sushi and a soundtrack that slaps harder than any game soundtrack has any right to. It hasn’t changed, it didn’t need to.
While it has made various updates, there are now internet trolls who fling insults at you as projectiles, there’s four-person multiplayer with nine playable characters, it’s still much the same game it’s always been and that’s a good thing because it’s always been fun. It’s not a high-octane platformer in the way of Sonic, it’s a casual experience but one that definitely benefits from having friends around you to increase the fun and gentle chaos. The revamped graphical style makes the crude but defined artwork really pop and is infused with more love and humour than any other game this year. Also, I think I mentioned, the soundtrack really slaps.
With that level of reverence for the 90s comes a downside and even if it’s given a hint of noughties sheen, in gameplay terms, it has become to feel a tad dated and in spots, perhaps a little creaky. It doesn’t quite feel as fluid as some more modern platformers but then, it always was a little clunky. Plus for every person who will be charmed by the retro (also for some, let it sink in that the 90s are now retro. Heck the 00s are retro) trappings, there may be those who are put off by the almost aggressively time-specific nature of a lot of the aesthetic.
It’s worth commending Greg Johnson and his team on their valiant sticking to their guns. This is an experience that will likely delight current fans but it’s hard to imagine will win too many new ones. It’s too singular, too unique an experience to really sell to anyone who doesn’t already understand it. But that is also admirable. This is in its own quiet way, a truly uncompromising experience, one with a lot to discover, to surprise and to delight. And if I haven’t already mentioned, the soundtrack truly damn slaps.
ToeJam & Earl: Back In the Groove is available now on Playstation 4, Switch, PC & Xbox One