The Spirit of the '90s Is Alive in ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove

The old monikers of "Sega kid" and "Nintendo kid" don't mean much anymore, but ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove demands the attention of those who once proclaimed themselves to be Sega kids.

Console wars may not be a huge thing today, but back when I was growing up in the early '90s, they were roaring and they were fierce. Sega Genesis or Super Nintendo? Sonic or Mario? Arcade-y games or RPGs?

Whichever console you pledged allegiance to in the early portion of the decade affected your social circle in school, and probably which friends' houses you'd go to. Close friends for the same console, somewhat estranged for the other.

If you had a Genesis and you had a friend with a SNES, you'd probably try to go to their house once in a while to check out their games. Maybe you'd act snooty and say what you have at home is better. Maybe you'd push those feelings of wanting a SNES deep down because you knew you'd never get one.

The same would apply to SNES owners with a friend who had a Genesis, too. It was a weird time.

My family wasn't rolling in money, so I only had a Nintendo, PC, and Game Gear until 1997, but I'd hound my friends and family to let me come play their Genesis for years before that. So although I didn't have a Genesis, I was a Sega kid at heart. Sonic was crazy cool, the Shinobi games consistently blew my mind, and ToeJam & Earl just kept finding its way into my life.

I'd go to someone's house who had a Genesis, and they'd either have the first or second game in the series. It was inevitable: It seemed like everyone who had a Sega Genesis had ToeJam & Earl or the sequel.

(Image source)

When I finally got my Genesis in 1997, ToeJam & Earl was one of the first games I grabbed. Before I knew what a roguelike was, I was restarting (see: losing) ToeJam & Earl again and again.

I loved that it was different each time, and opening presents to see what they did was pretty satisfying to little Ashley. At one point, I even had dreams about running from the devil enemy to save my presents. One might say I played a little too much ToeJam & Earl, but such is the nature of the beast. At least that is what I tell myself.

Growing Pains

For many Genesis owners in the '90s, ToeJam & Earl was their first taste of a randomized game. It was certainly my first taste, but by no means was it my last. From there, I went to freeware Castle of the Winds on PC, and to increasingly difficult titles as I got older and even into today. 

For many reasons, TJ&E lit a fire in me for roguelites and roguelikes that has yet to go out, the burning need for games that will always surprise, always challenge, and always force me to consider their unpredictable natures. 

Although it was a graphically impressive platformer at the time, I skipped buying ToeJam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron because it abandoned those roguelike qualities of the original. I'd played it enough, I was done.

Sega kids who owned a Dreamcast may have been as excited as I was when they heard TJ&E was being developed for the Dreamcast, but were most likely equally disappointed it never made it to the console. Releasing one of my favorite childhood games on a non-Sega platform (Xbox) almost immediately after the Dreamcast died felt like a punch to the gut. It honestly felt like the end to those characters and the series.

I'm sure some other Sega kids can echo having a similar feeling, too; they can also probably relate to my excitement regarding the launch of the ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove Kickstarter in 2015 and its subsequent funding. 

While Panic on Funkotron on the Genesis veered a little too far from the original formula and Mission to Earth on the Xbox seemed to flub up the series' classic gameplay, Back in the Groove promised to stick to the core top-view gameplay found in the first ToeJam & Earl, while still being fresh.

Today, less than a month ahead of Back in the Groove, I can say that it's not so much that the game "seems" to stick to the core gameplay found in the original game, but that it really "does" it. I can't say much just yet because embargoes, but I can say that fans of the 1991 original will find themselves feeling at home with Back in the Groove, as I certainly have.

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Time Wins

Over the years, there are little details you forget about a game you haven't played in a while. Perhaps a longer than optimal introduction, a whole aspect of the gameplay, or little bits of information like what certain items do. It's only natural, totally normal.

Of the original TJ&E, I still remember looking for secret passages, collecting ship pieces, and using presents to my benefit and occasional dismay. With Back in the Groove on the horizon, I started thinking about how the series may have affected my tastes in games even today. 

Both of the TJ&E's Genesis games oozed the era's funk and hip hop culture, and they were completely made in that style. The music, the dialogue, the entire feel of each game was something otherworldly yet familiar to anyone who stepped foot outside at the time.

ToeJam & Earl was born of an era filled with platform-based tribalism that no console generation has been so subject to since, and in some ways, it encapsulates what made some people choose the Genesis aside from its lower price. Thanks to Sega's marketing, the Genesis was framed as being the "cool" console, and games like TJ&E and Panic on Funkotron did a lot to aid that perception.

Even now, it's impossible not to think about the overall package of these games because they seem to be developed with that exact window and that exact timeframe of North American media and culture in mind, and both titles play it up without an ounce of shame or derision.

Nothing in TJ&E seemed out of place in the early '90s. ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove could not have come at a better time.

Nostalgia for the 1990s is at its peak and, sans the odd Nicktoon reboot, nothing could do a better job of displaying the sort of attitude so unique to the early portion of the decade than the revival of a game series so dripping with earnest love for that point in history.

We all know who won between Sega and Nintendo now, 25+ years in the future. I could write a thousand more words on my personal theories about the differences between Sega and Nintendo kids, but those differences mean little now in the ever-ticking face of time.

To say one is a "Sega kid" or "Nintendo kid" today is just foolish, it just doesn't work that way anymore. Things have changed. However, to take a dip in that pool to take a dip into a time where we were all more optimistic, more focused on the now and not the past or the future makes all those old memories come flooding back like they were just hidden in the cabinet under the sink and waiting to be found. It's a good feeling.

If at some point you did consider yourself a Sega kid, mark your calendar for ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove's release on March 1. It's not 1991 anymore, you can get it on any one of many platforms, PS4, PC, Xbox One, Switch, whichever. Take your pick.

You won't have any trouble remembering what it was like back then, you won't even do it on purpose. It just happens, as with all things.

Associate Editor

I've been playing games since '89, and arcade-style games and roguelikes/lites are my jam. Favorite RPG series are Final Fantasy and SaGa. Very asocial.

Published Feb. 18th 2019

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