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Meet the new Earthlings coming to ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove

The first game in more than two decades features about three times as many crazy characters as the original

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

The next game in the 25-year old ToeJam & Earl franchise, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove, is expected later this year. With the help of new publishing partner Adult Swim Games, co-creator Greg Johnson and his team at Humanature Studio have big plans. Not only will the game feature many nods to the 1991 original, but it will also have nearly triple the number of Earthlings for players to interact with.

I sat down with Johnson to talk about the original game, which first debuted in 1991. I also received a guided tour of some of the nearly 60 Earthling enemies players will encounter, up from 20 in the original game.

They were, to hear Johnson tell it, one of his favorite things to make. But before I go any further, it’s probably best that you open this link in another window and hit play.


The set of enemies for the first ToeJam & Earl is roughly 20 sprite-based characters, including a little devil, a hamster in a rolly ball and a Mimic-like evil mailbox.

“The original Earthlings came from a very general, high-level thought,” Johnson told Polygon. “In fact, that’s kind of all ToeJam & Earl was in terms of a very conscious decision. It was really a desire to be a little whimsical and satirical. A view of us all from the outside, of what an alien might see.

“Some of that was commentary. It had to do with how kind of crazy and dangerous and self-involved we are and, in particular Western society. All the Earthlings that are depicted in our game are kind of from the modern Western society, like the Construction Worker kicking up big gouts of smoke. A lot of it was just stream of consciousness too.”

Clipboard Volunteer. Standaroundus Takeyermoneyum: This well meaning person will take some of your money for a good cause. She does a lot of damage and puts you to sleep as well.
Humanature Studio/Adult Swim Games

“I wanted the experience for people to be not too cerebral. I wanted people to kind of let go a little bit and just get into the flow and enjoy the surprise and the craziness of it. If you make things very logical and consistent, it’s hard to surprise people. I wanted to be kind of delighted and surprised at the absurdity of the game and of the idea of Earth.

“So a giant hamster in a rolly-ball or the wise man in a carrot suit ... People ask me, ‘Why?’ I don’t know. I always used to joke that he’s wiser than we are so he has his reasons. Who are we to question him? The truth is there was really not a lot of deep thought behind it. It just kind of feels absurd and silly.”

I played a bit of Back in the Groove at this year’s PAX East, right after a version was announced for the Nintendo Switch. What jumped out at us was how much it felt like a direct remaster of the game’s opening level, complete with a “secret” Level 0. Johnson said that wasn’t really the goal at all. In the beginning, he and his team wanted to update the game with a more modern color palette and a faster playstyle. But during last year’s Kickstarter campaign the feedback was overwhelmingly in favor of preserving what made the original so unique.

Cosplay Nerds, Embarracus Awkwardicus: This group of Earthlings offers you the chance to gamble a buck by rolling dice. Your chance of winning is based on your Luck Stat. A money hat can also help.
Humanature Studio/Adult Swim Games

“When we started out to do a reboot of the game in 2002,” Johnson said, “that was the initial idea [to do a game very much like the original]. But we got derailed by Sega and ended up doing a bunch of major things that were not intended initially as a sort of pure reboot. But even if we hadn’t been derailed, there were lessons that I hadn’t learned yet at the time about how to listen to what the fans want.

“This time, with Kickstarter and the forum that we created, I got a flood of information from the fans about what it was they loved about the game and what they remember and recalled and what was meaningful to them. And at some point realization struck and I realized, ‘Oh, there’s a lot of things that I hadn’t realized that people connect to, like the background patterns during level transitions or the music or some sound effect.”

“We were going to move the camera around and we were going to change the color palette to make it not so bright,” Johnson said. “We were going to do some other things too, and initially the fans saw that on Kickstarter and they were like, ‘No no no! That’s not ToeJam and Earl! We want this crazy bright saturated colors. It’s okay if they’re a little obnoxious. That’s what it is!’

Internet Troll, Trollus Internetus Transformium: This troll hurls insults at you which damage and confuse you. “He’s the same character. Initially, he’s like a troll. He hurls insults at you,” Johnson said. “They’re little cusses in word bubbles that fly off of him and hit you and confuse you and hurt you. But if you get close to him, he turns into that scared teenage boy and he says, ‘Help me! Help me!’ And he runs away.”
Humanature Studio/Adult Swim Games

Fans of the original will remember the main characters spent about as much time in an elevator as players did in the original Mass Effect, just with fewer dialogue options. But those moments were part of the game’s history, part of its style and fans couldn’t part with them.

“We didn’t need loading times for our levels because we can generate levels a lot faster now,” Johnson said. “We weren’t initially going to have the elevator sequence in there, because that was there to cover load times. And then the fans said, ‘No! We love that. Those conversations they had in the elevator? My brother and I used to have those conversations together all the time!’ So we put the elevator rides back in, even though it’s not necessary.”

One of the ideas that almost made it into the 2002 attempt at a reboot was having players move faster than ever before. They came close to doing something along those lines this time around. But the movement speed in the original game was locked to a fast mosey at best, and again diehard fans wanted to keep it that way.

Riot Guard, Rideus Riotus: This guard on the Segway is fast and persistent. He loves to flatten you and does heavy damage.
Humanature Studio/Adult Swim Games

You would think that coming up with more Earthlings this time around would have upset fans as well, but Johnson told us he had more recommendations that he knew what to do with.

“A lot of those newest Earthlings came from suggestions in our forum,” Johnson said. “We got a lot of them from fans. I don’t think there’s any that I didn’t tweak to make them really work in the game. I didn’t take anything completely straight. But I think a lot of fans will be able to say, ‘That one came from me!’ It’s something I’m really looking forward to. I would have liked to do hundreds more, but we got in as much as we could and a lot of them were just really funny.”

Johnson said that the game would be feature complete sometime this month, then polished up for testing in advance of its release. There’s no release date yet, but he tells Polygon the goal is to have the game playable on PC, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch and Xbox One before the holiday shopping season.

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