Way back in 1991, two aliens crash landed on the Sega Genesis in the cult classic ToeJam & Earl. The game starred a pair of funk-loving aliens who had to rebuild their ship on a comically bizarre version of Earth. A whopping 17 years after the release of ToeJam & Earl III, the series has finally been revived by a successful Kickstarter as ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove. Was it worth the wait? Funk yeah!
The game begins with an amusing lightly animated and fully voiced introduction. ToeJam and Earl, now accompanied by their lady friends Latisha and Lewanda, accidentally crash their ship on Earth once more. To get back home, they’ll need to find the scattered pieces of their ship. It sounds a lot like the premise of the first game, but that’s by design. Back in the Groove basically functions as both a remake and a sequel, making it perfect for both new and returning players.
The original ToeJam & Earl would be considered a short game by today’s standards, so Back in the Groove adds multiple worlds (campaigns) to play through. Initially, only the tutorial and fixed worlds are available. The tutorial world runs a fixed 12 levels but doesn’t lead to the game’s true ending. The fixed world features only light randomization. Playing through Fixed unlocks the random world with its randomized level layouts. Beat Random to unlock Hard Mode, which seeks to recreate the original game’s difficulty and offers unique unlockables.
Whichever world you choose, the game can be played solo, with two local players, or four online players. Back in the Groove initially offers six selectable characters (two of whom are alternate versions of ToeJam and Earl), with three additional characters available to unlock down the line. Every character has unique stats, abilities, and starting presents (items). Each player also selects their own difficulty level independently of the selected world, but playing on the two easier difficulties won’t unlock anything.
Each level consists of a series of floating islands that our heroes must explore. Finding the randomly placed ship part allows you to safely move to the next level via elevator. Falling off the edge of an island sends you back to the previous level. But you can always take an elevator back to the next level, so setbacks usually won’t derail progression too severely. Some levels also have water to swim through. The protagonists can’t swim for very long without taking damage – unless they have an inner tube in their inventory.
Back in the Groove is a Rogue-lite of sorts, as evidenced by its presents system. While exploring each level, our heroes will search for and encounter a huge variety of wrapped presents. The number of presents (whether opened or not) that can be carried in your inventory depends on your character’s stats and level. You won’t know what a present does until you’ve opened at least one of it. Beneficial presents can point out ship pieces or hidden pathways, provide weapons or defenses against enemies, and much more. But presents can also attract enemies or cause other harmful effects, so opening a new one is a little risky.
As with the original, players can pay the carrot suit man NPC to identify presents as well. This oddly dressed fellow also provides the added service of promoting (leveling up) our heroes when they have enough experience. You gain experience by searching for items, opening presents, playing minigames, and other activities. Promotions increase your coolness rating and boost three random stats, such as speed, maximum health, and luck.
Players can also acquire presents and XP bonuses from two different minigames. The occasional neon-colored door leads to the HyperFunk Zone, a minigame introduced in the (less than stellar) ToeJam & Earl: Panic on Funkatron. The HyperFunk Zone is an endless runner in which you have to hold a button to avoid obstacles and exit doors. It’s too fast-paced for my liking, but you don’t get penalized for losing, thankfully. The other minigame, dancing, is accessible via boombox-toting NPC aliens. These dance battles involve pressing one of three buttons when their icons hit the line at the bottom of the window. Dancing is easy and fun.
This wouldn’t be a ToeJam & Earl game without loads of humorous earthlings to encounter. Helpful humans have a Twilight-like sparkle, making them easy to identify. In addition to the carrot suit man, you’ll meet various vendors, a scientist who repairs broken presents, a Gandhi lookalike who protects you from harm, and many more. The bad guys are just as creative and/or annoying as ever. Our heroes can’t attack by default, so they’ll have to hide in sunflower patches or run away from most encounters. But you can sometimes fight back with weapons like tomatoes and slingshots obtained from presents, if you happen to be carrying any.
The first ToeJam & Earl was an early co-op classic, allowing two players to explore cooperatively via split-screen. When playing Back in the Groove in local co-op, both players start out sharing the same screen. But when they move far enough apart, the game will dynamically switch to one of two types of split-screen (selectable via the options menu). In the fixed style, the first player always appears at the top and the second player shows up in the bottom screen. Dynamic style puts the northmost player in the top and the southmost in the bottom, regardless of player number.
Split-screen can also be enabled or disabled during online play. We didn’t get to sample online multiplayer prior to launch, but it looks like the game offers a server browser rather than instant matchmaking. Whenever you play solo or locally, you have the option of making the game joinable, which is quite cool. Developer HumaNature even included a text-based communication system, accessible via the bumper/L1 and R1 buttons.
I’m happy to declare that ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is a wonderful modern take on a classic game. The production values are perfect for this style of game. Characters and objects come to life in 2D, with the actual environments rendered in cel-shaded 3D. The singular sense of humor and music-themed touches that made the original so endearing are back in full force, and the cooperative multiplayer is better than ever. Back in the Groove’s subtitle might trip me up a bit (I always want to call it Back in Action), but it’s extremely apt. ToeJam, Earl, and their friends really are back, hopefully to entertain even more gamers than before.
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove launches tomorrow, March 1st for Playstation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC. This review is based on an Xbox One copy of the game provided by the publisher.
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove
- Faithful to the original game, but larger and more polished
- Rogue-like elements make every playthrough different
- Charmingly weird, funny, and funky
- Local and online co-op is a blast
- The menus are a bit busy, and you must deal with a lot of them to get into a game.
- As with the original, the level-to-level gameplay can be repetitive at times.
- Although it fits the game, this style of music won’t be for everybody.
- The HyperFunk Zone minigame is obnoxiously hard and un-fun.