ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove Review — Exactly What It Should Be
The effects of the original 1991 ToeJam & Earl have rippled through my tastes in video games and overall media through the past 28 years. TJ&E was the hottest thing on the Sega Genesis outside of Sonic the Hedgehog in my eyes, so the release of Back in the Groove has me more than a little excited.
I may have been playing the original game on and off until about 2006, but ToeJam and Big Earl haven't seen the light of a new release since their Mission to Earth excursion on the Xbox in 2002. Before Back in the Groove's Kickstarter launch in 2015, I was convinced both aliens were dead and buried back on Funkotron, commemorative boomboxes shaking the planet to its core.
This all in mind, I'm a little biased. TJ&E started me on the gaming path I'm on today, so unless ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove really just flubbed things up, I was always destined to have a great time with it.
Luckily, Back in the Groove does not flub things up. Oh no, dear reader, it does not flub it up at all.
Instead of attempting to bring two of the Sega Genesis' best-known characters back in a more modern sort of game as they did with Mission to Earth all those years ago, the team over at HumaNature Studios have embraced the original game as the blueprint for this new 2019 offering. It is so similar, I'd be inclined to just refer to it as ToeJam & Earl 2 if Panic on Funkotron wasn't a decent, albeit different, game in its own right.
Bigger and Better
The best mindset to have when starting with Back in the Groove is that you're just playing the first Genesis game with some extra bells and whistles. Almost every notable gameplay aspect of the first ToeJam & Earl has been carefully hoisted from the 16-bit era and supplemented with modern features.
The core gameplay of the of Back in the Groove consists of strolling through levels, collecting and using presents, searching for pieces of the Rapmaster ship, and dodging or interacting with an array of Earthlings. When I say "strolling," I do mean it. Dudes and dudettes with this much funk don't have to get anywhere quick.
The series has always been a little slower and that trend continues here. You make your way through a level, searching for useful items, ship pieces, or Earthlings with some good will. Since you're not the fastest dudes on the block, much of your time is spent trying to get around harmful Earthlings.
Much like we actually have here on Earth, Earthlings come in all shapes, sizes, and specialties. One second, you're joining a bunch of nerds playing a tabletop game to win some money; and the next, you're running from an especially vicious mailbox monster, who just happens to chase you into another vicious mailbox monster. And man, those things really do hurt.
Harmful Earthlings can either knock one or many presents off you, steal your money, stun you for another Earthling to take advantage, or straight up deal damage to you. There's a whole laundry list of reasons to avoid the bad ones, and as you progress you spend more time defending yourself than exploring.
There aren't a whole lot of ways to defend yourself, much like the 1991 original. As you explore, you'll pick up presents that the game clearly wants you to use as soon as possible (your inventory fills pretty quickly), but there's a catch.
Presents can and often are picked up either unidentified or broken. Usually, they're unidentified -- and you have to spend money at an Earthling like the Wiseman to identify. There are presents that can identify other presents, but more often than not you end up having to cough up cash. You seriously get a ton of presents.
The game encourages you to almost constantly use presents, whether you have identified them or not. Many have beneficial effects, like Spring Shoes or Hi Tops that change how you move or Tomatoes or Slingshots to deal damage; but many are also able to outright harm you or the presents in your inventory.
Accepting the fact you'll have to use unidentified presents is part of the random nature of the game. Each level is random, the stats you gain on promotion are random, and the items you scavenge from Earth's bushes or other doo-dads are (you guessed it) random.
The game attempts to acclimate you to that fact through its Tutorial and Fixed modes, the first with a bushel of tips to teach you to play and the second being static each time. Though these modes are available, anyone who truly enjoys either mode will find themselves at the meat of the game: Random mode. Where little TJs become Big Earls.
We refer to non-typical roguelikes as roguelites these days, which is essentially what ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is. It is completely and utterly random and, once you get above the 10th level on Random, it is also fully prepared to kill you time and time again to force a game over. Once you run out of lives, that's it. The end. You've got to start over.
Almost all of this sounds like it could be yanked out of a review of ToeJam & Earl on the Sega Genesis because Back in the Groove is astoundingly similar to the original game. If you played it back when it was relevant, I guarantee you that you will quickly fall back into your old habits within the game and somehow just remember what to do. It just happens, like it opens up some magical portal to 1991 and lets you relive those days without any effort on your part but playing the game.
This is where the conundrum comes in, as someone reviewing this rather than someone just buying it for personal use. I can't help but wonder if people who didn't play games or weren't even alive in the '90s could relate to or enjoy the overall aesthetic of the game, or whether they can even get into the gameplay.
I'm not one of those that says gameplay never ages, there are a ton of examples of games that were fun 20 or 30 years ago that just are not fun today, and really, it took a certain type of person to really attach to the original ToeJam & Earl. This wasn't meant for everyone in the first place.
With this all in mind, I do not believe the gameplay formula found in ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove to be stale. It's not a Pop-Tart straight out of the toaster, but it's not one that's been sitting in an open package and gotten a bit soggy, either. The base gameplay of the first ToeJam & Earl has always been easy to wrap your head around, and it's even more so here thanks to the game's extensive built-in manual.
In every thematic aspect, Back in the Groove is stuck in the 1990s. The funk talk, the music, the visual style, the dinkiness of the few cutscenes are all very much planted in 1991. That in itself is novel in its own way, while the '80s aesthetic trend is still going strong and is slowly shifting into the decade after. You're probably never going to see a game that embraces that point in time like this one.
The issue for some may be that Back in the Groove is not a particularly action-packed game. Players looking for something to get their adrenaline up will, without fail, be disappointed here. If you're looking for a bit of a wacky game you can just chill out with, though, you should be right at home with Back in the Groove.
- Loads of unlockables, from presents and game-changing hats to new characters
- The same funkadelic feel and gameplay of the original 1991 ToeJam & Earl
- Very easy to sink a couple of hours into without realizing it
- Accessible and no-fuss local and online co-op
- Rough around the edges, some graphical chugging or input delays at times
- In local and online co-op on the Switch (I'm not sure about other versions), there is frequent heavy chugging, particularly when one player uses an elevator
HumaNature's dedication to the vision of the original game shines in just about every corner, which is a huge part of what endears me to this new entry. The other part is just how fun it is once you get into the groove of it.
Once you become familiar with ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove and how it all works, you just slip into auto-pilot survival mode, and that is what has made me keep coming back despite the many many losses from being knocked down to lower levels and having to struggle to make my way back up.
I don't think everyone will enjoy this game, but I do think those that do enjoy it will be able to find dozens of hours of entertainment playing solo, in couch co-op, or playing co-op online, probably the best modern feature found in Back in the Groove. The expansive encyclopedia on basically everything you find in the game is great, but the benefit of always having to someone to play with far outweighs all the other additions. This is a game far best played with friends, just as it was on the Sega Genesis.
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is essentially the exact sequel fans of the 1991 original have wanted all these years, and it does not skimp on new content over the first game. Despite its small issues, Back in the Groove is probably the best entry to this classic series we have gotten or will ever get. It is by no means perfect, but that's totally cool with me.
You can snatch up ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove on PlayStation 4, PC, Mac, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch tomorrow, March 1st. If you were a Sega kid like me and grew up with TJ and Big E, there aren't a lot of reasons to skip it.
[Note: A copy of ToeJame & Earl: Back in the Groove was provided by HumaNature Studios for the purpose of this review.]