Review: ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove
After ages away from the spotlight, Toejam & Earl are back in their newest title: ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove, and it’s about as retro as you can imagine!
Blast from the Past
Toejam & Earl has had three games over the years, each of a different genre, but Back in the Groove doesn’t follow in the 3D platformer footsteps of the most recent title, Mission to Earth. Nor is it a side-scrolling adventure like the second game Panic on Funkotron. No, the newest title (On PC, PS4, and Switch) actually goes way back to the very beginning, with nearly identical gameplay to the top-down roguelike original ToeJam & Earl.
That’s not to say this is a simple port of the original, however. Various nods to later series have been made, like extra characters to play as and the “hyperfunk zone” bonus levels. Changes have been made to the various Earthlings and presents, and the addition of an online mode makes it easier than ever to play with people in our modern age. Its heart and soul are still firmly entrenched in the Genesis classic however, and one can very much view this as a modern remaster more than anything.
Mishaps and Chaos
The story of ToeJam & Earl involves the titular alien duo taking their dates on a trip to Earth in a “borrowed” Rapmaster spaceship. One accidental button press later finds Earth and the Rapmaster sucked into a black hole, spun around in a washing machine, and spat out. To get back home, they have to explore the scattered fragments of earth to find the pieces of their spaceship, dodging hostile Earthlings along the way.
For those who never played the original, both it and Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove rely heavily on randomness and exploration. You begin each level with only a small section around you on your map, and you need to explore a procedurally-generated landscape to find the spaceship parts and the elevator to the next level, encountering presents and Earthlings along the way, both good and bad. The Earthlings are easy enough to figure out – they’re all listed in the manual and the ones with beneficial effects have a sparkle to show as such – but the presents thrive on randomness. Each present is unidentified when discovered, and you can either pay a wise man to identify them or just give fate a chance. Most of the time it’ll be something good, but every now and then you’ll encounter a bad present that does something like give you unstoppable rocket skates or turn out the lights.
The game encourages this chaos even further with an XP and rank system, which will increase your stats and thus your survivability as you explore further. The main methods of acquiring XP outside of finding spaceship parts (which you have to do anyway) is uncovering tiles on your map and opening presents, both of which require living with the randomness the game throws at you.
Interestingly enough for a video game, you’re not really given XP for popping hostile Earthlings. In fact, opportunities to actually do so are relatively rare, requiring a limited time weapon from a present or help from certain friendly Earthlings. For the vast majority of the game, your best option against hostiles is simply to run or hide, keeping the primary focus of the game on exploration rather than swatting enemies like flies. While I’m sure there’s plenty of people who would see this as a bad thing, I find it a pleasant change of pace personally.
Everything about the game’s aesthetics are pure 90s, especially the graphic design and the funk-inspired soundtrack. As someone who grew up in that era, I had a lot of nostalgia upon booting the game up. At the same time however, I can recognize that a lot of the things I felt nostalgia for are things that changed for a good reason: the UI design is another thing ripped straight out of the 90s, with simplistic loading screens and massive main menus, and the level design and gameplay are relics of a simpler time as well.
For better or worse what you have is a game that looks like it’s nearly 30 years old. It looks dated, and the gameplay is far simpler than most modern games. That said… that is PRECISELY what the team wanted. One can hardly mark it as a bad thing when the developers so soundly hit what they were aiming for. For people like myself that grew up in that era, it’s still a massive nostalgia trip. For younger gamers, this is undoubtedly an easier way to see what games were like back then instead of trying to get old games to work on modern hardware.
Old School Funk
Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove is definitely an odd title. It has a focus on exploration over combat, and embraces randomness in a way that keeps things exciting. While it’s likely not for everyone, it’s definitely a unique game in this day and age, and is worth a shot for that alone.
Review copy provided by HumaNature Studios for PC. Screenshots provided by reviewer.