In the early 90’s ToeJam & Earl became a cult classic and thrust the two characters into a weird position of second rate mascots behind Sonic. My experience with the series began with the sequel, Panic on Funkotron, for the Sega Genesis, and then shortly after I grabbed a copy of the original ToeJam & Earl, only to find they were quite different games. I loved the bright colors, and how cool the characters talked; it was the epitome of 90’s aesthetic smattered all over a video game. The year is now 2019 and we have ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove being released to a completely different gaming landscape.
After a completely avoidable disaster, the two aliens have been transported to Earth with one mission: find the pieces of the ship they were travelling in and put it back together so they can get back home. The ship pieces have been scattered throughout the planet and it is up to the player to navigate through levels, gather presents for powerups, and avoid antagonistic humans.
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is effectively a remake of the first game with some sprinkles of Funkotron for taste. For those unfamiliar with the original, it is a rogue-lite where you walk, sneak, swim, and jump around randomly generated isometric levels in search of 10 ship parts. Find a part on a level and then head to the elevator to head up to the next level. It sounds simple and it is; this is a low intensity game which harkens back to the days where you could sit on a couch and just chill with your friends.
The challenge comes from the Earthlings who inhabit each level and they range from mildly annoying to downright frustrating. In the early levels you will see small numbers of somewhat harmless Earthlings, such as the small devil or the hula girl. As the run progresses the more deadly humans begin to appear, as well as an increase in their numbers. ToeJam and Earl can usually outrun a single Earthling, but it is the combination of humans that really becomes an issue. A hula girl on her own can’t hurt you, she simply forces you to dance when you get within her range. However if an MIB agent sees an alien hula dancing, he has the opportunity to steal all your presents and you can do nothing but keep dancing. With over fifty Earthlings in the pool to choose from, the randomly generated levels can conjure up some interesting combinations. Thankfully ToeJam and Earl have a keen sense of finding hidden presents to aid them in their cause.
Presents can be found in each level by shaking things up in the environment, an element carried over from Panic on Funkotron. Shake a bush, tree, or house and you will soon find your inventory littered with mystery presents. They can give temporary boons, food to regain health, or even cause harm. The first time ToeJam & Earl find a present, it will be a mystery to what it does. You can take a chance and open it, which can result in something good or bad. If you are a more cautious player, presents can be identified before opened so you know what it does before use.
Presents range from very useful to ridiculously awful. The Icarus wings are by far my favorite as they grant flight for a limited period of time, allowing for fast exploration of a level. The most frustrating present is the “I’M OVER HERE” present which alerts all Earthlings to your location and causes pure chaos. Presents definitely add to the randomness of the game and can shake things up in hilarious ways. Use presents, make fun.
Even though most of the game is based on the original ToeJam & Earl, the parts HumaNature plucked from Panic on Funkotron make Back in the Groove feel like a greatest hits for the series. Being able to dance battle with your alien pals through a small rhythm game was really cool to see. Dropping into the zany Hyperfunk Zone (the infinite runner from the second game) brought back some great memories. Even the nonsensical parking meter and button pressing sequences they carried over didn’t need to be in there. Each of these inclusions not only demonstrates the commitment to the source material, but they help maintain the wacky vibe present throughout the series.
The series has always been about co-op and ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove maintains this standard. It is competent when playing solo, but the real charm comes with experiencing all of this with a friend. From the zany personality to the quirky humor, you would be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t have someone on the couch beside you. The accessibility of the game also shines in co-op as each player can choose their difficulty separately. Children and loved ones can join in on the nostalgic trip and not feel too threatened by zany Earthlings. The seamless splitting of the screen when the characters wander too far away from each other is retained from the original, and makes exploring with a friend a treat.
Back in the Groove had me going back and forth on my opinion of this game. My first couple sessions had me confused as to why the game exists at all. The gameplay is fairly lackluster compared to modern day standards. The rogue-like elements don’t hold up against other titles in the genre. ToeJam & Earl was a product of its time and I found it hard to care about what it was trying to do. As I played more I began to understand what it was trying to do. It is a simple and straightforward game with a ton of wacky random stuff in it. Comparing it to anything made in the last decade isn’t really fair, as it is not playing in the same space. Once I realized ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove was a complete homage to the series, I began to view the game differently and I turned a corner on it.
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is a game that reminds us why we played games in the first place. We played to enjoy ourselves, have a laugh with a friend, and control some funky aliens wander around earth. The 90’s were a simpler time for games and it is nice to have something you don’t have to think too much about when playing. So sit back, grab a friend, and get ready to groove.
The Co-Op Experience: Team up locally, online , or a mix of the two for some co-op play to discover secret locations, hidden presents and new friends as you make your way through a constantly changing and unpredictable world!
Co-Optimus game reviews focus on the cooperative experience of a game, our final score graphic represents this experience along with an average score for the game overall. For an explanation of our scores please check our Review Score Explanation Guide.