The ToeJam & Earl series has a really big place in my heart as one of those games I kept playing over and over as a kid, specifically ToeJam & Earl: Panic on Funk-o-Tron. While I never played the first game, the weird and whacky world of ToeJam & Earl captured my adolescent eyes and I was hooked. So to hear a new game was incoming in the form of ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove, I was pretty excited.
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove began life as a crowdfunding campaign following a previously canceled Dreamcast version of the game was unearthed. The campaign was a wild success and HumaNature Studios, the studio created by ToeJam & Earl co-creator Greg Johnson, began work on the next game in the series. But how does it compare to previous entries?
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is, at its core, a love letter to the first game. In fact, it could be considered a remake as such. It takes on the same isometric aesthetic as well as similar mechanics and features, such as Earth being made up of consecutive floating islands which can be reached using elevators. Players are also able to collect a series of different wrapped Presents whose content is unknown until identified or opened.
In addition, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove also has the same plot as the original title which sees ToeJam & Earl’s spaceship being destroyed and littered across “Earth” and players are tasked with collecting each piece. Once all ten have been collected, then the game is complete.
Having not played the first game, this was all a pretty new concept for me, however, I did miss the game’s side-scrolling aesthetic. The good news though, is that a handful of Funk-o-Tron’s features have been added into ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove like the Jam Out mini-game, for example.
Gameplay in ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove largely consists of players traveling up each level of Earth and searching for items of pieces of TJ and E’s ship. As you rise through each level, they get increasingly populated by infuriating Humans which are hell-bent on making your life a living hell.
The concept of Humans in ToeJam & Earl games is a funny one as they’re mostly represented as annoying, disrespectful, and selfish – much like real life. You’ll have “fans” of aliens that’ll just come and barge you out of the way. There’s a human with a cold who can literally sneeze you off of the face of the earth, and there’s another riding around on a Jackhammer causing unnecessary noise and shaking you free of your Presents.
There are, however, some helpful Humans, that are often depicted as slightly lairy folk, like an opera singer who you can pay to follow you around and get rid of humans (it would have also been funny if they used a Bass Player performing a solo instead), a mad scientist who can fix your broken Presents, and a shady looking man with a trench coat offering to trade Presents.
There’s also a crazy man in a carrot suit who can identify presents and level your character up. Gandhi, who stops humans from hurting you, and King Tut, who’ll follow you around revealing things hidden in trees and bushes.
One thing you may have noticed is that ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove features a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor, something the series has always been known for. The first two games poked a lot of fun at 90s pop culture and hip hop – among other things. However, in ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove, I can’t help but feel like a lot of this humor is forced into the game. Especially later in the game when you’re just wading through hordes of Humans trying to find a sunflower patch to hide in.
The overall gameplay loop could be described as being a roguelike, as players progress through procedurally generated levels which get more difficult the more they progress. There’s also a permadeath aspect to the game too which is definitely fun when you get sneezed off of a level and it takes the very last bit fo your health. This, of course, would be fine if it didn’t seem like the entire game is against you.
Not only do you have to try and navigate around Humans on Segways, or Preachers damning you to hell, but also bits of rotting (or healthy) food littering the map which, if you walk near, you’ll consume, throw up, and lose a bit of health. This isn’t helped by levels being littered by bushes and trees which you can search meaning you’ll sometimes be blindsided trying to avoid a kid on his smartphone and walk into a moldy loaf and die.
Speaking of things that do more harm than good, let’s dive into the concept of Presents for a second. In Panic on Funk-o-Tron, Presents were simply used as a way to earn points. In ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove and the original that it’s largely based on, these Presents are used as sort of temporary power-ups or other perk-giving treats.
To begin with, you have no idea what’s inside and you can take a chance and open it up and hope for the best, or for a small fee you can get it identified. These Presents can feature things like revealing a piece of ship, the elevator to the next level, or the Wise Man in a Carrot Suit. Other times, they can offer things that can basically destroy your game, like Amped Rocket Boots or a big sign that says “HEY, I’M OVER HERE” bringing all the humans to your vicinity.
Visually, the game is a blend of 2D sprites in amongst a 3D world, which is a little jarring at first, but it does fall into place the more you play. Unlike the older games’ 16-bit art style, we’ve got a more cartoony aesthetic which definitely works and gives it an indie game feeling. There are also nine different characters to choose from – each with their own stats – including old school ToeJam and Earl, the former of which I played exclusively.
I feel that ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove suffers from trying to bring something that worked in the 90s to today’s world and it’s stuffing everything into the game which made them great. Yes, there’s a lot of fun being poked at today’s world, kids with out of control drones, ignorant people on their phones, mums with kids shoving you out of the way, but I can’t help but think that less is more in this case.
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove felt unnecessarily punishing, where you just can’t catch a break. I felt that, at times, I barely had the chance to sift through my Presents or get to higher levels before being fucked by some human. I understand that the nature of roguelikes is that it can, at times, just be out to get you, but I more often than not I found myself being unnecessarily cornered, being shoved off the island, or just being shit out of luck.
I had unnecessarily high hopes for ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove I wanted it to capture that magic I felt when I was a kid but quickly realized that A, I’d previously played the wrong game in the series, and B, unless you’re a glutton for punishment, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove’s difficulty curve is just too damn high. Of course, this could have rung true with the original game, and I think if you’re a fan of the first game in the series, I’d definitely recommend giving it a whirl.
I did enjoy my time with ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove, that must be said, and contrary to the above review I don’t hate it, in fact, I’ll likely continue to play the game. Plus, thanks to “tutorial mode” I managed to complete the game in an afternoon (though you don’t get to see the actual game’s ending). There is definitely a level of replayability to ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove but I feel that it’s one you need to be in the mood for.