Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! Review

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Few games thrive to be like the original.  Sure, plenty thrive to be as influential or popular as the original, but in the case of the ToeJam & Earl franchise the goal is to literally be just like the original.  This is a fact that franchise designer Greg Johnson knows all too well as he’s seen any delineation from the formula of the first game fall short.  As you can read in my recent retrospective, Johnson along with various teams has been trying to give the fans what they have consistently asked for: a new version of that unique Genesis roguelike from 1991.  I’m happy to say that if you are one of these fans, or even if you’ve never touched a ToeJam & Earl game before, you’re in for a treat.  Back in the Groove takes the magic of the original title and enhances it in various ways while also knowing when to keep things consistent.

ToeJam and Earl are two funky rapping aliens that “borrowed” the Rapmaster Rocket from their planet of Funkotron to go joyriding.  Along the way the duo, along with friends Latisha and Lewanda, accidentally travel through a black hole and crash land on the mysterious planet of Earth.  In ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! you are tasked with selecting one of the four friends along with the original version of both ToeJam and Earl from the Genesis iterations as you collect all 10 pieces of the Rapmaster Rocket and get home to Funkotron.  In a hybrid exploration and survival isometric action game, you utilize presents with unique abilities to navigate the enemies and traps in multiple levels that are either fixed or randomly generated.  Yes, as I said, ToeJam & Earl is back.

Well before the roguelike genre was established and mainstream, this was the first time I’d experienced what is basically an early 90s version of a dungeon crawler.  RPG elements like stats, leveling, and loot are all present only in Back in the Groove it’s laid out from the moment you select your character to the various times your stats increase.  You gain experience points (XP) by exploring an area, but also by being creative in how you search various items, discover hidden paths, and of course utilize the gifts you pick up along the way.  Gifts are random and also secret until you either have them identified or more often simply open them up to find out what prizes or traps are inside.  You may get spring shoes that let you bounce high in the air, but you can also get a surprise enemy that can inflict serious damage or worse yet knock you off a cliff and down to the previous level.  Along your path are also interactive mini games that allow you to get XP, cash, or loot.  You will need these boosted stats and presents to get yourself through a level’s enemies, dubbed Earthlings, as you seek the elevator to the next level and potential ship parts scattered about.  Finding an elevator will take you to the next level, located above the previous one, which as you may expect means that falling off the many pits found in any level will result in falling to the previous one and having to work your way back.  Couple that with the fact that one of the most enticing factors of this game is how it can generate all of these aspects randomly and you see the formula for seemingly endless gameplay.

Many of these aspects existed before, but anyone who has played the original will admit the game could use some touch-up work.  For starters, the original required you to navigate often more than 20 random levels seeking ship parts with no way to save.  That can make an attempt in ToeJam & Earl at least a couple of hours with no way to track progress and return to it later.  Both of these issues have been addressed in Back in the Groove thanks to an automatic save between levels along with the ability to save and either continue or quit at any time. Now a good run that ends up much longer than you had anticipated doesn’t have to be hindered by the fact that you have a life.  In fact, early runs in this game were played in short 30 minute increments over a few days, and I was very thankful for it.  I’m not sure if the pacing of your character has increased – the duo were quite slow in the original – but it seems like it, making runs an efficient endeavor.  That’s not to say the tension is gone.  Things got heavy in the Genesis version but thanks to the hardware of today maps can can be swarming with enemies and in later levels you can’t afford to just take all the hits coming your way.  I don’t think I’d say it’s much harder, although you have difficulties to pick from, but that frantic nature comes through much better in Back in the Groove.  Those interested in co-operative play, an impressive aspect of the original, will be happy to know that couch co-op and online are present for a group of up to four.  Fun little touches like the mini games, element-based levels, and even levels in the dark with a fun lighting engine complete the package.

Graphically I am impressed with the 2D hand drawn characters on an isometric plane that is made up of 3D terrain.  The look both updates the graphics while clearly appreciating the look of the original.  It’s all clean, crisp, and detailed.  Of course no funky rapping game would be complete without so phat beats to accompany it and I must give credit to the talented composers that make up the soundtrack.

ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! is a love letter not only to those that appreciated the original, but to the original game itself.  It was unlike anything I had played on consoles in the early 90s and that distinction still holds strong today.  If you are unacquainted, it will only take the approximately hour tutorial that is literally like replaying the original to get you acclimated.  By then, I bet you’re hooked.  From there it’s up to you to tackle the fixed 25 level full game that reveals more of this title’s subtleties, enhancements, and of course fun unlockables like characters and abilities for beating it.  From there the long haul is definitely delved into the randomly generated levels that offer quite the challenge (ie: I have yet to beat it).  With such an admirable showing I think it’s safe to finally say, ToeJam & Earl is back yo!  Groovin’!

A review copy was provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.  It was played through on PC, the platform chosen by the reviewer.  The reviewer did not participate in the kickstarter project that ran in 2015.  ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is available on PC (Steam), Playstation 4, Switch, and Xbox One for an initial price of $19.99/£16.99.  It is also currently available for pre-order on Limited Run Games in tangible form for $29.99 on Playstation 4 and $34.99 on Switch.  Please note that none of these links give us affiliate kickbacks, they are merely for convenience.  

Written by Fred Rojas

February 28, 2019 at 9:00 am

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