Nearly thirty years ago, two funky aliens crash-landed on Earth for one of console gaming’s greatest adventures. ToeJam and Earl broke new ground on the Sega Genesis, eventually branching out with two sequels and a legacy as one (or two in this case) of the first mascots outside of Sonic to garner notoriety on the platform. All of this time later, we still remember – and thankfully a giving creator and the power of crowdfunding has brought about a revival with ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove. Featuring excessive fan service, new playable characters, and a new take on an old jam, can this foreign body sprout new legs? Let’s find out.
Back in the Groove throws us in a ship with Toejam, Earl, Lawanda, and Latisha (both of the latter are from sequels, if you’re unfamiliar) as they decide to make another pit-stop by earth and jam out. Of course after making a critical mistake, this plan backfires with all four being sucked into a black hole, absorbing Earth in the process. It is up to our cast of characters to traverse a new chaos, while picking up pieces of their ship so they can yet again return home safely.
I love some ToeJam and Earl, as for myself, it was my own version of Mario or Sonic. These two had a huge impact my start with a controller, and I found Back in the Groove to be filled with everything I could have ever wished for as a fan. Nearly every Earthling re-appears in one form or another, and the same nostalgic atmosphere feels the same, despite a change in art direction. I have also had time to introduce others who had never heard of these two rad aliens before, and thus far, it seems the charm has aged gracefully into a new generation.
If you have ever played ToeJam and Earl, the concept has basically not changed since the original. Players pick an alien (six variants available from the start), and comb over one piece of the Earth at a time, where progression comes in the form of elevators that must be discovered by exploration. Each stage is loaded with presents, which come in the form of oddball hazards and weaponry to either assist or add greater to your journey in finding every ship piece. Humans (or stereotyped forms of humans that take a poke at our own culture) act as the enemy, each acting as annoyances that can make you fall off the stage or die if you happen to get their attention.
In rogue-like form, the player must safely obtain all of the scattered goods to rebuild the ship, one stage at a time. Back in the Groove does not forget where it came from, as it utilizes small features found in both the second and third game to add a little bit of extra flavor. For instance, the parking meters are back, where players can pop a coin in and hit each new meter or button that pops up to find a secret. Players can also work for cash by visiting Earthlings or by finding a hologram of a Funkotron resident, who will take you through a rhythm-action mini-game for some cash.
The game has also refined its leveling system, where players now get instant perks each time they level up. Sure, it could probably go a little further in this area, but for a rather short session overall – most will be fine receiving what is at times a life-saver of a perk like and extra life or a new present. This is a game that is an awesome single player experience, but like the original, begs to be played with friends. Whether it be online or split-screen, the world just feels a little more exciting to explore with someone else as it is designed for more than one to split up, and then reconnect when trouble arises. Be it a test of friendship or trust, ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove is meant to be played with friends, but is still a satisfying challenge for the solo gamers out there.
When I first started playing the game, I will admit, I was taken back a bit. I was playing with a friend on split-screen and the visuals just seemed so different, as if the paper-doll like models did not animate as fluidly as I would have liked. I loved the game, but felt that animation was just a bit lacking. This feeling mostly faded as you do get used to it, as the quirky style is forgivable and easily fitting for our long forgotten protagonist. Sure, things may seem a bit different, but once that screen splits or a path churns ahead, you will feel right at home.
The soundtrack for Back in the Groove is funky. A celebration of remixed from tunes new and old pound throughout your progression, and are an absolute delight as this journey gets a little hectic in the later portion. The voice cast are also on point, bringing us voices yet again for most of the roster. I want to say that TJ & E are voiced by the same duo from the Xbox version (and I may be wrong on that), but either way, the work is well done and add a nice layer to two already superb characters. Humans also have voices and personalities, which are all meant to keep you on edge. It is a scary feeling hearing the sound of a lawnmower or the hum of a angel baby with bad intentions, but those are simply more reasons to love just how well built this title is.
ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove is a jamtastic sequel that more than lives up to the original. It’s rare that we see so much care and love put into letting players recapture their feelings from years ago, but HumaNature Studios hit all the right notes to orchestrate a fine production that is easily worth its price-tag. Whether you are new to the relaunch or already humming that theme tune as you read these words, this is one joint you should slam into your deck and unleash the funk.