After playing the heck out of the original on the Mega Drive back in the 90s, I’ve been itching to get my hands on a new ToeJam and Earl game. I mean, sure, we did get ToeJam and Earl III on the Xbox in 2002, but that doesn’t really count because I didn’t even find out that it existed until I started writing this review (and because it was 3D which just feels wrong). Naturally then, I was pretty stoked when ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove was officially revealed back in 2015, though I didn’t think that I’d have to wait four years to actually play it.
Well, it’s finally released and it’s delivered exactly what I had hoped for: a ToeJam and Earl experience that feels just like the original game. However, whilst that’s more than enough for fans of the series, gamers who’re completely new to the Aliens’ funky adventures might be left wanting more from this wacky escapade.
To say that ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove’s tale was reminiscent of the original game’s would be an understatement, with everyone’s favourite super-cool Aliens crash landing on Earth (again) and having to find the parts for their ship (again). Whilst the developers could’ve easily come up with some smart new concept that did something completely different, having this throwback to the original game was quite nice – it’s not as if ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove is meant to be a narrative-driven experience after all, and it’ll certainly bring a few smiles to the faces of those who spent hundreds of hours playing it on the Mega Drive.
Thus you set out on another isometric adventure across different levels of Earth to uncover all of your missing ship parts. You’ll slowly see every detail of the map reveal itself as you go exploring, whilst you’ll also come across plenty of objects to interact with and enemies that’ll go all-out in pursuing you. Thankfully, you can find plenty of presents on your adventure that give you all kinds of helpful items. However, it’s not clear immediately what is actually wrapped away in each box and there are some items that cause more harm than good – finding food will heal you for example whilst you can also find a snazzy pair of sneakers to give yourself a speed boost, but on the flip-side you could also find gross food that harms you or even an item that kills you instantly. That’s right: INSTANT DEATH.
So there’s some risk in opening the presents you find, but thankfully once you’ve encountered an item once you’ll always know what it is the next time you open a present. It’ll save you from accidentally alerting all enemies to your position or killing yourself more than once during a playthrough, which is always a plus in my eyes…
You can also level up as you play through the game and increase your stats, with plenty of different things like your health, speed, and inventory size ready to be improved. You do it by interacting with a lovely gentleman in a carrot outfit too which is a little random, though somewhat fitting given how bizarre of an adventure ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove is. One thing that’s worth noting though is that there’s a perma-death aspect in place, so if you lose all of your lives it’s game over. Between the random-nature of the items you find and an ever-increasing enemy threat as you work through the game, you can probably expect to have to attempt a few runs before you manage to help ToeJam and Earl escape from Earth once more.
ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove places a big emphasis on exploration in-game, with the player having to scour each and every level of the game world carefully in order to find all of the ship parts. The problem is, there’s no guarantee that each level actually has a part to find – you could search every nook and cranny of the map and be left empty-handed. There are plenty of presents to find of course whilst you also have a search ability that clearly marks any objects that are holding a hidden item, but you can expect to spend a lot of time simply exploring and hoping for the best. It makes for a repetitive cycle which when paired with the simple gameplay mechanics can grow old fast. It feels like the game is designed for multiple playthroughs, especially since the world and its levels are randomly generated, but there just aren’t enough differences each time to really encourage you to keep coming back. In fact, I’m pretty sure I saw everything that the game really had to offer during my first completion, with nothing surprising me again after that.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t have some neat features though, with plenty of colourful NPCs that’ll interact with you in different ways. Not every Earthling is out to cause you harm after all, and whilst some will go out of their way to hunt you down until you manage to hide from them, some just want to hang out with you. You’ve got the likes of the Hula Girls who just encourage you to dance with them (although this can make you vulnerable to enemy attacks), Gandhi who’ll protect you from harm, a professor who’ll fix your broken items… there’s a real quirky selection of folk to meet and they all add a little something to the game’s bizarre vibe. Of course, there are some characters who’ll prove pretty annoying too, such as the one that pretends to be the elevator you use to exit a level – rather than taking you on to the next one, he’ll send you back to the level before and force you to replay a previously trodden area… what a prick.
Whilst ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove can feel repetitive to play, one saving grace is the multiplayer. Up to four players can get into the action locally, with the screen splitting off to allow everyone to head out on their own little adventure without disturbing anyone else. Not only does it make the whole game a lot easier, but it’s nice to see all of the funky happenings of the world with a friend – I played through it with the same cousin who I played the original game with when I was younger, which left us with a grin on our face as we reminisced about our previous adventures with ToeJam and Earl. There are plenty of different characters to choose from with different stats that each have their own pros and cons, so players can choose someone that best suits their playstyle too.
ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove is charming, quirky, and, of course, funky, but there’s no denying that the gameplay can get repetitive fast. You do a lot of the same things over and over again, and whilst things like the random nature of the presents and the randomly generated world do spice things up a bit, it’ll only take a couple of hours to see everything that it has to offer.
However, whilst ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove can feel repetitive to play, it still feels EXACTLY like it did on the Mega Drive. The problems that make it feel a bit dated and repetitive now are the things that a lot of players most fondly remember about the game (myself included), so your enjoyment of the game may just vary depending on how much you liked the original.
As a gamer invested in the series, I had a heck of lot of fun with ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove. However, I’ll be the first to admit that it won’t be for everyone. If you’re a returning fan who wants some more funky alien action, you’ll have an absolute blast with the game – if you’re completely new to the series and have no affection to the original adventure though, you might be left wondering what all the fuss was about to begin with.
Developer: HumaNature Studios
Publisher: HumaNature Studios
Platform(s): Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC