ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove Review — Too Much Funk, Not Enough Groove
Gaming's most funky duo are back from Funkotron in a nostalgia-fueled experience that doesn't appeal to anyone but its limited fan base.
Reboots, remakes, and remasters. The three R’s that have, in some ways, defined this generation. Just within the past three years, we’ve seen Ratchet & Clank reimagined, Crash Bandicoot revisited, and the unfortunate return of Bubsy. There have been some decent video game comebacks but a good portion of them are fueled by nostalgia, sacrificing modern design to pander to its audience.
This brings me to ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove, the newest adventure from the funkiest duo from Funkotron. Back in the early 90s, the original ToeJam & Earl reached a sort of cult status that people have clung on to still today. Back in the Groove is certainly a love letter to that original game, created for those who actually want to roam around its distorted version of Earth. Despite that, I cannot confidently say that this game was meant for anyone else but those who want to reminisce.
For those unfamiliar with the original ToeJam & Earl, the story is pretty simple. Two funky aliens are flying around and crash land on Earth. In order to get back to planet Funkotron, they have to find all the ship parts while avoiding crazy humans who may hurt them. ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is the same exact thing. The two find themselves flying around the galaxy, this time accompanied by LaTisha and Lewanda. Earl presses a button he isn’t supposed to press and they crash land on Earth and once again have to find parts of their ship to put it back together a fly back to Funkotron.
The story isn’t really the focus, though. It is just the driving force for its gameplay which can be best described as a rogue-lite scavenger hunt. There are a total of four modes: Tutorial World, Fixed World, Random World, and Random World Hard Mode. The first two are “fixed” which means that the elevator and ship part placement is always the same every playthrough while the latter two are random which means everything is randomly generated including the map’s layout and the Earthlings you’ll encounter.
The four modes act as a sort of skill ceiling. The two fixed worlds are easier since you know what to expect after one playthrough while the random worlds mix things up enough to keep you on your toes. It is a pretty solid idea in concept but is unfortunately executed rather poorly due to its gameplay.
You’ll choose one of six starting characters to roam around Earth and find the missing parts of your ship. Each character has their own stats which are broken down into six categories: speed, life bar size, present skill, search skill, inventory size, and luck. This does make each character feel different, encouraging a different playstyle depending on who you choose but there are really two stats that actually determine your success: speed and life bar size.
While you roam around each level, you’ll encounter humans, both good and bad. Most of the bad humans will inflict damage while some will have other effects like switching directional controls or forcing you to use a present, the items that are supposed to aid you throughout your quest. I say “supposed” because sometimes they are a huge detriment. Some presents are useful, like the hi-tops which allow you to sprint for a limited time. However, a lot of them either feel useless or are just straight up working against you. For example, there is one present that puts a rain cloud above you and any time lightning strikes, you take damage.
Also, just about every item you pick up is random and has to be identified in order to know what you’re actually using. Otherwise, you’re blindly using an item you have no idea what it will do. I found it was better to just take the damage or attempt to outrun the bad humans since the presents weren’t really reliable unless I identified them.
This is also the reason why I think speed and life bar size are the only stats that matter. Inventory size, search skill, and present skill are all stats that pertain to items that are generally useless. Why would I want to use a character that favored a playstyle that makes me feel powerless and vulnerable when I could use Earl, a character that has the highest starting life bar size? As long as the RNG gods were on my side and gave me speed stats after each promotion (the game’s term for character levels), I could finish my run incredibly quick. Even if things didn’t go my way, a run only lasts about an hour. The short playtime isn’t bad by any means, especially if you’re playing Random World modes.
Like the presents, good humans will aid you in a variety of ways but there are only a handful that are actually useful. The Wiseman is the most imperative for two reasons. He is the guy who will promote you after you’ve garnered enough experience and he is also the one who identifies your presents. He is really the only human I ever made an attempt to seek out. There are others, like Gandhi and the opera singer, who I found to be effective, but those moments were usually on-the-fly. The other good humans were superfluous as the service they provided, which usually costs a bit of cash, could easily be remedied by either the numerous amounts of food or presents just lying around any given level at no cost.
The good humans had another advantageous perk, albeit one that was unintended. There is a bit of cheesing you can do to avoid damage from your enemies. Any time I saw a bad human rush towards me, I would find the nearest good human and talk to them. Since the action around you does not pause when you talk to your allies, the enemy forgets you were even there and roams right past you. A similar situation would occur if I jumped into a body of water or slid across some ice in the snow levels — they would just forget I’m there. It’s nice that it worked to my benefit but it definitely breaks the game. As long as you’re patient, you can easily cheese your way back to Funkotron.
There are some redeeming qualities to ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove. Namely, how it captures the essence of the 90s. The animation style is akin to old cartoons like Rocko’s Modern Life or Ren & Stimpy. From the logo to the character designs, it expertly captures that era very nicely. The soundtrack also helps create that 90s vibe with its funky slap bass riffs that are just delightful. The songs do get a bit repetitive but it is undoubtedly one of the best parts of playing the game.
While the commitment HumaNature Studios made to make an actual sequel to the original ToeJam & Earl is commendable, the gameplay just feels way too dated. ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is truly the sequel fans were probably waiting for, it’s just 20 years too late.