Ever since wowing Sega Genesis owners in their 1991 debut, the funky duo of ToeJam and Earl have had a rocky road that included a disappointing side-scrolling sequel in 1993 and a strange 3D entry for Xbox in 2002. Now nearly 30 years since the original, creator Greg Johnson is taking the duo back to their roots with TOEJAM & EARL: BACK IN THE GROOVE!, a sequel that plays entirely like the original title for better or for worse.
Just like in 1991, the two aliens (and potentially their girlfriends if you choose them instead) find themselves crash landed on an awfully strange version of Earth and must find 10 pieces of their spaceship in order to escape back to their home planet of Funkotron. The gameplay of simply walking around collecting presents, spaceship parts, and food can seem overly simple at first, as most of the early humans are helpful and the damaging ones are easy to avoid, but there are plenty of hazards to avoid later on.
There’s also a great amount of depth to unearth, such as learning to sneak up on Santa Claus in order to get an abundance of presents (each of which offer a random power-up). Experimental players will even want to shake all the trees they see in order to find more money and items.
While this will all feel like second nature to veterans of the original, HumaNature Studios has intelligently included a short 11-level tutorial world that gives the player plenty of tips and walks them through the base mechanics. There is still a lot of trial and error to learn in maximizing a run and getting used to ToeJam & Earl‘s unique gameplay flow, but it does a fantastic job of getting new players acquainted with all of the different systems in play from the walking carrot that allows players to level up to the dangerous men in black that attack the aliens whenever they come into their line of sight. Many of the old foes and friends have been beautifully recreated here and plenty of new faces pop up to make it feel like its own game rather than merely a remake of a classic.
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! Review | A true labor of love
The core story — which isn’t much aside from a few cutscenes and a bad auto-tuned rap — is found in the “fixed world,” which is a specific path that lasts over 20 levels. This winds up being a great first challenge for players to tackle and Back in the Groove! has a great sense of progression due to how many options there are. From various difficulty levels to having nine statistically different playable characters, there’s no shortage of unique ways to play.
If players can get their character leveled up to 10 during the fixed world, they’ll unlock the ability to play randomized worlds that offer up a unique challenge each time the player attempts to find their way back to Funkotron. This is the core of the experience and an even more difficult hard mode can be unlocked by finishing a random run. In addition to all of the different game modes, players are also given the choice to unlock different hats (which contain different perks) after completing the game on normal difficulty. It may only take an hour or two to complete a playthrough from start to finish, but fans of the gameplay loop can put in dozens of hours without it feeling too repetitive.
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! Review | As charming as ever
Those that played the Genesis original will know that ToeJam & Earl can be quite frustrating at times. From enemies that knock the player down to a lower level to unnamed presents that can instantly kill the player, it’s never a shock when a seemingly solid run turns south suddenly. Getting kicked down is especially frustrating because it, like the original, separates teammates so that players are exploring different levels at the same time.
Thankfully, the frustrations never become too much to handle as Back in the Groove! is constantly charming due to its wonderful art style and hilarious characters. It’s difficult to get mad at the ice cream truck that just knocked you down to the previous stage when you’re graced with a smiling Gandhi and find yourself hula dancing just a few seconds later.
However, all in the charm in the world can’t excuse some of the frustrating technical issues in the Nintendo Switch version. While that platform has the advantage of being portable and multiplayer that is easy to start, it’s also soiled by some irritating hitches where the gameplay will just pause for a second. Throw in an issue where my level elevator disappeared before I could leave it and was stuck in an invisible box until I restarted the game and there’s a disappointing level of polish here. Despite all of the love that clearly went toward the vibrant art and animation, there’s still an annoying amount of technical rough edges.
While the gameplay definitely shows its age in spots, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! is exactly what was advertised to Kickstarter backers in 2015. An updated version of the duo’s original Genesis exploits both in spirit and design, it manages to remain a charming experience no matter how ruthless its old school gameplay can be at times. It may only take a few hours to complete the story mode, but randomized worlds and plenty of unlockable variants will keep seasoned players coming back to this lovingly crafted sequel by HumaNature Studios for quite some time. This is exactly how a retro revival should be done and studios would be wise to take note.
GameRevolution reviewed ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! on Nintendo Switch with a copy provided by the developer.