The funky alien duo had us worried. After a successful, but still fairly modest pitch on Kickstarter, we've been waiting and waiting on that funky space elevator to drop us into the game. The game gained a publishing deal (with Adult Swim) and lost it again. HumaNature Studios tried their hand at another crowdfunding effort (Star Control 3 via Fig), but it wasn't successful. But somehow the lights were kept on at the studio and work on ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove was completed. And we're happy to say it delivers on the initial Kickstarter promise. This truly is a game for those who fondly remember the first couple of Mega Drive titles and it oozes of fan service.
At its core ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is an isometric roguelike where, as one of the funky aliens, you try and navigate hazards across multiple levels, collect missing ship parts, and find the elevator to take you to the next level. However, it's not really a roguelike until you unlock the random worlds (reach level 10 in a normal game and it unlocks), and you've also got a few lives to play around with before you have to start over from the first level on a new run. So it's a bit more forgiving than your standard roguelike. This setup is very much the same as it was all those years ago on Mega Drive, and Back in the Groove really lives up to the promise of delivering an experience much like that of the original. There are lots of minor and major tweaks, of course, and primarily a ton of work has gone into explaining and making the various weird and random concepts more approachable. Don't worry though, it's still very weird and random.
You can play as ToeJam or Earl or one of their equally funky friends or family members. They each have a different set of stats, meaning ToeJam is fast but weak, with Earl on the opposite end of the spectrum (some of the others are more balanced and therefore make for good starting characters). You then level up through XP by talking to the Earthling dressed up like a carrot (he can also help you identify mystery gifts). There are many ways to lose health in each level, whether it's from taking a swim, getting electrocuted by a rain cloud, or being chased down by one of the numerous crazy Earthlings that you'd be well advised to stay clear off.
You do have some gadgets and special abilities at your disposal, and these come in the shape of presents that you collect or buy from vendors. Some are unknown, while some come with descriptions. Being able to jump a long way with springs on your heels or chuck tomatoes at pesky Earthlings is great, but these abilities aren't always easy to use and sometimes get you into more trouble. Being able to jump far is a great way of accidentally hopping off the level you're currently on. It takes practice to get good at using these gadgets, but some presents are purely positives, such as revealing the location of the elevator to take you off the current level or offering up a piece of food (junk food replenishes health, mouldy (but typically more wholesome) food will make you throw up, leaving you vulnerable to Earthlings).
We recently played the original Mega Drive game when taking a look at Sega's most recent retro collection, and found that it held up remarkably well. Typically, 2D sidescrollers and RPGs hold up great from the 16-bit era, but while the controls felt a bit dated, the original ToeJam & Earl is still good fun almost three decades later.
Looking at the original game its success owes a great deal to its wonderfully animated pixel style and the highly original concept of two funky hip-hop loving aliens. The funky beats and the character the title offered simply stood out and was perfectly in tune with the times. Time has moved on, and it's difficult to imagine there's a huge audience outside of existing fans for this one. It's still a bit stiff and challenging in terms of its mechanics, and we're not at a point in time where it makes sense to mix Alf with Fresh Prince in Bel-Air (even if you could argue that this sort of mix always has its place in video games).
For longtime fans, they'll probably remember the originals looking like Saturday morning cartoons - of course, they didn't, but instead, they were wonderfully funky animated pixel delights. This game, however, is more an interpretation of what people back in the '90s thought they were playing (a Saturday morning cartoon) rather than a pixel homage. We would have loved to have seen a gorgeous looking pixel game, but that's not the case here and the visuals while modernised do a great job of conveying the atmosphere of the original games.
A big part of the experience is playing in co-op, and you can do this both online and offline and naturally it's a great fit on Switch with its simple controls that fit perfectly on one Joy-Con. All the randomness and weird stuff really lends itself well to the co-op setup and ideally you'd want to experience this game sitting next to a good friend with a healthy serving of soda and snacks (preferably both mainly consisting of food colouring and sugar, to keep your diet in line with the game), as you experience the many surprises a playthrough of Back in the Groove offers. There's plenty of ways to change your experience between playthroughs, whether it's a new character or finding new presents or mechanics or turning up the difficulty, but there are many ways to enjoy the game and there's a great deal of replayability here for those who really get hooked on this funky concoction.
We're happy Back in the Groove made it out, it's great to have a new chunky (and funky) ToeJam & Earl game to bite into and it's a great fit on Nintendo Switch (the device we reviewed it on), as it works both when you're out travelling and want to kill a bit of time, and when you want to enjoy a quick co-op session at home. It does however still suffer from some of the things that hold back the originals from being timeless masterpieces, namely that you'll have that feeling that some of your mishaps will be more down to how cumbersome some in-game mechanics are rather than your own lack of skill. The upside of that is that as you gain experience from previous runs, you'll learn about the movements and peculiarities of certain Earthlings, you'll be better equipped to make proper use of some of the abilities, and perhaps you'll simply discard some presents in the hopes of picking up more useful ones.
If you have a place in your heart for ToeJam and Earl (and the rest of the funky bunch) this is a game you need to check out, but it's questionable whether new players will develop warm feelings if this is their first contact with the series.