It's been a long time since the funky alien chums went on an adventure so let's see if their latest tears the roof off the mother sucker.
Greg Johnson's long-running roguelike starring a couple of lovable aliens dates all the way back to 1991 with its original Sega Genesis release. At the time, it was an incredibly unique game and much more chill than their blue hedgehog cousin's adventures. The original spawned a couple of sequels: a 2D platformer known as ToeJam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron and a full 3D revival of the franchise for the original Xbox. In Back in the Groove, ToeJam & Earl are back to their humble beginnings and after all this time, the legendary Greg Johnson is still at the helm with his talented team at HumaNature Studios.
For the unfamiliar, ToeJam & Earl is played by controlling your alien of choice while traversing terrain that's suspended in mid-air. This time around, they're joined by Latisha and Lewanda who you can also choose to play as when starting a game. Anyway, the basic gameplay involves walking around while avoiding enemies, interacting with friendly folks, discovering and opening presents, and playing a couple of mini-games including the 2D endless runner Hyperfunk Zone and the rhythm game Rhythm Matching where you can even create your own beats to master. It's a very laidback formula yet the gameplay remains impressively engaging as you level up, acquire ship parts, and unwrap a bunch of wacky presents that offer plenty of surprises, nifty boosts, and temporary power-ups.
To go along with the unconventional gameplay, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove features a fantastic sense of humour that'll make you smile as you play. Watching speech bubbles pop up as characters comment on your current situation is delightful, especially considering how specific they are. For example, if you find yourself on a lower floor, your character will regularly comment how they want to get back on track. To complement this sense of fun, an awesome funky soundtrack plays throughout that had me tapping my toe as I played.
ToeJam & Earl's origins
If you'd like to revisit the first 2 games in this funky series, be sure to check out Sega Genesis Classics which includes ToeJam & Earl and ToeJam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron as well as 51 other classic Mega Drive games. Also, ToeJam & Earl III: Mission to Earth is a great 3D interpretation of the series for the original Xbox so that's worth getting your hands on, too.
One thing that ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove accomplishes exceptionally well is provide a ton of replay value. For starters, you can play either solo, with a friend in local co-op, or online where players can watch and join each other's games. As you play, you'll unlock over 40 additional presents and hats as well as the procedurally generated "Random World" and its "Hard Mode" variant plus a few extra characters in the form of Flo, Peabo, and Geek Jam. You can play for a long time and still have much more to see and do.
Although I loved my time with ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove and plan on playing it much more, I was kind of disappointed in its visuals for a couple of reasons. On the surface, everything looks colourful and full of life but as you play, the same environment over and over again will eventually make playing it feel monotonous. On top of the lack of graphical variety, I noticed plenty of performance issues as everything would pause every once in a while. This was so bad at points that I actually ended up falling off the edge.
Finally, I want to mention that if you're not already a fan of ToeJam & Earl, you might be perplexed as to how Back in the Groove could be fun. This is definitely a game for fans and I can imagine some newcomers enjoying their time if they begin playing with an open mind but most new players will likely be put off by its unconventional and laidback approach to gameplay. In other words, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove has a very specific audience so it's difficult for me to recommend it to the general gaming public.
As a revival of a very special Sega Genesis classic, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove will certainly give fans the funky good times that they crave. However, those devoid of funk likely won't be up for the down stroke.
- + Classic ToeJam & Earl gameplay that's as goofy and enjoyable as ever
- + Fantastic music and sense of humour
- + Awesome amount of replay value
- - Visuals could use more variety
- - Occasional performance problems
- - Definitely lacks wide appeal