Review – ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove was an extremely surprising announcement that had me taken aback for a few different reasons. My first initial thoughts were of delight as I have fond memories of playing Panic on Funkotron in co-op with my brother. I remembered how great the soundtrack was even as a three to four year old. Then when I saw that it was more of a spiritual successor to the first game, I started thinking how that style of game would translate in 2019. Panic on Funkotron was a 2D side scroller game which has been booming lately on the indie scene, but the original was an adventure game with open areas to explore. However, it’s the gameplay loop of the original that always seemed limited by hardware since it was fairly simple. So how does ToeJam & Early: Back in the Groove stack up today? Let’s jump in and get funky.
The game opens up with our groovy hero’s cruising around in a space ship bumping their funky beats throughout the galaxy when they come across earth. Compared to Funkotron, us Earthlings are quiet and boring so ToeJam and Earl decide to share the funk. Pulling up in their nice new spaceship equipped with two massive speakers, they turn the funk up to eleven and share the love with us miserable Earthlings. With some confusing instructions and poorly labelled buttons, Earl rips open a black hole and both the Earth and their ship are sucked in causing them to crash land on Earth. Not only do they now need to collect their ship pieces to escape, but it turns out the ship was also stolen and Lamont is not going to be happy. So starts ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove.
As it turns out, collecting your ship pieces is about as deep as the game gets. Once you start the game you’ll get to select your character. There are six choices, two of them are classic skins for ToeJam and Earl, but they all have different character stats which I’ll get into more later. There are also three other characters you will be able to unlock as you beat the game and its couple extra modes. After picking your character, you’re tossed right into level one and unless you start on the tutorial world, there isn’t any direction of what to do, so I suggest doing the tutorial world.
There is a tutorial world, fixed world, random world, and random hardcore world. The tutorial is only twelve levels, the difficulty is low, and there are plenty of hints to help you through. Fixed world will be the same no matter how many times you play it. Random world is very much as it sounds and the same goes for random hardcore. Essentially randomized levels throughout and the hardcore version is extremely difficult.
Regardless of the mode you pick, your goal remains the same; go through multiple levels trying to find your ship pieces. Once you’re in a level, you must explore it to unlock sections of the minimap. These levels are never very large, but they can sometimes be difficult to navigate with the enemies, traps, hidden bridges, and environmental dangers. One map might be covered in snow, deep snow slows you down, and the frozen water will slip you up making it easier for enemy humans to catch you. Another map will be at night which brings out different enemies, one in a desert that will slow you down in sand. There is a decent amount of level variety, but what I enjoyed the most was the variety in enemies.
There is a vast range of enemies in Back in the Groove and they all are very different. There are humans on scooters, jack hammers, sick humans that sneeze on you, a group of ducks that mortar eggs, boogie men, trolls that hurl insults, nasty cupids shooting arrows, and so many more. There are also nice humans that help you on your journey like Gandhi, who provides a circle of flowers around you keeping enemies out. A guy dressed in a carrot suit that provides level ups and deciphers your presents. A wizard that will heal you, a sushi chef that makes you food for health, a viking apparelled opera singer who kills any human around her from the loud singing, and even Santa. There is so much variety here that you’ll likely run into new characters of all types even after a couple runs.
Between all the environmental and enemy danger, you’re probably wondering what you as the character get to do to navigate through safely and protect yourself. That comes from collecting presents. Yes, nicely wrapped presents with a bow. As you dodge through enemies and make your way through levels you will be shaking a lot of trees, houses, and bushes trying to uncover hidden presents to help you during your journey. At initial reception of the presents you will be unaware of their use. They will show question marks underneath them until you either use them or you pay one of the earthlings to uncover it for you. There are also presents that allow you to uncover your own presents and once uncovered you’ll always know what they are for the rest of the world. This is helpful so you don’t have to run around potentially wasting presents just so you can discover what they are.
Presents have played a large part in ToeJam & Earl throughout all the games since they are the only way to fight back or access certain parts of the maps. There are a massive amount of these as well, ranging from rocket shoes, spring shoes, tomatoes to throw at enemies, or even create a tomato storm that will pop humans that get near it. There are also bad presents that will summon a bunch of enemies near you, get you drunk so you stumble around, provide poisoned food, and so many more. The majority of the fun in this game is randomly using these presents and finding out what they do.
This gameplay loop while holding true to its roots, is also why ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove loses its fun factor quickly. This is designed to be a rogue-lite title where it wants you to play multiple times to unlock new characters, new starting items, and find the rarest enemies. But the initial gameplay isn’t deep enough to pull me back in for multiple playthroughs. The uniqueness wears out quickly and I found myself becoming bored walking around shaking every single thing around me in hopes for a present that I may or may not use. It’s easy enough to avoid enemies without using presents, even though there are times where it’s impossible not to use them. But there isn’t enough depth in the grand scheme of things to keep me engaged. Yes levels have some variety, yes there are a great amount of enemies, yes there are plenty of items to find, but once I went through one world all the way through I didn’t want to shake down anymore bushes.
There is a leveling system that enhances your stats. Stats range from your health, speed, uncovering items, luck, and more. With everything you do, you earn XP. Doing dance offs with other aliens, searching things, uncovering parts of the map, finding hidden paths all grant you XP. Once you reach the required amount you’ll be able to find a guy dressed in a carrot suit to level you up. You’ll spin a wheel and it will randomly choose three categories to upgrade for you. This will help greatly in the hardcore mode, and some of the later levels in the fixed mode.
I actually really enjoy the art design since it reminds me so much of the Saturday morning cartoons from my childhood. There is a very deliberate 90’s theme throughout this game and it is soaked into everything. Big flashy bold colors pop around with random shapes and squiggly lines like something you’d find in the Saved By The Bell intro theme. I feel like the art style could have popped a bit more than it does on the Switch, but unfortunately there are times where the nice bold lines of objects will become jagged from lower resolution. Also, there are some heavy framerate dips, but they are most noticeable in co-op, especially if one of the team is loading into another level without the other person. The Switch seems to struggle greatly having to render two different levels at once.
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove has one almost flawless victory and that is in its soundtrack. This is honestly why I enjoyed Panic on Funkotron as much as I did, because the music is so memorable. It isn’t often you get such a flashy funk soundtrack and it fits perfectly with the overall aesthetics of the game and the characters themselves. While the soundtrack is flawless, the voice over work can be hit or miss and some of the lines are repeated too often. Other than that, the sound design here is great.
The bottom line here is that ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is a game for its fans, it’s for the people who hold the first game in high regards and want more of it with upgraded visuals. Unfortunately, in today’s market the gameplay loop feels outdated and rather shallow, and outside of enjoying its soundtrack, I found myself becoming bored. That being said, there is a decent amount of content here to unlock through multiple playthroughs and it even supports four player co-op.
The 90’s cartoon aesthetic works really well, but it would look better if it all had a crisp look. Unfortunately, the Switch creates too much aliasing.
Outside of using the presents, the rest of the gameplay is extremely shallow. Also, there are some framerate issues especially in co-op.
The funky soundtrack is fantastic as well as the various sound effects. The voice over can be hit or miss with some phrases being repeated too often.
There is definitely a decent amount of content to unlock since it is a rogue-lite game, but the general gameplay loop leaves little to be desired. I can’t see myself returning to the title after this review.
Final Verdict: 6.0
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is available now on Xbox One, PS4, PC, and Switch.
Reviewed on Switch.
A copy of ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove was provided by the publisher.