ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove Review

The funkiest duo about are back in a faithful re-imagining of the Mega Drive classic. Older gamers will likely remember our alien friends’ original outings, and just how cool the game was for its time. With some rock-hard gameplay, eye catching art and an incredibly funky soundtrack, it screamed early 90’s ‘tude. This modern update remains true to form – outside of the tutorial level things won’t be made easy for you, the visuals are brilliantly modernized and, perhaps most importantly, there are some awesome remixes of the soundtrack. Even after all these years and countless listens, I still never get bored of the epic audio.

The setup here is basically identical to the first game. Cruising through space, listening to those banging tunes, our heroes end up crash landing on Earth; their ship scattered to the wind. It’s up to you then to traverse said levels in search of 10 missing parts of your ship. Of course, this is easier said than done. Along the way, you’ll be both helped and hindered by various Earthlings and aliens – from the insistent fan chasing you down for an autograph, through the boogie-man knocking you off ledges, to Gandhi giving you a brief respite from damage, or, challenging a fellow alien to a dance off. There’s plenty of fun variety to be seen and to interact with.

Early on, you’re given plenty of room to explore, searching out presents and hidden bonuses scattered about. It’s best to make use of this time – it’s not long before there are plenty of Earthlings ready to make life difficult. As well as returning favorite presents such as Icarus Wings or… tomatoes… there are a few modifiers applied at random. Presents can become Amped on certain levels, others broken and in need of repair. These add a little extra flavor to the mix, especially if you haven’t identified what the present is. Good luck to you should you end up with some Amped Mean Skates!

As before, not every level houses a ship piece, so sometimes it is simply a case of finding the elevator, though even here you need to beware of trick ones – you’ll only have a few seconds to escape before you’re plonked right back at level one. It won’t reset your progress thankfully, so it’s just a case of getting back to each level’s elevator, but it’s here that players may start to find some frustration. While faithful to the original, the default movement speed of our characters can become a bit laborious after long sessions – especially if you have to repeat sections. Perhaps I’m just getting old, but I kept willing ToeJam to just get a move on.

Thankfully, by leveling up via XP gained from clearing the map, opening presents, or finding ship parts, a random roll will assign extra points to various stats including speed, luck, and heath, among others. It would have been nice to be able to choose what you wanted to increase, but to be honest I barely noticed any difference – plus it all gets reset upon game over or starting a new game. So, you’ll traverse the land in search of ship parts and elevators, all while listening to some great music. Unfortunately, and the pace probably doesn’t really help here, it starts to get a little dull after a short while.

Enemies are numerous and are capable of finishing you off in one hit later on, meaning you have to slowly waddle the long way round and hope for the best. I found myself on more than one occasion just slowly leading a conga line of enemies as I looked for some corner to cut to give me a chance of escape. The problem is it’s difficult in an almost cheap way; you’ll die not due to lack of skill, but simply being outnumbered and, most likely, unarmed. Presents are available to defend yourself with, if the RNG is so gracious as to drop you a decent one, but often it’s best to simply avoid enemies at all costs. Even if you do get a weapon, they’re fiddly to aim; you can only fire in the direction you are walking.

Others affect the area around you, and are more useful, but it’s still possible for the AI to dodge the incoming attacks. Various objects around levels can be searched for items and presents, but just as often contain traps – there’s no way to tell without searching so I found I gave up bothering after a while and just relied on random presents lying out in the open. Levels are short at least, but they all also feel very samey – as in the original there’s some randomization going on (and even a mode with fully randomized layouts and designs) but as the (admittedly great looking) art assets are more or less the same across each level, the sense of progression just isn’t there.

Of course, 2 player co-op returns, and really, it is the best way to play. While the same issues still apply, there’s something to be said of exploring this weird and wacky game with a buddy in tow. Competing in rhythm matching games for XP, or traversing the psychedelic Hyper Funk Zone together is great fun. You’re able to swap presents, share health and lives, and enjoy some cheesy dialogue between the two characters. ToeJam and Earl were meant to be together, and to play any other way just feels off. Unlike the Mega Drive game, you can save your progress at any time, even in online play, meaning you can dip in and out as you please as well.

Conclusion

ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove is a very faithful comeback. However, outside of some lovely looking visuals, things haven’t really kept up with the times. It’s fun in short bursts, but be prepared for things to get a bit too repetitive, a bit too quickly, especially in solo play. The soundtrack, on the other hand, is as brilliant and as funky as it ever was. When all is said and done, die-hard fans of the originals will find the most value here.

This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.
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Good
  • Brilliant soundtrack.
  • Nice updated visuals.
  • Fun with a co-op partner.
Bad
  • Core loop gets a bit dull.
  • Stat boosts not really noticeable.
  • Difficult in a cheap, early 90s way.
7
Good
Gameplay - 6
Graphics - 7.8
Audio - 9.3
Longevity - 5
Written by
I've been gaming since Spy vs Spy on the Master System, growing up as a Sega kid before realising the joy of multi-platform gaming. These days I can mostly be found on smaller indie titles, the occasional big RPG and doing poorly at Rainbow Six: Siege.

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