Toejam and Earl: Back in the Groove tries to update the original game’s classic formula with some modern touches but brings a harsher edge that is somewhat unwelcome.
Title: Toejam and Earl: Back in the Groove
Developer: Humanature Studios
Publisher: Humanature Studios
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (version reviewed), Xbox One, PS4, PC
Release Date: March 1, 2019
There is possibly no game that encapsulates the 90s more than the Sega Genesis classic Toejam and Earl; a game about two aliens that crash on some crazy planet filled with dangerous animals called Earth and have to find their ship pieces so they can get the hell out of there. Now the duo is back in somewhat similar style with Toejam and Earl: Back in the Groove, going back to the formula that worked so well for them back in 1991.
You crash on Earth, you have to get collect your ship pieces while running from crazy Earthlings, using your wit and some presents somebody keeps leaving all over the place. That’s not to say things haven’t changed at all in Toejam and Earl: Back in the Groove, but some are for the better and some are for the worse.
The two biggest changes in Toejam and Earl: Back in the Groove are the ability to save (in the original you had to get it done in one sitting) and a much bigger extension of the leveling system from the original. The first game can be beaten in a couple of hours, and this latest entry is no different, but it’s nice to be able to go back to a session if you had to stop for some reason.
In the first game, you gained experience and got “promotions” where you moved up in rank and got your life bar extended with an occasional extra life thrown in. Now, there are a bunch of stats to rank up including speed, searching ability to root presents and luck which factors into several things. These stat boosts are random but usually pretty helpful. It would’ve been nice if there was some sort of progression that could carry over from one game to the next, though; for instance, it’s nearly impossible for a number of reasons to get to the top promotion in one playthrough.
A big change with getting promotions is that in the original once you got enough experience, you simply got the promotion. In Toejam and Earl: Back in the Groove to receive a promotion, you must seek out the nearest “Wiseman;” a dude dressed in a carrot that’s on every level. Sounds simple enough at first but when you are just trying to survive later levels in a run, it isn’t so.
Sure, there’s a risk/reward factor in searching him out when you could just grab the ship piece and/or head to the elevator on the next level, but it’s just usually not worth it unless he is conveniently located and not surrounded by a bunch of hostile, deadly earthlings that can quickly murder you.
Toejam and Earl: Back into Groove features an expanded cast, which would be a welcome feature if the characters had any sort of distinct personality displayed. The game itself has personality, Toejam and Earl have personality, but the several friends you can unlock to play might as well just be different costumes. Maybe some skits or dialogue specific to each character would help flesh it out but as is there is no reason for me to pick Peabo over Toejam, for example.
The biggest trick of the original Toejam and Earl is that while it looks like a simple fun and cartoony game, it is anything but. It’s not on the level of some of today’s most hardcore roguelikes to be sure, but it is a game where your inventory can randomly screw you over, and enemies can be incredibly deadly.
While Toejam and Earl offers some modern amenities to alleviate this, they also have taken it as a license to get what I can only describe as much meaner. Presents, which give you tools that can help or hinder you, used to pretty much be out in the open. Now, you are mostly having to search for them by shaking bushes, trees, even houses.
Sometimes they’ll pop out a present, sometimes an earthling, sometimes a bowling ball or bad food that will damage you. That’s if you have any chance to search for presents in this manner while being chased by lawnmower men, phantom ice cream trucks, and much, much worse.
The presents themselves, while more widely varied, have also potentially gotten meaner. You don’t know what a present is when you first get it. You might be able to identify it through other means, but most often you just have to open it and hope for the best. Sometimes it’s wings to fly, sure, but it can also randomize your presents, outright kill you, demote you or have a giant sign above your head pointing enemies towards you (those last two are new).
Earthlings have also grown in variety and deadliness in Toejam and Earl: Back in the Groove. Not all earthlings are hostile, but most are and not only does this latest entry offer new nasties that can often kill you in one hit but faster, stronger versions of familiar foes that were already incredibly dangerous.
While this isn’t as much of a problem as you would think thanks to the levels being relatively small (if you are just trying to make it to the elevator to the next level and it’s close to where you entered it can literally be a few seconds to get there), it really discourages exploring, especially as you get later on in a game.
Despite the meaner edge, I still found plenty of fun in Toejam and Earl: Back in the Groove. I’ve gone through the game several times which certainly was not required to get a sense of it and will probably go through it a few more. It’s still fun to play as the skinny red alien Toejam and his fat pal Earl. It’s got loads of personality that feels very 90s but without also feeling dated. It’s a perfectly fine way to kill about two hours if you have only that much time to play a game.
The biggest problem with this is that the original Toejam and Earl is easily available on just about every platform there is, and it remains a more pure distillation of the same experience, making this new game a little hard to recommend. That is unless you want to get this game in the hopes that by supporting it, future games are made that expand more on the formula.
Toejam and Earl: Back in the Groove is like a really well-made fan game that doesn’t quite nail the feel of the game it’s trying to emulate. It’s a really good cover band playing while the original band is playing right next door and costs about the same amount of money to see, which would you pick? The choice is pretty obvious.
A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. All scores are ranked out of 10, with .5 increments. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.