ToeJam & Earl are back, but it isn’t 1991 so I’ve traded up the Genesis for a Switch. No matter what platform it is on, these two are ready to get Back in the Groove. Though this is the fourth game in the series it feels so familiar upon starting the game that I’m reminded of sitting in the basement of my sister’s house getting lost as I try to find parts of my spaceship. I rented the original game a lot but never felt like I did well with it, so I wanted to give it another go.
I haven’t really touched the series since high school, and that is appropriate, as this felt like visiting old friends from that time. Although at first, it may seem like my former buddies hadn’t grown up much and were the same troublemakers I used to know, they definitely matured in some small ways—becoming refined in their new age. This analogy also works because the characters themselves have been aged up a bit, now teenagers when they were preteens in their first appearance, according to the creator.
From what I remember of the first installment, it seems like it’s the same game on steroids. I mistakenly thought this was a remaster at first with a different title, but according to their creator Greg Johnson, Back in the Groove is more of a reboot. It appears that some elements from the other games are mixed in here. They took the best earthlings and presents as well as a mini-game or two, throwing in a lot of the good and tweaking everything overall to make a tighter game.
Thankfully the game starts off a bit chill as well. There is a fun opening cutscene that finally explains a bit why the terrain looks the way it does and what the boys were doing. Back in the Groove allows players to choose from nine different characters, each with their own stats and special abilities, so pick wisely. I love that we have classic ToeJam & Big Earl at the start also, where three of the characters must be unlocked.
For those who have never played the series, Back to the Groove has a bit of that old school learning curve. That doesn’t mean that the game is hard by any means, but figuring out what to do, how to use the presents, when to find the elevator to go up another level, and how to deal with enemies is all a bit confusing for anyone who has no experience with this world.
There are so many presents (I forgot how many were actually harmful), secret paths, helpful and antagonistic NPCs that it took me a few minutes to figure out how to read some things and navigate the environment. My limited experience from all those years ago did very little for me, but once a player learns the game, figures out the moves and items, it becomes much easier while never seeming fully intuitive. There is an easier mode that acts as a short tutorial though, which is useful if players actually give it a shot.
This isn’t a long game, especially for those who have been through it and have a good idea where things are in the fixed world. The thing that cost me the most time, of course, was getting knocked off the platform after being ganged up on. That’s the pits (I’m not sorry). Like the game says though, sometimes falling off the floating stages is a better idea than risking death. The masters should fear not though, as there are two unlockable difficulties that both randomize the boards. I see a lot of replay value coming out of this one, especially with a friend.
Someone told me that the real ToeJam & Earl experience comes from playing in multiplayer, an experience I never had when I was younger, but I’m so ready to try. Back in the Groove is giving us four-player co-op that should also grant another easy reason to play it than sheer nostalgia. The game changes enough with having two players but I can’t imagine what doubling that will do. I am a little worried about the mini-map in this mode, as it is a bit hard to read normally, so adding other icons may make that worse.
On the other hand, everything else is great visually. I had seen some original art for this project that was interesting but didn’t do much for me or others. I am so glad they changed that. Character animations are solid and color choice stands strong. The audio presentation might be a bit different though. I love that they kept the original voices after the fans asked for it. The music is also good with some fun bass and a couple of tracks that were starting to get stuck in my head, but it is a tad generic at times. I doubt it’ll be too memorable for anyone who wasn’t already looking forward to some relaxing funky beats. The tunes could surprise a few people though. I go back and forth on loving the soundtrack and it just being okay in the background depending on the track. Maybe I just wanted more rap tunes like we heard in the trailer.
Things are staying classic for this rendition and even the controls feel like that as well. There is something still a little slow and less fluid about them. This doesn’t mean that they are necessarily clunky, as I would imagine this is how the creators intended the movement to feel. Walking near the edges makes me think this even more, but after I grew used to it, this did stick out less, minus a little bit of stuttering.
ToeJam and Earl are awesome. I don’t think they get brought up enough when talking about the masters of funk or just great African American characters. It’s good to see that a successful Kickstarter helped bring them back and let Greg Johnson finish the game wanted to make for a long while. My one concern is that this may really be for the fans and will not bring in many new players. The game can be confusing at first and a bit punishing without saving, where simple mistakes can cost the player being sent back down levels or even a life, potentially leaving some to put the game down too soon before getting a true grip on it. For only twenty bucks this seems great for retro fans or those that loved the series before, but anyone who is brand new to Toejam & Earl may not be able to handle the funk.
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Back in the Groove is a reboot that maintains the franchise's classic feel with a few worthwhile tweaks. Whether it is for nostalgia or a new adventure, this is a shattered Earth worth exploring.
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