REVIEW: 90s game icons get ‘Back in the Groove’

  • reviewed on PlayStation 4 / rated E10+ / $19.99 / released March 2019
  • FINAL: You should TRY this game. 3 out of 5 stars

As far as video game franchises go, “ToeJam & Earl” seemed destined to be lost. Initially released for the Sega Genesis in 1991, the game’s all-in devotion to late 1980’s rap slang and garish art design marked it as a dated pop culture relic inside of a few years. A 1993 sequel missed the mark by drastically changing the first game’s core concepts, and a 2002 release could not escape feeling way out of vogue.

So how do you bring this pair of funky aliens back to video games in the year 2019? By leaning into the original, positioning it as a retro nostalgia trip, and hoping that enough time has passed that what was old feels new again.

The new “ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove” is a complete remake of the first 1991 game, but with a few enhancements and improvements to help modernize it. The friendly aliens ToeJam (a spindly, three-legged fellow) and Earl (a shirtless gentle giant) have once again crash-landed on Earth. In order to escape and return home, they must first find the scattered pieces of their Rapmaster rocketship.

The trouble is – and this is probably a function of both the aliens’ non-human perception and a result of the black hole that Earl accidentally summons – that Earth has been split into a precarious series of irregularly shaped, vertically stacked flat levels. Our heroes can travel between levels by means of elevators (duh), and if one of them should fall over the edge they will fall to the level below… or fall even further, if the next level down happens to not have a landmass at that particular spot.

The levels are filled with roaming Earthlings, some of which are helpful, but many are outright dangerous. If ToeJam or Earl get bumped into by the Lawnmower Man or the Insane Dentist too many times, they will die and it’s Game Over. Their only defense is to strategically use presents that litter the landscape. The presents can contain anything from a pair of wings to speedy sneakers to toss-able tomatoes, but you do not know what’s in each present until you open it. This means you often end up having to deal with a present buff that perhaps was not what you really wanted.

The presents all have different wrappings, so once you know that the pointy yellow one has free food in it, then all future pointy yellow presents will deliver the expected free food. However, present contents are randomized each game, so on subsequent playthroughs, that pointy yellow present might have an angry storm cloud inside of it. The randomized present gimmick, combined with the randomized Earth levels, comprise the core that makes “ToeJam & Earl” a fun trip of discovery and anticipation each time you play.

“ToeJam & Earl” was notable in 1991 for letting two players play at the same time, cooperatively, but allowing them to explore the Earth apart from each other. “Back in the Groove” continues this, of course, but manages to squeeze a little innovation in there by adding several more playable characters. Each character has statistical tweaks and a unique selection of starting presents. “Back in the Groove” also supports four simultaneous players, so you can really make use of the expanded roster’s special abilities.

Aside from that and a pile of all-new Earthlings, “Back in the Groove” follows the 1991 template to a fault. The same movement clunkiness that plagued the 1991 release is somehow replicated here: the characters never feel fast enough or move precisely enough. It’s easy to get stuck bouncing between malevolent Earthlings and taking damage just because you had no way to out-maneuver them. The game also seems clumsily assembled overall, with occasional graphical glitches and odd interface choices (Why is the “search” action assigned to the same button as “tiptoe”?)

And yes, “Back in the Groove” is just as soaked in 80s lingo and impressively cringey design work as the original. If you are a child of the late 80s and early 90s, you’ll feel right at home. If you are not… well, it’s intentionally ugly, sorry.

“ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove” was funded via a Kickstarter campaign, which has led to the inclusion of “Backer Islands” being scattered throughout the levels. These small islands have presents on them as well as a caricature of one of the Kickstarter backers. While this is a nice bonus for backers, if you did not crowdfund this game, it feels inelegant to suddenly stumble upon a grinning, never-before-seen Earthling stranded by a sign that literally says “BACKER ISLAND.”

The original “ToeJam & Earl” was a rare treasure: a cooperative, (mostly) non-violent video game that combined the “play forever” style of early arcade games with a modern focus on personality and narrative. “Back in the Groove” is less unique these days, but it is still a good party game, warts and all.

“ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove” is available for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Mac and PC. This review is based on product supplied by the developer. Images courtesy HumaNature Studios.

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