ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! (Switch) review

HumaNature Studios
Switch, Xbox One, PS4, Steam (Switch version reviewed)

I’m not exaggerating when I say the original ToeJam & Earl is one of my favourite games ever (check my Mega Drive Classics video for proof).

Its funky music is among the greatest ever contributed to the medium. Its bizarre sense of humour remains hilarious to this day. And any game that calls you a ‘poindexter’ for levelling up is a classic in my book.

Over the years, this ToeJam & Earl fan has seen his beloved series go through an altogether different kind of funk. The sequel, Panic on Funkotron, was a strange 2D platformer that had an eccentric art style but came nowhere close to the original’s brilliant top-down free-roaming exploration.

A decade later, the third game – ToeJam & Earl III: Mission to Earth – launched as an Xbox exclusive, and I actually blew my entire student loan on an Xbox and a copy of the game, living like a pauper for months so I could play what was an admittedly average threequel.

That Xbox game launched in 2002, but since then… nothing. In the nearly two decades since, I’ve played the original countless times – constantly reliving the days an 8-year-old me first discovered and fell in love with it – while endlessly praying for a comeback.

I’m now 35, and that comeback is finally here. And it’s good.

For those not familiar with it, the original ToeJam & Earl was about a pair of funky aliens from the planet Funkotron whose ship crash-landed on Earth. In Back in the Groove, it’s a similar plot: this time the pair have ‘borrowed’ their pal’s ship and taken their female chums back to Earth to show them what it’s like.

Unfortunately, a little mishap involving a wrongly-pressed button results in both their ship and Earth itself being sucked into a massive black hole and spat out again in a huge mess.

What this means is that, as in the first game, you have to wander around a bunch of levels looking for the parts of your broken ship, all while avoiding the dangerous Earthlings roaming the land.

Some of these Earthlings are familiar faces from the original: it’s good to see the return of the likes of Cupid (whose arrows make you lovesick and mess up your controls), the Hula dancer (who makes you stop and dance, leaving you open to attack) and the overweight lady pushing her screaming child around in a shopping trolley. Less welcome is the insane dentist, who was a prick before and is still a prick now.

They’re joined this time, though, by a bunch of new Earthlings, many of whom are based on the sort of folk you see in today’s day and age: society’s changed in the quarter-century since the first game, after all.

Now you can expect to also be hounded by ToeJam & Earl fanboys who chase after you for a selfie and are deeply apologetic when they inevitably bump into you and do damage. Then there are lazy security guards riding around on segways, clipboard volunteers (who take your money and put you to sleep) and a person texting on her phone who moves in a completely random direction because she isn’t looking where she’s going.

In all there are nearly 60 types of Earthling to discover this time, the majority of whom are dangerous and should be avoided at all costs.

That’s the majority, mind. Not all of them. As in the first game, there are also some friendly Earthlings who are all too happy to help you out (usually in exchange for some of the cold, hard cash you can find lying around).

The wise man in the carrot suit (don’t ask) will promote you to a new rank when you’re ready to level up, and will also help you identify any mystery presents (power-ups) you have in your inventory. The wizard will restore your health, as will the sushi chef. The ‘cosplay nerds’ will give you a chance to gamble some of your money by rolling D&D-style dice. And Gandhi will create a circle of peace and love around you, protecting you from any nastiness.

Although it’s clearly based on the original 16-bit Mega Drive classic, Back in the Groove has still made the switch from sprite-based to polygonal graphics: at least, in terms of the environment. Each level map is now 3D, whereas characters and objects remain as sprites, with a nifty little hand-drawn effect.

Anyone fortunate enough to have played TJ&E creator Greg Johnson’s previous game Doki-Doki Universe – and if you haven’t, you can get it on PS4 or Vita – will know exactly what to expect here: it too had gorgeous hand-drawn sprites and it’s clear that influenced the art style here.

The switch to polygonal game worlds means the camera can be a lot more dynamic than it was before. While the Mega Drive game had a locked camera that moved anywhere the player did, here it can zoom in and out depending on what’s going on. This can be fairly dramatic when you get something like the Icarus Wings power-up, which lets you fly high into the air and see an enormous chunk of the stage.

Naturally, things like this can affect performance, and that’s really the only area where the Switch version suffers. The game seems to aim for 30 frames per second in general, but there’s a decent amount of stuttering and the like throughout (most notably during the elevator scenes between stages). It runs a little better in handheld mode (presumably the step down to 720p lightens the load a bit) but it’s still stuttery at times.

(Note: I haven’t played it on Xbox One or PS4 yet so I can’t speak for those versions, but given the relative simplicity of the game I’d be stunned if they didn’t run at a sold 60 frames per second: I intend on buying the Xbox One version at launch, so keep an eye on my Twitter or the Tired Old Hack podcast for an update once I do.)

Polygonal worlds are only one of a number of new additions to this game that make it more than just a modern-day remake of the first title. Rather than just choosing between ToeJam and Earl there are now six characters to choose from (with another three unlockable ones), each with their own special abilities.

Earl, for example, is able to eat rotten food and not have it affect his health, whereas Old Skool ToeJam (each of the duo comes in modern and old-skool versions) can use the hi-top sneakers power-up for twice as long. Meanwhile, Latisha (who initially appeared in the third game) can do more damage with tomato-based weapons, while Lewanda (from the second game) can use all of the in-game coin meters for free.

Each character now also has specific stats. These range from obvious things like speed and energy to more interesting ones like the size of their inventory and how wide their radius is for the new search ability, which makes objects wobble if they have hidden presents in them.

The changes don’t stop there. Some stages are dark and require you to run around with a torch. Sometimes presents break and have to be repaired before they can be used. There are new unlockable ‘power hats’ that grant new abilities (like being able to ignore hula dancers). Sometimes the exit elevators are fakes, and will come alive and try to eat you.

But the reassuring thing for fans of the original is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. You still get to choose between fixed and randomly generated stages, and you can still uncover hidden paths by wandering along cliff edges.

You still go “MONEY” when you pick up cash. There’s still a secret level 0 (and it’s even more impressive this time). There’s still that psychedelic elevator screen between stages. You still walk faster when you’re on a road. There’s still daft dialogue popping up all over the place. The music is still funky as all hell.

Back in the Groove manages to perfectly walk that balance between appealing to the long-time fans and first-time players. Modern gamers who never played the original will still find a fun procedurally generated roguelike just like the countless other indie games that litter the gaming landscape these days (and that’s because the original TJ&E was doing it when it was fresh).

Meanwhile, long-time fans of ToeJam & Earl will be delighted to find a new entry in the series that doesn’t go in a completely different direction like the second game, and doesn’t try too hard to modernise things like the third.

This is FINALLY the faithful sequel to the first ToeJam & Earl that fans like me have been waiting for, and while it was never going to do enough to replace that glorious first game and everything it stood for, the fact I’ve had it for a month and still keep loading it up in bed every night shows it at least still makes me smile like the original did when I was eight.

ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is out on Switch, Xbox One, PS4 and Steam as a digital download on 1 March. It’s also coming out as a physical Switch and PS4 release in late May, but you can only pre-order until the end of March.

In order that I could write this review, I received a digital copy of the game from the developer. The content of my review and the opinions therein were in no way positively influenced by this.

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