“An all new adventure game… from 1991.”
The original ToeJam & Earl for the Sega Genesis was a roguelike game before the term was coined, and before the market got oversaturated with the subgenre. It became a cult classic on the 16-bit console, but is the same outcome hanging over ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove!, the latest entry in the franchise?
I hope the audience expands because I’d really like to see more ‘90s duo on the Nintendo Switch. Yes, I know the Sega Genesis Classics collection has both the original and sequel, Panic on Funkotron. But the prospect of sequels, or a Ready, Aim, Tomatoes! reimagining is exciting.
But, I suspect that ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! will succeed, by and large, through nostalgia. Nostalgia for the 16-bit era, nostalgia for the Sega Genesis, nostalgia for the original game, and nostalgia for the series as a whole. Video game nostalgia isn’t an issue for me (in fact, I’ve come to embrace it), but it does mean that Back in the Groove is quite familiar to its 1991 predecessor.
What little plot there is gets laid out during the introduction and is simply a means to explain the alien duo’s wanderings. You’ve crash landed on earth and must rebuild your ship by finding scattered pieces – sound familiar? Be that as it may, it’s a winning premise insofar as it fits Back in the Groove’s gameplay very well.
As you walk about exploring and filling up the map, searching for the exit elevator, you’ll shake plant life in hope of finding something beneficial. Presents abound, hidden and in the open, but their contents are initially unknown. Do you take a chance and unwrap them early? You could get a nice surprise. By the same token, it could be a waste; what good is an inner tube on a level without water for instance? Most likely you’ll pay to get some of these gifts identified… by a walking carrot. Cash is strewn about, but look out for the many enemies that come out from left field. Enemies that make the walking carrot seem pretty normal by comparison.
Now these adversaries will absolutely flood the later levels (meanwhile, allies are quite scarce). I admit wishing a bit of restraint was in place when it comes to their liberal placement. Like the original game, means to overcome them are few and random (the sequel corrected this). So these threats end up being not so much fun and challenging, but simply annoying and unbalanced as you progress, with the menace of permadeath looming. Having one knock you down to an earlier level can get really old, but it’s part of the challenge, and I do commend the largely non-violent approach. However, a more limited M.O. could make the individual characteristics of these wacky weird enemies stand out more, which they probably deserve. They do bring some mild crudeness, but the game is still rated only E10+
You’ll recognize most of the baddies (and presents used to deal with them) from prior titles, the debut game especially. But the sequel factors in as well. Even with fresh discoveries, you may end up asking “haven’t I seen most of this before?” But uncovering hidden pathways, playing dance rhythm mini-games, and blitzing through the Hyperfunk Zone are still entertaining, especially when playing cooperatively.
Online play is also on offer, but can’t yet compare to local co-op due to crashes and framerate struggles. Stutter is present even when playing solo, which I soon got used to, but the online lag was too much for me. The Back in the Groove team is actively taking feedback, and addressing this is a top concern. Also, some long load times and several minor bugs are worth mentioning, but these are not game breaking.
The game reminds me of the ‘90s and my earlier days of gaming. That said, I could easily see newcomers calling the game dated, monotonous, and wondering what the fuss was about. But I feel that, for better or worse, it’s aimed squarely at early fans. These are the ones that made it a Kickstarter success after all.
A slower-paced game, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! is still quite a challenge on the normal difficulty setting. It’s also exceedingly replayable (with achievements and unlockables) in particular when tackling a random adventure in co-op. But I don’t think it’s for a broad audience. I do wish the time-honored gameplay was offset a bit more by balanced, polished, and tighter design at times. But if you’re “ready for a blast of funky nostalgia” the sense of déja vu that comes from familiar fun won’t be a negative. For the unacquainted, the co-creator, designer, and studio head Greg Johnson worked on Star Control II – if that’s not a selling point, what is? Concerning ToeJam & Earl, I can say the series, and Back in the Groove! especially, has a style all its own. There isn’t anything quite like it.
Review: ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! (Nintendo Switch)
I do wish the time-honored gameplay was offset a bit more by balanced, polished, and tighter design at times. But if you’re “ready for a blast of funky nostalgia” the sense of déja vu that comes from familiar fun won’t be a negative. For the unacquainted, the co-creator, designer, and studio head Greg Johnson worked on Star Control II – if that’s not a selling point, what is? Concerning ToeJam & Earl, I can say the series, and Back in the Groove! especially, has a style all its own. There isn’t anything quite like it.