ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove Review: An Early 1990s Time Capsule

by David Sanchez March 1, 2019 @ 6:02 am

Reviewed on PlayStation 4

I still remember when the news got out that there was a new ToeJam & Earl game in the works. As someone who had never delved too deeply into the franchise, I was excited to see what this beloved cult classic series had to offer contemporary audiences. Here we are, several years after the initial announcement, and ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is bringing the funk to both its diehard fan base and newcomers to the series.

It’s freakin’ great.

ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is like this weird time capsule of a game: It takes you back to a simpler time in gaming when all that mattered was having fun. It’s quirky, weird, and entertaining, and it should be played by anyone who has a penchant for offbeat games that do their own thing.

Like in the original, the titular characters crash land on Earth and must find the pieces of their ship to get back home. This isn’t the proverbial stuff that legends are made of, but it’s the kind of wacky plot that works in the context of a game where you play as a duo of hip hop aliens.

The fact that ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is a time capsule of sorts means it doesn’t aim to revolutionize, but rather it’s meant to take you back to a specific period. This game is very much a tribute to ’90s culture. The hip hop style of the characters, the funky beats, and the old school gameplay are taken straight from an older generation. “Back in the Groove” isn’t just a title — it’s a mission statement from the game.

The original ToeJam & Earl was a slow-paced dungeon crawler (that takes place outdoors rather than inside actual dungeons). ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove follows that first game’s formula very closely. Every time you enter a new level, you have to search the area for presents and ship pieces. Presents are all boxed and wrapped, so you never know what you’re going to get. Maybe it’s a power-up that makes you move faster. Maybe it’s a portal to a hidden stage. Maybe it’s a beacon that shows you where the exit is.

Or maybe it’s just something to make ToeJam or Earl or one of the other characters fart. Or burp. Or lose all their items.

Unpredictability is a major part of the experience here, and it’s equal parts fun and frustrating — frustrating in that entertaining, maybe-you’ll-laugh-out-loud sort of way. You can collect cash and pay an NPC to reveal the contents of your presents, which is very helpful, but when you don’t have that kind of money to spare and you’re backed into a corner by some enemies, sometimes it’s best to take a risk and see what’s inside that devious little gift box you collected three levels prior.

Speaking of NPCs and enemies, every level is filled with a cast of oddball characters. Some are there to help you level up, refill your health bar, and uncover hidden items. Others are there just for kicks, challenging you to dance-offs and dice rolls. Then there are the enemies, evil humans who are just there to annoy, hinder, and hurt our intergalactic travelers.

In terms of content, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove includes a tutorial mode to teach you the basics, a standard adventure mode, and a randomized mode where the locations of the ship parts and the levels themselves aren’t preset. For folks in need of a bigger challenge, there’s also a hard randomized mode. Getting through a single playthrough will take you about two hours, but that’s only if your characters don’t get killed, which means starting from the very beginning.

You can seek out the ship pieces alone or with up to four players total in local and online co-op. You can even drop in and drop out of random players’ games online. Admittedly, while online co-op is a nice feature to include (and the least ’90s thing about this game), this is a title that’s best played with friends while chilling on a couch.

As you stroll through the various levels looking for your ship parts, you’re treated to a wide collection of funky beats. The music is purposely weird, but the tunes are catchy and fun to listen to while you open presents and try to get away from those pesky humans.

The biggest change to the series comes in terms of the visuals. Where the original ToeJam & Earl had a charming, super-pixelated, hyper-lo-res, almost claymation look to it, Back in the Groove features hand-drawn character animations and 3D environments. It’s a style that works, and thanks to some really bright coloring, the whole thing is reminiscent of both old Nickelodeon cartoons and MTV commercials from the late ’80s and early ’90s. It’s really cool.

Some folks may find the pacing in ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove sluggish and annoying. If you’ve played the original, however, the flow of the game will feel familiar. This is a chill, laidback game that’s more about having a fun time at a slower pace than it is about racking up points or experiencing crazy action sequences. It’s totally counterculture, and it’s an absolute blast.

Score: 8.5 out of 10

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