A Jammin’ Return
ToeJam and Earl was one of those obscure franchises that was seemingly doomed to be trapped in the ’90s forever. It debuted on the SEGA Genesis, but failed to get a following outside of that. The first game became a cult classic.
After many years, the Genesis’ weirdest alien duo are back in ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove. This game was funded on Kickstarter and is an attempt to revive these characters into the modern age. Does this sequel make a case for ToeJam and Earl to make it back as big characters, or should they have been left back in the ’90s?
ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove gives a familiar setup for fans. ToeJam and Earl accidentally split up the Earth with a black hole generator and tear their ship apart in the process. Their goal is to then go through a series of levels to find the 10 pieces of their ship to put it back together and get out of dodge. On top of the titular duo, players can select both of their girlfriends as well as their old school versions for those that were fond of the original.
After a brief cutscene that does little more than setting up the game, ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove throws players into the game. At first glance, it’s very difficult to tell what exactly Back in the Groove is supposed to be if you’re not already familiar. Is it supposed to be an adventure game, a roguelike, a light stealth game, or some sort of collect-a-thon? The answer is all of the above.
What makes ToeJam and Earl so interesting (both back in the ’90s and now) is how different it is from every other game. It combines a lot of weird ideas and mashes them all together. There are multiple obstacle types to be found in each level, but there are also plenty of collectibles to find and secret paths to uncover. You’ll be doing a little bit of everything, which is in the spirit of the original release. One minute, you’ll be dancing with a hula girl and the next, you’re zipping through Hyperfunk Zones based on infinite runner games. It’s a wild mix that constantly leaves the player guessing.
All of these bizarre elements, like I mentioned before, are to preserve the spirit of the original game. The games ill-liked sequel was turned into a platformer at SEGA’s request, so Back in the Groove‘s insistence on the old way of doing things will be sure to please fans. Everything they loved from the original is here and then some. However, that does also serve to the game’s detriment.
Some of the elements in Back in the Groove are questionably placed and seem to only be there because they were in the original ToeJam and Earl. For example, water is present in the game, in which players can swim. However, the water rarely leads players to anything exciting and often just sits in the middle of a level. It can be ignored without any impact. Furthermore, the animation for getting in and jumping out is so long, they not only halt momentum, but they remove any desire to want to swim in the first place. With a modern sequel, I wished there could’ve been some quality of life improvements in that area to make things flow a little better.
Despite my complaints with some of these outdated design elements, there’s still a lot to enjoy in ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove. The game supports local and online co-op with up to four players. There are different worlds to complete in the form of fixed and random runs. Even within each playthrough, there are several minigames to partake in to mix things up. It’s all a satisfying package.
Moving to the presentation of ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove, there was a bit I wanted to talk about, as I have a few core issues. I will say that the game’s soundtrack is brilliant, feeling appropriately trapped back in the early ’90s where hip hop was center stage and kids were saying things like “wacky.” Likewise the menus are filled with these angular shapes colored in bright yellows and purples, which helps the game sell the extreme image that it tries to replicate.
The big aspect of ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove that has me conflicted is the graphics. With modern technology, the game was updated with a 2D art style set on an isometric floor. The 2D shapes are all drawn and animated well, but it presents a key problem I found with the game. The original ToeJam and Earl released on the SEGA Genesis in 16-bit graphics. Not only did this force the game to have a consistent art style between the characters and the levels, but it also made the game look more attractive. Many of the characters in ToeJam and Earl were ugly and unsightly to look at, but the limited capabilities of 16-bit hardware softened the blow. It all still felt cohesive and fun. Everything looked ridiculous, but it didn’t look downright hideous.
This problem pops up with adding much more detail to the art style in Back in the Groove. The new playable characters are a bit hard on the eyes, and almost all of the humans and enemies are just ugly to see. They’re downright grotesque, having abhorrent facial expressions and details that just make you want to cringe. To be fair, fans of the original might like this approach, but I think there’s something to say about the possibility of keeping this new sequel done in a 16-bit style. As it stands now, I think the 2D art style with greater detail on the characters set against a pseudo-3D backdrop wasn’t the best choice.
System reviewed on: Nintendo Switch.
Disclaimer: A review code for ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove was provided by the publisher.