Back in the early 1990s, a video game for the Sega Genesis took the world by storm. Titled ToeJam & Earl, the surprise hit overflowed with 90’s attitude. Two funky aliens crash-landed on Earth forced to repair their ship in the midst of quirky and dangerous earthlings. Part satire of American culture, part comedic send-up of the growing 1990’s era counterculture, ToeJam & Earl wasn’t a big seller at first but became a massive hit to critics and fans alike. As the years went on, the titular alien duo transformed into a pair of recognizable mascots.
The creator of ToeJam & Earl, Greg Johnson, went on to continue the franchise through the generations, including a sequel on the Sega Genesis and later the original Xbox, both using the same premise and gameplay style. Now, in the modern era, Johnson has brought back the iconic alien duo thanks to Kickstarter. ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove takes elements from across the franchise to create a definitive experience only the purest of fans can enjoy.
I mean that almost literally. Back in the Groove purposefully chases the nostalgia dragon in all aspects of its design. Unfortunately, it also presents a game that feels ultimately hollow in being an engaging experience. This new game suffers from a lot of the same problems as Mega Man 11 with its nostalgia. Unlike Mega Man 11, Back in the Groove’s overall package simply doesn’t hold up to the ravages of time.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Back in the Groove is its overall presentation. ToeJam & Earl was always a very cartoony game in the Genesis days, but Back in the Groove takes it to a level that is almost endearing. Visually, all of the game's characters are outlandish with exaggerated features that feel vintage 90’s in its style.
It helps that the game is a living Joe Murray cartoon, harkening back to all of the visual flairs of the original game with modern HD graphics. The attention to detail is frankly impressive, especially in how it emulates the original game; right down to the carrot-mans slouched back or the little devils exaggerated waddle. Even the titular characters animate with all the 90’s swagger you remember.
Sound design is also impressive. The music is just a generic mix of hip hop and funk-styled tunes, but it is pretty solid as a backdrop soundtrack. Each earthling has a number of little audio cues, from screeching fans to the clicking sound of texting fingers to low-key stereotyping from the sushi chefs always speaking Japanese to the peace-loving Gandhi-G shouting ‘namaste’ every five seconds.
It’s borderline annoying at times, but it is effective. Back in the Groove faithfully recreates that sense of 90s’ era attitude, right down to the barrage of gross-out fart jokes that are all too common at the time. What’s missing is the tongue-in-cheek sendup of that world. It’s a weird style of humor to visit back, especially when you realize that Back in the Groove is more reverent of the 90’s over focusing on satire. It is a well-done imitation, but it becomes a fond love letter over a comedic sendup, and that sense of style can only carry things so far.
Regardless of the window dressing, Back in the Groove is an isometric roguelike at its core. The strengths of a good roguelike lie in keeping players interested with a balance of challenge and random level design. Back in the Groove tries to emulate the style of its predecessors here. Your chosen alien collect presents, money, and parts of their ship scattered on Earth. The presents have a random assortment of positive and negative effects. Some let you jump, fly, or even fight back against evil Earthlings. Others just cause chaos or make your job more of a chore. Some Earthlings can also aid you when you need it for a fee. They offer a number of services that let you search levels easier.
Where Back in the Groove starts to fall apart is playing against its roguelike strengths. For starters, most of the challenge comes not from any form of strategy, but from plopping in tons of enemies as an obstacle. Since the player can’t attack normally, their own form of defense is to hoard presents. Most levels eventually follow a typical strategy; running away from enemies while collecting presents, hoping to get something that will help you in a pinch.
Each level throws in a bunch of mini-games to add to your objectives. Some are simple twitch reflex game like the returning ‘Hyper Funk Zone’ mini-game. Others include a pretty weak rhythm game knockoff and rolling a d20 with a bunch of cosplayers for extra cash. Some of these minigames require cash to play, giving a needed incentive to collect it. In the end, all of this adds only a shallow level of variety to Back in the Groove. These minigames are often just minor distractions to the core mechanics, and they can be completely avoided if you prefer to focus on searching the world for what you need.
This dovetails into the ensuing lack of interest. In essence, Back in the Groove is incredibly boring once you strip away the 90’s nostalgia and realize all you are doing is playing a mediocre roguelike. There are four gameplay modes, with two of them (random world and random hard) being unlockable. Players will need to go through the ‘Fixed World’ section before taking on the vastly more interesting random worlds.
Back in the Groove doesn’t have much innovation in it either. There are new features, such as the inclusion of four brand new aliens to go with the returning cast. Each of the nine alien avatars has different stat points, such as movement speed, health or inventory space. However, that rarely comes into play. Leveling up in-game gets random increases into your stats, but it plays like a token addition over a necessary feature.
The only real incentive for beating the different modes is in the unlockables. You’ll get cosmetic hats, new presents and other goodies as you beat the random worlds. Still, once you take away the style it’s just a blasé experience, one that feels soulless and uninteresting throughout. Back in the Groove really struggles to keep players interested, though this might account for how relatively short the experience can be. Players can beat the fixed map in three hours easily. Random world challenges can take a few more hours to sink through.
There is a bit of novelty to Back in the Groove, but at the end of the day, the game will only appeal to the most hardcore fans out there. It is a boring, tedious experience that has the look and feel of its predecessors, but lacks the satirical charm. ToeJam & Earl struggle to find any form of relevance in 2019 beyond a quick nostalgia fix.
TechRaptor reviewed ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove with a copy provided by the publisher. The game is also available on Xbox One and PC via Steam.
- Colorful Graphics and Sound...
- Play's Like The Original Games...
- ...Obnoxious 90's Nostalgia.
- ...Token Additions and Mini-Games.
- Mediocre Rogue-Like Elements.
- Fairly Boring Overall.