Who’s ready for some funky fresh tunes and old school ToeJam and Earl beats? Getting to finally sit down and digest the latest entry in this nostalgic franchise, it’s a breath of fresh air to see it returning to the foundation of what made the original game so great. A true sequel we thought would never happen, 8,873 backers and $508,000 dollars on Kickstarter said otherwise. Now, 27 years after the first, the game that should have been Panic on Funkotron is finally here in ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove!
Title: ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove
Publisher: HumaNature Studios
Developer: HumaNature Studios
Available On: PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Reviewed On: PlayStation 4 Pro
Release Date: March 1, 2019
Game Provided By HumaNature Studios for the Purpose of This Review
We’re back on Earth. ToeJam and Earl have crash landed once again, and the objective is simple. Traverse across randomly generated sections of the planet, avoid earthlings that chase you around endlessly and try to harm you, interact with the NPC’s that are highlighted as friendly, collect presents, find the scattered pieces of Lamont’s destroyed spaceship, and get the hell off this rock!
I wasn’t ready for the waves of nostalgia that were going to rush into my thoughts when booting this up for the first time. ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove plays identically to the original entry, with a few elements being brought over from the second. A fixed, isometric camera angle allows players to see a small section of each map, and wandering about will uncover other pieces of tile and land. Some stages have a piece of the Rapmaster Rocketship on them (and you’ll be able to tell by a ship symbol next to the stage name if there is one there), some don’t. It really is as simple as it sounds, but don’t let that fool you into thinking the game is a cakewalk. Avoiding the earthlings can be quite challenging, especially the further in to each game you get.
The aesthetic of everything being presented oozes with 90’s flavor. From the color palette, to the backgrounds used in the title screen and loading screens, to the font itself. You’ll feel like you’re playing a game released in 1991, not 2019. That’s a testament to how much of a love letter this really is to the original TJ & E experience. Series co-creator Greg Johnson is back in full force with his crew at HumaNature Studios after their successful release in 2013, Doki-Doki Universe, which I quite enjoyed.
Several different game modes are available, each offering something slightly different. The Tutorial World is half the size of the regular game and is a great way to be introduced to the franchise if you’re coming in completely blind. Random World is the way the game was meant to be played, offering 25 different levels that randomly generate each time you play it. Fixed World is more or less the same as Random World, except it doesn’t randomly generate. Finally, Hard World will unlock after finishing Random World at least once, and trust me.. this is a brutal mode. Unlocking additional characters and new hats can be done in any mode except for Tutorial World. Speaking of, there are over 20 hats that can be unlocked to change the way certain characters play. 9 characters in all can be taken through the entire game. Starting out, you have ToeJam, Earl, Latisha, Old Skool ToeJam, Old Skool Earl, and Lewanda. Flo, Peabo, and Geek Jam can be unlocked, rounding out the roster of 9.
The early areas each time you start a new game will be primarily spent shaking trees and houses, collecting presents, and occasionally finding a piece of the ship. Exploration and searching around is key to the game, as it’s a great way to find presents, food, and extra cash. Sometimes, you may even shake out a bowling ball, which is just waiting to land on your character and cause a decent amount of damage.
Presents! Littered across the land and found by searching, these gifts will do everything from help you to severely impact your gameplay. Favorites such as the Hi Tops and Spring Shoes return for an added boost to speed, and yes, so do the Mean Rocket Skates unfortunately. Many a times I’ve fallen off the side of the world thanks to those bad boys. A multitude of different presents are waiting to be discovered each time you enter an area that will undoubtedly change the nature of the game from floor to floor.
As you move through the levels and collect items, you will begin to earn experience. This is how you progress the individual stats for each character. Once you have enough experience, shown as a green meter next to the icon of your character, you can visit the Wiseman in a Carrot Suit to randomly get a boost to three stats and go up a rank. Always starting out as a Wiener, you can move all the way up 14 different ranks to become the Funklord. Who doesn’t want to be a Funklord?
One thing that I particularly enjoyed were the few updates we were given. The original ToeJam and Earl had the basic climate for Earth and a desert-type area. For Back in the Groove, we are introduced to wintery and snowy areas that make it more difficulty to travel about, as well as nighttime settings, complete with your character holding a flashlight to help see since it is rather dark.
I also found some fun in the 2 mini-games. The first, Hyperfunk Zone, is carried over from Panic on Funkotron and is more or less a Bonus Stage from Sonic. Sliding about on squiggly lines and collecting items while trying to stay within the HFZ. The other mini-game is a dance off between you and an alien creature from Funkotron. You’ll be presented with a beat and buttons that need to be pressed, and doing so correctly and with good timing will award a decent sum of money. If you talk to the alien again, you’ll then have to make up your own beat and do it again. While I didn’t chat with these creatures every time I saw them, it is an easy way to get a few dollars if you’re low.
Which brings us to what made ToeJam and Earl so awesome back on the Sega Genesis. The multiplayer and co-op experience. The split screen action returns for you and up to three of your friends. Thanks to modern technology (no dial-up here, folks!), the fun can be had online, but for an authentic experience, I highly recommend the local couch co-op mode. Old friendships will be broken and new ones forged as you aim to become that Funklord!
That isn’t to say ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove is a flawless release. Some of the animations and character movements can be a bit off, and certain floors are quite a bit more tedious than others. One of the biggest things to take note of is how you’ll be playing through the game. If the sole intent is to group up with friends and escape back to Funkotron, you’re going to have a much more enjoyable time than if you plan to run through the game as a solo, single player experience. If the latter describes you, the journey will get rather boring after the three additional characters are unlocked, as the game doesn’t change at all from one playthrough to the next except for the random generation of the terrain. Couple that on with each run of the game can be finished in under 90 minutes, and it’s easy to see why this is more of a party game than anything else.
There’s absolutely a place in the market for this in 2019. If you were alive to enjoy the originals, prepare to feel like a kid all over again. Featuring catchy tunes, a totally 90’s vibe, and the same gameplay that made the original a cult classic, this was what fans wanted back in 1993. Will this bring on a resurgence of ToeJam and Earl as a household series? Probably not. But it’s a great reminder of something special from gaming history, and I for one am glad to see it once again.
7.0 / 10