Back again almost 25 years after their adventures on Sega’s Mega Drive/Genesis, ToeJam & Earl return with Back in the Groove. It’s out for Xbox One, Playstation 4, Nintendo Switch and PC, and this review’s based on the Xbox One version.
Our decision to playtest Back in the Groove on the Xbox One wasn’t entirely random either, because even though the duo is mostly remembered for their Sega-based adventures there was also an Xbox-based third game in the series. Mission to Earth, however, never quite reached that cult status of the first two games.
What ToeJam and Earl are probably best remembered for, is the fact that they were “different” in that day and age. No one had even heard of the terms roguelike and roguelite back then, but that’s the kind of gameplay that the series helped pioneer back in the early 1990s. The fact that it did so with a visually funky flair/weirdness and musically funky soundtrack certainly helped cement the game into memory as well.
In Back in the Groove, you have to put your Rapmaster Rocket back together by finding pieces of it across a series of levels. These are pre-designed, but after completing the game you can opt for randomly generated levels that increase replayability for ToeJam and Earl’s latest adventure.
Normally, I’ll take carefully designed levels over procedurally generated ones any day, but in ToeJam and Earl it doesn’t matter that much – there is so much random stuff going on that going about the game in a linear fashion wouldn’t make much sense. Just like how much in the game doesn’t make sense, intentionally. ToeJam and Earl was always full of weird and random stuff, and Back in the Groove is no different. Pickups can go either way (good or bad), and their effects will range from a useful weapon (like a slingshot) to a bout of flatulence. Yes, you read that correctly. If you don’t want to be surprised by this risk versus reward mechanic you can have your loot identified for you as well, but it’ll cost you a small fee each time.
While there is a level structure in place (you find ship pieces, then ride an elevator to move on), ToeJam and Earl isn’t filled with narrative highlights that help pace the game. Instead, there’s a constant stream of activities, odd characters to interact with, secret areas to find and items to discover. As diverse as all that is, however, it does sort of blend together after a while – but ToeJam and Earl’s kind of repetition is the type that’s easy to forgive if you enjoy their unique brand of wackiness.
ToeJam & Earl – Back in the Groove is made even more fun by the inclusion of multiple modes through which you can play the game in multiplayer. There are local and online modes to enjoy, with local seamlessly switching between full screen and split screen modes as you venture off on your own little quests of discovery while your partner does something else. And while it’s great fun to enjoy the game through some couch co-op, it’s wonderful to see that online support is also excellent – it supports up to four players at once and the game’s a great fit for that. Covering more ground as a team, you can quickly and effectively scour a level for its secrets and items, and trade them among your buddies.
Despite the novelty of online four-player gameplay, ToeJam and Earl – Back in the Groove is still going to be very familiar to fans of the original. It’s just as colorful, (to some) overwhelming and has a similar soundtrack as well – it echoes the sound of the early nineties rather than bring it to the present day. For a title with a ton of retro appeal to begin with, this is a smart choice. It’s not a game that will be universally loved, but fans of the original should waste no time in picking this one up.