Disclaimer: This review mainly reflects our experience of playing 2 player online.

The funky 90’s alien duo haven’t had it easy since their debut in 1991. After enjoying some success and hitting cult classic status with the first game in the series, the two follow up sequels were met with mixed reactions and never quite lived up to what the original game accomplished. While each new iteration tried to do something new, it continually pulled further away from the original gameplay that made it such a hit in the first place. Now, after a 17-year hiatus, a successful Kickstarter campaign, and the original co-creator back at the helm, Back in the Groove! promised to be the game ToeJam & Earl fans have been waiting for. Does this nostalgia-infused reimagining achieve peak funky freshness? Or did every just seem better in the ’90s?

Gameplay:

Pat: This is classic ToeJam and Earl. This is the follow up I always hoped for since way, way back when my brother and I used to try to beat the original game in a single sitting. This rogue-like adventure captures all the things fans loved about the original. As one of 9 playable characters, you move through “levels” (they act more like floors really) exploring and revealing more of your map for each floor. As you progress, you’ll gather up cash, presents, XP, and interact with earthlings (both harmful and helpful) as you search for the of the missing pieces of your spaceship or an elevator that will take you to the next floor/level. Find all 10 pieces of your spaceship and you’ll beat the game. The gameplay boils down to trying to navigate successfully through each level, using presents, (which act as power-ups/items that can help/hinder your progress or even troll your partner as I quickly found out) and avoiding or confronting the earthlings that stand in your way. The XP system is great and adds a layer of randomization to each playthrough since you don’t get to choose which of your stats increase, but instead, are at the mercy of random chance. Some runs you might have a massive inventory, but be an extremely slow walker, while other runs have you speeding along, but without the space to hold many presents that might be key to your survival. Success isn’t measured by just beating the game, but beating the game multiple times and pushing yourself to a higher difficulty each time. I have extremely fond memories of the original and have played other games similar to this (Don’t Starve comes to mind) so I was pretty excited to jump in and play.

As we booted it up and started playing, I’m sad to say, my excitement wore off pretty quickly. I wasn’t really digging it. It was slow to start and felt kind of clunky, but I passed that off as the game being too easy since we started in the “tutorial world”. By the last couple of levels of the tutorial world, all the earthlings completely vanished and we were just walking around empty maps and making an easy go of getting all of the ship parts. Thankfully, it picked up a bit once we bumped up the difficulty and started another playthrough. Just as we started to get in the groove of things, once again, all the earthlings disappeared as did all of the trees and other environmental objects, until we were left with levels that consisted only of the basic map outline and the elevator to get to the next level. It was that point I realized that this wasn’t a difficulty scaling feature – it was a bug. And that’s ultimately Back in the Groove‘s biggest flaw. We ran into so many bugs, glitches, crashes, and disconnects, that I have a hard time not calling the game broken. After so much development time and Kickstarter resources, the game should NEVER have been shipped in the state it’s in. Maybe it was just the Internet acting up that day, or maybe we just had a bad connection, but it didn’t leave a great impression. The classic TJ&E gameplay is there, (although honestly, it’s not as enjoyable as I remember) but just as we started to have fun with it, something else would pop up and bog the overall experience down. Several times we had to exit out, restart, reconnect, and try again. There was lag and a weird “hitchiness” when both players are within proximity to each other and it just never felt smooth. Sometimes I’d hit a “hitch” at the wrong time and get killed or knocked off the screen and down to a previous level, at no fault of my own. Pair that up with some unusually long load times and you’ve got a recipe for frustration. Having said all that, I did put some time into the single player experience and found it to be mostly free of these types of flaws and much more enjoyable experience overall. But nobody buys ToeJam & Earl for singleplayer. My entire enjoyment of the series revolves around having another homie to play along with, and it’s that experience in which I’m reviewing and that experience which has, unfortunately, fallen flat.

Chandler: For fans of the classic ’90s ToeJam and Earl games, Back in the Groove no doubt wants to pull you in and tug on those nostalgic heartstrings for our favorite rap-loving aliens. Everything about the experience is a throwback to the original source material as the game is essentially both a sequel and a reboot. The masters of funk are back at it again and find themselves back on Earth locating pieces of their broken ship. Your mission: find the ship pieces, avoid the earthlings, and don’t fall off the island you wiener. Pat already provided and in-depth look on the game mechanics above, so I’ll just jump into the good and the bad.

Good: Seeing the earthling characters from the past really took me back. I laughed at myself a few times trying to remember how I used to avoid the Wahini Girl, Cupid, Mower Man, the dreaded Boogieman and much more. I found getting around them now is an even greater challenge since the levels are more densely populated than the original game. Thankfully, the game equips you with plenty of mystery presents to defend yourself along the way. From inter-tubes to rocket shoes, the items can really enhance the experience. My favorite was the body switch simply because I got to see my buddy freak out as I swapped characters with him and had total access to his inventory of presents. At its core, the game certainly tries to capture the spirit that has made ToeJam and Earl wonderfully strange and a beloved cult classic.

Bad: Glitches galore, I can’t overstate this enough. At least 10 times I had to restart the game because I had either been stuck in a loading menu, been frozen through the floor, every NPC disappeared, or randomly there was no more audio. I understand this is a Kickstarter-backed game, but come on. It really felt like there was zero quality assurance testing to iron out these bugs.

Controls:

Pat: You’ll pick up the controls quickly and there isn’t anything too complicated. You can open presents, interact with objects in the world, use some canned text responses if you’re not voice chatting, and use a “search” button to highlight hidden items. Opening and using the assortment of presents is one of the more interesting elements of the game and they never stopped surprising me. The game contains a wonderful trove of different presents. Some good, some bad, some that give you the power to troll, and some that I still haven’t quite figured out what they actually do yet. Each one controls just how you’d expect and there are no real surprises here.

Chandler: Easy to pick up and rather straight forward – I had the controls down within five minutes. Besides the core mechanics, the rhythm mini-game was fun and it was cool to compete against my buddy in a jam session. Thankfully, Hyper Funk Zone hasn’t missed a step either and is just as enjoyable as ever.

Graphics:

Pat: The good news is, the wacky “Saturday morning cartoon” design, style, and humor is still intact (trust me, nobody appreciates that you can see Retro Earl’s buttcrack as much as I do). However, I’ve been torn on the graphics since some of the early Kickstarter videos. While I appreciate the update in visual fidelity and getting to see some of my favorite Earthling enemies in HD is cool, there is something lost in the translation from the sprites of the original. The look of the game just comes across as low budget and cheap looking. Like it was created in Flash. In screenshots, sometimes, I think it looks pretty good. Then when I’m playing and seeing it in motion, the animation and movement of the characters just seems so stilted and awkward. That’s not to say that it’s all bad though. I really love the aesthetics of the menus and the groovy visuals of the loading screens and level transitions and the Hyper Funk Zone is eye-poppingly cool looking. Overall, it’s a serviceable style and it mostly works once you get used to it, but it’s missing some of the charm and it can feel a little “low rent”.

Chandler: The bizarre universe of ToeJam and Earl works very well on Sega. But seeing their sprites updated visually for modern consoles gave it a very “cheap” look and feel. Creatively, there wasn’t very much to the level design other than changes in the weather, snow or water – desert or grass. It’s actually disappointing to say ToeJam and Earl 2 actually had more imaginative game environments.

Music/Sound:

Pat: The music is a high point. I can’t stop humming this soundtrack and the familiar tunes from the original still pop into my head as some of the catchiest music tracks of all time. The funky hip-hop beats help define the soul and spirit of the game, and I just can’t get enough. I truly love listening to the soundtrack and everything about it is so unique and complementary to this franchise. Most of the sound effects are great and the best ones were instantly recognizable from the original (“Money!”). The returning Earthlings retain their trademark sounds and catchphrases (Boogey Boogey Boogey!) and it was a fun nostalgia trip to hear them again.

Chandler: Alright! Hands-down the music is the best part of the game. The synth-o-funk score and recognizable sound effects are back and could you really have a ToeJam and Earl game without it? Just sit back and jam out because some of these hip-hop beats are instant hooks.

Summary:

Pat: At the end of the day it’s difficult to give a blanket recommendation for ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove. While there is fun to be had, my experience was hampered by the technical hiccups and bugs. I can say that I had more fun playing in single player. It’s a nice “chill out” game to turn on and veg out. But mainly playing single player defeats the purpose of the game to me, since I’ve always viewed the series as a multiplayer first affair. If you’re already a fan, are playing single player, or local co-op, it’s safe to say you’ll find some enjoyment out of it. But if you’re unsure if this is the game for you, or plan to play extensively online, I would advise you to either skip it or at least wait to see if some of the issues get ironed out in the future.

Chandler: It was around the 2-hour mark where I started to feel that this genre is a relic of the past. As a child, I was blown away by the masters of funk on their extraterrestrial adventure. Now as an adult, the constant repetition of searching bushes, shaking trees and finding elevators feels simplistic and rather dated. It’s certainly a reminder of how far games have come since Sega Genesis and why some things may be better left in the past.

Nevertheless, you have to applaud the developers for really breathing life into a video game franchise rooted in an over-the-top 90’s urban style that has probably reached its expiration date. They certainly have a lot of love for the game and a deep appreciation for the wacky alien duo. The attention to detail really shines through despite its fundamental flaws.

Pros:

  • It’s the best ToeJam & Earl gameplay since the original
  • The funky fresh soundtrack is out of this world
  • It’s a great game to just zone out and play

Cons:

  • It has a cheap, low budget, look and feel to it
  • Suffers immensely from some serious technical issues and bugs when playing online, making it almost unplayable at times
  • It’s the same ToeJam & Earl from the original. I would have been nice to see a bit more of an evolution of the formula

Rating: C (Pat)

Rating: C- (Chandler)

 

Disclaimer: A digital copy of the game was provided by HumaNature Studios for review purposes.

REVIEW OVERVIEW
Pat's Rating
75 %
Chandler's Rating
70 %
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Pat
Likes long walks on virtual beaches and longer walks with Pokemon Go open in the background. Loves all things video games and bleeds Nintendo red. Married a woman who finds his large Amiibo collection only slightly off-putting. Can only fall asleep to the sound of a pug snoring.

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