ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is the fourth game in a series that has spanned three decades and as many genres. Over ten years have passed since ToeJam & Earl III landed on the Xbox without making an impact, but a lot has changed in video games since the early 2000s. Most importantly, independently-developed games have become commercially viable, and sequels to classics don’t need to chase innovation to make fans happy. With this game, we have a return to the spirit of the 1991 Sega Genesis original, dumping the action and platforming of the sequels in favor of the first game’s roguelike roots. Funky alien duo ToeJam and Big Earl are back indeed, and it’s great to see them again in top form to boot.
Hi-Tops, Funky Beats, and Old Men in Carrot Costumes
ToeJam, Big Earl, and their friends Latisha and Lewanda are cruising through the galaxy in the Rapmaster Rocket, and you’re just gonna have to take all that at face value. ToeJam reveals he didn’t get permission to borrow this ride from Lamont, and before long there’s a crash landing on Earth. ToeJam and Big Earl have done literally this exact thing before, so it’s off to the funky races as the player helps the alien crew collect presents, avoid evil Earthlings, and collect the busted parts of the Rapmaster Rocket. If they can survive and blast off, they can return to planet Funkotron and party with all their friends, family, and Kickstarter backers.
It’s a Rogue-like Roguelike
ToeJam & Earl comes from the era when it games of its ilk were called “roguelikes,” because they were literally inspired by the game Rogue. It was before roguelike became its own healthy subgenre. What this means is that ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is a slow-paced, randomized, and run-based affair, with multiple options to tinker around with, no immediate progress between runs, and a relative helplessness on the player’s part.
Regardless of which character you pick, you’ll mostly be running away from enemies. Each wacky cartoon enemy can be avoided by various means, and sometimes even defeated, but your best course of action is to always try to sneak by. A chase can and will lead to taking a hit, if not worse. There are friendly Earthlings as well, some of which you can pay to help you out in a specific way. Otherwise, it’s up to whatever you can pick up off the ground, from spare change and food items, to a huge list of presents.
Presents contain temporary power-ups, many of which provide new ways to avoid enemy contact. Of course, they can also be totally detrimental, from bad, rotten food that hits hard, to items that can send you careening off a ledge and back down to a previous level. The levels continue until you find all the Rapmaster Rocket parts, at which point the run ends, you get a neat reward, and you can go again. It’s the classic Roguelike loop, with a bright and funky coat of paint.
Fun in the Face of Certain Doom
ToeJam & Earl, both the original and Back in the Groove, stand out and continue to stand out against other Roguelike games in how they really just want you to laugh at gags and run away from bad guys, rather than dig into hardcore gaming mode with combat, level grinding, skill trees, so on and so forth. It’s a hardcore genre space, but it only barely cares about being a video game in the first place. It’s all in good fun, and even if you die you’re probably laughing at an army of chickens firing an egg bazooka at you, or a chance encounter to have a rap battle with “Old Otis.”
The fun is in finding all the goofs and jokes, encountering each enemy and seeing what they do, and of course opening each and every present and playing around with the goodies inside. This isn’t a difficult game (on the default difficulty setting) by any means, so as long as you aren’t being careless you won’t find yourself stuck hitting frustrating walls. There’s almost always a health pickup nearby, a present that might help you escape a bad situation, or plenty of EXP to get you to the next level.
The biggest problem working against ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is that once you get all the jokes, it can be hard to push on to be a completionist as much of the gameplay loop blends together. Running around the big level boards and avoiding enemies means what you’re doing at any given moment doesn’t change a whole lot, especially if you’re trying to conserve your presents for tough moments. Once you gain enough levels and your speed gets high enough, you may not even need presents anymore and just waltz from ship part to ship part.
There are also some technical issues, the worst of which sees ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove occasionally hitching for a moment. This never happened to me during crucial moments though, usually here and there when moving around, but mostly just ahead of loading screens. One patch was already delivered during my review time with the game, which tells me HumaNature is supporting the game to some degree.
ToeJam and Earl Back in The Groove Review - Jammin Once AgainWATCH GALLERY
Get Funky With a Friend
The best cure for boredom is always a friend. Just like the past games, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is best played with friends. The careful Roguelike sneaking becomes chaos with multiplayer involved, and chaos with a funk soundtrack that actually slaps is a great time. Online multiplayer is on the menu as well, so you’re covered no matter what your social situation is.
The best part about this is the sheer number of unlocks, which includes a surprising number of extra playable characters, all with their own stats, passive differences, and starting presents. There is plenty of motivation to keep playing even after you win your first run, and all the rewards can add extra dynamics to subsequent runs. That’s exactly what you generally want from games like this, and ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove delivers with a tongue firmly planted in its cheek.
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove feels like the sequel the creators of the original game always wanted to make. It’s a follow-up to the original concept, which ended up lost in the weeds for every previous sequel attempt. It’s a roguelike sort of game, but one that wants you to laugh and have fun instead of constantly dread what’s around each corner. That remains distinct, even after all these years. This isn’t the most elaborate or intense game in its space, but it’s the happiest to be there.
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove review code provided by publisher. Version 1.01 reviewed on a Standard PS4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.