Updated: Jul 9, 2019
or: How the Funkotron Boys Got Their Groove Back
Released on PS4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Steam on March 1, 2019
Reviewed by Pat Dovale on PS4
ToeJam & Earl are back, and they're funkier than ever. "ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove!" is first and foremost a love letter to the original game, "ToeJam & Earl". Back in the Groove was originally conceived in March 2015 as a Kickstarter that more than doubled its goal. With an original release of August 2016 planned, the game was repeatedly delayed. After a long time and many doubts from the community of whether or not this game will ever see the light of day, it is finally here. So does the game live up to it's hype and long development cycle?
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is first and foremost a roguelike game of exploration. You are funk loving aliens, and your ship has crash landed on Earth. The earthlings are bad, they want to kill you/run you over with a lawnmower/run you over with their ice cream trucks/sign your autograph to death. The goal is to find the 10 pieces of your crash landed ship. If you lose all your lives, it's game over, you start back at the beginning (this is where the roguelike comes into play). You begin every stage with a blank map and on each map you'll either have to find both a piece to your ship and then locate the elevator to the next level or conversely, if there is no piece to the ship on that stage you just need to find the elevator. There is money, hazards, and presents hidden all over the place. Your job is to search the world and populate your map for each stage.
You are funk loving aliens, and your ship has crash landed on Earth
As I booted up ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove, there was a comfortable familiarity. The music was funky, my favorite characters were there (the team was even nice enough to include "old school" ToeJam & Earl as playable characters), the controls were similar and simple, the characters moved the way I remembered them. As a fan of the original game, things were exactly how I had hoped they would be as I booted up my copy of "Back in the Groove". As I made my choices in the character select screen and loaded up the first static world (the randomized worlds require you to unlock them) I knew immediately my hope of a return to form of the original game had been answered, at least at first glimpse.
My wife and I started the game playing co-op, her being a complete newcomer to the series. Local co-op works exactly as it used to. If you're close together, the screen is large, when you move far enough apart the screen splits. You can share presents quite easily and if you are both in the same screen whatever present is used effects both of you. Presents are a major part of this game. You gather presents as you progress through the stages, typically hidden in bushes or trees. When you gather a type of present for the first time, it is essentially a mystery box. You do not know the contents of the present until you use it for the first time. The reason why this is an important aspect of the game is that many presents can be bad for you, there are even some that kill you instantly (both of you if you're on the same screen). The presents can also heal you or find the location of the exit elevator. Some mechanics in the game allow you to find out the true identity of the presents, and that is the primary use of money.
It's these kinds of nuances that keep ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove interesting and fresh.
One of the apparent differences from the original game that I noticed right off the bat was that there is a hugely expanded RPG element to this game. There is a far more fleshed out XP system which allows you to level up. When you level up there are several stats that are boosted, mostly at random. When you level up there is a wheel that spins and determines the stats that get boosted. These can range from upping your speed, improving your searching ability for presents, your luck when opening a present or searching a tree, etc. I really enjoyed this aspect of the game and it made co-op all the more interesting. If I had a better searching and present ability than my partner maybe I'd spend the majority of the time searching for items and opening them while my partner who has a higher speed and health bar stat will go searching the map. It's these kinds of nuances that keep ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove interesting and fresh. Every time we played, we felt like it was a bit different and changed the dynamic between us.
While we're on the topic of freshness, let's talk about the randomizing maps, the true lifeblood of "ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove". After you play the game a bit you unlock the random maps. This randomizes each level you traverse, where the enemies are, which stages the ship pieces are on, everything. This is another example of where the "roguelike" aspects come into play. This makes the game nearly endlessly replayable. When you mix three other friends in, the game rarely gets old. Between the nine selectable characters, randomizing maps and goals, and mystery presents, you truly never know what you're going to get. That is why I see myself coming back to this game repeatedly.
This makes the game nearly endlessly replayable. When you mix 3 other friends in, the game rarely gets old.
While I really loved ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove, it is not a perfect game. The controls are clunky and slow, there is little action, and at the end of the day you're primarily just walking around a map looking for items. These are the reasons why I personally loved it but I could see it being a problem for other gamers. This type of game is not necessarily for everyone. I personally found it to be a nice unique flavor of co-op gaming, especially in a world that is lacking in couch co-op gaming. The game is staying true to its roots and I think that is why in the end it'll be successful. Given the fate of past sequels, I don't think that this game would have the success that it has had thus far if it had strayed too far from the original. That being said I can see many people being turned off by its simplistic, slow moving, low action nature. If you didn't like the original game or it never seemed like it would appeal to you then this probably isn't the game for you. If you're looking for a unique multiplayer experience for you and your friends to play locally or online, I highly recommend this game.
I can see many people being turned off by its simplistic, slow moving, low action nature
All in all I found "ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove!" to be a real treat. It's randomized maps, presents, enemies, RPG stats, and environments make it a game that I can see myself coming back to time and time again for many years, just like the original that I proudly keep on my shelf. Even though I received a review key for my PS4, I fully plan on pre-ordering a physical copy for my Nintendo Switch over at Limited Run Games. If you are a fan of the original, or you just like wacky, funky co-op games then you absolutely have to play "ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove!". You can download it for Playstation 4, Steam, Xbox, or Nintendo Switch starting on March 1, 2019.