ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove Review – Skipping a Beat

ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove Review – Skipping a Beat

Most of us crave revisiting the days of our childhoods — times in which life was easier, less whack, and of course, more funky fresh. For me, there’s something about early 90s funky hip hop tunes and games that just sparks mass, satisfying nostalgia in my heart and soul.

The original ToeJam & Earl game that released back in 1991 (the year I was born) was known for being a laid-back, unique roguelike that was infused with 90s hip hop jams, yet I’ve never played it nor the sequels that followed it. However, after a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised $508,637, some slight delays, and other development woes, ToeJam & Earl are back with the release of the fourth entry in the series, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove. Having moved and grooved my way through it, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is dope at first, but after a while, it just isn’t all that and a bag of chips.

ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove has the iconic 90s duo, ToeJam and Earl, along with two additional characters, Lewanda and Latisha, accidentally flying their ship right into a black hole that ends up having them crash land on the planet Earth. With their ship broken into 10 pieces that are widely scattered in floating islands across Earth, the crew must go on an adventure to find all the pieces to put their ship back together so they can return to their home planet, Funkotron. The player then chooses from one of six playable characters at the start (there are three additional characters, but they need to be unlocked), and from there, it’s up to the player to explore Earth and complete the crew’s ship rebuilding mission.

From what I’ve read about previous titles in the series, especially the original game that’s loved by many, ToeJam & Earl games have never been known to have a memorable and deep story and ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove follows suit. Ultimately, the story is more of an afterthought, and character dialogue, from both playable and non-playable characters (NPCs), consists of simple one-liners, like “I’m getting sand in my shoes” that don’t reveal anything about the characters themselves, which is a shame since the characters have such an old-school cool cartoon look. In co-op mode, the playable characters in the game happen to interact with one another more and offer some fun, back-and-forth dialogue, however, this occurs only once in a while. It’s understandable that the developer wanted ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove to be a true sequel to the original, but it’s a missed opportunity to not throw in more character development and world building into the mix to further have players immersed in the game.

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While the story and character development are almost non-existent in ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove, its gameplay gets a loud and proud “booyah” at the start. There are four game types (tutorial world, fixed world, random world, random world hardcore mode) that each varies in some way, but the fixed world has 25 randomly generated floors to explore through. Given that there are just 10 spaceship pieces in total for players to find, not every floor has a piece. To go up to the next floor, though, players must locate an elevator, all the while interacting with or avoiding NPCs, acquiring and using presents (items), leveling up, and choosing to take part in two mini-games, “Jam Out” a rhythm-based mini-game and “HyperFunk Zone” a timed endless runner mini-game, along the way. To put ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove simply, it’s like a crazy cool fanny pack full of fresh goodies — it’s all exciting and groovy, but just like a fanny pack, though, the game gets old quickly — regardless of whether or not you’re playing solo or via co-op.

The main issue with ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is that it relies on simplicity and quantity over quality with its gameplay. This might be a nice change of pace for some players, especially those looking for a more chill game to play with a friend, but overall, the game becomes highly repetitive almost like someone playing MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” on repeat for hours. Make no mistake about it, though, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is jam-packed with creative content to explore and discover.

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For instance, all of the Earthlings (the NPCs) you encounter like a group of Dungeons & Dragons players that give cash if you roll a certain number, the presents you open such as one that grants you rocket skates to quickly dash across floors, and the unique cast of playable characters you can play as are all fun — but once you’ve played a few levels, you’ve played them all. It’s unfortunate that ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove gets wiggity whack and strikingly less fun overtime because I feel like it shouldn’t be, and sadly, the two mini-games, suffer from the same “less fun” fate that surrounds the rest of the game.

Playing alone isn’t the way to go with ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove, it’s best played with a friend. What’s rad about the co-op mode is how players can share a screen when together, but then when players are apart from one another, the game features a smooth use of split-screen. Also, any presents that are used when both players are on the same screen affect both players. The split-screen mechanic allows players to divide and conquer each floor, making the game even easier to play, but still, just like in playing in solo mode, you and your buddy will most likely want to just play through ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove once.

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What truly sticks out about ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove, though, is its zany 90s cartoon show vibe that reminds me of the classic cartoon TV show, Rocko’s Modern Life. The game is bizarre with a capital “B”, and it’s hard not to love its groovy tunes and art style that completely capture your attention and remind you of the good old days when Saturday morning cartoons were actually worth watching.

ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is a strange game that’s difficult to truly recommend to everyone. For better and for worse, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is like one of those burned CDs you used to make, but this time, it’s high-def and has a few new jams. For old-school gamers and series fans looking for a funky fresh remix on the original ToeJam & Earl, jumping into ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is a quick, rad, nostalgic trip worth going through. However, everyone else might be capable of leaving this hidden gem in the past.

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