The Review: Toejam & Earl – Back in the Groove

It’s been 28 years since the original Toejam & Earl was released for the Sega Mega Drive / Genesis. In that time, we’ve seen the massively dividing Toejam & Earl 2: Panic on Funkotron, as well as the largely forgotten Toejam & Earl III: Mission to Earth, but it was the original release that the large majority of the series’ fans remember most fondly. I myself have memories of being chased by the Boogey Man, the hip ‘jammin’ music beating away in the background, and the little soundbites of Toejam and Earl themselves, helping me to understand their characters that little bit more. The sequels went and did things quite differently and fans of the original title were left feeling quite disconnected with it all. We never would have expected a true sequel to TJ&E nearly 3 decades later, but lo and behold it has arrived.

My initial impressions of the game when trailers were first released were surprisingly positive. It’s easy to roll your eyes when old franchises are brought back in poor rehashes to make a quick buck, but Back in the Groove looked like the original TJ&E, seemed to play like the original TJ&E, and had that same zany sense of humour which we grew to love all of those years ago. I wasn’t totally sold on the new clean look, it reminded me of a very smart flash game, but otherwise everything else looked and sounded on target for what I would have expected from a sequel to the original classic. I was cautiously looking forward to it.

Starting up the game on the Nintendo Switch, and it feels like the classic TJ&E that you’ve known and loved all of these years. Those same ‘Rocko’s Modern Life’ backgrounds, that same bass driven ‘cool’ music, and the same characters you know and love. The story is a little lazy and reminiscent of the original with the spaceship crash and having to pick up the parts to get it back together, but then we weren’t expecting Great Expectations here. For fans of the original, there’ll be no complaining here, and newcomers won’t know too much about what went down in the past.

The menu is extremely colourful as you’d expect, and has plenty of options about it. You can choose to start a new game, load a saved game, or play online. You can also replay the intro movie, view a long list of attainable achievements, check out a LONG list of unlockable items, and play around with some languages and audio settings. I’d never view the credits in a game usually, but this having been Kickstarted, I thought it could be interesting to see what they did with it. Firstly, there was a nice simple tribute to Gregory Savoy Brown, the voice actor for Earl who passed away last year. You also get to see Macauley Culkin’s cartoon visage as an executive producer,  and you have the opportunity to fly through space looking at the list of all of the Kickstarter backers names, and there’s thousands. Nicest of all though is the jukebox of tunes you can choose to play from the game. It’s a huge setlist of tracks, and the amount of variety on offer here shows just how much work went into the instrumental portion of the audio, it’s good stuff. The slower tracks work much better in this game mind you, the fast ones feel quite jarring against the slow pace of the gameplay on offer.

Staying within the audio of the game, and I have to admit, I absolutely hate the voice acting for the whole cast of the playable characters within the game. It’s not that they do a terrible job, they’re just not what I would imagine hip and happening aliens to sound like. The little squeaks, oh yeahs, and jammins’ that the alien pair would give us in 1991 was just fine with me. I just had this horrible feeling when they started speaking in the opening cutscene, a bit like how I imagine I’d feel should Link ever be given his own actual spoken voice. I’m sure some will love it, especially if they were fans of TJ&E3, but it didn’t work for me at all. Thankfully, there’s very little in the way of vocals within the game, and it is mostly found within the cutscenes. Think Banjo & Kazooie, that’s what was needed here.

So I start up a single player game, and for the most part, playing the game on the Switch felt relatively painless. You get the choice to use either the D-Pad or analogue stick, depending on your preference. Both worked well for me, and I sometimes found myself switching between them on the fly depending on what I was doing in-game. Those narrow pathways require a bit more precision to stop you falling over the edge, so the D-Pad is a godsend here. Immediately, it felt like I was back playing the Mega Drive again. It’s a little faster than the original but let’s be honest, that was a bloody slow game. Same layout of controls with your sneaking, present menu, and map button. You also have a chat wheel which will no doubt be useful when playing online, though it can be used in single player to provoke your enemies.

Graphically the game looks lovely, and plays very close to how the original looked. A grass jagged land with greenery, lakes, and houses dotted about the landscape, it’s a lot busier than it used to be. All sprites in the game have that Flash look about them, which some will love, and others will hate, but what this means is you get some fantastically animated characters roaming the levels. It’s tried to retain the original look from 1991 while still adding it’s own little bit of spice into the proceedings. I think it works, though I am also a pixel fan.

Speaking of those characters, there’s so much going on with this cast, it’s hard to know where to start. With an initial 6 characters to play as (with 2 being classic versions of our heroes), you’re open to choose whichever character suits your fancy. They all have their own unique stats so can offer you different ways to play. Every individual in the game has been crafted with precision, and there’s no mistaking who’s who and who can benefit and hinder you. There’s Santa Claus who you can sneak up on to steal a present from, and the huge opera singer who can destroy all enemies who come within her piercing screeching vocals. Ghandi is in force, providing a circle of protection from all enemies, and you can also partake in a nice bit of Japanese cuisine from the local sushi stand, with chef ready to provide you with your order. And they’re just some of the characters who will help you.

As for the bad guys… WOW. Everyone you knew and love from the original is present (though I’ve not come across the hamster, bees, or the nerd herd), and in some case they look better, in others, not so much. The chickens are better than ever, now launching eggs rather than tomatoes from their cannon. The shopper is as annoying and frustratingly fast as she ever was, and Cupid is still up in the air, looking the ugliest he has done, and still screwing up your controls with his love arrows. A quick slap from your partner, should you have one, will cure you of your lovesick blues. New enemies come in the form of drillers, internet trolls, Toejam & Earl fanboys and girls, and mobile phone obsessed teens. The dentist has lost a little bit of the fear that came with his very creepy over the top bounding about, he just feels a bit more straight up psychotic now. The Boogey Man was probably the scariest enemy in the original game, appearing from out of nowhere to ambush you. He’s become more of a comic book character now though and is a lot more present so doesn’t come with that same sense of the heebie-jeebies you used to feel when you suspected he was around..

In the background, you see space surrounding you with stars littering the night sky. Boy was this a missed opportunity. It’s just a static background with stars that aren’t even animated. Even the Mega Drive managed to pull off a bit of parallax scrolling to help the mood along. This just felt really lazy and I would have loved to see some twinkling stars, the odd meteorite, maybe even a rare spaceship going about it’s own business. There’s nothing sadly. Stranger still, gameplay videos from more than 2 years ago show a background with twinkling stars, what looks like a nebula in the midst of it all, misty effects… it’s gone in 2019. Shame.

The game plays almost as a carbon copy of the original, with you using the presents you find dotted about the land to work your way up through 25 levels to find all of your spaceship parts and finally leave this mad world behind. Presents are pretty much the same as you remember, with speed boosts, bouncy springs, and tomatoes all making welcome returns. There’s a LOT more new presents as well though, and you’ll unlock more as you play through the game and tick off certain tasks.

A few extras have been thrown in which adds a lot to the game, the biggest addition to the fray is the stats that every character comes with. Speed can be improved upon, as can your life bar and inventory size plus a few other factors. Stats are improved by visiting the Wise Old Carrot when it’s time to level up and you’ll receive 3 individual stat boosts every time this happens. With how difficult some of the games enemies can be, it’s a welcome feature as it can help massively in the later levels when you start to come across the souped up versions of existing bad guys.

And it’s the difficulty which will put off newcomers to the series more than others. Trying to take on these evil bad guys without worthwhile presents becomes a simple case of running away as fast as you can and hope that they give up the pursuit. Even when you do have a slingshot, or tomatoes to toss, it’s not the easiest targeting system to use and you’ll find yourself missing more times than not. Enemies will gang up on you, they’ll bump you off the side of the land and back down to the level below for you to start the frustrating journey back up again. You’ve simply got to get better with managing your present use or just hope that you don’t come across the worst of them.

Hyperfunk Zone makes an unwelcome return from TJ&E2. I hate this bonus game which sees your character racing along as a childish crayon scribble, on scribbled platforms with scribbled walls, doors, and XP boosts. It runs way too fast and you don’t see enough of the game area to truly enjoy it. Imagine playing Subway Surfers but with half of the draw distance to take in of your impending obstacles. I ended up avoiding these mini-game doors as it’s just a truly abhorrent experience. The dance-off mini-game also returns from TJ&E2 and is more of a slight diversion than anything significant. Think an extremely watered down version of Guitar Hero that pops up once a level if you so choose to get involved with it.

I sat down to try out the multiplayer with my wife, who had hazy recollections of the original from when she was a kid. Tutorial mode seemed the best place to start with her, as gaming isn’t exactly her forte. It was nice to see the characters still high-five each other when they come together, and still splitting some health if one is significantly lower than the other. They have some fun conversations with each other too, which I was genuinely interested in to see where it would go.

A staple of the original game, the forced split-screen is here and it has its pluses and minuses. Firstly, there are two modes of split-screen, ‘fixed’ and the new ‘dynamic’. I went with dynamic to see what the deal was. Due to the far superior technology the game is now running on, the segueway from a shared screen into split-screen is flawless, however, this brings with it its own issue; it’s so flawless, it’s often disorienting as to whether you’ve suddenly appeared on the top half of the screen or the bottom. The original game used the ‘fixed’ mode of split screen which meant Toejam always appeared up top, Earl down the bottom. Back in the Groove’s dynamic mode tries to be more clever than that, so if you move off the screen at the top, you’ll always appear in the top half, regardless of which character you’re playing as. Next time you join up with your ally, you might find yourself wandering off the bottom, and now you’re playing the bottom half. On paper, it makes sense, but the way the game blends from single screen to split and vice versa is so fluid you’re sometimes not prepared for it when it happens. And it happens a lot. My wife hated it and was sometimes thinking she was playing as my Earl when she was actually Toejam. Needless to say, we went straight back to the fixed mode after this.

I wanted to give the online multiplayer mode a try to see what it was like playing in a 4-player team but sadly I was unable to get past the ‘loading’ washing machine symbol. Could have simply been an issue with my Switch or Wi-Fi as I have seen others talking about what they experienced with it but alas, was not to be with my playthrough.

Despite my few complaints with the game, as an overall experience this is a wonderful love letter to it’s retro big brother. If you loved the original Mega Drive game, and was then disappointed with the two sequels that followed, prepare to revisit many nostalgic memories when you start getting stuck in to Back in the Groove. Newcomers may be puzzled as to what the fuss is about, old-timers will relish the opportunity to get stuck into the Earthlings yet again as our favourite funky alien chums.

Find me jammin’ @auto2112