I was just seven years old in 1992, and had minimal exposure to video games when I first got to play my friend’s brand new Sega Genesis. Sonic the Hedgehog and World of Illusion captivated me, but one of the earliest games I really fell in love with was ToeJam & Earl. Even years later when I finally received my own Sega system, this game remained one of my favorite titles. Likely much of my adoration for this series is due to a nostalgia factor, but whenever I go on a Genesis kick, this is one those titles, along with Beyond Oasis and Streets of Rage 2 that I always seem to gravitate to. Of course it helps that the game remains shockingly fun to this day. Although I think both sequels are terrific games, they didn’t enjoy the popularity of the original, and sadly this series has been out of commission since 2002. Thanks to the magic of crowdfunding and the genius of series creator Greg Johnson, fans of this legendary franchise are finally getting a fourth installment.
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! is modeled after the original game, but it is an entirely new adventure. The concept is simple: the wacky aliens ToeJam and Earl, accompanied by their girlfriends, once again crash land on Earth. In order to return to Planet Funkotron, you must locate their 10 missing ship parts, which are scattered across Earth. Like the previous games, this one is packed with extremely dated urban lingo, as both ToeJam and Earl are amateur rappers on their home planet and come decked out in jewelry and clothing that help match the part. Fortunately, the game is very light on story and there are so many quirky characters and items to help quash some of the cringe-worthy dialogue and toilet humor.
Starting off you can play as either ToeJam or Earl, but you can also unlock their girlfriends, the retro versions of the duo, and a few others playable aliens. Each character has its own special abilities and attributes. For example, Earl can eat rotten food without losing health and ToeJam moves much quicker.
The game is played on floating islands, exactly like the original. You walk around the stage and uncover the map as you explore. Your goal is to retrieve your ship piece if there is one on the level, and then find the elevator, which brings you to the next area. As you progress, the levels get more expansive and become increasingly difficult. It is common to fall of the edge of an island dropping you down to the previous. Naturally, the planet Earth is full Earthlings and you will encounter over 50 of them, each with their own zany personality. Many are dangerous and they will harm you and/or try and knock you off the edge. These range from mall cops, rabid fanboys, mad scientists, and internet trolls. Luckily there are dozens of harmless and helpful Earthlings such as Santa Claus who is loaded with presents, The Wiseman who upgrades your experience level, and the opera singer whose shrill voice destroys other menacing enemies.
You begin as a ‘wiener’, which is the lowest class. As you explore you gain experience and with each class upgrade your stats and skills improve. Presents are scattered around each zone and are plentiful in this game, as there are over 60 different varieties. These gifts can give you temporary power-up skills or weapons, health, and extra lives. However, you don’t know what these gifts are until you open them, and there are plenty of harmful items hidden in these packages, such as a bomb that does critical damage. The best item I found, other than a 1-Up, was the Icarus Wings, which allowed me to fly to parts of the island that are not otherwise easily reachable. There are a total of 25 levels, with the last ship part hiding on the final one. Finally, there is an abundance of food and money scattered about. Food increases your health meter and you can use the currency to purchase, trade, or decipher presents.
There are a few different gameplay modes, and I’ve been describing the Fixed Mode, which is what I’d recommend to most players. The tutorial mode features only 12 islands and is much easier. My 5-year old had a wonderful time playing this and she didn’t become frustrated until the 6th or 7th area. The random mode has all of the islands mixed up and there is no set location for the ship parts or elevators, which is an extra challenge I’d recommend for those who have completed the main quest.
Much like the original title, you can play though this game cooperatively. You share the screen when you are close on the map, but when you become separated it goes split-screen. This is well-made and pretty fun to play with a friend, but it can become frustrating when the other player falls off the edge and you are forced to wait for them to return to your level. Exploration goes a lot faster this way if you are both skilled, as it’s a lot easier to uncover the map with two of you. There are also several presents unique to the multiplayer modes. There is an option to play four players online, which seems like a nice addition, but I imagine it would be extremely challenging to all successfully work together.
Visually, this game is about what you’d expect. There are dozens of kooky characters, but most of the levels look pretty similar: a floating island with a black outer space background. There is a little variety here with some levels featuring darker graphics, snow-filled landscapes, and more ponds, but nothing drastically different. I like that they kept the same flavor as the original, but it would have been nice to have each island feature a completely different theme.
The music and sound all keep with the early ‘90s hip-hop/funk theme. I loved the music in the original, and with Back in the Groove I was not disappointed. Surely, not everyone is going to enjoy this type of music, but thankfully there are no lyrics. Additionally there are plenty of achievements and unlockables, so even after you complete this challenging game, there is plenty of extra stuff to shoot for to satisfy the completionists out there.
Those who share fond memories of the original will surely love playing Back in the Groove! However, since this is the first installment in nearly 17 years, there will be plenty of first-time players. The exploration, huge variety of characters and presents, and the extreme satisfaction of finding a missing ship piece make this game a winner on my scale, but the basic nature of this game, combined with odd and outdated humor will no doubt alienate and confuse gamers used to more traditional and modern games. I think this is a game quite unique in comparison to other modern platform adventures and it is a game anybody can jump in and play.
ToeJam & Earl: Back In The Groove Review
Final Thoughts: GREAT
I’m so happy to see this classic Sega franchise make a comeback. Crowdfunding is surely the best thing to happen to video games in the last decade and as we see more terrific indie games and franchise reboots created with this method. I’m still holding out for new Oasis and Shining Force titles. With Back in the Groove, the story, theme, and dialogue are all rather lackluster and dated, but that doesn’t detract from this being outstanding adventure game that is perfect for the entire family.
Aaron got his NES in 1991 and has loved and collected video games ever since. In addition to gaming, he enjoys Stephen King novels, Twins Baseball, and his cats.