Release Date: March 1, 2019Platform: PS4 (reviewed), XBO, Switch, PCDeveloper: HumaNature StudiosPublisher: HumaNature Studios & Limited Run GamesGenre: Action Platformer
Back in 1991, ToeJam & Earl launched for the Sega Genesis and introduced gamers to two of the most rad rappers in the galaxy. Two sequels followed, in 1993 and 2002, before ToeJam and Earl’s groovy sounds faded out and the pair danced their way merrily into obscurity. Now, though, thanks to a Kickstarter campaign and some unlikely help from Macaulay Culkin, a brand new entry in this funky franchise has arrived.
To bring this project to life, HumaNature Studios raised over $500,000. The result was ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove. It’s exciting just being able to acknowledge the existence of a new entry in this series, but let’s not lose sight of the big question here: is ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove any good?
Short answer: yes, it most definitely is. From the second you load it up, it’s blindingly obvious that this game was crafted with nothing but love for the original title. If you’re going into this game with your own layer of nostalgic feelings, getting stuck into it will feel like slipping into a beloved old pair of slippers: warm, fuzzy, and pretty darned pleasant. Even if you don’t have that historical connection to the series, there’s a lot of stuff to love here.
The game opens with a fun little intro video, which sets up the same basic story and gameplay mechanics from the original title. You’ll venture through 25 unique levels in search of 10 space ship parts, with each of the areas being displayed from a fixed, isometric viewpoint. From the start, you can choose to play as ToeJam, Earl, Latisha, or Lewanda, and there are also “OldSkool” skins for the main pair that allow you to double down on the retro feels if you so wish.
There are numerous difficulties to choose from, including “Toddler” and “Easy Farty”, and it might be wise to try out the Tutorial World or one of the simpler difficulty options before you tackle the main game. After all, when you’ve got the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia firmly fixed to your face, you might not recall just how challenging these games can be.
Plenty of pesky Earthlings in this game threaten to derail your lovely journey back into gaming history. There are loads of familiar foes from the classic games, as well as fresh faces that add modern twists (Texting Person and Cosplay Nerds are among the noobs). A handy ‘Game Manual’ in the main menu can clue you in on which characters are friendly and which ones are out to ruin your day, or if you prefer, you can just jump straight into the game and work it out for yourself. (Just prepare to be annoyed when someone sends you tumbling down through the levels you’ve already completed!)
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is, at its core, a very fun experience. Skirting around the map, picking up presents, and avoiding enemies are very easy ways to kill some time. The mechanics work fine, the graphics are a shiny upgrade on the old school material, and there is a lot of joy to be found in deploying the right power-up at precisely the right time. Once you get into the swing of things, knowing who to avoid and who to embrace, when to run and when to fight, there are heaps of satisfaction in feeling like you’re totally bossing it. The swagger and humor of the characters are present and correct, as well, adding moments of levity that will break up your mission nicely.
Special mention must also be given to the music: Cody Wright and Nick Stubblefield, the credited “Musical Funkmeisters” on the game, have served up a bevy of brilliant bass lines and heaps of hilarious lyrics. These tunes really elevate the experience, and it’s well worth putting your headphones on if you’re playing on the go. Just try not to bob your head too noticeably on the subway.
This game does, however, feel more like a love letter to a classic than a fully-fledged new experience. Although there are some added modern features (new achievements to unlock, hats to earn, and characters to try out, for instance), and a few fun minigames dotted around the map, there isn’t enough fresh material here to make this game really stand out on its own. It’s a really enjoyable trip down memory lane, but it basically repeats the beats of old (especially in a story sense) rather than bashing out a memorable new melody.
All in all, though, you’ve really got to applaud what HumaNature Studios has achieved here. The developers took a seemingly dead franchise, and, with help from the wallets of fans, they brought it back to life. ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove may not reinvent the wheel, but it is a funky slice of fan service that is bound to bring sizeable smiles to the exact people that paid for it to get made (and anyone one else that happens to pick it up).
Basically, whether you’ve got nostalgic feelings for the original or just fancy picking up a cheap new game to spend a few hours with, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is well worth checking out.