ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove Review: Bumpy ride in the Way Back Machine

I’ll preface this review by saying that despite owning a Sega Mega Drive, I never played either of the original ToeJam & Earl games in their heyday. I also never played the series’ abortive third entry on the original Xbox either, though I understand that this is probably for the best. Well may you say, why the hell are you reviewing full-blooded fan-service revival of a cult hit releasing 25 years after its last significant appearance? The answer is two-fold: 1) Sometimes that’s the job, dear reader, and 2) as a lifelong Mega Drive acolyte, I owe it to my fave 16-bit console to pay respect to such a moment in its history. SNES exclusives get revived all the time. Until now, the only Mega Drive exclusive to truly survive into the modern day has been Sonic the Hedgehog.

ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove returns to Johnson and Voorsanger’s characters with such obvious love and reverence that it’s difficult to criticise the many ways the formula shows its age. These games were formative roguelikes, the kind of game where each playthrough is an exercise in seeing how far you can get. In the spirit of its forebears, Back in the Groove is resolutely 90’s — the music, the visuals, the style and slang deployed by both of its leads would have been wildly cringe only a few short years ago. Now that 90’s fashion and eccentrism is back (god help us all), it fits like a glove.

The game begins with the option to choose between a Tutorial World, which is easier overall and features a greater amount of onboarding, and a Fixed World which will very much be the game returning fans will remember. You can select from a screen of nine possible characters, three of which are locked away to start with. You have Toe-Jam, Earl and their girlfriends Latisha and Lewanda, and a separate Old-Skool Toe-Jam and Earl decked out in their original Mega Drive costumes. Each character comes with their own set of stats from overall speed and life bar size to luck, and a small array of special abilities. You’re then asked to select a difficulty — Normal, Easy Farty or Toddler.

From there, you are dropped onto a series of open levels that must be fully explored to recover parts of your crashed ship. As you go you’ll run into Earthlings, the bizarre denizens of these planes, who will help or hinder you on your journey. You’ll also hoard Presents, mystery boxes that contain stat and health buffs, making every run of ToeJam & Earl different from the last. To say that it has a lot in common with the roguelike genre would be accurate, but the bone-crushing difficulty often associated with it isn’t there.

I actually found it all a bit directionless. Most of the time I was playing it, I felt a bit adrift, not really sure what I was doing, why or exactly what I should do to proceed. In the end, I resorted to simply picking things up until a Bill & Ted-style phone booth appeared in the level to let me move on.

ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is a labour of love by the creators of the series and a gift for fans who have kept the flame alive all these years. To those players, it will make perfect sense. To everyone else, it will be utterly bewildering. But, like the ’90s, I suppose that’s the point.

THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Highlights: Genuinely fun ’90’s throwback; Fun 2D visuals
Lowlights: 
Progression not always clear; Hip jabber may wear on you
Developer: 
Humanature Studios
Publisher:
 Adult Swim Games, Limited Run Games, Humanature Studios
Platforms: 
PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows PC
Available: 
March 1, 2019

Review conducted on Nintendo Switch with a pre-release retail code provided by the publisher.

David Smith

David Smith is the games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously written for PC World Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @RhunWords.

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