ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! (PC) Review

By Gabriel Jones 20.03.2019

Review for ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! on PC

It's another day, another disaster for our favourite Funkotronians. In an effort to get on Lewanda's good side, ToeJam invited her, Latisha, and Earl for a trip on the Rapmaster Rocketship. While parked in Earth's orbit, ToeJam gets the bright idea to hit the planet with some funky jams. Unfortunately, the wrong button is pressed. Both world and ship are hit with a funky black hole. Earth has now become some bizarre 25 level gauntlet of death. The gang has to find the 10 pieces of the Rapmaster, and get back to Funkotron. Familiar, but still fresh, this is ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove!.

Back in 1991, the Sega Genesis played home to two of the first roguelikes to ever hit consoles. In Fatal Labyrinth, a young man ventures into a massive, procedurally-generated dungeon. His quest is to slay the dragon and recover a holy goblet. Along the way he faces off against hundreds of fiendish creatures, including the dreaded Landshark. Though each floor is littered with valuables, not all of them are helpful. If one isn't careful, they could stumble upon a cursed piece of armour, guaranteeing an early demise. Needless to say, this was a pretty formulaic affair. While competently-designed, it wasn't entirely remarkable.

Premise aside, ToeJam & Earl is surprisingly similar to its more traditional brethren. In order to recover the pieces of their broken spaceship, two young extra-terrestrials must survive 25 levels of bloodthirsty monsters, aka earthlings. In lieu of weapons and spells, the funkalicious duo open presents, using whatever's inside to evade or eliminate the opposition. Of course, just because it's wrapped in colourful paper and topped with a bow, doesn't mean it's good. Some presents are total bummers, draining the life from anyone who opens them. Innovative and fun, this game would go on to become one of the standouts of Sega's 16-bit library.

While there have been sequels to this roguelike classic, neither of them managed to reach the heights of greatness. Panic on Funkotron was a straightforward action-platformer that didn't take any risks. The Xbox's Mission to Earth started off promising enough, but it's hard to deny that it was ultimately a disappointment. The biggest problem was that while the gameplay was reminiscent of the original, it was rendered one-dimensional by the overabundance of "Funk-Fu" and "Funk Notes." Rather than weighing the pros and cons of using presents, all the hero had to do was "funkify" their enemies, which rendered them completely harmless. Also, for whatever reason, ToeJam loved to make jokes about his third leg.

In order to create their ideal ToeJam & Earl adventure, the team behind Back in the Groove! took elements from the previous three instalments, and jammed them together. Surprisingly, this turned out to be the best idea. Not only do fans get to enjoy the roguelike gameplay of the original, they also get to engage in numerous activities, and hopefully profit from them. They're also treated to quality-of-life features, such as online-multiplayer and a save game option. The clutter and poor design-decisions have all been tossed out. Every play-through has enough variables to be interesting, and each aspect has been refined for maximum entertainment value.

Screenshot for ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! on PC

Before going any further, it's time to talk about playable characters. There are nine this time around, and the differences between them are far more nuanced than "fast with low HP," or "slow with high HP." More to the point, each alien has six stats, all of which can be improved via 'promotions,' or level-ups. Everyone also has their own special ability. For example, unlike the rest of the cast, Earl can eat rotten food. While old cheese doesn't replenish much health, at least it won't make the big man sick. It's important to determine one's strength and weaknesses, and create a play-style that adapts to it. An alien with a high 'search skill' should constantly check the foliage, because they're bound to find goodies like cash and presents. Conversely, someone with a low 'search skill' tends to find earthlings hiding in the bushes, and that's not good at all.

If carefully measuring pros and cons sounds like a bit too much of a headache, there are difficulty settings, which affect how much health the alien has. Granted, choosing the easier settings ensures that one won't be able to unlock achievements or other extras, but it can be handy if a parent wants to play a coop game with their kid. In any case, there's also a lengthy tutorial that covers all of the necessities, while allowing players to get a feel for how everything works.

From the first level onwards, Back in the Groove! is exactly what one would expect of a ToeJam & Earl sequel. The basic gameplay consists of finding ship pieces while dealing with earthlings, but there a multitude of new factors to consider. It's the old adage "bigger and better" at work again. Though keep in mind that "bigger" in this case doesn't mean huge sprawling levels with barely anything in them. As good as the first ToeJam & Earl is, the pacing can be pretty slow. At times, it really feels like the funky heroes are just having a leisurely stroll. That definitely isn't the case here, because each level has a lot going on. Danger is seemingly around every corner.

In this crazy world, the leading cause of death is earthlings. Not only are they everywhere, but they'll hunt down anyone who looks different. In most cases, outrunning them is out of the question. Instead, players should use the environment to their advantage. A quick dip in a nearby pond is a fine way to shake pursuers. Hiding in a field of flowers also helps. When the situation becomes desperate, perhaps one can outmanoeuvre their enemies. The controls and hit-boxes are quite solid, so evading danger isn't an impossible feat. Learning how everyone moves and behaves is also very helpful.

Screenshot for ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! on PC

Another interesting wrinkle about earthlings is that they're anything but typical. Sure, they tend to inflict damage whenever they run into an alien, but some go a step further to ruin the player's day. The Men in Black have a habit of wiping the memories of anyone they come into contact with. Let's just say that if ToeJam bumps into one, he's going to forget what all of his presents do. UFOs tend to drain stats, ice cream trucks dump tasty treats everywhere, and little girls have killer karate kicks. Especially nasty variants offer fresh and exciting ways to make someone miserable. Expect the later levels to feature evil trucks that drop…mouldy cabbage?

As one might recall from the earlier titles, not all earthlings are dangerous. In fact, they'll actually help the extra-terrestrials, provided they're willing to part with a few bucks. Wise men identify presents and hand out promotions. Surrounded by troublesome jerks? Call on the services of the opera singer. She'll destroy everyone with a few notes. Roll the 80-sided dice with a few pen & paper RPG geeks, and maybe the heroes will win some cash. Exchange gifts with shifty fellows, swipe presents from Santa's elves, and even meet Gandhi. How the player works with the few allies they have will determine whether or not they achieve success. The relationship between aliens and earthlings is a strange one, but it is effectively-crafted, and helps make this game unique.

When all else fails, it's time to bust out the presents. Many of them are old favourites that have practical applications, like the speedy hi-tops and high-flying Icarus wings. Others have some sort of risk associated with them, like the gifts that summon random earthlings. There are also a few that are probably more useful in multiplayer, such as the "Here I am!" present. As soon as an alien cracks it open, everyone in the vicinity will be alerted to their presence. Maybe one player could be the decoy while the other swipes a heavily-guarded ship piece.

Screenshot for ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! on PC

Since it's rare to have an item for every potential situation, the responsibility falls on the player to make the most of what they've got. There are a lot of ways to exploit the system, provided the means are available. The rarest presents tend to hand out promotions or extra lives. Instead of immediately opening them, consider hunting down a duplicator gift, and double the profit. Turn the tables on a large crowd of earthlings with a "Black Friday" present. Everyone will tear each other apart over non-existent deals. The sheer variety of things to try might seem overwhelming at first, but it works fantastically in practice. Discovering creative methods for dealing with hostility is what Back in the Groove! is all about.

If players take advantage of every perk available to them, then the average play-through is usually fairly easy. The real challenge is in attempting to grab all of the achievements. Imagine trying to collect all of the ship pieces without hurting anyone, or without opening presents. There's also a Hard mode, where everything does more damage. At times it feels a little excessive, especially when a single hit usually results in immediate death, but the experienced should be able to make it through. Other features such as ability-granting hats and unlockable presents keep successive runs from getting stale.

The ToeJam & Earl series has always supported co-op, and this entry is no different. Friends or total strangers can team up via offline and online play. Working together adds a lot of dimension, mainly because most presents can be shared. To give an idea of how this works. Instead of hoarding gifts that contain extra lives, go ahead and crack one open by while a partner is nearby, because then they'll get it too. Sharing is caring, and it will make the adventure go by a lot smoother. Online multiplayer works quite well. It's easy to join up with someone, and there aren't any serious issues.

On another note, here's a small detail that showcases just how much the developer care about the user experience. Due to a faulty USB port, this critic's wired Xbox 360 pad will sometimes get disconnected for a miniscule fraction of a second. What happens next is that the controller will switch from "Player 1" to "Player 2," and the player-character becomes unresponsive. In a lot of PC games, this usually means one has to restart, or fumble with the cord in order to hopefully switch back. Thankfully it's never a problem here. No matter how many disconnections occur, you'll never lose control.

Screenshot for ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! on PC

Cubed3 Rating

8/10
Rated 8 out of 10

Great - Silver Award

Rated 8 out of 10

Nearly thirty years was a mighty long time, but ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! proves that the wait was worth it. This is an excellent sequel, and it's not just because it captures the spirit of the original. The new features, as well as quality-of-life improvements, really enhance the experience. Each level is filled with things to do, and they all serve a purpose. There aren't any meaningless distractions. Even today, where roguelikes are exponentially more common, this is one that shouldn't be passed up.

Developer

HumaNature Studios

Publisher

HumaNature Studios

Genre

Action

Players

4

C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  8/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  0 (0 Votes)

European release date Out now   North America release date Out now   Japan release date Out now   Australian release date Out now   

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