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Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove – Review

Gamers of the 90s may remember Toejam and Earl. This funky alien duo starred in one of the earliest rogue-like games available on the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive. One of the original creators has brought it back with a re-imagining of their first game on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch. I have personally played it on the Nintendo Switch and PC.

This style of this series is one-of-a-kind. That the title character is a three-legged alien wearing a rapper-chain should show this. Funk music and 90s influences are represented throughout. The game adds in a huge dose of cartoony zany humor too.

Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove most often as you explore randomly generated levels to find the ten pieces of your broken spaceship. You will have to deal with a variety of weird and wonderful Earthlings, open presents to help (or harm) you and make your way home to the planet Funkotron.

This game can be played with up to four players. On the PC, it allows up to four players locally and four online or a mixture thereof. On the console versions, online is the same, but local co-op is limited to two players. I am told they are working to optimize more on consoles to allow up to four players local, without affecting performance. Multiplayer is drop-in, drop-out which is definitely a plus. Personally, I feel like multiplayer is the best way to play this game. It’s fun enough in single-player, but it feels like it’s designed for casual co-op sessions with a major increase in what feels like events happening out of your control.

There are three modes represented. There is a fixed world which never changes the layout. There is a random mode which is procedurally-generated to be random every time. For the more experienced player, there is a random hard mode which ups the difficulty. I personally found normal mode quite easy, but hard mode is fairly challenging. In addition, there is a short game mode used as a tutorial. I would definitely advise playing the tutorial first, as the tips will help new players immensely.

In each level, you need to find the elevator to go up to the next one. Some levels have the ship pieces which you are searching for, but quite often the elevator is your only objective. If you wish to go back to a previous level, you can jump off the edge. Throughout the levels, you can also find mini-games which will help you earn more money and experience. It is often worth exploring more and taking your time rather than rushing to the objective so you can find these mini-games, items and more.

I enjoyed the rhythm-matching mini-game where you try to match the beat and then make your own. Even better in multiplayer where everyone else has to match your beat too. The Hyper Funk zone was great fun too and a nice reference to the second game in the series, but it could get repetitive if you run into them multiple times in a game. It’s a 2D mini-game where you constantly run. It has a timer which you need to keep grabbing to continue, exp bonuses and obstacles which will send you elsewhere or just end the mini-game.

One thing you will find no end of in the game is Earthlings. Most of these are enemies who will attack you. These range from ice cream trucks, to workmen with jackhammers to the boogieman. There are neutral and helpful Earthlings too, who are denoted by some sparkles. These can help heal you, act as a bodyguard and more. The game deserves a lot of praise for the variety and design shown in the Earthlings. My personal favorite is the Internet troll who hassles you but runs away when you confront him and turns to normal if you turn around and smack him.

You can actually complete a game without any combat at all. In fact, unlike most games, you won’t be fighting much. Avoidance is generally the tactic here and you cannot hurt Earthlings at all unless you have the correct presents to do so. I do find it satisfying to use a tomato rain present and decimate all Earthlings nearby. Admittedly I’ve often used this and killed friendly Earthlings by mistake too… Many Earthlings will be faster than you, so it’s usually smarter to try and break aggro by jumping in the water or hiding in sunflowers.

Throughout your exploration, you will find presents. These are a huge risk/reward to use, but you will not get far without them. The way it works is that any present you pick up will be an unknown until you use it. After you have identified that present, any of the same type will show their name.

There are more than 60 presents, most with unique effects but a few are alternate versions. Most presents are helpful, such as ways to move around the level, ways to avoid Earthlings or ways to find your objectives. There are some negative presents too, such as losing a level and some which can go both ways, such as very difficult to control rocket skates or a doorway which may go near your goal or may strand you on a tiny island.

I personally found it worth opening presents whenever possible. It does always sting when I use up a really good one early on and never find another, but it is often worth it. As well as identifying as many as possible early on, it gives you experience which allows you to level up. Plus it just adds to the fun when you suddenly rocket yourself off the edge.

When you gain enough experience, you can level up by going to the Wiseman, a man dressed up as a carrot. This gives you a random increase in stats, letting you run faster, search further, have better luck with presents and so on. Each character has different stats when starting, so with luck, you could turn the slow Big Earl into someone just as fast as Toejam

As with many rogue-like games, Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove has things to unlock. I’ll avoid specifics here, but by completing various criteria, you can unlock three new characters, some extra presents and a number of hats. After unlocking a hat, you will have a chance of wearing a random one on each level which will give you a certain bonus such as immunity to a particular enemy or an increase in a stat. You will unlock most of these things in normal gameplay on normal and hard modes.

There are a number of secrets to find in the game too. One of these will be easy to guess for people who remember a particular area with a hot tub in the original Toejam and Earl. Others are not so easy.

Generally, I find the game is put together very well, but I have found a few issues which need work. On the Nintendo Switch, the framerate often drops slightly in local co-op. Loading times were also an issue. I had the occasional issue with the elevator working online too on PC, but it usually got going after trying a few times if it did have issues.

I personally didn’t like the way the aiming is done too, not that it’s often used. You have to be moving in the same direction that you are firing. I feel like you shouldn’t have to hold the direction.

Luckily it does seem like the team is working hard on fixing the issues. It usually does not detract from the overall enjoyment, but I will be happy to see improvements.

The graphics for the game are very well done I feel. It’s a very specific style and stands out from other games quite a bit. It’s all cleanly done and colorful too.

The music is definitely worth praise. You can tell they have put a lot of work into getting it right. Considering that music culture is a big influence on the game, it’s not too surprising.

I personally enjoyed Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove quite a lot. I was given a copy on Nintendo Switch to review, but have since bought a copy for the PC, so that’s my vote of confidence for it. It’s very well put together and really just a more modern and expanded spin of the first installment of the series. It may not appeal to everyone with its weird 90s cartoon humor and there may be a few bugs to iron out, but it’s a huge amount of fun to play with friends, just for the sheer chaos it brings with all the variables involved.

You can buy the game here on Steam or on your respective console stores.

Many thanks to HumaNature Studios for the review copy. You still got my money in the end anyway.

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