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‘ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove’ Review: What The F U N K Happened?

1991’s ToeJam & Earl is the best multiplayer game ever, period. As a kid, I spent insurmountable hours buddying up with my Dad, venturing through a tricky trippy Earth that culminated in reassembling the titular duo’s Rapmaster Rocketship. To date, it’s one of my favourite games, so to say ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove piqued my interest is an understatement.

Unveiled in 2015 as a spiritual successor to the acclaimed original, I promptly backed its Kickstarter. Like Sonic Mania, this is a sequel I’d waited my whole life to play. The final funding totalled half a million dollars, reaching stretch goal territory. Four years on, the world has ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove to show for it. So does it hit the lofty peaks of its ancestor, or have these alien dudes lost their mojo?

Following the original’s blueprint, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove flaunts the same formula. It’s a psychedelic infused dungeon crawler, with power-ups in the form of presents, and a bass slappin’ soundtrack. Players explore an amusingly bizarre rendition of Earth, avoid its hazardous inhabitants, and track down pieces of their obliterated Rapmaster Rocketship. It’s an identical premise to its predecessor, but that’s okay, because who plays ToeJam & Earl for the story?

To kick off, here’s the good stuff:

ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove boasts a clean interface, and its art style pops with cartoon-y color. Controls are simple, and gameplay is a cinch to nail down, so it’s accessible to both 16-bit veterans, and newbies to the jammin’ exploits of the titular extra-terrestrial duo. With classic elevator backgrounds, iconic earthlings and presents, and reworks of some old school funkadelic jams, it honours its roots every step of the way. And from levels shrouded in darkness or snow, to unlockable Power Hats that gift special boons, plenty of ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove’s fresh new ideas hit the mark.

And now, as much as I hate to admit it, we’ve reached the bad stuff. “Here we go” (imagine that in Mario’s voice, but he’s totally disappointed).

Every facet of ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove feels unfinished. Character animations are ropey, or missing entirely. Like in 1991’s ToeJam & Earl, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove features a ‘falling off the edge and crash landing on the previous level’ mechanic. But where ToeJam & Earl treats players to an enlarging shadow as Earl’s obese orange frame hurtles downwards, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove results in a character blandly manifesting on the level below, sans animation.

This lack of polish persists, whether it’s audio errors, object clipping, or temporary freezing. With such amateur-ish quality running rampant, one has to question: where did the half a million dollars and four years of development time go? The passion’s evident, but where’s the polish?

Difficulty is balanced poorly. ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is painfully easy, until something goes wrong, at which point it’s cheaply unfair. Avoiding earthlings throughout early stages is a cakewalk, but when they do land an attack, it’ll sometimes wipe out a major slice of health. Because of this, a full health bar can be smashed to smithereens within a matter of second (no, that wasn’t a typo. I didn’t mean seconds, I meant second).

Whilst its hyper-fast gameplay should elicit a satisfying briskness, it instead devolves ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove into a frantic jumble, where earthling encounters are a fraught disaster as opposed to challenging satisfaction. At times, so much action is cluttering the screen that it’s nigh impossible to discern what’s occurring. Don’t ask why you fell through the floor, or why you suddenly died. Maybe it’s a glitch, or maybe it’s a deliberate mechanic, but it’s infuriatingly messy either way. Multiplayer adds a smidgen of enjoyability to proceedings (everything’s better with friends), but these problems persist regardless.

Whilst sprites spring to life in comic book-like glee, environments appear plastic-y and cheap. And speaking of environments, they’re stuffed to hell and back with earthlings, foliage, and other miscellaneous. The result is a claustrophobic clutter that’s only worsened by squashed level layout.

Where ToeJam & Earl balances its camera and sprite size in order to perfect its feel, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove disregards it. Clunkily chunky character models meld with an oddly angled view, resulting in massive damage to gameplay fundamentals.

The most ToeJam & Earl-y moments are when ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove tries less hard to be funny, and just does its thing. One new present manifests a gargantuan sign above players, notifying nearby earthlings of their location. It’s an assault to the senses as a distorted alarm blares and lights flash frantically. This rare comedic gold doesn’t rely on earthlings spouting dialogue that believes it’s funnier than it is, it just trusts players to spot the surreal comedy within.

ToeJam & Earl’s Dentist earthling, who’s laugh is louder than the loudest thing ever, or the Total Bummer present that murders players with a miserable buzz, are the glimmering gems that evoke the heartiest laughs. In ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove, the dentist’s laugh is quieter, and the Total Bummer kills the player with no animation or sound. They’re not fun anymore, they’re void of their endearing quirkiness, and one can only ask why. Why does action feel so sloppily chaotic? Why do Spring Shoes feel so finicky and uncomfortable? Why are problems that were solved in 1991 now problems again?

Perhaps comparing ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove so prominently to its predecessor seems cruel, but when the driving purpose of its existence is to thrive as a worthy followup to said predecessor, the comparison is valid. Its indulgence in nostalgia is a terrific treat, and a spattering of solid ideas are present, but any proper potential in this long awaited Kickstarter endeavour is decimated by its fumbled execution and lack of quality. ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove could have been out of this world, but alas, it’s a miserable misfire.

For comparison: Sonic Team failed to recapture Sonic’s two-dimension glory for ages, failing with terrible tributes in Sonic the Hedgehog 4 and Sonic Generations. It took a total 16-bit revival in Sonic Mania to nail that sweet spot. I believe this principle rings true for ToeJam & Earl. One can’t emulate the original without first establishing what made it tick. It’s a sum of pristine parts, and a masterful flow realized through sublime depth perception, pace, and physics. ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove fails to come close to these nuances, and I can’t emphasize enough how sad that makes me.

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