Available On: PC (Win, Mac, Linux), PlayStation 4, Switch, Xbox One
The honeymoon for nostalgia-fueled Kickstarter video game projects has long since passed. Older games and genres from the 80s and 90s inspired a treasure trove of multi-million dollar projects, to varying degrees of success. Despite the digital gold rush, I never expected one of these Kickstarter fruits to bear a new ToeJam & Earl game, let alone it be quite good.
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is the fourth game in the bizarre but strangely memorable 90s series. But it’s also a triumphant recreation of the 1991 original, which has all the early trappings of a solid roguelike dungeon crawler, that happens to star a pair of funky aliens. While some gameplay elements are quite frustrating, Back in the Groove is dripping with 90s charm, lots of replayability, and fantastic co-op.
Lost in Space
Our bumbling alien heroes are headed out on a joyride to impress some ladies. But while near a certain backwater blue planet they accidentally create a black hole. The Earth, but more importantly their ship, is destroyed. It’s up to ToeJam, Earl, and their friends to locate their missing ship pieces among the now fractured, segmented chunks of Earth floating in space.
The gameplay is made up of a series of levels, with each level representing a chunk of floating Earth. In the Fixed game mode, each level has been designed to create a variety of different challenges while gradually ramping up the difficulty. Later you can unlock a completely random mode. A tutorial mode offers an easier experience, but only goes up to level 10.
In addition, each player can choose from one of three different difficulties (with Normal being the hardest), letting younger players join in without fear of dying too quickly. While the base difficulty can be quite challenging and often unforgiving, we appreciated these many options to fine-tune for different skill sets and ages.
Like the original game, the co-op gameplay is a big part of Back in the Groove, which now supports both four player local and online multiplayer. Local co-op features dynamic split-screen that can be further customized so each player is a in a fixed side, or assigned certain spots depending on where they split.
The game plays best when players split up to explore the map and gather presents and money. Players can even be on different levels together, with the annoying caveat that everyone has to gather together to generate the next level at the start.
In ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove, Earthlings are the primary threat. They come in all shapes and sizes, always leaning towards the silly and goofy, such as a group of ducks that fire eggs out of a mortar cannon, burly men armed with jackhammers or lawnmowers, killer ice cream trucks, and overzealous fanboys. A few earthlings are helpful, such as the wise man that grants level ups and the opera singer who can be paid to defeat nearby enemies.
Despite all these dangers, the action is almost entirely non-violent. Our heroes’ only weapon comes with the occasional power-up slingshot or tomatoes, while enemies simply bump into you to do damage.
You’ll spend most of your time trying to avoid these enemies while searching for the ship pieces, and acquiring XP to level up and increase your stats, such as a bigger health bar or faster speed. Some of the levels are much bigger than others but navigation was rarely difficult, though I could’ve done without the annoying hidden pathways.
Searching trees and houses can yield presents, money, and food. Presents include dozens of possible powerups – not all of them good.
When you first acquire a present you’re not sure what it does. The variety here is both impressive and annoying, as some can be level-changing (such as zooming to a ship piece, or plopping down a boombox to stun all nearby earthlings) while others will just about kill you instantly, just as setting you on fire, or zapping you with lightning. The results lean a little too close to frustrating rather than fun, especially given that a full game lasts for 25 levels, and if both players die, it’s game over.
Dropping down to an earlier level is endlessly frustrating, and a feature that I wish had been removed. Each level is literally stacked on top of one another. If you fall off, such as being knocked off by lawnmower man, you fall to a previous level, and have to find the elevator to go back up. Certain levels, like those with the lights out, make it extremely annoying to return to, and ultimately a frustrating waste of time.
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is rated E10+ for Crude Humor and Mild Cartoon Violence. It’s actually far less violent than I remember a lot of 90s cartoons. Enemies (and allies) simply poof when defeated. Most of the time you’ll be fleeing or hiding from earthlings rather than defeating them, however. The lower difficulty modes help make it much more palatable for younger kids as well.
My personal nostalgia for the ToeJam & Earl series stems from the second game, Panic on Funkatron, which was not a roguelike at all but a more standard 2D platformer. Back in the Groove smartly takes the best elements from both games (ignoring the much-maligned third game) by including a lot of the fun secrets and designs (and music) from Panic on Funkatron.
I was blown away by how well Back in the Groove takes an older (yet forward-thinking) game design and modernizes it without losing its funky fresh soul and cartoon design. Despite some niggling frustrations, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is a solid cooperative adventure, regardless of nostalgia.