ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove review: Familiar funk

The folks at HumaNature Studios have taken a crack at reviving a 16-bit classic. Check out our review of ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove.

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ToeJam & Earl was released in 1991 on Sega Genesis and the game was received well by fans and critics. The franchise grew with some sequels, but never really captured the magic of the original. That is until the team at HumanNature Studios took a crack at a full-fledged remake of the original game powered by a Kickstarter campaign. The game does right by the original and offers a fresh coat of paint on a series that many gamers may not have had a chance to experience when it was released 28 years ago.

My name is Earl

Earl seen here in his natural habitat.
Earl seen here in his natural habitat.

The game has a very unique art style and that shows up in spades with the character designs. ToeJam and Earl have received makeovers from an art perspective and the whole world looks great. The devs did a great job of giving the franchise a new coat of paint while staying true to the original games. The series has always had its own style, and the team at HumaNature Studios did funktastic work creating a brand new look that captures the characters and environments in a masterful way. This game could have been dead on arrival with the wrong art direction, and it is great to see how the team's hard work turned out.

Getting your funk on

The ranking mechanic definitely is a fun element of ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove.
The ranking mechanic definitely is a fun element of ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove.

The game has a nearly identical story to the original, which is fine, but I was hoping for more than the same story again. ToeJam and Earl crash land their spaceship and are sent on a series of fetch quests to put their ride back together again. This sounds simple enough, but the game throws a number of challenges and distractions at you. These challenges pile on each other throughout the game and start to become quite annoying in later levels.

Players progress in the game by finding elevators that take them up to the next level. There is also an experience mechanic that increases a player's rank based on how many presents they have opened. Presents can be found or purchased from mailboxes, and are hit or miss with their usefulness. I found that the mean rocket skates might have been the worst thing ever created when I fell four levels as I was unable to manage the wonky controls.

While parts of the retro nature of the game is charming, the gameplay left me wanting a more polished experience. Walking along the edge of a pool of water frequently lead to my character jumping in and out of the water in a very unnatural manner.

One gameplay mechanic that makes a glorious return to the game is the Hyper Funk Zone. This runner-type mini-game was fun in the original games and is still enjoyable. Players can trigger the mini-game by finding a special doorway on each level.

It is the element of exploration in the game that really makes the experience enjoyable. Players can shake trees, houses, and push buttons to find presents. There are even dance offs that can be triggered. These little moments definitely add some charm to the game.

Another element that the game nails is the music. Each level has great tunes, and players can even break out their boombox for added 1990s nostalgia. The music in ToeJam and Earl is excellent and provides a great soundtrack for players as they try to piece back together their spaceship.

Not so groovy

It is kind of annoying to walk by a Hula Girl and start dancing while being chased on a level.
It is kind of annoying to walk by a Hula Girl and start dancing while being chased on a level.

There are parts of the game that were not that enjoyable after awhile. The game slightly ramps up difficulty by introducing new variables each level, but they just keep being piled on. The later levels are extremely cluttered and the gameplay really starts to show its age by not staying that fun.

It began to feel like a chore to complete the game as I would be knocked down to a lower level for a number of ridiculous reasons. Each level in the game is stacked on top of the previous one, setting up players for rage-inducing falls. A guy dressed like someone from the Spanish Inquisition, some jerk on a Segway Scooter, an actual demon, and fake elevators all provided ridiculous ways for me to get knocked down in later levels. I did get up again, they were never going to keep me down.

The fake elevators are especially rage-inducing as they force players to traverse the lower level all the way to find another elevator to get back up. This kind of gameplay mechanic seems like a waste of time and needlessly adds more of a grindy feel to the later stages. It's not that the characters exist that is annoying, it is that they are repeated over and over which gets pretty lame in later levels.

More funk than junk

ToeJam and Earl fans love these characters and that will not change in Back in the Groove.
ToeJam and Earl fans love these characters and that will not change in Back in the Groove.

Overall, ToeJam and Earl is a decent gaming experience. The art style and music are great and provide a solid presentation that covers up some of the less captivating gameplay. HumaNature Studios did a fine job of recreating the feel of the original games, but some things might be left to the past. The game still feels dated in how it plays, and it would have been great to see a new take on this franchise as opposed to more of the same.

If you have a pair of nostalgia glasses on, it will be very easy to look past the issues present in the game. The early parts are very fun, and the game even features local and online cooperative play.

ToeJam and Earl are definitely back in the groove with this remake, and this game has been welcomed by fans who backed the Kickstarter back in 2015. I certainly wanted to see a more fresh take on these characters, but the game we got will keep fans of the franchise happy while introducing a whole new generation of gamers to the series.


This review is based on a Nintendo Switch review code provided by the publisher. ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove is available in retail and digital stores now for Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PS4, and PC. The game has been rated E by the ESRB.

CEO

Asif Khan is the CEO and majority shareholder of Shacknews. He began his career in video game journalism as a freelancer in 2001 for Tendobox.com. Asif is a CPA and was formerly an investment adviser representative. After much success in his own personal investments, he retired from his day job in financial services and is currently focused on new private investments. His favorite PC game of all time is Duke Nukem 3D, and he is an unapologetic fan of most things Nintendo. Asif first frequented the Shack when it was sCary's Shugashack to find all things Quake. When he is not immersed in investments or gaming he is a purveyor of fine electronic music. Asif also has an irrational love of Cleveland sports.

Pros
  • Funktastic art style
  • Kicking grooves
  • Stays true to the franchise
Cons
  • Gameplay feels dated at times
  • Later levels seem cluttered
  • Gameplay too similar to the original
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