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May 2021

ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove!

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: HumanNature Studios
Release Date: March 1, 2019


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Switch Review - 'ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove!'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on March 1, 2019 @ 12:00 a.m. PST

ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! is the upcoming fourth entry of the funkadelic action roguelike series.

The original ToeJam & Earl was odd. One of the first console roguelike titles, it was released for the Sega Genesis and gained a strong cult following. It had multiple sequels, but none captured the feel of the original, opting instead to aim for new play styles that never quite found a home. ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! is the long-awaited return to form. More of a remake than a sequel, it returns the bizarre aliens to their roots in a delightfully '90s-inspired adventure.

In Back in the Groove, the duo (and some friends and relatives) crash-land on the mysterious and bizarre planet of Earth. Their Rapmaster spaceship has scattered in pieces, and the aliens are forced to navigate the Earthlings' bizarre ways so they can get off the planet before they end up dead — or worse, trapped in an eternal hula dance.

You take control of one (or more) characters and are thrown into a bizarre, cartoony series of floating islands that represent Earth. Each island is a level that contains a variety of enemies and presents, in addition to an elevator to the next level. Your goal is to find the spaceship parts, which are scattered throughout each level. You can go down at will by dropping through gaps in the floor, but you won't see the real ending of the game unless you find all of the scattered spaceship pieces.

Along the way, you'll have to confront the many wild and wacky dangers of Earth, including cartoon devils, evil government agents, enthusiastic fans and more. Each Earthling has a distinct personality and features. Some are friendly and offer minigames that you can play for bonus money or character upgrades. The majority of levels also contains obstacles, hazards, and precious presents.

Almost everything you can do in Back in the Groove is tied to presents, which are wrapped mystery gifts. Most presents start off unidentified, and you have to either find a way to identify them or risk opening them. Once you've identified a certain kind of present, it remains identified for the rest of your run.

Presents can have either positive or negative effects. Some may refill health, let you fly, turn invisible, teleport, and various other benefits. On the other hand, a present can also summon enemies to your location, have you followed by a deadly thundercloud, force you to run nonstop, and other negative effects. Both positive and negative presents can be "amped," which makes good presents great and bad presents worse.

Back in the Groove is interesting because many roguelikes have a random or semi-random feature like this for items, but very few make it the focal point of the entire game. Figuring out when to use presents is a big deal. It's tempting to open every present as soon as you get it, but that means potentially wasting valuable items. On the other hand, saving unidentified presents until an emergency can lead to a whole rash of trouble when the swarm of Earthlings bearing down on you suddenly doubles. It's critical that players figure out when to take risks and when to wait for safety.

The most interesting thing about Back in the Groove is that it's a very low-violence roguelike. Most of the available options involve finding ways to stun, escape or run away from enemies. The rare bonuses you get that can defeat enemies (such as tomato-throwing slingshots) are in limited supply and are best saved for particularly dangerous foes. It doesn't feel like other roguelikes on the market because combat is so unreliable and seen as a last resort.

However, that can also occasionally make the game feel frustrating. You're incredibly dependent on your presents, and while they're plentiful, it's very easy to end up in a position where the spaceship piece you need to collect is almost unreachable. In my playthroughs, there's no such thing as a no-win scenario, but it can involve a lot of slow sneaking around and praying the enemy AI decides to leave you alone.

Back in the Groove also offers cooperative multiplayer, a rarity for roguelikes and one of the defining features of the original game. You and multiple friends can take on the challenges together. Not only does this give you extra helping hands, but allies can also assist each other in a variety of ways. For example, if a hero gets Lovestruck, another player can slap them to knock them out of it. Of course, some presents can also harm your allies, and there's a slight competitive edge to collecting and using them. There are multiple playable characters, each with a unique ability, such as being able to eat bad food or doing extra damage with thrown tomatoes.

The title also offers a solid amount of content. It isn't the beefiest roguelike on the planet, but it has a good amount of replay value due to a random feature that remixes the game. (A fixed mode is the default option, which is a bit frustrating.) There's even an unlockable Hell difficulty that really pumps up the challenge. It's a fun pick-up-and-play game, especially with friends. You might not play it as often as something like Binding of Isaac, but it's awesome to play casually with others.

Visually, Back in the Groove is mostly a modernized version of the Genesis original. The graphics are smooth and clean and have a lot of personality, but they're sometimes too nostalgic, which can leave some of the areas feeling empty and repetitive. The Switch port seems solid, but I noticed some particularly long loading times and slowdowns in handheld mode. The soundtrack mostly consists of remixed versions of the original game, but considering that ToeJam & Earl had some of the most earworm-y songs I can think of, that's not a bad thing.

All in all, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! is as solid of a remake of the classic title as you can hope for. It plays the same, sounds the same, looks better, and has a fair amount of new content. It's fun and accessible, and it's a solid roguelike for players of all ages. Nostalgic fans of the original will find a lot to love here, and newcomers should enjoy this retro trip back to the radical '90s.

Score: 8.0/10

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