The ToeJam & Earl series of games were always way ahead of their time, they were some of the earliest rogue-likes released for consoles and they had randomly generated levels way before it became common. As a kid who always owned Nintendo consoles instead of Sega ones, I never got to experience the originals as a child and despite being a fan of the rogue-like genre, still had yet to try one until ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! was released about a week ago. I had seen people play the original though and it seemed like something right up my alley, even though it also looked extremely difficult. Over 16 years after the last game in the series (ToeJam & Earl III: Mission to Earth) was released, the franchise is back with ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove!.
For those with no experience with the ToeJam & Earl series, the premise of the games is always that two alien rappers crash-land their spaceship on Earth. They must go through a series of levels trying to find the ten pieces they need to rebuild their spaceship. However, there are a series of weird and often deadly Earthlings that won’t make this a walk in the park. Along the way, you will search bushes, houses, and other things for food (to restore your health), money (used for various purposes), and presents. Presents are a mixed bag, you never know what you’re going to get until you open them (or you pay a carrot man to identify them for you). Some are useful in fighting off Earthlings or help you find your ship pieces or the door to the next level, others can hurt you or even set you up to lose the game. Not every level has a ship piece, sometimes you just need to find the door to the next level. If you manage to find all ten pieces of your ship, you win and can get off this crazy planet.
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! is unlike any other game I’ve ever played (remember, I never played the originals which this is very similar to). I’ve played plenty of roguelikes and rogue-lites but this is one of the strangest ones I’ve ever seen. In most roguelikes, you are on the offensive destroying everything in your sight. In the ToeJam & Earl series, you have very little to defend yourself outside of a few good presents (and some Earthlings that actually help you). While lots of roguelikes are shoot ’em ups or at least similar to that genre, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! is almost what I would call an “avoid ’em up.” You will spend way more time running away from Earthlings (or stealthily trying to sneak by them) than fighting them. Very few of the presents allow you to actively deal damage to these Earthlings (mostly just tomatoes and tomato rain), most of them are ones that help you avoid ones on your tail. ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! is unique in how defensive you need to play. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it is kind of fun to avoid and outsmart the Earthlings, but I do prefer games that let you fight back more than this. This game won’t appeal to everyone, even all roguelike fans. It has a really strange concept that some people will love and others will absolutely despise. Quality wise, it is definitely worth a look but be advised that there is a decent chance you’ll hate it. I’m guessing about half of the people who play ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! will love it and the other half will hate it and ask for a refund (with very few people falling in between).
Another thing that the ToeJam & Earl series is known for is being incredibly difficult. Between the lack of offensive weapons, not knowing what’s inside your presents, and the powerful Earthlings, I would say this game is quite hard. I’m not sure I would call it difficult though. You will likely lose a few times and have to restart your run but the game isn’t super long and once you learn about which Earthlings you should avoid at all costs, it gets much easier. There are some very difficult Earthlings to deal with though and I haven’t even gotten to the end of a real run yet (I only finished the special tutorial stage and made some decent progress in two regular runs). Some of the most annoying Earthlings include an obsessed fan who deals massive amounts of damage to you when he tries to get you to sign his game and a drone pilot who forces you to open a present at random (which can sometimes singlehandedly destroy your chances of winning).
One of the things the ToeJam & Earl series is most known for is its funky soundtracks. While I am not a music critic (I have no idea what makes a song great or not, I just know if I like it or not) and not a person who listens to much funk music, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove!‘s soundtrack is quite good. I’m not sure if I would listen to it much on Spotify if it became available but it fits the game perfectly and funk fans will probably love it. Over thirty songs are included in the game and most people will find at least a handful of ones they enjoy.
One thing I can’t really do is compare Back in the Groove! with earlier games in the series. My only experience with the earlier games is watching others play it on YouTube. Based on those YouTube videos though, this game does seem very similar to the originals. The graphics are obviously updated and modernized a bit but are similar enough to the old style that I doubt most fans will mind. The game mechanics seem similar. Another thing the original ToeJam & Earl was ahead of its time on was the fact that its levels were randomly generated, that option is included in this game as well (though you can also play a pre-built set of levels as well).
Since I never played the originals, I don’t have the nostalgia for ToeJam & Earl that others do. My childhood games were all on the NES and SNES (games like Earthbound, Super Mario Bros. 3, NBA Jam, and all of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games). If I had a Genesis when I was a kid, who knows, I may have been obsessed with this game. Nostalgia is a powerful thing that often makes people think games from their past are better than they actually are. Of course those who loved the original games are going to enjoy this revival the most but even though I have no nostalgia for it whatsoever, I did have a decent amount of fun with it. I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece but it is a very unique game unlike anything else I’ve ever played before. The problem is, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! definitely won’t appeal to everyone, even all fans of the roguelike genre. It has such a strange concept that some people will love and others will despise. Recommended, but cautiously.
Geeky Hobbies would like to thank HumaNature Studios for the review copy of ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! that was used for this review. Other than receiving a free copy of the game to review, we at Geeky Hobbies received no other compensation for this review. Receiving the review copy for free had no impact on the content of this review or the final score.