Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove
Reviewed by Josh Brant
Developed By: HumaNature Studios
Published By: HumaNature Studios
Category: Action, Adventure
Release Date: March 1, 2019
Despite never quite reaching that same level of popularity as Sonic the Hedgehog, Toejam & Earl were among the most recognizable mascots on the Sega Genesis. This alien due from the planet Funkotron defined 90’s culture with their dope rap music, too-cool-for-school attitude, and a wardrobe that would make MC Hammer envious. Given our current obsession with everything nostalgic, it was only a matter of time until Toejam & Earl got their groove back.
Creator Greg Johnson returns for this fourth installment in the franchise, which raised over half a million dollars on Kickstarter. The original 1991 classic was a favorite of mine and served as the primary inspiration for this retro throwback implementing an isometric perspective and rogue-like gameplay. The original Toejam & Earl, as well as its sequel Toejam & Earl: Panic on Funkotron, were among the best co-op experiences available early on the Genesis and it’s great to see that fun factor carry over to the Nintendo Switch with Back in the Groove.
Thankfully, Greg always knew that the true fans of the franchise would remain committed and support the IP. Yet apart from funding, these fans have been able to do what other publishers never could, a guiding principle to making the best game that those who grew up with the originals would love and allowing Greg’s team to experiment with new factors that potential players could enjoy. Considering all this, if you’ve come to appreciate developer HumaNature’s Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove, you will understand that this is the definitive of a game that has its DNA rooted in the 90’s. Fortunately, it holds up significantly well thanks to a polish that could have only been granted by the time and dedications that comes with working on a passion project for almost five years.
You start off with Toejam and Earl flying to Earth, to impress Latisha and Lewanda—the two other initially playable characters. Toejam and Earl decide against better judgment to take Lamont’s Rapmaster Rocket without his permission, and this causes an accident which tears the ship apart (along with Earth, Toejam, Earl, Latisha and Lewanda) meaning they have no choice but to put it back together. They’ll have to deal with Earthlings, and an Earth that is now broken down into floating islands, to get all of the ship pieces. Once you collect all ten pieces, you can return to Funkotron and party like it’s 1999.
Back in the Groove still manages to be refreshing, despite being deeply embedded with nostalgia since there hasn’t really been any games like the original Toejam & Earl from 1991. It’s safe to say though, that the five years in development have evidently been well managed as the style, polished presentation, and ample amount of content in the base game. Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove is as true a reboot as you’ll ever see for a game that was on the Sega Genesis.
If you’re looking for an action-packed title with Back in the Groove, you’ve come to the wrong place, but if you have an open mind for having a chill and laid-back isometric experience that’s played solo or with up to four friends online or locally. Much like the original, you travel through a consecutive series of levels that are randomly generated islands in the sky. You will be able to explore with 9 different characters and collect items in a way that’s much like a rogue-like title, gaining new abilities that either hinder, harm, or humor with every present you unwrap.
Much like any good rogue-like and the original game, Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove has a deep amount of replayability. One of the strongest aspects of this replayability comes with just how much sheer content it has. Nearly 40 hours in, and I was still overwhelmed by the amount of new enemies and powerups I encountered, namely the sight-gag beings, internet trolls, overeager fans, and even Gandhi. With each finished playthrough you are provided with a power hat which grants special abilities that range from an increase in your base stats or even the special ability to walk on water during a playthrough. This allows you to experiment with a variety of different builds and encourages multiple playthoughs.
The graphics and presentation hit all the right notes and retains the look and feel of the original, while looking great in HD with bright colors and funny animations. The characters and enemies have a unique art style to them that really give Back in the Groove a positive energy that sticks out. While some animations can feel wonky and the controls can sometimes not respond the way you’ve envisioned, I never became frustrated due to the lighthearted tone it took.
Another facet of Back in the Groove that makes it a rewarding experience to play is the soundtrack. This music is truly groovy and without the limitations of the Sega Genesis sound chip, each beat and rhythm will get stuck in your head for days on end. Composer Cody Wright has managed to create an original soundtrack that rivals any lo-fi hip-hop beats that are created by someone who is a master with sampling and creating music.
Overall, you can tell Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove is a passion project primarily and it really showed from every single aspect of the title as it is emblematic of industry veterans tuning an experience to the exact minutia desired. While playing, it was a great feeling to have a game that is chill and relaxing and one I can methodically play at my own pace endlessly on the Nintendo Switch. Hopefully with support, Back in the Groove will pave the way for more games from HumaNature Studios, as Greg and the team have shown how strong their talents as developers are.