*Review based on the Nintendo Switch version*
Despite being one of the more fondly remembered games on the Sega Genesis, Toejam & Earl has had a rough time in the sequel department. Beloved for its originality and off-beat humor, Toejam & Earl saw its titular duo of funky aliens take part in an exploration-based adventure. In search of ten missing pieces of their crashed rocket ship, Toejam (the red one with the eyestalks) and Earl (the one who looks like a proto-Patrick Star) traversed a series of randomly generated levels, avoiding annoying humans, throwing tomatoes, and opening presents to get power-ups along the way. While just about everything else on the Genesis was trying to replicate Sonic’s sense of ‘cool,’ Toejam & Earl’s wacky originality stood out.
That’s why it stung a little when its sequel, Toejam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron (also on Genesis), was a simple 2D platformer in a time when such games were commonplace. Though it was decently remembered in its own right, Panic on Funkotron’s lack of originality made it fall by the wayside. It would be another decade before the duo would return in Toejam & Earl: Mission to Earth on the original Xbox. And while the series’ sole 3D entry attempted to recreate the gameplay of the original game, its mixed reception – combined with the very different tastes of gamers in the early 2000s – meant that Toejam and Earl once again faded into obscurity.
There they remained for another seventeen years. But after a successful Kickstarter campaign from series creator Greg Johnson, and some back-and-forth between publishers over the past couple of years, Toejam and Earl made their long awaited comeback in March of 2019 in the form of Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove, bringing the gameplay from the original 1991 game along for the ride.
For fans of the series, there may be a wee bit of a double-edged sword in this regard. Back in the Groove is both a wonderful return for the series, and a refreshingly silly joy in today’s overly serious gaming landscape. But if you’re a fan of the original Toejam & Earl, Back in the Groove can feel more like a remake than a full-on sequel.
That’s not a terrible thing, of course. Not when Toejam & Earl still feels unique twenty-eight years on. But it does put Back in the Groove in a strange state of being unique among other games, but derivative of itself.
Just as in the original game, Toejam and Earl have crash landed on Earth, and must recover their ship’s ten missing pieces in order to head back home to planet Funkotron. As a bit of a joke, this time around the aliens borrowed their friend’s ship (because they didn’t want to risk crashing their own ship again, naturally). Otherwise, it’s basically the same plot.
Another difference is that, this time around, there are nine different playable characters, six of which are playable from the start: Toejam and Earl (obviously), in addition to the same duo with their classic designs (aptly named Classic Toejam and Classic Earl), as well as Toejam’s ladyfriend Lewanda, and Mission to Earth’s Latisha. Though it should be noted that the differences between characters are purely cosmetic.
Otherwise, the gameplay largely echoes the original game: You travel across different landscapes, looking for the elevator that leads to the next stage. Levels that feature a rocket piece are marked upon entry, meaning to beat the game, you have to track the piece down before heading for the elevator. Be careful, as you can fall off a stage and back to the previous one, leading to a tedious trip back up.
Toejam and Earl (and the rest) are normally defenseless against persistent earthlings. But our heroes can gain weapons and power-ups (such as the aforementioned tomatoes) by finding and opening presents. What’s inside of each present is at first a mystery to the player, until you pay a wiseman (an old man in a carrot costume, naturally) to identify them for you, with each type of present remaining identified for the rest of the current playthrough. Additionally, by opening presents and uncovering more areas of the map on each stage will give you experience points. Once enough experience points have been gathered, you can ask the wiseman to level you up.
While the leveling up feature was present in the original game, it was mostly just to see the joke of the next level’s title, here in Back in the Groove, each level will grant you a bonus such as improved speed or the capacity to carry more presents. It’s a nice touch of RPG character progression that makes the leveling system actually worthwhile this time around (don’t worry, the joke names for each rank are still present). The only issue with it is that the bonuses are received via roulette wheel, meaning the randomness prevents you from building your character how you want.
That random element is of course present in other areas as well. Though the items in each different present will be consistent during the same playthrough, the items and presents will swap with every new playthrough. That’s fine. But less tolerable is when a level spawns a second, fake elevator, which will take you back to the previous stage (though you do have a small window of time to exit the elevator before its door closes, saving you the tedium). Certain random elements such as that probably won’t sit well with some players.
The one random element the series does best, of course, are the randomly generated stages. When the original Toejam & Earl hit the Genesis in 1991, it was rare among games at the time for being different with every playthrough. While the goal of collecting ten ship pieces may have always been the same, each stage provided a new challenge, and oftentimes you never knew when another ship piece would show up.
That’s still true here, but with an unfortunate caveat: you have to unlock the randomly generated playthrough option. Before you can play Back in the Groove the way it was meant to be played, you have to give a pre-set adventure a go. Granted, this was probably done to ease newcomers in, but it would be nice if Toejam & Earl veterans had the option to play with the randomly generated stages from the get-go.
Ultimately, these aren’t major complaints. As stated, Toejam & Earl remains a pretty unique game, so Back in the Groove’s overt reminiscence of it isn’t a deal-breaker. Nor is the act of unlocking the random stage layout (albeit it is a little bummer). The gameplay is still fun, with the game being at its best with its multiplayer co-op mode (another feature from the surprisingly forward-thinking original, but now with the modern benefits of playing with up to four players online). The graphics are vibrant and cartoonish, with a kind of “90s Nicktoon” appeal. And true to the nature of the funky rapping aliens, the music is as cool and funky as ever.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove, however, is its utter charm. In the modern gaming world where AAA and Indie titles alike feel like they’re made more to earn awards from critics than to entertain, Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove is refreshingly silly and innocent. Spend a few hours as Toejam or Earl (or one of the other characters) as you run from teens pre-occupied on their cellphones, throw tomatoes at evil dentists, seek refuge with Ghandi, roll a D20 with a group of nerds, and jam out with some alien buddies, and you’re bound to have a smile on your face.