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ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove review for Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One, PC


Platform: Nintendo Switch
Also On: PS4, Xbox One, PC
Publisher: HumaNature Studios
Developer: HumaNature Studios
Medium: Digital
Players: 1-2
Online: Yes
ESRB: E10+

When I played the original ToeJam & Earl on the Sega Genesis nearly three decades ago, I had no idea what a “roguelike” even was. ToeJam & Earl was one of the better examples of being sold on a game based solely on cover art and back of the box screenshots. It looked weird, it looked cool, and I wanted to play it. Thankfully, it was also one of the few instances where buying a game based on the cover art actually worked out in my favor. For me, there was nothing else like it at the time. A top-down isometric 2D game where you wandered about stages collecting presents, avoiding weird enemies, sneaking up on an unsuspecting Santa Claus, and collecting spaceship parts. I don’t know that I ever finished the original ToeJam & Earl, but I played it a lot. And that soundtrack! So good.

The first game spawned a sequel on the same platform, which I remember being solid but at the same time the switch to a more traditional 2D platformer wasn’t what I wanted. There’s also the third game that released on the original Xbox which was a somewhat poor attempt at going back to the first game’s formula within a 3D platforming space. It didn’t work and wasn’t particularly fun to play. So when this game, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove was announced, I wasn’t sure what we’d get. It looked similar to the first game, had people involved that were long associated with the series (Greg Johnson), and it looked like the developers were really trying to do the original game justice.

Having now played the game for roughly a month or so, I’d say everyone involved with ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove pretty much nailed it. It looks, feels, and sounds enough like the original ToeJam & Earl without being a complete rehash of the Genesis classic. There’s modern trappings like experience gains, leveling up, stat boosts, and online co-op play. But there’s also all the classic hooks, with randomized present drops, randomized stages, a fun (and funky) soundtrack, and some wild Earthling designs. Seriously, it’s an amazing revitalization for a 16-bit era franchise, and one that I think everyone can enjoy.

Much like the original game you’ll have a series of stages that are comprised of small islands surrounded by water. The islands will contain both good and bad Earthlings, which can either chase your chosen character around and try to hurt you, or can provide beneficial boosts. You’ll encounter presents in different shapes and sizes, all of which are unknown until you start to use them. Most presents will provide useful items, like spring shoes or innertubes, but occasionally you’ll get something harmful like the raincloud. As you uncover more of the map in a stage, you’ll gain experience, and can then level up via the Wise Man Earthling that tends to roam around most stages. From there you’ll gain random stat boosts that range from more health to a larger inventory, and attempt to collect a ship piece (if available) before moving on to the next stage. The end goal is to collect all 10 missing ship pieces within the 25 levels available.

Every stage is randomized, unless playing on the optional fixed map mode. So enemy and item layout will change with every playthrough. There’s a handful of mini-game activities you can encounter, and cash to collect that’s useful for certain Earthling interactions. You can also send out a search ping that will rustle nearby bushes and trees, giving you an indication of whether items are hidden nearby. The search will not tell you what is hidden behind a tree or bush, so you’ll still need to walk up and shake them to get your prize (or hazard).

The primary (and effective) hook is that you never know what a playthrough is going to give you. Whether it’s the random loot, oddball enemies, or just the fun of exploring a new area, there’s a constant need to push forward through the game as you attempt to finish a run. Local and online co-op are great ways to experience the game as well, and it’s easy enough to join in with another player. The split-screen functionality is handled well, splitting or combining screens depending on your proximity to the other player, much like the original Genesis game did. All in all, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is really well designed, and balances challenge with player convenience extremely well.

As a big fan of the original ToeJam & Earl, I’d highly suggest picking up Back in the Groove when it launches this week. Even if you don’t have an ounce of affinity for the first game, or weren’t around to experience it to begin with, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove still comes together as a modern roguelike that everyone can enjoy.

Note: HumaNature Studios provided us with a ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove Nintendo Switch code for review purposes.

Grade: A