Toejam and Earl are video game icons. Everyone I know that played games in the 90’s knows who they are, even if they never played one of their titles. After not having a sequel for over a decade, these funky aliens were due. The original Toejam and Earl was ahead of its time, yet ended up being a perfection representation of its time. The flashy 90’s aesthetic, along with the perfect amount of in-your-face attitude that kids in the 90’s expected with most of their entertainment options, just can’t be reproduced reliably today, right? Toejam and Earl: Back in the Groove manages it—but it’s not all nostalgia. HumanNature Studios has taken the strange gameplay that made the original so popular, and brought it back 28 years later.
The game starts with Toejam and Earl flying to Earth, to impress Latisha and Lewanda—the two other initially playable characters. Toejam and Earl borrowed Lamont’s Rapmaster Rocket without his permission—so when an accident tears the ship apart (along with the earth, Toejam, Earl, Latisha and Lewanda) they have no choice but to put it back together. They’ll have to deal with Earthlings, and an Earth that is now a series of floating islands, to get all of the ship pieces. Once you collect all ten pieces, you can return to Funkotron.
Toejam and Earl: Back in the Groove is a pretty chill, exploratory game. There are Earthlings that will help you, and those that will try and hurt you. There are power-ups to collect (in the form of presents) and secrets to uncover. There are a few minigames you can come across—like the dance rhythm game, and an endless runner-type game—but most of the gameplay consists of walking across floating items, looking for the exit elevator to the next island. Falling off an island doesn’t kill you–rather, it puts you back on the island below it—and you keep falling until you hit the bottom if you are unlucky enough to keep getting knocked off the edge. Most characters, unless equipped with a specific power-up, feel like they amble along. Everyone is chill, despite having potentially mean Earthlings breathing down their neck. The gameplay is definitely not fast-paced, but it’s pretty satisfying once you get in the groove.
As I mentioned before, you can play as Toejam or Earl, but also Latisha and Lewanda, who got caught up in this whole funky business without full knowledge of what they were getting into. You also get access to “old skool” versions of Toejam and Earl, with stats and appearance that reflects the original 1991 game. There are also three other characters you can eventually unlock, bringing the total of playable characters to nine. Each character has their own set of base statistics, which will be altered as you level up.
Gaining a level means a stat increase—but you don’t have control over where those points go. Your stats are randomly distributed into six categories, like luck, speed, present effectiveness, etc. Since you don’t have control over where the points go, you’re at the mercy of RNGesus—but every little bit helps. Due to the ambling nature of Toejam and Earl’s gameplay, I constantly found myself hoping for speed boosts.
Each playthrough of Toejam and Earl: Back in the Groove can be relatively short. There are several different ways you can play. There is the easy tutorial level, and the fixed playthrough. But there are two random modes that make each playthrough unique: random and hardcore random. They’re both pretty self-explanatory, with hardcore random only allowing you one life for the entire playthrough. Playing the random game modes gives Toejam and Earl: Back in the Groove a sort of rogue-lite feel, increasing replayability. Plus, there are a bunch of random stuff to find, and secrets to uncover.
There are several different types of Earthlings you can run into. Most of them are bad, but you’ll find the occasional beneficial Earthling (you can tell they’re good because they sparkle). Good Earthlings can help you identify presents, or fix broken ones—some can even help you defeat enemies, but all of these services come at a price. Bad Earthlings will either passively be harmful, or track you down to hurt you—or knock you off the edge. If you don’t get speed power-ups, you’ll most likely be slower than most enemies, so you’ll have to make clever use of the terrain—or sunflowers—to effectively get away from them.
There are lots of pick-ups you’ll be coming across while trying to put back together the Rapmaster Rocket. Money is essential (and it makes a satisfying “money!” sound when you grab it) and is used to pay humans for services, or to buy presents. Presents act as power-ups, or debuffs. The problem is that you don’t normally know what a present will do unless it’s identified. Losing a level because you open a random bad present is a real hazard. Some presents are broken, and if you’re unlucky, they’ll explode instead of doing anything at all.
Toejam and Earl: Back in the Groove includes local and online multiplayer. You can randomly join other’s games, or have others join your game. Playing with friends is just as easy, and fun—both in online multiplayer and splitscreen. There is no in-game text or voice chat (at least on the Steam version I played) but you do have a wheel of reactions available that allow you to chat with your partner(s).
The music and art are perfect. That 90’s style is perfect recreated sans pixels—everything is gorgeous HD. The music is appropriately funky, with amazingly bad lines and an infectious catchiness that will compel you to listen to these groovy beats outside of the game. Performer Cody Wright can really slap that bass.
Toejam and Earl: Back in the Groove is so sincere with its weirdness, I couldn’t help but love it. It’s just as hard to categorize as the original was, but it’s entering a gaming landscape that feeds on nostalgia and oddness, so I hope to see more Toejam and Earl in the future.
Toejam and Earl: Back in the Groove will be available tomorrow on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and Windows
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