Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove, the long-awaited fourth installment in a series more than 25 years old, is coming to Nintendo Switch when it launches this year. We got our hands on it (although not the Switch version) at PAX East in Boston, and starting it up was like booting up a dusty old Sega Genesis, except with a huge graphics upgrade.
From the shape of that first island, to the speed and rhythm with which the famous Funkotronians walk, the latest entry in the ToeJam & Earl franchise feels like a loving reboot of what made the 1991 original so much fun.
ToeJam & Earl was a franchise that seemed to lose its way over the years, straying far from the isometric exploration that many found so endearing. The development team went back to the series’ roots, even including a level zero, complete with wahini in a hot tub handing out extra lives.
But there’s also just more to do in the game.
Back in the Groove has nine playable characters to choose from, including both new and retro ToeJam and Earl. And yes, you can even play as Earl’s mom. Each has a slightly different set of starting stats for speed and health.
As I walked around the first few levels, I was able to search in the bushes for presents and cash. There was the wise carrot man to help me identify presents, but also a repairman to fix presents that were broken when I picked them up. There were the classic ringing telephones that revealed new portions of the map, little devils running around and bogeymen leaping out of the bushes. But higher levels will have a bigger variety of Earthlings than any game that’s come before.
Back in the Groove is also a bit more interactive. Characters are able to search in the bushes for loot. Only occasionally would I find a secret door, which took me into one of several rhythm-based minigames. There’s the Hyperfunk zone, a two-dimensional endless runner that hands out free presents the longer you’re able to stay inside. There’s also a “beat battle” minigame that uses Guitar Hero-style musical cues in a competitive way.
“We had a lot of great feedback from players last year at PAX West,” said Nathan Shorts, lead artist on the project. “People wanted to have a little more control over what they were playing. So we added the ability to make your own beat, which is actually hearkening back to the little jam game in the first game. We wanted people to be able to feel that again, so you can make your own beat and then play it back.”
To enter a beat battle, players simply find a Funkotronian lost on Earth and sidle over to their boombox. When the battle begins, players compose a beat and the Funkotronian tries to match it. Play goes back and forth, beat for beat, until someone wins.
Shorts also said that the team was spending a lot of time putting hand-crafted secrets into the game, like level zero, as well as a lavish version of the planet Funkotron waiting at the end of the game.
Like the original, Back in the Groove will feature random worlds comprising 25 levels. But it will also have an intro mode for newcomers to the series and a hard mode.
“The hard mode has new types of Earthlings that we’re calling ‘Deadly Earthlings,’” Shorts said. “Remember the Ice Cream Truck? There’s now a Deadly Ice Cream Truck. So, if you’re a glutton for punishment that’s the game type for you.”
While no release day has been set, Shorts said the game was expected to launch this year for Linux, Mac and Windows PC as well as Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.