The original ToeJam & Earl turns 28 this year. Released for the Sega Genesis in 1991, the roguelike adventure game features two wacky aliens with big personalities and a passion for bass-heavy funk. The game didn’t sell remarkably well when it first came out, but its unique aesthetic and Saturday morning cartoon-style humor set it apart and helped to give it long-lasting cult appeal. Unfortunately, any momentum it might have had was torpedoed by a series of lackluster sequels.
Now, thanks to a $500,000 Kickstarter campaign, non-traditional investors, and years of additional development time, gaming’s favorite aliens have returned. ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is outstanding. Fans should expect a modernized version of the original game, one that expands on its format and piles on a hefty dose of replayability. As a complete package, I think it might just be the best entry in the entire series.
That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, of course, but in a marketplace crowded with grim heroes and dark violence, Back in the Groove is a concentrated dose of joy. It’s the rare game that is easily enjoyed by the entire family. That alone makes it worthy of praise.
In the fiction of Back in the Groove, ToeJam and Earl are out for a joyride with their friends Latisha and Lewanda when they accidentally destroy the planet Earth with a black hole generator. The resulting explosion digests our home planet, turning it into a series of flat, strangely shaped landmasses stacked one on top of the other. In order to return to their home planet of Funkotron, the aliens must navigate a hostile environment while gathering up the scattered pieces of their broken spaceship.
Hindering the search are the game’s many Earthlings, which range from the classic pitchfork-wielding devils and crazed dentists to much more modern threats. The game’s new enemies include the Segway Guard, who tries to run me down from atop a two-wheeled scooter, and the Internet Troll, who hurls insults that mix up my control scheme for a short period of time but eventually runs away when confronted.
Taken individually, Back in the Groove’s enemies are interesting curiosities that are a lot of fun to play with. En masse, however, they can turn levels into a kind of bullet hell. The effect is magnified in the game’s later stages, when more powerful versions of enemies start to appear. Completing a run-through requires patience and careful planning.
It also requires hoarding presents, just like in the original.
Making it through a single level requires judicious use of power-ups, which appear as semi-random drops all over the game world. Presents can simply be lying out on the ground or be hidden inside bits of scenery. They include classics like Slingshots, which I can use to fling tomatoes at Earthlings until they pop, and Icarus Wings, which allow me to take to the air and fly from one end of a level to another. New presents include a rather scatological Gas Cloud, which causes enemies to scatter, and an Earthling Disguise that allows me to pass unnoticed through packs of enemies.
Just as in the original game, you don’t know what’s inside a present until you open it. The key is gathering up enough money to pay the carrot-shaped Wise Man Earthling to identify presents for you before you open them. Otherwise you run the risk of accidentally opening a Randomize present, which changes the identity of every secret package in the game, potentially undoing hours of work and hamstringing you in later levels.
Fans of the original game will be delighted to know that the variety of both the Earthlings and the presents themselves is well worth the price of admission. On top of that, however, the developers at HumaNature Studios have added a new stats-based leveling system. Each of the game’s six starting characters have a different set of initial stats, which change randomly over the course of the game. The changes aren’t dramatic, but tend to add subtlety to multiple playthroughs.
Beyond that, there’s honestly not all that much that differentiates the moment-to-moment gameplay of Back in the Groove from the 1991 original. There’s an incentive to continue exploring each map in the form of parking meters and buttons. Feed the meter or push the button, and a long chain of interactive items will begin to crop up, with a random goodie at the end of each one. Sometimes that’s a door to the Hyperfunk Zone, a two-dimensional timed bonus level that doles out cash and presents. Other times, feeding the meter opens up a Guitar Hero-style rhythm game. Both of those minigames are fun, but hardly anything to write home about.
What the game lacks in variety it makes up for with replayability, which is enhanced by tons of unlocks. Through casual play I begin to find unusual, higher-tier presents. Using these presents adds them to my available pool for the next playthrough, meaning I’ll have more options the more I play. A successful run to Funkotron also allows me to open up additional playable characters, for a grand total of nine. My favorite is Earl’s mom, Flo, who is able to share more of her life bar with other players to help keep them alive.
The original ToeJam & Earl was highly regarded as an excellent couch co-op experience. Back in the Groove doubles down on that feature, expanding multiplayer to four players total with network play. But that’s where some of the game’s cracks begin to show.
At times Back in the Groove struggles with its sense of visual scale. The camera distance can feel restrictive, especially since some of the game’s enemies are simply too big for their own good. With five or more of them in the same small area, it can be hard to make sense of what’s going on. When the portion of the screen that you’re looking at shrinks down in two-player mode, it’s easy to die simply because you can’t see what dangers you’re running into. Multiplayer games are therefore all about staying together in order to maximize visibility.
What that offers is the ability to turn multiplayer sessions into guided tours led by more experienced players. That, along with an E10+ rating, makes Back in the Groove an excellent game for the entire family. Once I dialed down the difficulty, it was no trouble at all to put a controller into the hands of my 5-year-old and have her tag along. If she bumped into an enemy, I could even walk up to her and hit a button to high-five, sharing some of my life bar with her.
Be warned, however, that the game is a little on the short side. Skilled players should be able to complete the whole thing in just a few hours. At the same time, it’s refreshing to actually see the end of a game, to feel like I’ve completed a journey rather than participated in a story that never ends.
And what an ending it is. Just like the original, it took me back to Funkotron for a wild alien dance party. In the untimed free-roam area before the credits, fans are treated to the full force of Cody Wright’s excellent work on the electric bass. His style carries forward the high intensity of the original game’s soundtrack while turning it into something completely unique.
There were moments where it felt like I was playing the same game that came out when I was 11. But the look was just a bit more lavish, and the funky bass line was arranged just differently enough. Back in the Groove is the perfect mix of polish and nostalgia, and one that I can’t wait to play through again.
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove will be available March 1 on Mac, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. The game was reviewed on Windows PC using a final “retail” download code provided by HumaNature Studios. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.