The titular alien duo, ToeJam & Earl, are finally back after a 17-year hiatus, reviving the experience of their original game from the ’90s, with the kind of modern features you’d expect. However, does the old rogue-like experience, with a new coat of paint and online functionality feel as groovy as fan were hoping it would?
If you’re content playing singleplayer then ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove does indeed live up to its hype and ticks all the nostalgia boxes by offering the same primary experience as the original. Playing as one of 9 playable characters, you explore levels revealing more of your map in the search of spaceship parts to restore your craft and venture back into space. You’ll gather cash, presents and experience points, from the exploration and your interaction with earthlings, some of which mean to harm you, before finding an elevator that takes you to the next level. The game’s complete once you find all 10 pieces of your spaceship.
It sounds like an easy goal, however, as you progress you’ll encounter more and more earthlings that chip away at your health or cause you to fall off the level, tumbling down to the level below and requiring you to find the elevator again to venture back up. Moreover, the randomly generated levels offer navigational obstacles, ones that encourage you to use your collected presents to overcome.
These presents act as powerups to improve your states or offer additional experience points, cash or temporary abilities. However, your need to identify them before you know for sure what they contain, as some of the presents offer nasty, damaging surprises. You can identify them by speaking to a certain earthling and paying a fee or open the present and hope for the best. With some levels not offering paths across the void to key areas, and multiple presents providing a solution to that problem in the form of large jump boost, a jetpack, etc. you’ll eventually need to start opening them up. It’s a neat risk verse reward mechanic that keeps things interesting.
The goal of navigating successfully through each level and finding those spaceship parts soon becomes a complicated and tricky affair. Furthermore, the experience points you receive randomly increases your stats, a wonderful element of randomness that, in combination with the randomly generated levels, can result in huge variety within each play through.
However, when it comes to the online multiplayer things start to fall apart. We encountered levels where all the earthlings would vanish, and the gathering of ship parts became an easy but mindless chore. Additionally, crashes, disconnects and lag were common, ruining the otherwise fun gameplay.
When everything is stable and working, or if you’re playing local multiplayer or solo, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is hugely entertaining. The wacky premise and Saturday morning cartoon visuals give it a wonderfully attractive identity and uniqueness. Meanwhile, the aforementioned rogue-like setup means replayability is excellent, although it’s appeal does wain fairly quickly when played alone.
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove takes the original game and injects more of what made it so entertaining back in the early 90s to match the kind of content levels we expect from a modern release. It’s just as weird and challenging as it ever was and the mechanics haven’t aged a day. It is perhaps a bit too odd for some, with some peculiar logic to the whole affair, but existing fans will dig this revival. It’s unfortunately that the online multiplayer is currently so unstable, especially when playing with another person can be so much fun. Hopefully this will be addressed in future patches.