Back in the day, Sega released a game called ToeJam and Earl for their Megadrive console. Released originally in 1991, the titular aliens had crash landed their spaceship on Earth, and were left to run around and collect all the scattered bits to rebuild it, all in order to make their escape. Hailed for its imaginative gameplay and characterisation, as well as its randomised gameplay, the original game became a sleeper hit and ensured that the two aliens had a couple of further games based around them; the last appearing in 2002 on the Xbox.
Since then, news from Funkotron has been on the thin side, at least until now. See, HumaNature Studios, with the backing of a successful Kickstarter campaign, have brought a new entry – ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove!. Playing like the original game, is this a step too far for our funky aliens, or will the gameplay still work today? Let’s strap on some spring shoes and find out!
The story, such as it is, is still the same as the first game, with ToeJam and Earl “borrowing” a spaceship to impress their girlfriends with a trip to Earth. Predictably enough, the ship crashes and the parts to rebuild it are spread far and wide. In order to make it back to Funkotron, the dynamic duo (or the ladies, Latisha and Lewanda) have to find and reassemble the bits to make a viable spacecraft. What this translates to is a series of isometrically viewed floating islands, linked by elevators that have to be explored in order to achieve the aliens’ goals. Of course, it’s not as easy as meandering about the place, as there are a variety of Earthlings who don’t take kindly to extra-terrestrial visitors (we could blame Brexit for that) and will attack them on sight.
Now, you’d hope that if the Earthlings are going to attack on sight, that the visitors would have some form of defence, and as far as it goes, they do. The downside is that they have to be found in presents, which are scattered around the levels. These presents can contain a wide variety of items, ranging from slingshots and tomatoes which serve as weapons, down to spring shoes and hi-tops that make it faster for the protagonists to get around the landscape.
The presents are not all good, however, and can summon extra Earthlings to attack, or even blow up in their faces if they are unlucky with opening a broken present. What makes life more difficult is that the first time a present is picked up, it’s a mystery, only revealing the contents when it’s opened. One of the weirdest presents – Rosebushes – does what it says on the tin: when you press the A button, a rosebush is planted. Pretty!
Of course, not all Earthlings are bad, and some can help our heroes out. These include a large opera singing lady whose top C can pop the bad guys, the Wiseman, who is dressed like a carrot and is responsible for levelling up our aliens when they have accrued enough XP, and Ghandi, whose influence makes everyone peaceful and removes the threat from bad Earthlings in his sphere of influence.
Graphically and ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove! looks good, with a pleasing swagger to the way ToeJam and Earl walk, and while it’s not the most technically demanding game I’ve played on the Xbox One, it all just works. The animation of some of the enemies is somewhat odd though, in particular the Ice Cream Vans, which seem to pivot on the spot when trying to chase you. Another strange touch is that enemies can run through the various houses dotted about the level, and some cheap feeling hits are therefore taken as enemies you can’t see will run through a house and whack you. The houses do go transparent as you get near them, but it still doesn’t ever feel right.
Sound wise the game is perfectly fine, with a real funky vibe that is embodied in the beat matching mini game that you can find around the levels. There are two stages to this; you either try and play the beat the opposition has laid down, or you can create your own beat which you then have to play back. This is a fun diversion, and can be challenging on later levels. It is however nothing to someone who has beaten PaRappa!
Nicely, the game is set up for multiplayer fun, and with the ability to play with up to 3 friends, either locally or over Xbox Live, the scene is set for fun. I’ve had fun playing with my son, and opening up the game to the online scene makes it more unpredictable. Overall, I’ve been lucky with those who’ve joined my games, as we have worked together to achieve the ultimate goal, but the potential is there for griefing, as the elevator to the next level can’t be activated until the whole crew is in it. There is the ability to share lives (yes, there are a limited number!) and presents with those in your game, and if someone dies, they can return as a ghost to help locate things until someone gives them a life. In fact, the multiplayer works well, with local co-op having a dynamic split screen mechanic, where as you are close together, you appear on the same screen, and it splits as you move away from each other.
The major problem I have with ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove! on Xbox One is that it feels like it overstays its welcome. Collecting all 10 ship parts is spread over 25 levels, and that’s a lot for a game were the gameplay feels like it is too laid back for its own good. Strolling around the levels, trying to avoid the Earthlings (because, despite the availability of weapons, hitting anything smaller than the side of a barn proves tricky) and picking up presents gets boring around level 15. A game shouldn’t feel like a chore to complete, but I’m afraid this one does. Being able to save and quit helps, but if you save a game as Earl, you can’t then pick up the same game as ToeJam as it seems to lock the characters down. In short bursts though, this is something that is fun, but equally, to be kind, it outstays its welcome.
All in all, if you loved ToeJam and Earl back in the day, then Back in the Groove! is almost a remake, and the same gameplay is here to be enjoyed. However, in this day and age, I feel that we need more from a game, and cool characters and funky vision aside, the actual gameplay is just a bit too slow and ponderous. It does come across as something out of the ordinary in this era of gaming, but to be honest, it feels its age. As an exercise in nostalgia it hits the mark, but I can’t help but feel ToeJam and Earl will struggle to pick up new fans, no matter how groovy they are.