When you think about the 16-bit console era, such games as Sonic the Hedgehog 1,2 & 3, Super Mario World, Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Donkey Kong Country all instantly come to mind. They were, and still are, some of the greatest games ever to be released. Let’s not forget some of the other great games on that generation; Streets of Rage, Golden Axe, Super Metriod, Bubsy and Earthworm Jim were all epic games that all shaped the future of gaming. But none of these games can be compared with Toejam & Earl. A co-op classic that was so unique, it developed its own cult following and was in a league of its own. Simply, it was just one of those games you had to experience for yourself.
Let’s take a trip back to origin of Toejam & Earl. It’s October 1991, Toejam & Earl was released exclusively for the Sega Genesis (Sega Mega Drive) and received mostly positive reviews. Yet, sales were considered poor as Nintendo were dominating the console market. But the release of Sonic the Hedgehog began driving Genesis sales up, this was the beginning of Toejam & Earl’s rise in popularity. People began talking about a game that was centred around couple of alien rappers looking for parts of their righteous Rapmaster Rocketship (their space ship for all you non-funky nerds out there). But honestly, who would want to play that? Well, a lot of people did. In fact, around 350,000 people appreciated ToeJam & Earl’s unique gameplay, originality, funky tunes and its wacky sense of humor. These qualities provided a brilliant co-op experience and suddenly, Toejam & Earl became Sega’s unofficial mascots behind Sonic. Developer Johnson Voorsanger Productions (later renamed Toejam & Earl Productions) were given the opportunity to develop a sequel and in 1993, saw the release of ToeJam & Earl: Panic on Funkotron. There was a noticeable change of direction for the series, as Sega wasn’t supportive of the original’s gameplay formula. So, despite early builds of Panic on Funkotron staying true to the original 2D platformer, Sega got their way and Panic on Funkotron adopted a more traditional side-scrolling platformer that more resembles Mario and Sonic. Panic on Funkotron was a great game is its own right and was initially well received. However, hardcore
nerds fans of the original were disappointed and voiced their criticism, claiming that the developers sold out by giving into Sega. Since then, both Johnson and Voorsanger have admitted that they regret adopting the side-scrolling formula for the sequal. It was a long journey of uncertainty for Toejam & Earl regarding a third entry into the series. There were rumors of development for a Nintendo 64 release, then rumors that Toejam & Earl were destined for Sony PlayStation 2, but finally a deal was struck for the third part of their trilogy to be released for the Sega Dreamcast. This was partly due to developer Visual Concepts joining Toejam & Earl Productions and convincing Sega that this project will be a success. After its initial showing at E3 2001, Sega dropped its support and left Toejam & Earl in uncertainly again. Finally, Microsoft came to the party and offered their Xbox as the sole release platform. Finally, we saw Toejam & Earl enter the 3D world with the release of ToeJam & Earl III: Mission to Earth in 2002. Unfortunately, Mission to Earth was not a good game. Some would say, it was a Massive Epic Fail. It didn’t sell well and received below-average reviews. It appeared as if Toejam & Earl was finished, or so we thought…
March 2015 saw the announcement by HumaNature Studios (formerly Toejam & Earl Productions) that Toejam & Earl are BACK with a Kickstarter campaign to fund the upcoming ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! This campaign was successfully funded and saw over $500,000 pledged (myself included) going towards the next ToeJam and Earl instalment. Development was quite slow and saw a delayed release from the original 2016 release date. The extended delay did produce some good news however. Despite the initial campaign falling short of its stretch goals for a console release, fans were treated with a surprise announcement of console releases for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and most recently, Nintendo Switch to complement the PC release.
This leads us to 2019, here I am playing ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! I can hardly believe it, 17 years since the last ToeJam & Earl game was released, 28 years since the original ToeJam & Earl was released, and I can honestly say that this is by far the best ToeJam & Earl game released, no question about it. This is the true successor to the original ToeJam & Earl and is a real credit to its developers. As soon as I loaded up the game, I was met with a sense of nostalgia. The introduction video would look right at home on my Sega Genesis (that’s a compliment). Blasting through my speakers are those familiar funky beats. Visually, I’m hypnotized by the amazing color palette. The bright and loud colors feel like the characters are popping out from my screen. Story wise, Back in the Groove originally left me slightly disappointed with its rather simple origin. The gang is enjoying a trip to Earth, thanks largely to Earl ‘borrowing’ a space ship. After cranking up the Megawatt Speakers and laying some Funk on the Earthlings, Earl is given the responsibility of cranking up the Auxiliary Mega Sub woofer. He has the choice of two buttons and let’s just say, Earl presses the wrong button and all of a sudden you end up in a washing machine and stranded on Earth with your ship in pieces (we’ve all been there). Objective of the game? Search the 25 levels of planet Earth for the 10 missing pieces of your ship to get back to Funkotron. Sound familiar? Each level is populated with various Earthlings (some good, some bad), hilariously looking evil creatures, various types food and thanks to a clumsy Santa Claus, an excessive amount of unclaimed presents. Each level doesn’t necessary contain a piece of your ship. This means you can explore numerous levels in a row without contributing towards your main goal. But exploration of the level and opening presents will earn you valuable XP. Once you’ve finished with the level, you get the hell out of there by finding the elevator and going up to the next level. But watch out for those evil elevators, they bite!
Loading into the main menu, you would be forgiven if you jumped straight in and began enjoying the game. But as with any true PC gamer, we all want to explore the options and push our rigs to the limit. I’ll have to stop you there though as you will be disappointed. Back in the Groove! is a true sequel in more than one aspect. In 1991, you had no options at all. In 2019, you have next to no options. Graphic settings are limited to Fullscreen gameplay and adjusting your resolution. There’s no Anti-Aliasing, texture settings or ambient occlusion, nothing. Your audio options consist of a simple volume slider and effects volume tab. I did expect more, but once you accept the fact that an old Intel 486 could probably run this game, you move on and can finally jump in to the game.
HumaNature Studios have expanded the character selection for Back in the Groove. This is largely due to the fact that Back in the Groove features 4 player co-op, a set up from the 2 player co-op we’ve experience in previous adventures. In Mission to Earth, we were introduced to Latisha (did anyone even select her in Mission to Earth?). Shes returned for Back in the Groove along with her friend and ToeJam’s love interest, Lewanda. For all us old skool fans, there’s Old Skool ToeJam and Old Skool Earl (you may even unlock a certain achievement if you select a couple of old skool characters) to round off the initial cast. Each character has their own individual stats and unique abilities, such as ToeJam has double time with Spring Shoes and Hitops while Earl can eat bad food without penalty (kind of like myself). To survive in the crazy world called Earth, you need to level up your character from your initial ‘Weiner’ rank all the way to ‘Funklord’. Levelling up will increase stats such as Life Bar Size, Speed, Inventory Size and Luck. This is where all that exploring pays off as two things are required to level up, XP and your good old friend Wiseman– a man dressed in a giant carrot costume. When Wiseman isn’t taking your money to identify mystery presents, he will offer his services to level you up once you’ve gained enough XP.
The moment you load into the first level, you instantly forgive the lack of graphical options and understand why. The game looks amazing. ‘Simple, yet beautiful’ is the best way to describe it. I say this with relevance to the game genre. Obviously, Back in the Groove’s game art isn’t comparable with games that push hardware limits such as Metro Exodus. There will be gamers out there who won’t look twice at this game based on its visual aspects. But visually this game needs to be appreciated for what it is, a 2D platformer. The character models and art design perfectly complement the original game, albeit updated to 2019 standards. Animations aren’t perfect as a quick-change direction can make the transition between animation appear clunky. But for a 2D platformer, this is expected and a small imperfection. The level design of level one will please all hardcore ToeJam & Earl fans and make you think twice about which game you loaded up. Luckily, the increased pixel count should give it away. Performance won’t be an issue, even for those ageing PC’s as I constantly between 150-200 FPS, with only a few minor drops in FPS to low 100’s when my field of view increases during the use of Icarus Wings. The current build is quite stable as well as I’m yet to experience any game crashes in my 20 hours of play.
Gameplay is great fun, but simple. New comers to the series may find the game a bit on the slow side, but old skool fans will appreciate the return of the original formula. There’s nothing complicated about the controls, in fact your only interaction with your character is directional movement, sneaking, a button to open your inventory, a search for searching an area and another button for a quick-cast chat-wheel to help communicate with your buddy. Playing solo is a good experience, but inviting friends for online co-op or local split-screen co-op is really where ToeJam & Earl shines. Working together is rewarding. You will explore the map far quicker and discover missing pieces of your ship in no time. But it’s even more fun when you choose not to be as cooperative and set your friends up to fail. Imagine this. You purposely fly over to a remote island, knowing full well you have no presents that will help you return to your friends. Once you land there, you open your Swap Bodies present and bingo, your friend is now stuck on the island and you’ve taken over his character. Or giving them a present that you said contains food to replenish their health, when it actually contains a big loud siren and sign with multiple arrows saying ‘HERE I AM!’ is a sure way to ruin their day. The game is quite short however. I completed my first solo play-through in about 4 to 5 hours on normal, which included a decent amount of exploring. 2 player co-op on normal difficulty was slightly shorter. The hardest difficulty can be quite the challenge though. Not only did it increase our frustration and anger, but also saw the two of us stretch out the play-through to around 6-7 hours. There’s also an abundance of unlockables to increase longevity. This includes game modes, difficulty settings, characters and items. Random Mode (and Hard Random Mode) that will randomly generate each level, three playable characters can be unlocked after each play-through and a number of comical hats can also be unlocked. These hats serve a dual purpose, being style and unique abilities. These abilities reflect the appearance of your hat. For example, the Hat of Fish allows the wearer to swim faster and prevents Sharks from seeing you. Honestly, you simply can’t go past a quality hat.
If you have a good sound setup, crank up the volume and enjoy the bass! The quality of the soundtrack to Back in the Groove is great. Personally, I’m not a fan of the music genre represented in ToeJam & Earl and would never buy a funk or rap album. But I thoroughly enjoyed the funky tunes provided and found myself humming them or playing them on repeat inside my head. Outside of the groovy tunes, there’s not much to comment on. Each character has limited set of spoken lines that are average in quality, and originality. Sound effects fit in well with the theme of the game and are designed to be humorous, rather than realistic.
In conclusion, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is exactly what every ToeJam & Earl fan wanted Panic on Funkotron to be. Every aspect of this game pays respect to its original and builds upon that foundation. HumaNature Studios have done a great job recreating a cult classic, but you expect that from one of the original creators. Everything feels, looks and sounds like it’s the exact same universe from 1991, just much more polished. I have no hesitation in saying that anyone who has fond memories of ToeJam & Earl will absolutely LOVE this game. It’s just a shame that we had to wait 26 years for a proper sequel, but this will allow an entirely new generation to experience ToeJam & Earl… if they can stop playing Fortnite and PUBG.
For more on ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! check out our previous coverage.