'ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove' is a retro revival done right
A ToeJam & Earl game in 2019 has no right to be this funky.
Retro revivals in recent years have been fairly hit or miss. The premise is usually pretty simple: an original creator or a number of the original development team from a highly-revered nostalgic game series is brought back for a crowdfunded sequel/reboot or reimagining. Games like Mighty No. 9, Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back and Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night all fall into this category and either released to middling-to-negative reviews or have yet to be released.
But what ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove does so right is that it’s not really trying to be a sequel, reboot or reimagining. It’s honestly trying to capture the feeling of the original game and totally exist in the space that made the series a cult classic to begin with — an early ‘90s microcosm that is equal parts cringey as it is inviting.
The premise is simple, and the most modern connection would be to call it a “rogue-lite” game. You pick a character and make your way through set or randomized 2D levels as you collect “presents” (buffs/debuffs) and seek out spaceship parts in an effort to blast off somewhere new. Elevators connect each of the levels, but be warned, some of these elevators will try and chomp on you and set you back a bit.
And Back in the Groove’s strongest point here is that it gives its players the confidence to then be totally vulnerable to unpredictable enemy types, de-buffing presents and mimic elevators. The premise really does feel so simple at times that it’s hard not to give the game credit for taking its design and making it so addicting.
A game like this is perfect as part of the Nintendo Switch’s handheld lineup, a game that can easily be played in short bursts with players still coming away with a feeling of progress. The game’s co-op mode is also well-employed, including dynamic split-screen. Though, it can make some of the levels go by a bit fast.
It’s not the kind of game that’s going to change retro revivals as a whole or anything like that, but it’s certainly a positive effort to really feeling out what fans of the original want from a new entry. For its entry price, Back in the Groove offers plenty of content to explore, from its fixed world adventure to randomized levels and a number of different characters to play as. Even the game’s “secret” levels are lovely little callbacks to the Genesis original.
And don’t worry, it’s basically like the original Xbox’s ToeJam & Earl 3 never happened.
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is now available for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC. A review copy was provided by the publisher.