Review: 'ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove!' (XB1)

A scene from 'ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove'. A scene from 'ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove'. HUMANATURE STUDIOS

I didn't play the original ToeJam and Earl back on the SEGA Genesis, so when I got the opportunity to try the latest adventure of the iconic duo I was more than a little intrigued. After doing a little research to see what I missed on the first go round I can safely say that this game recreates the feel of the original with insane detail. But... is that a good thing?

If you're a fan of the series, it should be enough to know that they kept everything from before, but added a few newer references. For those new to the series, the basic idea is that your play either ToeJam or Earl in a search for the pieces of their ship that have broken up and fallen to Earth. The worlds are laid out in ascending levels in which you must find a piece of the ship, if there is one to find, then locate the elevator to the next level. Falling off the map will drop you down to previous levels, forcing you to find the exit all over again.

If you've ever felt like you need more “Chance” or “Community Chest” cards in your video game experience, ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove is definitely for you. Game play consists mostly of slowly ambling about a strange map filled with the weirdest of NPCs, from wizards to construction workers to literal devils, all while picking up presents. These presents are the core of the game, they decide your fate for good or for ill. Most of the time you won't know what's in a present until you open it, creating a mysterious tension around each reveal. I like to break the outcomes of these presents into three categories: Good, Bleh, and Son of a ---! Sometimes you get items that spew out money, heal you, reveal ship or elevator locations. Sometimes you get stuff that will swap presents, repair broken presents, or otherwise give you mediocre power ups that you don't really need. But, more often than not, you'll end up with terrible things, like presents that automatically toss you down a level, sirens that alert all enemies to your presence and draw them in, presents that make you lose all your inventory, or worse.

The risk of the presents is at the core of the game. Neither ToeJam nor Earl move particularly fast, so if you start getting flanked by enemies bent on your demise, you may have no choice but to rely on a crap shoot of presents. Maybe you'll luck out and get a health boost. Or maybe you'll end up with rocket shoes that seem useful until you shoot off the edge of the map uncontrollably and tumble back down to level one when they run out of fuel.

Overall, the game's aesthetics are very much inspired by the '90s. There are some graphical upgrades since their Genesis days, but the game more or less looks and plays just like the original, and really, that's kind of the problem. Too often people lament that reboots don't capture the spirit of the original game or that they're just a quick cash grab. I feel this may have gone to the complete opposite side of the spectrum. It's hard to see any difference between this game and the original save for a few new characters and a few jokes for the new generation. Playing this game, it's hard to believe there was a huge demand for it. That's not to say that there's anything wrong with the game, only that it's so indistinguishable from its predecessor that it's hard to see why it exists.

With every new Mario game there's a change, something new that elevates the franchise while still maintaining a “Mario Bros Spirit.” Based on everything I've seen about the original ToeJam and Earl, there's nothing new here. It feels less like a sequel and more like an HD remix. But worse than that, I worry that the market for a ToeJam and Earl game just isn't there anymore. The unique game play this game offers is charming, but wears thin quickly. It is very much a product of its time and I'm not certain that translates well to the current market.

Overall, I found the game enjoyable. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove because there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the original Toejam and Earl. If you're nostalgic for the Genesis days, this might be the game for you, but if you're not a fan of the original game, I'm not sure there's anything here to draw in a new audience.

Final Score: 6 out of 10

A copy of this game was provided for the purpose of review.

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