When I was a young lad, back before the age of internet, always online, and microtransactions, we played many great games that made no sense but were tons of fun and super addictive in a healthy way. I can’t tell you why fat, Italian plumbers jumped on mushrooms or why blue hedgehogs felt compelled to collect golden rings, but I can tell you that the number of mushrooms I squashed and the number of rings I collected is much higher than the number of Fortnite bucks I’ve earned. One of my favorite games from my childhood was the original ToeJam & Earl (1991) for the Sega Genesis.
If I’m honest, I didn’t really understand the game as a kid. It was the original roguelike before that was an established genre. I played it often but never really knew what I was doing. I also don’t remember watching the opening movie so I don’t think I even knew what the premise of the game was back then. What I do remember is that it was one of the games that my father and uncles used to love to play and we all would play it together. I also loved the funky music and the fact that a character was named ToeJam, because that was and still is funny to me for some reason. So when I think about ToeJam & Earl, it’s always with great fondness. I eventually did go back and play the original game years later, actually watched the cutscenes, and completed it. I also completed the ToeJam & Earl III: Mission to Earth (2002) for the XBOX. I tried ToeJam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron (1993) right after completing the first game, but I really didn’t like the different gameplay style. In any case, I have always cared a great deal about this franchise. That’s why I was ecstatic when I heard that someone was making a new installment after all these years. It is an honor and a privilege to be able to play a new ToeJam & Earl game in 2019. I kind of wish I had gotten the Switch version so I could round up my uncles and father and play it as a family once again.
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! is both a sequel and a remake of the original game. It is important to understand this going in because it informs a number of design choices that people who aren’t familiar with the original game might not like or understand. As I said previously, it’s a roguelike but it has a number of conventions specific to this franchise and not much else. It’s also important to understand this in the context of judging it. If you’re looking at it strictly as a game being released in 2019, then it’s obviously not going to stand up to most if any top tier games being released today. Or at least that would be the case if we didn’t keep getting dumpster fire AAA releases like Fallout 76 and Anthem. But if we look at this in the context of recreating a game from 1991, then it’s one of the most true to form remakes I’ve ever seen not based on a game from the modern era. That’s the context within which I played and ultimately chose to review this game.
Assuming you have played or at least looked up some footage from the original game before starting Groove!, the first thing you notice as soon as the opening cutscene starts is that the graphics are vastly improved but true to the original style. It’s like night and day even though they’re both flat environments pretending to have three dimensional qualities. This new game definitely has a bit more depth to it with things like hills and the ability to clearly see the previous level floating beneath the one you’re currently on, but it’s still the same 2D style used in the first game. The vibrant colors stand out so much in this game. Compared to original, it’s like you were looking at a dirty screen and someone finally cleaned it off. Everything is brighter and way more detailed, including ToeJam and Earl themselves. Plus there are a lot of display options. You can play full screen or windowed play in 18 different resolutions.
There is a literal hoard of earthlings in this game to interact with, both evil and good. The movement is fluid and diverse for all of them. The playable characters move very smoothly as well. There’s no skipping or lost frame rate issues, even when playing with multiple players on or offline. Not only is the movement smooth, but it’s also well animated. What I like most about the game’s graphics is the amount of variety. 68 earthlings, 67 different types of presents, 25 stages with random layouts, nine playable characters, and even multiple environments from level to level. Many of these assets are interactive as well. Even the trees and bushes can be directly interacted with. And this is all randomly generated depending on which mode you’re playing. You do see some repetitive stuff such as enemy assets reskinned in different colors in later stages. But overall there’s a lot going on in Groove! and the game handles it perfectly.
The HUD is simple but effective. You have the level counter on the top center of the screen, which also notifies the player when a piece of the spaceship is on that level. In the bottom right you have the mini-map. With the rest of the HUD being in the bottom left, showing the character’s avatar, the XP bar, the HP bar, and the power up meter. In local coop mode, the HUD for the second player appears in the top left corner of the screen. When playing with four players, the HUDs are distributed to each corner of the screen when playing in a single screen and to the top left of each box when in split screen mode. What’s really nice is you can turn the map and HUD off if you want an extra challenge. You can also make the map larger at any time by holding the map button if you need to examine it in finer detail. But really the mini-map, assuming you have a large enough screen like I do on my PC, is quite adequate. It shows you locations for special things, the entire grid of the current level you’re on, and environmental landmarks such as desert or water. I never once needed to use the enlarge map function during play.
The menus are done very nicely too. A much better, clearer font than was used in the original game. The manual, which is quite comprehensive, is broken up into clear sections with small blocks of text, making reading through the whole thing very easy to do. It’s not an overwhelmingly graphic intense game. It’s more like an art piece that combines the simplicity of the past with some of the benefits of modern graphic development to make something totally new and beautiful but still definitively retro in nature. You’re not getting the bare bones Sega Genesis graphics but you’re also not going too far and getting something odd looking like ToeJam & Earl III. Ultimately I think it’s a wonderful looking game that delivered exactly what it needed to visually.
The first thing I want to say about the gameplay is that it’s buttery smooth. I was surprised at how smooth the gameplay actually is. Even when using a controller, a DualShock 4 in my case, the input works perfectly. There’s no lag. No input issues. This game works. I was very happy with how it instantly accepted my controller and gave me no issues. Now the game will not revert back to keyboard automatically if your controller gets disconnected during play. My controller ran out of battery in the middle of a game while running away from a group of enemies and I couldn’t pick up with the keyboard. My guy just stopped moving until I got the controller plugged in. The game doesn’t even pause when this happens. And since you spawn in the same spot where you died, I just kept dying until I got the controller working again. A bit of an oversight on the developer’s part, but nothing game breaking and easily fixed with a patch. HumaNature Studios is also really responsive on Twitter and is actively seeking out and listening to feedback for future patches, so this issue may very well be fixed in the near future.
The gameplay is quite simple in practice. You have to traverse 25 levels in search of 10 spaceship pieces, which are scattered randomly throughout the levels. The 10th piece is always on level 25, as stated in the manual. You traverse these levels by walking around each one trying to find an elevator. You can walk normally or sneak to avoid being seen by bad earthlings. Different presents can affect your movement as well. You also have the ability to swim through water but you can only swim for an amount of time corresponding to your current health. Meaning the larger your life bar, the longer you can swim when you’re at full health. You always start a new game with three lives but can earn more as rewards and through presents along the way. While traversing these levels you can collect money, presents, and food which also all incurs XP. Money is used to pay for services from good earthlings and to use certain items like parking meters. Presents, of which there are 67 different types, can do all sorts of things, both good and bad. They can do things like refill health, give you special powers like flight and better jumping, or reveal parts of the map. They can hurt you as well by doing things like dropping all your items, damaging you, and lowering your rank. Some presents are broken when you find them and have a chance of exploding when opened. You can also drop presents you don’t want.
You can only carry a limited number of presents at a time based on the character you choose and your current rank. Food can either restore or remove life. Rotten food, which always looks like the same types of food, hurts you while all other food helps you. Different types of food give or take different amounts of health. You can also gain XP. XP is used to increase your rank. Increasing your rank increases your stats like the size of your life bar, walking speed, and number of presents you can carry. There are a total of six stats with each character having their own strengths and weaknesses. You always start at the bottom rank at the beginning of a new game and can work your way up 15 ranks. You don’t level up automatically. Once you’ve collected enough XP, which can be gotten in many different ways, you then have to find a “wiseman” and he will increase your rank free of charge. You don’t have to increase your rank to beat the game. As soon as you find all 10 pieces of the spaceship you’ve won.
The gameplay is very simple to understand but that doesn’t make it easy. The many different enemy earthlings can be quite tricky and they often congregate in groups. Some will chase you or hit you with status effects like freezing you in place. Some will even drop you down to lower levels. Sometimes you’ll intentionally have to jump off levels to get away from enemies, causing you to have to back track and make your way up again. The map for each level always starts off blind and then expands as you explore the level you’re on. Presents are important. It’s necessary to use them often but strategically. The presents do many different things, but many of them are not identified until you’ve used them once. This means every time you find a new type of present you risk it being a bad present if you haven’t already used it previously to identify it. There is also a good earthling you can pay money to identify presents for you. I’m not 100% sure if this is true, but it seems to me that presents you’ve identified in past games will be identified in all future games. But there are also enemies and bad presents that remove your present labels and I’m not sure if this carries over to future games. It’s definitely something that I need to confirm with more research. It could also very well be completely random from game to game.
The gameplay is always the same but there are three difficulties that can be played across three modes. The “Fixed World” mode has the map stay relatively the same every game. This is a good mode to learn how to play the game once you’ve finished the tutorial. But the real challenge is when you hit “Random World” mode. This is the same gameplay but the layout of the levels changes every time. This is the roguelike experience that was spawned by the original game. There is also “Random World Hard” mode. At the start you only have Fixed World mode and then you have to reach level 10 to unlock Random World mode. But you don’t unlock Random World Hard mode until you complete a Random World run. The Hard mode is harder but not by a huge amount, in my opinion. There aren’t necessarily more enemies but they do more damage. There are also fewer presents around. Or at least that was my experience playing it. I played it in coop with a total of three players so maybe that affected the experience as well. We did manage to beat it though. You also have to take into account difficulty level and character. You can actually change your difficulty mid game whenever you want from the pause menu, but you can’t unlock prizes and achievements unless you’re in normal mode, which is considered the hardest of the three modes. Because of this, I never took the time to play in either of the two easier modes because that would be a complete waste of time. Each of the nine playable characters has their own stats, so it’s important to understand all six stats and choose the character that best fits your play style.
There are also two mini-games that you play within the game as special occurrences. The Hyperfunk Zone is kind of like a Sonic the Hedgehog style special zone. It’s a 2D side scroller where you continuously run from left to right collecting items until you run out of time or hit an exit portal. There is an ending, and an achievement for reaching it, but it’s quite a ways forward so it’s hard to achieve. It’s fairly simple to play and only requires you to press one button to dodge past exit portals. If you time it wrong then you leave the Hyperfunk Zone before reaching the end. You can also run out of time but picking up clocks extends your time in the zone. When you enter the Hyperfunk zone during coop play, all players are transported there regardless of where they are on the map. Each player plays independently but the running pace is the same. That means if you have two players and one gets out the other player can continue and the player who is out has to wait for all other players to finish.
The second mini-game is kind of like Guitar Hero but with buttons. You have to press corresponding buttons to a beat as they move down the screen. It works OK but the timing isn’t as clear as Guitar Hero and the feedback isn’t there with vibrations or anything so you tend to be too early or late sometimes because your eyes don’t agree with the beat, even though it looks like you were on time. This mini-game is played solo directly on the map so playing doesn’t affect other players during coop.
Groove! supports both local and online cooperative play. When playing in coop mode, only one person has to be in normal difficulty to unlock prizes at the end. This is really convenient for when playing with younger children or amateur gamers. You can enjoy the game with them while allowing them to play at an easier difficulty without losing out on prizes. Local coop supports up to four players. Each HUD is added to another corner of the screen and the screen splits for local coop so having more than four players would get way too cluttered. Online coop, which doesn’t split the screen, also supports up to four players. You don’t actually see the HUDs for other players in online coop so technically there’s no reason it couldn’t support more, but four is the maximum and honestly that’s enough for the size and scope of this game.
I really like the way the coop works because it’s not limiting like most coop games. You are playing the same game on the same map, but you can work fairly independently of each other. You have your own lives and life bars, money, and presents. But present effects are shared. Or at least some of them are like invisibility. It didn’t seem like physical enhancement presents are shared like wings or rocket boots. When one player runs out of lives they become a ghost and can take a life from another player if that other player agrees to give one up. All players show up on the mini-map so you know where you are in proximity to each other. But if one of you falls down to the previous level the other player isn’t affected. The one limitation is that players can only progress to unvisited floors together. This means that if one player reaches the elevator to the next floor first then they have to wait for the other player(s) before they can progress to the next level, even if that player has fallen down to a previous level. Thankfully though, you are immune from all damage when inside the elevator so you don’t have to worry about dying while waiting for other players to get there. Even the fake elevators give you immunity when waiting for other players in them because they don’t reveal themselves to be fake until all players have entered them.
During local coop, the game will instantly switch between shared and split screens depending on how close players are to each other. It will also split the screen if one of the players accesses the present or pause menu. The other players are unaffected. The screen splitting is dynamic so it constantly changes back and forth. It’s a horizontal split for two players, a horizontal and a vertical split for three players, and a 2×2 split for four players, all of which work fine for this gameplay. You do need a large enough monitor to play comfortably with that many players though. I can’t imagine trying to play this with four player split screen on the Switch handheld mode screen. The split can be set to dynamic or fixed. Dynamic means the screen will split based on location. The player farthest north on the map will inhabit the top screen in the event of a split. Fixed means the same player, player one, will always be on the top, or top left in the case of four players, whenever the game splits the screen regardless of your specific location on the map. This can be toggled in the pause menu at any time. There is a teleport option in coop mode that allows a player to join the rest of the group instantly but I haven’t figured out exactly what prompts this yet. I think it’s when all but one character is in the elevator waiting to move on to the next level, but I couldn’t recreate this in all situations.
During coop there is a quick chat function which is fairly easy to use. It’s all preloaded text based comments that appear over the speaking character’s head. These can be used, whether online or offline, to give other players information like where to go or that you’re waiting for them. There is also a verbal cue to tell the other player(s) to look, but that’s only in local coop. In online coop, when characters are near each other, you can see the message appear over the speaking character’s head. When not near each other the message shows up at the bottom of the screen with the avatar of the character/player speaking. In local coop the quick chat message always appears over the speaking character’s head, requiring other players to look at that player’s screen if they’re not near each other and thus in shared screen view.
The drop in and out nature of the gameplay works really well for casual and serious play. Even the online allows people to drop in and out at a whim without ending the game. You can create private and public lobbies and jump into and out of games of any difficulty, including those you haven’t unlocked yet, easily. It will also let you continue if you jump into a game and then the original host leaves for whatever reason. The only issue I experienced with the online was once I joined a game and got all the way to the end but then it disconnected me before I got to claim the prizes. I’m also not entirely sure if players can boot you or not when you join their games so that may be what happened. Normally when you get to the end of an online game, even when you joined late, you get to claim the prizes as you normally would. You do not however, unlock Random World Hard mode by completing it online. You just get the achievement and the prizes but it remains locked in your game until you complete the Random World mode first.
Overall, the gameplay is quite good. There are a few minor issues that one might consider bugs, but I’ve yet to witness anything game breaking. The gameplay is challenging but fair. There are definitely some balance issues from character to character though. ToeJam is way superior to Earl for example because of his much faster movement speed. There is also some sort of issue I can’t quite figure out where certain player combinations are forced in coop. Like when you try to join a game certain characters will be locked other than the character the host is already using. I’m not sure why this is. It may just be a bug because in local coop I can select any combination of characters I want including both retro and modern ToeJam & Earl at the same time. In any case, it’s a really fun game and I look forward to spending more time with it.
The greatest compliment I can give to Groove! in terms of writing is that it has any at all. Most roguelikes have little to no story for some reason. This game has a full story as well as in game dialog. It’s not a fully immersive, plot focused game by any means. But the fact that HumaNature Studios took the time to actually flesh out an entire narrative is a treat in and of itself. It’s a simple story that’s comprised of only two simple cutscenes and some in game dialog, but it still bookends the gameplay experience in a way that offers the player a reason to start and closure at the end. Really that’s all a game like this needs. The in game dialog is funny and there’s quite a lot of it. It takes place on the elevator rides between levels as well as during gameplay. It changes depending on how many players are in the game and who they are. Even with only one player there is still elevator dialog. It’s mostly funny comments about the game itself. Speech bubbles are also used during gameplay to tell the player things like when you’ve reached your maximum number of presents. At the same time that this happens, audible speech is used by the characters to clue you in when a speech bubble appears. There’s not much in the game as far as writing is concerned, but I’m happy with what was included. As a side note, this game has possibly the most comprehensive in game manual I’ve seen for any indie game ever. It’s split into 12 sections and has a ton of information. Taking the time to read through all of it before actually playing will help you considerably. It’s also important to note that the game can be played in English, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and/or Portuguese.
As this is a ToeJam & Earl game, the music is not only important but top shelf. By my count, there are 32 songs in the game. You can actually access all of these in the credits whenever you want. The music is of course quite funky, as it should be. The sound effects and voice acting are good too. Very responsive with no lag and high quality. I was also very happy with the sound mixing. The sound effects are not drowned out by the music. You can set the volume levels of the music and effects separately in increments of 5 from 0 to 100. I keep them both at 100 and it sounds fine. I really don’t have any complaints about the sound in this game and I don’t think anything else needs to be said about it. It does not disappoint.
There’s a surprisingly large amount of replay value in this game. And not just because it has random world generation and three difficulty levels. That plays a factor, as does the fact that there are nine playable characters, three of which have to be unlocked. But really there is just a ton of content to unlock and interact with. Groove! has 49 achievements and 41 unlockable rewards, each having a different effect on the gameplay. Plus you can play with other people both on and offline. There’s just a lot to do if you really want to get your money’s worth. A single game takes about one to two hours maximum depending on the difficulty you’re playing at and your pace. At $20 I think the price is OK but not amazing. You definitely can get 20 hours out of this game if you want to do everything. But if you’re just playing to complete each difficulty once then it’s a four – six hour game at best. So either make of it what you will or wait for a discount. $10 would be more than fair for this game. I give it an A+ for replay value.
It’s quite a mazing to be reviewing a ToeJam & Earl game in 2019 unironically. It took a long time to get this project started and then another four or so years to get it released after the Kickstarter campaign was successfully funded. HumaNature Studios definitely delivered. ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! is exactly what it needed to be. It has a few small bugs but really it’s a perfect recreation of the original game with modern conveniences and improvements added in a non-invasive way. I really can’t speak highly enough of this game. I definitely recommend it for people who like games that are just fun. It’s not too challenging. It’s not too intricate and doesn’t require a huge time commitment. It’s just a fun experience worth having and sharing with other people. And that’s really what ToeJam & Earl was always meant to be.