It’s sort of like Pikmin if Olimar smoked pot and listened to Biggie.
The trek to Nintendo Switch for ToeJam & Earl has been a wild ride. The quirky original game debuted back on the Sega Genesis in 1991, with sequels in 1993 and 2002. In 2015, HumaNature Studios, the company headed by series creator Greg Johnson, crowdfunded a fourth game that promised to return to the roots of the original, more than two decades after its debut. Several roadblocks later, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is coming to Switch in 2019 —four years after its announcement. Weirdly, that kind of fits with the personality of the two main characters, who are relaxed hip-hop parodies that amble through the world just trying to find their way home.
The end result is almost exactly what the elevator pitch was for the Kickstarter years ago. HumaNature took the style and gameplay of the original game and modernized it, emphasizing the funky style, offbeat gameplay, and weird humor. The soundtrack is bumping, and the characters are all delightfully off-center. The only thing that detracts from Back in the Groove is that most of its tricks and gags can be seen in the first few hours, with repeat adventures more about checking off achievement boxes and having a chill time with buds.
That’s not even meant as a dig on the experience as much as it’s just the reality of how it plays. While the presentation runs counter to the expectations of the design, ToeJam & Earl is essentially a roguelike dungeon crawler. Fixed mode does exist, which is a predetermined layout you can play through, but the substantial mileage is found in randomly-generated floors that you explore in an anti-confrontational manner.
Characters slowly traipse through the world, ascending elevators to go up one floor at a time while seeking out 10 ship parts so they can go back to their home planet. A slew of mostly evil Earthlings patrol every level to try to hurt you or impede your progress. These Earthlings run the gamut from overeager fans and hula dancers to damning inquisitors and a yeti with a pencil (I have no explanation for why he has a pencil; he just does). It’s all extra goofy, with part of the joy being figuring out what in the heck the routines and attacks of these enemies are.
Not every Earthling is bad, though. The hula dancer, for example, has no ill will towards you. You’ll just do the hula if you walk by her. Good Earthlings are generally tied to upgrades and presents. A wiseman wearing a carrot suit will level you up when you earn enough experience points while a variety of other characters will give you access to or reveal presents. Leveling up randomly increases stats such as movement speed and luck. Presents are power-ups that can be helpful or harmful. Their use and name is generally obscured to start, only discovered by identifying through trial and error or other limited means. Most of them can be a boon though. Hitops offer the ability to run fast, tomato rain damages nearby enemies, and food can heal you. Like the Earthlings, there’s a joy in figuring out what they all mean and do. Well, maybe not joy, considering one present is aptly named “mean rocket skates” while another lights you on fire and can only end when you die a hellish death, fall into water, or jump off the floor and fall to the one below it.
Load times can make some of the exploration a slog. You begin on the first floor, and after finding the elevator, go up to the second, and so on and so forth as you find elevators on each floor. Certain obstacles or items can send you hurtling to your doom multiple floors down. The crawl back up is shameful enough, but load times between floors make it even worse.
Still, the thrill of discovery is fantastic, albeit occasionally repetitive. The game directs you to play through a short tutorial, traverse the predetermined world, and then tackle the randomly generated world and its harder variation. By the time I hit about five hours of playtime and was well on my way to reaching the end a third time, I felt I had seen just about everything the game had to offer. I wasn’t tired of playing, but the sense of discovery had vanished a bit.
Local co-op multiplayer for two and online for up to four players adds a lot to the experience. Online worked well in my limited pre-launch experience, though if anything is awry after launch, I’ll revisit this review to update. Local play makes use of the split-screen technique in some Lego games where you all share the same screen if you’re in range, but it splits off into separate windows as you get farther apart. With four people, that can be disorienting, but it’s a mostly elegant way to make four-player work on a single screen. Multiplayer can almost be a handicap since having more people on the screen amps up the interaction with the world, causing brutal chain reactions that can make your carefully planned exploration go to delightful hell.
When that happens, you can fail, in single-player or multiplayer. Every character has a health bar and a limited number of lives. Lose them all and you have to restart, which could mean an hour or three of progress is lost. It can be an unforgiving end, but a variety of difficulty settings let you customize your difficulty on a per-player basis. While on the whole, ToeJam & Earl skews easier, the ability to make it ridiculously easy kind of plays up to the fact that in multiplayer, it can be a great time as a far more toy-like and experiential romp than a challenging test of might.
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is filled with good humor, almost mirroring the experience of watching a classic comedy movie. That first time watching the movie, you’ll likely laugh a lot and be surprised. Repeated watches might still hold up, but the surprise washes away. Maybe you notice some of the jokes don’t land as well and maybe there’s an underwritten character or subplot that bugs you. It doesn’t take away from the joy of those first few watches, but the longer you try to stretch the joke out, the more it gets old or potentially unenjoyable.
That’s all to say that despite some apprehensive dalliances with repetition, I loved ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove. The sublime style drips with funk, and the cadence of roaming through floors using my presents to try to avoid failure and find my ship parts is one that made for a charming experience. It didn’t matter if I saw some of the same things several times over my multiple playthroughs. The whole thing is spectacularly goofy and weird, even if I eventually do figure out why the hell the yeti has a pencil.