In 1991, a strange new game released for the Sega Mega Drive: ToeJam & Earl, a title that defied conventions of both genre and style. That original spaced-out adventure became known as a classic of the era by way of its distinctive presentation and roguelike gameplay. Could a similar formula work as well in a revival 28 years later?
ToeJam & Earl Back in the Groove finds our two favourite eponymous intergalactic funkmasters in a bind. They have crash-landed their Rapmaster Rocketship on Earth, and the darn thing broke into a dozen pieces now scattered across the planet. In order to find them, you’ll take a bird’s eye view and guide your an extraterrestrial across Earthy landscapes, trying to recover all twelve ship pieces. Along the way, you’ll encounter Earthling enemies along with hostile landscapes.
Like the 1991 original, Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove is a cartoony, sci-fi twist on the classic roguelike genre. Like an old ASCII dungeon-crawler, you go through the world one level at a time. There’s a minimap, which is unlocked a section at a time when you tiptoe into new territory. Character stats like health, inventory size, speed, and luck can slowly build through gaining XP and levelling up with the Wiseman. The characters have different strengths from the beginning; ToeJam moves fast but has little health, for example, while Earl is slow but beefy.
In Random World, the levels are generated randomly, leading to some potentially tricky situations. In Fixed World, there’s more of a solid expectation for the 25 levels, but you will still deal with enemy-placement oddities and present arrangements.
Oh, right, the presents. In ToeJam & Earl, you don’t get to just pick up an item and use it all willy-nilly. Each new present (literally, like, a Christmas present, all wrapped up) is unknown until you try it, although after trying a present variety once you’ll have it identified for the rest of your adventure. The problem is, not every present is good, so trying new ones can be potentially harmful. One present sounds an alarm, alerting enemies to your presence and ruining the usual light-stealth mechanics at work. Another present gives you 'bad food' instead of healing food, so it takes some health away. Then there’s the 'Total Bummer' present, which kills you instantly.
And that’s where you might begin to detect ToeJam & Earl’s design philosophy of randomness and redundancy. The games throws so much zany stuff at the player(s) that it’s easy to be continually charmed by new shiny things, but ultimately can be pretty iterative. There are systems within systems, and the ingredients don’t always add up.
For example, each character can ‘Search’ with the Y button, which sends out a pulse-wave thing that shows which of the surrounding plants or structures contain something (they’ll wiggle if they do). You can then search them and get a present or something else, like money.
So you slowly gain money. With the money, you can purchase services from ally characters. For example, you can fix presents! But why do your items ever need fixing? Why, that’s because sometimes your presents are broken and can’t be used. It’s just another random thing, like the harmful presents you might run into when trying them for the first time. But if you pay the right friendly Earthling, your presents can be identified.
So the solution (an entire in-game economy!) exists solely for problems that don’t need to, only to add difficulty through randomness. There’s one character that instantly sends you back down a level, necessitating some annoying backtracking. Does this really add a fair kind of challenge, and enhance the feeling of reward to play through? Why are some stages cast in darkness? Did we mention that each level ends by finding the elevator, but there’s an enemy that mimics the elevator in order to take you back a stage instead of forward? At least you can escape it, if you notice the teeth in time.
If you look at this game in a slightly different light (is it fun to discover a hidden path, or is it strange that I should have to walk around an entire landscape edge just to finally find my way across the gap?), you begin to perhaps see how session time is inflated in cheap ways.
However, this is all very true to the original 16-bit game, and that had its share of fans. As long as you can accept that zany randomness is just part of the ToeJam & Earl experience, there’s a good time to be had here. It’s fun to see all the bizarre enemies, from the Insane Dentist to the Cow Ghost and the Man in Black who will make you forget what your presents are. The presents themselves are amusing, from rocket skates that are a little too fast to be helpful to random teleports and Icarus Wings to enable glorious, freeing flight.
Beyond the randomness, there are layers of strategy to figure out, too. Enemies that seem like major threats turn out to have movement patterns to be exploited. There’s a certain satisfaction in gaining XP efficiently (grab the telephone whenever possible!) and getting a good set of stat boosts in a level-up. The game presents a measure of wackiness, yes, but there’s still a solid roguelike design under the hood somewhere.
One refreshing developer choice is the extensive documentation on deck. Right from the start, the Game Manual section of the options presents comprehensive galleries and descriptions of every variety of present, food, Earthling, player-characters, and other lists. There are in-game achievements, a solid dose of unlockables, credits featuring the Kickstarter backer names, and a well-executed Tutorial. These features definitely help prevent the game from feeling overwhelming.
In fact, while honouring the franchise legacy (you’ll see the Hyperfunk Zone from ToeJam & Earl 2: Panic on Funkotron, and characters like Latisha from the third title) as a whole, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove sets out to be as good as it can while sticking to the original formula faithfully. Nostalgic fans should be happy to see an experience that feels like the first game finally got a fresh coat of paint. Enjoying it to a new funk-flavored soundtrack of slap bass jams and hip hop tracks is just icing.
We did not get a chance to try the online multiplayer, but ToeJam & Earl is a solid choice to play with a friend to cover more ground and find ship parts more quickly. If it wasn’t for occasionally penalizing the player with randomness, this would be the perfect game to kick back and chill with. Still, it’s a fun reimagining of an iconic entry in games history, produced smoothly and delightfully. Even at its most random, it’s never as bad as being just-plain bad, and helping ToeJam & Earl get back home still feels rewarding.
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is a faithful enhancement to the classic original. It might not satisfy those looking for their next big blockbuster or 'prestige indie' title as the design may feel somewhat dated, despite the game’s own attempts to obfuscate the obsolete with the arbitrary. This funky, distinctive game should please the nostalgic while being unique enough to attract, and satisfy, the curious. Details such as the exhaustive documentation and varying minigames definitely show some heart in the development. Ultimately, this is a package that is designed to appeal to pre-existing fans rather than create entirely new ones, but if you're a fan of this kind of game and don't mind the odd spot of randomness, then you should give it a try.
I remember renting the original when I was a kid and having no idea what was going on or what I was supposed to be doing! Might check this one out one day.
I preferred the second game because I like platformers more, it would be cool if they had mixed the 2 in kind of an Actraiser way where you have to beat a boss in a platformer stage after each area.
Like a lot of SEGA 16 bit games, the original is kinda just OK. To me only Treasures games, Ristar and the 4 MD Sonic games can stack up to what Nintendo was doing.
I’ve had my eye on this game and glad it received a good review. Loved the original so will no doubt love this too!!
Someone bought me this for the megadrive one Christmas and I honestly don’t think I ever played it I look at the screenshots now like I did then and still have no idea what it’s about
Reading this review has made me realize just how much Toejam and Earl has inspired the game I'm working on, and I've only played the original a few times! I really enjoyed it though and I think it's safe to say that a lot of the game's design ideas stuck with me. I'll definitely pick this up, I just hope I can find someone to play it with. Asking my friends to play the original with me has sort of become an inside joke because they couldn't stand it the first time they played and I know they'll never want to try it again. Still, I really enjoy the wackiness and the sense of surprise and discovery in the original game, so I'm sure I'll get a kick out if this.
People not knowing what the original was supposed to be was probably a real problem when it was new. I remember being excited about the original TJ&E after seeing it featured in a TV ad. It was one of the first games I bought after getting the Genesis and a few games together. I ended up having a great time with TJ&E and I was able to figure out what the game was about and what you were supposed to do. I still play it and introduced a friend to it for a co-op session which went over very well.
Some of the issues in the review sound possibly problematic, such as the darkness. There was a present randomizer in the first game, so having to re-identify presents was a thing there too. It was also annoying the first time around, but it wasn't a big deal. I think I can deal with the issues mentioned here. I'll have to look into it. I'm not in a hurry.
Also, from what I can tell, it seems they've kept their promise to develop for Mac and Linux on PC, which is something much bigger Kickstarter projects like Bloodstained neglected to do despite it being part of the initial campaign as opposed to being a later stretch goal. I'm not happy with that project.
This game series, especially the first one, holds a huge place in my heart. It's one of the only games my mother and I ever played hours together on.
The whole game is an homage to the first, where the creators weren't mocked with. In many ways this is its true sequel since they never got on board for 3 and were forced to make 2 the way it was.
I am considering that game and I was hoping the reviews would be definitive but it leaves me up in the air still. I have only messed with the original a little bit so I cannot say I'm a huge fan but I didn't hate it. I hear so much reverence for the series I feel like it's something that I should appreciate. I guess I'll either just have to take in more reviews or just skip it.
Loved the original and this sounds like a really faithful adaptation. Yes it was infuriating but that's what made it so rewarding. Great co-op action too.
Her's hoping for a Panic On Funkatron sequel next!
I'll just wait for the physical release, I hope it isn't too limited.
Super excited for this. The original is one of the best co-op games ever made!
Anyway, the thing about the presents is that you don't open them as soon as you get them. You cautiously open some if you absolutely need to, but it's always better to collect money and search out a carrot man to help you identify them. Learning how to manage presents is crucial to keeping a healthy inventory and eventually stocking enough icarus wings for the brutal late-game levels.
@Paraka My mother and I have played the original Toejam and Earl hundreds of times over the years. In fact, we played it last Tuesday!
The original is arguably my favourite game from the Megadrive and one that I still play fairly regularly to this day and it is very much helped by it's randomness. Reading this review is a bit like reading the Resident Evil 2 review on the sister site, as it tries to claim that some mechanics essential to the game are bad things whilst fans see them as huge positives. If anything there are far worse game mechanics today then back in the 90's.
Rant over this looks every bit as good as I was hoping and I cannot wait to play it tomorrow 😁😁😁
@Ralizah you should have written the review instead, couldn't agree more and I don't think there has been a year since 1991 that I haven't played this at least 3 or 4 times
I honestly can't wait. HUGE fan of the original. Me my brother and my friends used to play this loads on the megadrive. The randomness is what made us keep coming back. That and sitting in a hot tub with hula girls! Have it on Xbox, PS3 and wii. Also have an iso of the long lost Dreamcast game sitting around somewhere as need a large cd to burn it to.
Quick edit. Also never thought I would see a year that had both this and Streets of Rage 4 in it. My boyhood Sega freak inside is squealing very high pitched (my voice hadn't broken when it these first started.)
@hadrian Target Earth, Herzog Zwei, Castle of Illusion. There are others. I preferred the SNES and especially Nintendo first party games in general, but Herzog Zwei was my favorite game of all time for awhile there.
@Paraka Toejam & Earl 3 was an Xbox exclusive game back in 2002.
It's quite fun and closer to the first game than it is to the second.
It certainly had it's flaws and was more rooted in the early 2000's hip hop vibe but was entertaining with 2 players.
@Jokerwolf I also preferred TJ&E2 to the first game. Seemed to have more structure to it, while also having lots of zaniness, color, and variety. For some odd reason, the “judging fungus” of TJ&E2 remains in my memory after all these years.
Still intrigued about the new TJ&E, though, as I’ve developed a fondness for rogue-lites during the last few generations. For me, Spelunky and Shiren (DS) were influential in that regard.
@Ralizah - I noticed a lot of people who happen to enjoy this also did so with a family member they got along with. It's honestly ahead of its time back in '91. Still one of those games that hardly aged (sans current culture references back then).
It was such a shame SEGA mishandled so many of their entire forest of IPs when they shifted to 3D, this being one of so many.
@sfb Oh I think it looks great and I love roguelite's as well as full on roguelikes but mostly when they are platformers.
Comments are making me want this game much more than the review did!
@Paraka If there's one thing I appreciate about the crowdfunding model, it's the way that it can amplify consumer demand for experiences that large companies seem to have forgotten about entirely.
I love SEGA and many of its properties dearly, but yeah, they've mishandled so many of their I.P.s.
@carlos82 I was watching a brief co-op LP of the new one, and it was genuinely funny hearing the shocked reactions to stuff that derives from the first game ("Oh my god, if you get too close to the hula girl, she forces you to dance with her!" "The cupid reverses your controls!" etc.) My first reaction to that sort of talk is to think: "Well, OF COURSE you dance if you get too close to the hula girl," until I stop and think about it and realize that the weirdness naturally wouldn't be second-nature to someone who didn't grow up with the original game.
But yeah, games like this and REmake 2 won't play as well with people who think of the more old-fashioned design philosophies behind them as a hindrance or busywork that gets in the way of the fun.
If the worst aspects of this game are the design points it shares with the original, then it'll undoubtedly become one of my favorite Switch games.
@Ralizah - It's definitely why I lean to the crowdfunding idea as a whole. There is a lot of great ideas that gamers want, but when companies get too big, investors become the target for pleasing. Cause they ultimately keep the entire boat afloat, even though we got them there.
Sadly such a model is mired by a lot of underhanded pitches and forceful natured. Like big companies forcing you to fund a game investors will benefit from. Or some just taking the money and running.
@khululy - Don't get me wrong, 3 was alright (clearly the worst of the lot though) and I enjoyed 2. However, the original team wasn't on 3, in fact they were pretty much out of SEGA long before that game was conceptualized.
I believe there is an interview video on their KS if it's still up with one of the original developers who helped get this back in the right hands. These guys and Comix Zone were both treated pretty poorly.
@Ralizah I remember trying to describe it to my stepson once and he just looked at me in bemusement. Such as paying a wise man dressed as a carrot to tell you what's in a present because if you don't you may just get some rocket shoes and fall off the edge of the world and down to the previous level. However these days he loves it and we have our names in the credits in this one. I do think that some of the reviewers forget who these games are actually aimed at and don't realise that it's these quirks that we are actually looking for.
Anyway have fun and I'll see you on level 0 in a hot tub 😉
Toe Jam. & Earl is one of those series i wish i had more of an attachment to than i do. My cousin Chuck and I was late to the Genesis party. But we did play the first one a bit at a friend's. By the time we did get a Genesis, it was not too long before Sonic 3 was released. By that time, we just became more interested in other games. You had Earthworm Jim, Boogerman, Vectorman, MK2 and a host of other games that preoccupied our time (Not to mention a Super Nintendo to support as well). Just never got around to investing in it. Maybe I'll give this one a spin
@Paraka Mentioning Comix Zone always makes me wonder how it would look in modern day with a good artist behind it.
Looks pretty decent, but I never did get the chance to play the originals when I was a kid, so this new one doesn't really interest me.
@khululy - I always imagined it as a crisper version of Wario Land Shake It.
I’d never played this until I got the mega drive collection and I honestly cannot see how it became so popular, apart from awesome 90s aesthetics it’s absolutely rubbish.
If this is like the original, then it's definitely a game I'm getting.
Can't wait to download this! Love the series. Deserves a higher score to be sure.
I still have ToeJam & Earl III: Mission to Earth sitting here for Xbox
I was a fan of the second game :/
So I'm not sure if i'll like this
This was my brother and I's jam when we were little along with Lost Vikings; both had legendary music and style. Just strolling around discovering all the funky weirdness of this game was amazing and it gets pretty damn challenging in the later stages, not to mention the feeling of "togetherness".
My brother and I recently replayed it on PS4 and 100%'d all the achievements - good times!
Both the 1st and 2nd were great, but I really enjoyed the 1st one (same creators/style as original Xcom I believe). Tot's backed this on Kickstarter. Tomorrow is it mang!!! <3<3<3
@khululy Good call!!!!! That would be amazing! I played that game over and over when I was little (considering how damn hard and unforgiving it was)
@mystman12 Any way to check out/preview your game?
I love the inclusion of character stats. Toejam moving fast for example sounds perfect for me, as I always found the original to be very slow. This means Toejam would make an ideal pick for me so I can move faster through the levels. Taking more damage will be the trade-off it sounds like, though. The minimap alone is a solid addition to the game, as nothing sucked more than having to say "Hold on man, I gotta check the map" and even in single player, it got annoying having to check the map every 30 seconds to try and figure out how much progress you were making or where the elevator you passed is at. There's new enemies and presents too, and the ability to shake trees and such for goodies came right out of Panic on Funkotron, the sequel. The dark areas look great too, and I love that the levels are "stacked" in such a way that you can see down at the levels you've ascended above. Supposedly you can even see the other player down there, which is really cool.
Like with Tangledeep, the reviewer complains about things that are actually a POSITIVE for me, but I realize not everyone will enjoy this sort of gameplay. The author is kinda stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to how to address these issues. If they state them like positives, that may mislead more casual gamers who aren't up to it, while stating these features as negatives may leave more hardcore players scratching their heads as to why this is a bad thing. In general, the randomness is part of the challenge. Like other games such as Binding of Issac, things will sometimes go out of your control and that's where these games shine. They require you to react quickly, adapt, and learn to counter your problems with your limited resources. I feel like both this game and Tangledeep should have gotten one point higher.
Not a big deal however, I think anyone who is interested in this game was already going to buy it anyway and a 7 is still a mighty fine score. I would have been more concerned had it gotten less than that, though.
@Onion Toejam was a bit faster in the original and Earl had a bit more life. It will be interesting to see if the difference between the two is larger than before. I imagine the slow speed of the original game was due to how much viewable area there was. Too much of a speed increase and you'd have been walking into enemies or scaring off Santa before even noticing. This new game looks to have a larger view and zooming, so perhaps the speed will be improved along with it. I agree with your other points. This game has a specific target audience. A 7 score might be a 9 for fans of the original(we shall see). I didn't notice the mini map until you mentioned it. That's going to be quite useful.
My friend, who is a TJ&E fan, is hype. I never really played this deep enough to really understand it, but I've always been game for a session lol.
Similar to the Crash games, I can't see the appeal. Sorry! I remember seeing the box and saying how cool it looks. Then I finally got a chance to play it and I was disappointed. I will be skipping on this. I think this game, more than most games, has either it's loyal fans or people who can't see what others like.
@dkxcalibur at least you tried it. I ended up not liking games that were much more popular. The first game was unlike typical games of the time. I shouldn't really like it since it's basically a scavenger hunt and exploration game and those are not things I usually like in video games, but I love it. I think one major thing that works against it is that the player characters are mostly helpless, which is not usually something good in a video game. And it was a game from an era of action games, so I could see how that might have turned people off or confused people.
Not sure why, but this review wasn't pleasant to read. Doesn't really fit in with the site's 'voice' I guess.
Physical version up for order now on LimitedRunGames.com
Honestly had no idea that Toejam was faster, as he was the only one I'd ever played anyway. Good to know! Anyway, yeah I know why the game is so slow paced, I learned to appreciate that aspect of the game more as I got older.
@wratih9 am 33 and played this with my dad and remember him laughing while having a beer with his friends and telling me to guess where the parts were.very great memories 😅😅 I think it's gonna be a hoot for the price 100 percent go for it 👍👍👍
rip my father Darren broome died age 42.remember the laughs playing toe jam with him so so good memories.💖💖💖👍.for the price it's worth a shot nostalgia or not.hope you guys enjoy it so crazy 😅😅
@Ralizah yeah bro you remember the laughs back in the day 😅😅😅.the hula dancing made my dad spill his beer laughing.am getting at 12 on dot if I can 😅😅😅 hope you enjoy like am gonna 👍👍👍👍👍
@Paraka the same feeling
@carlos82 I agree if your in your 30s can make a credible review it a great laugh and worth it 👍👍👍👍👍👍.do the hula dance 😅😅😅😅
@Jack_Goetz I agree dude
@dkxcalibur each to own but what a laugh of a game for the price 👍
I enjoyed the first (although never completed it) and loved the second game. After Sonic, these were my favourites on the Mega Drive. I’m definitely down for this at some point, intrigued to see all the new crazy enemies.
I played with my brother and, years later, with my best friend. We have never done online gaming before, but as it is so hard to find the time to meet up, we shall be doing so just to play through this together.
Totally agree with you. (+Golden Axe) @hadrian
I rented the original game with a friend when I was 10. I didn't have a mega drive myself and I was too young to understand it all properly, but amidst all the weirdness I could tell that this was something in a different stratosphere to the platformers of the day. Stacked 3D levels, strange interactions, mysterious characters who run away from you... The sheer fact you can fall off one level, pass two others and land back where you were an hour ago... This was a scope I'd never imagined. I never played it again and that one afternoon stuck in my memory for the rest of my childhood life.
It actually kind of ruined it when I did revisit it on an emulator as an adult...
@kameryn There's nothing from the full version that I'm currently working on that's available to play yet, but the original version (Which I think would best be described as a proof of concept) is available for download. It's lacking a lot of the features I'm putting in the full version (Like randomly generated levels), but the core ideas are still intact. I don't want to advertise here, but if you search my username on Itch.io you'll find it along with another proof of concept for a camping minigame.
Kids, the original Toe and earl is considered to be one of the early games inspired by Roguelikes or today called Roguelites. So I will be getting this for sure as I love all things roguelike. From rogue, to nethack, Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup, and the best middle ground for me, Shiren the wanderer.
@hadrian Someone didn’t play: Shining Force(s) 1 and 2, Landstalker, Phantasy Star IV, Streets of Rage, SoR 2, Mickey’s Enchanted Castle, Golden Axe 2, Aladdin, Herzog-Zwei, Warsong, Wonderboy in Monster Land, Ghostbusters (best in franchise), Flashback?
The ‘having to identify loot and sometimes it’s cursed thing’ is a longstanding tradition of the genre. The randomness creates a different-feeling run through the dungeon the next time. The same can be said of trap doors that drop you back a stage or two or indeed fake treasures that are actually monsters.
Toe Jam and Earl is just sticking to the genre traditions. I don’t think they should really be docked for that.
@khululy Probably a lot like Viewtiful Joe
I thought the dark levels were a really neat feature. You get a torch but you've gotta be really careful, I'm pretty sure I spotted a present too that sounds like it turns the lights on.
And having the guy who drops you down a stage is good too, adds more challenge. If you see him coming you get away from him asap.
I have soooo many childhood memories of begrudgingly playing the original with my brother or having a great time playing with friends. After I picked up the Genesis/Mega Drive collection on my Switch, it was the first game I made it all the way through, though I have to admit that being able to rewind and fast-forward made it a million times less frustrating. I was hoping for a higher score, but this review tells me it might be worth picking up anyway. Because, man, as frustrating and/or annoying as the original could be at times, it really was an amazingly original game.
Love the original. Best game on Genesis. Can't wait to pick this up on PS4 (No chat functionality makes co-op worthless on Switch)
The original ToeJam & Earl was one of my all time favorites as a kid. We were a Nintendo household growing up but a friend of mine was SEGA. I totally remember the very real console wars that took place in the late 80s/early 90s and we were hard core Nintendo, but this was my one game on the Genesis that I kept going back to. I played countless hours of this game back then and it is the sole reason I bought the SEGA Classics Collection for Switch. Can’t wait to sink countless more hours into this new title and I am cautiously excited for the online multiplayer.
Ive finished tutorial world, fixed world and am currently roughly half way through a random world playthrough.
Honestly i like it, but there are definitely things i dont care for. I think the necessity of ‘searching’ and abundance of plants etc is too much. Feels like theres less emphasis on on-map presents. Im not a fan of panic on funkatron style presents appearances either.
Enemies feel a but erratic and unbalanced at times. The little devil enemies for example are meant to be one of the simplest enemies but theyre too fast for an early enemy. The AI is also wierd. Some enemies react from far away. Others can be in close proximity to and wont react at all. Feels way off compared to the first game. And also dont care for fake exits. The only way ive learned to spot then is to wait for the arrow lights on the side to stop flashing. If its fake the top left arrow is lit. If its the real exit its unlit. Thats worked everytime.
I dont mind snow and sand in the game but dont care for night time levels. Fortunately theyre only few and far between but definitely least favourite parts.
Map sizes themselves seems smaller in many ways and few secret paths unlike the original in fixed world. Random has generated better levels at times.
That said im not hating on the game. Glad i bought it. Just that these are things that i feel could have been better. I feel the origjnal is still more solid than this one, but i like this better than panic on funkatron.
The original is one of my all time favorites. Can’t wait to pick this up even if it doesn’t quite stack up!
Anybody wanna play ? Shoot me a message . No local friends
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