Who is this for? No, seriously, who is this for? Hey, hey, just a sec – who was this made for? ToeJam & Earl: Back In The Groove is one of those games. You know the ones, where you’re sitting around with your friends, and someone says, “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if someone remade this game?” And everyone nods in agreement thinking, yes, that WOULD be great, before the silent realisation dawns on everyone that, actually, no one really wants that. The moment passes, however, and left uncorrected the assumption remains that, yeah – we totally want that! Nobody wanted this, and after some time with the game, I’m not even sure the developers did. Did that feel like a waste of time to read? Good. Now you know what it’s like to play ToeJam & Earl: Back In The Groove – I just saved you a few hours and thirty dollars.
This game is a sequel in the sense that many early-era SNES games had “sequels.” The premise is exactly the same, the world barely looks any different (though I’ll come back to that), and a few enemies have been swapped out for the appearance of change. That would be it if they also hadn’t carried over the, uh, “characterisation” of ToeJam and his friends. To put it bluntly, they’ve gone from, what I saw as a kid, aliens that adopted the early 90’s “funk” culture to straight up caricatures of the Wayans from “Don’t Be A Menace In South Central While Drinking Your Juice In The Hood.” If I were about 14 years younger, this would probably be hilarious to me, but right now it’s just extremely uncomfortable.
The objective of the game is to, again, find all the parts of a wrecked ship – one wrecked through the incompetence of ToeJam and Earl. Far from being their own sweet ride that they’ve messed up, however, the game wastes no time in establishing that ToeJam is a car thief. Spaceship thief? I’m not sure what the correct titling is here, and I’m generally not one to find offence in even the most outlandish portrayals but… Well, look, just watch the opening cinematic and decide for yourself. Besides this, there’s not much else to discuss, really, and personally, I think it’s a bit… “Off:”
A spaceship thief, you say? That’s an… interesting character development for ToeJam.
Now, I don’t know if you’ve gone back and played the original ToeJam & Early but I have, because I honestly couldn’t believe how terrible Back In The Groove is. The original was undoubtedly “slower” than this new offering, characters moved much more deliberately, and you had a real sense of where you were in this 3D space. Maybe that was borne out of the limitations of the tech back then, but it worked, and the game knew how to build its world around that stunted feeling of movement. Back In The Groove, on the other hand, has apparently been studying at the Bubsy Academy of Floaty Controls, because good Lord – falling off the edge of the map in this game isn’t the occasional bummer it once was. It’s a damn near consistency if you go anywhere near the edges.
There’s also some inconsistent rules on what the world considers to be solid matter and what it doesn’t. A house? You can walk right through that. Most physical obstacles that you would expect to provide some sort of barrier? Like it’s not even there. A single tree, barring your way long enough for one of the pain-in-the-arse enemies to come up behind you and stun lock you? You better believe that tree’s as solid as adamantine. Speaking of enemies, they have hitboxes the size of football fields and not in your favour. Should you be graced with a weapon that’s actually useful, good luck trying to aim the damn thing. The best advice I can give is just to run, but even that may not be enough as, aside from being able to hit you from a mile away, they have the speed of Usain Bolt when compared to your own character.
I hate everything that’s happening on the screen right now.
This game could technically be classed as a remake of the original since, aside from the above mentioned (extremely minor) changes to the narrative and enemies, this is essentially the same game. In fact, the most significant difference between the two is that the original had a fantastic pixel aesthetic that still stands the test of time today, while the new game looks like hot garbage. The hand-drawn appearance of the sprites feels out of place against the low-poly, 3D backgrounds, all of which strives for nothing new, aping instead at the original game’s style. Credit where it’s due, some of the new enemies are kind of funny and creative. That’s about the extent of the praise I have for this game, however.
My real question is: Why? Why was this made, and for whom? If ToeJam & Earl: Back In The Groove was intended as a remake, why try to emulate the original so closely in appearance and design while making everything measurably worse? If it was intended to be a sequel that only had a passingly similar design then, again, why make it so close to the original? Especially when the original is so much better in basically every regard. I’m not exaggerating when I say that in the process of writing this review, I ended up playing the original for far longer than this new version. At first, it was just to see if I remembered the game utterly wrong, as being something fun when it wasn’t. But it is, and I kept on playing it because it was preferable to this…”alternative.” The original is a great “arcade” experience, even by the standards of today, and you should definitely go play it if you want that nostalgia hit. Back In The Groove will just bore you at best and make you uncomfortable at worst.