Roughly two hours into ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove, I began to question my existence. Who am I? Where does my life fit into the overall concept of the universe? How did I arrive at this exact moment in my life? Am I guided by fate alone? More importantly, why am I playing ToeJam & Earl as a grown-ass man? Yes, for the record, I played the original games for the Sega Genesis during my misspent youth, and, yes, I am pretty sure I enjoyed them at the time. For the most part. I never owned them, mind you, but I did spend a fair amount of my parents’ money renting them from the video store down the block. That must account for something, right? Sadly, I don’t think so. At least, not according to what I’m feeling right now, which doesn’t feel very good, let me tell you.
Unfortunately, my childhood has faded into shadow (well, maybe not that unfortunate), and I am here, sitting in my living room, playing a rebooted version of this peculiar procedurally generated adventure/dungeon crawler on a large television. Ten-year-old me would have experienced a blown mind. But as an adult, I am confused — thoroughly and terribly confused. ToeJam & Earl no doubt wants to appeal to my nostalgia for the original games, but I cannot remember if I played them because I thought they were fun or because I had nothing better to do with my spare time. I’m guessing the latter because, right now, I feel like I’m doing the equivalent of absolutely nothing. I walk around the screen, shake some bushes, avoid dopey humans and their gimmicky methods of threatening my alien’s existence, and I move on to another level. The game tells me I should want to reassemble the hip-hop duo’s spaceship so they can return to Funkotron, but I only want to cause these guys as much pain and physically possible. My dedicated fingers fight the urge as I force myself to continue.
Make no mistake about it: ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove wants to annoy you. Between the repetitive synth-o-funk score and those abrasive sound effects, I repeatedly fought the urge to plant a coiled fist through my speaker system. In fact, around six hours into the experience, I made the bold decision to play through the game on mute, which, I quickly discovered, made this bitter pill a little easier to swallow. Still, the gameplay boiled down to the absolute basics: walk, shake some bushes/tree/houses/whatever, find the thing, escape to the next level via an elevator, and then do it all over again. The repetition bored me into a dimension where, for a few short minutes, I thought I experienced something akin to “fun.” When I came to my senses, I identified the sensation: the video game reviewer equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome. I began to love the game simply because I had to play it, and that scared me a little bit.
During that brief period, I found unbridled mirth in the collection of presents, which will either grant you a power-up or something obnoxious, such as spoiled food that makes you puke. Ha, I thought, as ToeJam suddenly vomited spoiled cheese right beside Gandhi. I am experiencing Back in the Groove’s version of a sight gag, and this feeling coursing through my body feels not unlike laughter. I even chuckled as I leveled up my character and achieved the rank of “Dawg,” which, I have to assume, equals something positive. Briefly, I thought I’d tapped into the game’s charm, and I tried desperately to hold onto that feeling so I could make it through to the end. Except ToeJam & Earl doesn’t want you to reach the conclusion of the game; instead, it actively works against you to make the journey as long as humanly possible. I spent 20 minutes going back between three levels because an annoying human kept knocking me off the ledge and a sinister elevator thought it would be funny to send me down another level. Ha, ToeJam & Earl. You got me. You really got me that time.
As the levels piled up on and my patience began to wear thinner, I realized something harsh and very real: I think I might dislike ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove in a way I’ve never disliked a video game before in my life. Everything about the game worked my last nerve, from its wonky Nicktoons-inspired graphics to the way it expects nostalgia to compensate for dated gameplay. I feel like I am slamming ToeJam & Earl’s faces directly into the dirt and then bludgeoning their skulls until nothing remains except a vaguely adorable paste, but I can no longer escape the truth. Back in the Groove might appeal to some folks — and I have no doubt it will — but for me, I believe I would have enjoyed myself more playing a mobile game that my mother randomly downloaded onto her tablet. Anything but this.
I will say this: Back in the Groove clearly has nothing but love coursing through its irritating veins. The developers who worked hard to bring these characters back from the dead obviously have a love for them, and it shows. ToeJam & Earl didn’t stutter, sputter, or break at any point during my time with it, and for those who have a certain fondness for the hip-hop weirdos, they will no doubt enjoy the time, effort, and attention to detail the guys and gals put into this title. However, like Leisure Suit Larry and countless other classic video game characters continue to exist beyond their expiration dates, perhaps their time to shine has finally come to a close. If I find myself heading back for more ToeJam & Earl, then perhaps something has gone seriously wrong with my life. Or, maybe, I have made a gross miscalculation and this will ultimately become my favorite game of all-time 10 years down the line. Perhaps I should have tried harder to get my friends to play co-op with me. Or, maybe, I simply do not like ToeJam & Earl. I’m fairly certain I know where I stand.
For the very first time, a video made this 40-something feel old. I genuinely felt the inexplicable urge to tell ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove to get the hell off my lawn and do something with its life. I want to shake my fist at it, tell it to turn down that infernal funk music because it’s so freaking loud and obnoxious. I want to make fun of its clothes and hair and everything about it because I don’t comprehend why this game would appeal to anyone. I will no doubt get eaten alive by the game’s legion of diehard fans, and, for the most part, I will deserve it. The reason: I don’t understand Back in the Groove, and I simply do not possess the patience or fortitude to devote myself to something I simply do not get. Feel free to tell me how wrong I am — I can take the criticism. But please, don’t make me experience ToeJam & Earl’s obnoxious brand of nostalgia again. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to unwind with some Ren & Stimpy episodes on VHS and a bottle of Bubble Up.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided by HumaNature Studios.
Fans of the original Sega Genesis titles will probably find a lot to like about ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove. The rest of us, unfortunately, will need to fight off waves of annoyance and irritation while trying to determine what all the fuss is about.