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Hands-On: ToeJam & Earl III: Mission to Earth (Xbox)

Genre: Action Developer: TJ&E Ent. Publisher: Sega of America Players: 1-2 Released: 10/23/02

After two successful outings on the Sega Genesis, ToeJam and Earl suddenly dropped off the radar. Almost a decade had passed since their last appearance, and fans of the series were worried that perhaps the curtain had finally closed on the rappin’ duo’s act. Thankfully, that was not the case. ToeJam & Earl Productions, along with Visual Concepts, brought them back to the limelight in 2002 for another adventure.

It wasn’t always meant to be this way. ToeJam & Earl III: Mission to Earth was set for a release on the Sega Dreamcast, but that system’s untimely demise forced a jump to the Xbox. The benefits of such a move became immediately apparent, and gave the game a chance to shine for a larger audience, and my, how it shines.

The Twelve Sacred Albums of Funk were stolen from Lamont, the Funkapotamous (leader of all Funkatronians), and have been taken to Earth (why Earth of all places?). ToeJam and Earl, along with new friend Latisha, are recruited for the mission due to their past experiences with Earthlings. It’s up to them to find the albums and restore the balance of funk to the universe.

While I’ve always enjoyed the wacky storylines the ToeJam games have always had, all they really do is set the context for the characters. Call them stereotyped, dated, or whatever; there’s a certain charm that ToeJam, Earl, and now Latisha have that makes them timeless. They are, after all, a reflection of society at the time (don’t believe me? Go watch some MTV from the late ’80s – early ’90s).

Character profiles aside, this is not your father’s ToeJam! The boys have hit the 21st century in a big way, bringing along Dolby 5.1 sound with full vocals, a huge 3D environment, and some CG cut scenes that will really flesh out each character’s personality. Everything looks wonderful, with vibrant colors and great water effects. The island concept is still there, but there are now spaces with snow, hills and valleys, and even deserts. At first, I was worried that perhaps the Mission to Earth would look more like a late-generation Dreamcast title than an Xbox game, but that was clearly not the case. All the characters, stages, and enemies are very well detailed and sharp; and the power of the Xbox is not wasted here.

Mission to Earth goes back to the original, random style of play that made the landmark first game such a unique experience. Gone are the side scrolling levels and 2D perspective. Instead, we are treated to the standard over-the-shoulder view most 3D platformers use. This works well here, as each level is vast and filled with goodies and places to explore. The original ToeJam & Earl bowled gamers over with its terrific blend of set objectives and random levels, which made each game different every time you played it. Mission to Earth brings back that dynamic, making a slight change that will either upset or delight some diehard fans.

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Instead of true random levels, everything is now connected to a central hub. This adds a degree of linearity to things, but it’s not enough to ruin the experience. ToeJam purists might complain but I honestly don’t think there’s really a problem here. Sure, things aren’t 100% random anymore, but the idea of a central hub appeals to me. The fact that everything was so random in the original kind of made it hard to play through all the way, especially if you were alone. There was simply too much ground to cover sometimes. Having an area that never changes gives the player a chance to get his bearings before taking on each level. You need keys to enter each level (over twenty-five in all), and sometimes you may be required to return to previous levels to find the last few you need to open the way to the next area. Luckily, it never degrades into a frustrating collect-a-thon like Donkey Kong 64. Once you have the keys you need, you can get back to the hub and open the door. The exploration is even more fun when you take a friend along. Just like on the Genesis, the two of you share the same screen until you head off in different directions. Then, a horizontal split-screen takes over, letting you see what the other player is doing while giving you the independence to search around on your own.

There are over seventy power up you can use along your quest, including some favorites like the rocket shoes and Icarus Wings. There are plenty of new items, some of which protect you or affect your movement, and others which affect the Earthlings themselves. You can buy them or identify gifts you already have by using the bucks you collect around each stage. As always, you need to decide when to use each gift; using the wrong one at the wrong time can be a recipe for disaster.

In addition to your typical running and jumping, ToeJam & co. also have the means to convert errant Earthlings over to their side through rhythm matching. By pressing the X and Y buttons in sinc to a sequence that appears onscreen, you can force the natives to dance. Convert a human and he’ll help you by selling items or giving you information. Increasing the surrounding levels of funk (I’m not kidding) will also reveal hidden presents, Earthlings, or portals that may be nearby. Just as in the first game, you earn points to raise your rank. To battle the Anti-Funk (the big boss behind it all), you’ll need at least the level of Rapmaster, so you better start gettin’ jiggy wid it from the get-go, or you’ll have a lot of backtracking to do. Try to get as many humans near you as possible when you rhythm match to speed things up.

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Aside from the obvious aesthetic improvements, Mission to Earth also benefits from its use of Xbox Live. three characters and two new levels are available for download (they’re free), giving the game a bit more longevity It would have been nice if the online play mode from the Dreamcast rev had been retained, but at least the game makes some use of Microsoft’s service.

My only gripe here would have to be that it doesn’t try hard enough to differentiate itself from the original. I’m in favor of the gameplay returning to its roots, but the characters themselves were in need of a facelift. Not to say that they should have gone gangsta or anything, but times have changed since the series made its debut and the cast doesn’t reflect this at all. This is only a minor complaint, I guess, as the rest of the game is solid and lots of fun to play.

In a nutshell, ToeJam & Earl III: Mission to Earth takes the best elements from the two previous installments, and adds a bit of new material to the formula. Though some may find the humor somewhat stale and dated, the game itself is a blast to play and definitely has its place in your collection.


Rating (out of 5):

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