Back in the 16-bit days of gaming, when developers and publishers weren't in a crazed search for multimillion dollar blockbusters, we were often treated to some cool and quirky games. A prime example of that simpler time is the Toe Jam & Earl games, which were released on the Sega Genesis in the early '90s. The games starred two aliens, the multieyed ToeJam and the husky Earl, who hailed from the planet Funkotron. The franchise stood apart from most titles on the market because of its distinctive music, which drew heavily on contemporary hip-hop. Following the second game things were quiet for the two funky aliens as they sat out the 32X, Sega CD, Saturn, and Dreamcast platforms. However, with Sega's multiplatform strategy finding the company drawing on its classic franchises, the dynamic duo has been tapped to funk it up on the Xbox with the third installment of the series: ToeJam & Earl III: Mission to Earth. We got our hands on a previewable build of the game and have been checking it out to see if the duo is still keeping it real.
In ToeJam & Earl's latest adventure, the pair is once again charged with helping Lamont the Great Funkapotamus maintain the funkiness of the universe. The natural order of all things funky is threatened when Lamont's prized and sacred vinyl collection is jacked by earthlings and scattered every which way. In order to avoid the catastrophic consequences that such a drastic loss of funk will cause, the duo is dispatched to collect all the vinyl and return it to Lamont before it's too late. They are joined in their endeavor by ToeJam's main squeeze, Latisha, a fetching alien with a taste for hoop earrings.
While the mission sounds fairly straightforward, you know it's just not going to work out that way. A xenophobic batch of screwy earthlings--ranging from familiar faces seen in previous games, such as the bogeymen and cupid, to new faces such as cheerleaders and a gospel choir--stand between the heroic trio and their goal. Even worse, there appears to be an even darker presence on the horizon that is negatively impacting the universe's funk. With the stakes raised even higher, the trio sets out on a mission that will take them to five worlds that feature distinct environments--country, desert, snow, urban, and mossy water.
ToeJam & Earl III's gameplay manages to stay surprisingly faithful to its 2D roots despite the game's leap to 3D. You'll have two modes to choose from in the game, both of which can be played by one or two players. The game's story mode will follow the trio's quest to keep things good and funky in the universe. You'll start the game on Funkotron and be coached by Lamont on the basics of how to play. You'll choose from one of the three characters, each with unique abilities. Fans of the series should be pleased to see that the core gameplay is almost exactly the same as that in the Genesis games. You'll be engaging in a lot of the same activities, such as exploring, converting earthlings, collecting presents, earning points, and matching rhythms, and there will be some new elements as well, such as minigames, side quests, and new mission objectives. You'll access the various worlds and minigames via a main hub that will require you to collect a set number of keys or karaoke microphones to unlock their entrances. The game's random mode will mirror the original game's and will offer randomly generated worlds for you to explore.
Controlling the gang is pretty straightforward. You'll move your character with the analog stick. You can control the camera with the right stick and center it behind you with the right trigger. The left trigger will let you switch to a first-person mode that lets you look around and shoot. The white button will call up a map of the area you're in, and the black button will let you talk to friendly earthlings or other nonplayer characters you encounter in the game. The Y button will shoot your "funktify shot," which will convert a human much more quickly than your standard "funk fu" attack via the X button. The A button will let you jump, and the B button will let you call up and select presents to use.
In terms of its presentation, ToeJam & Earl III does a good job of updating the look and sound of its 2D incarnations. The basic look of the game retains the artistic sensibility of the original games and offers a 3D world of floating islands populated by an eccentric cast of humans, surly animals, and men in carrot suits. The worlds feature gorgeous detail, due to their high-polygon budget and amazingly clean textures. The gang's animations are suitably funky and do an admirable job of conveying their personalities. Sound in the game is solid, thanks to Dolby 5.1 support. The only hitch is that some of the sound samples from the earthlings are a bit tinny in some spots, which actually reminded us of the Genesis games, so it may be intentional. The tunes you'll hear as you venture out in search of Lamont's records offer variations on the music from the first two games and some new tunes as well. In addition, the game gets a dose of gospel music injected into the proceedings, courtesy of the Soul Sisters, who will introduce each level to you in song. Voice acting is a bit iffy in spots but isn't horrible, and ToeJam, Earl, and Latisha all emote well enough.
From what we've played so far, ToeJam & Earl III: Mission to Earth is shaping up to be a solid update of a 2D franchise. The gameplay keeps what made its predecessors appealing and throws in a few new odds and ends to keep things interesting. We'll admit we were hoping for a bit more of an emphasis on music in the game, but we weren't crushed when we didn't get it. The game's multiplayer feature is nice--the screen alternates between full and split screen depending on your proximity to the other player--and definitely adds to the game's appeal. Best of all, we noticed an earthling touting Xbox Live within the game, which pretty much gives away the ability for downloadable content for the game and should offer a nice surprise for those who check it out. Xbox owners looking to get funky should be on the lookout for the game, which ships later this month.