Title: Toejam & Earl III: Mission to Earth (US), Toejam & Earl III: All Funked Up (EU)
Developer: Toejam & Earl Productions and Visual Concepts
Publisher: Sega of America
Date Published: 22/10/2002 (US)
Platforms: Microsoft Xbox
ESRB Rating: Teen

Toejam & Earl III (TJE3) is the (very) long-awaited third installment in the Toejam & Earl series that began on the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis in 1991. The development of this game was overseen by the same company that brought us the originals (then known as JVP Productions, now Toejam & Earl Productions), headed up by the TJ+E's creators, Greg Johnson and Mark Voorsanger. The game could loosely be described as a remake of the first game in the series, as it reprises the exploratory gameplay and many of the game mechanics from that title. (As opposed to the less innovative platform gameplay of the 1993 sequel, Panic on Funkotron.)

For those unfamiliar with the previous games, Toejam and Earl are two teenage aliens from the planet Funkotron (in the original game they were supposed to be aged about 13, and in this one they're about 18, which is a nice touch and reflects the ageing audience). Toejam is a spindly red creature with three legs and eyes on stalks (and a large medallion), and Earl is an obese, roughly humanoid orange blob with stubby antennae, black shades and a pair of shorts that are ever-so-slightly too loose. (They both rock Adidas.) The two friends are obsessed with funk (a tangible force on their homeworld), hiphop and rap, and endeavour to be as cool as possible (even though they're not always quite as cool as they think they are).

In the first game the duo crash landed their rocket on Earth, and had to explore the planet to retrieve all ten parts of the ship (while being helped and hindered by a large supporting cast of eccentric Earthlings). In the sequel, the pair returned to Funkotron only to find that a troupe of unruly Earthlings had stowed away on their ship, and were terrorising the planet. After capturing all the Earthlings and sending them back to Earth, they go in search of The Great Funkapotamus (Lamont to his friends), who is the source of all Funk, and manage (with the help of some of his favourite things) to persuade him to return to Funkotron as the danger has now passed.

In this game, Lamont has sought Toejam and Earl's help in resolving another Funk-oriented crisis. Someone has stolen Lamont's 12 Sacred Albums of Funk and hidden them on Earth. So the two aliens, with a new 'sassy' partner called Latisha (who looks suspiciously like a female, cyan version of the Sega Saturn character Bug!) travel to Earth to get them back. Along the way they find that the theft has been orchestrated by a villain (a first for the series) called the Anti-Funk, and have to defeat him (all very controntational compared to its Daisy Age predecessors...). The game supports the Xbox Live online subscription service, after a fashion, offering downloadable content (including new playable characters) but no online multiplayer modes.

The game tries to recreate a wide range of elements from the first two titles in the series. As with the original game, the main part of the gameplay is exploring each level (consisting of suspended islands and walkways), avoiding or killing Earthlings with the help of presents and power ups that you find lying around. On some levels you will need to locate one of the sacred albums, on others you just have to reach the exit elevator. The gameplay has been expanded with several subgames and extra features, one of the most well-used being the introduction of rhythm action elements, where you must reproduce a series of beats and effects using the controller buttons (similar to the beatbox intermissions in Panic on Funkotron, except now more tightly integrated into the levels).

Unfortunately while the game has picked most of the best elements from the original titles, the way in which they are implemented is extremely variable. The character models (especially for the Earthlings) are simply substandard for a modern game, and now that they have no distinctive sound effects and distinguishable animations and attack patterns, they are much of a muchness and don't seem very threatening. This is all the more damning when compared to the production values on display in the second game in the series, which was perhaps the high watermark for cel-style animated sprites at the time of its release. The present collection/inventory system seems to have been altered beyond recognition, with many presents now being identifiable before they are opened, and the bane of the original game, the Randomizer, being much more frequently used (I think that there is even an enemy or pick-up that causes randomisation!). The pacing of the game now seems much more twitchy, almost as if the game is running at one and a half times the intended speed. The game scene is often a cluttered and confusing mess of small jaggy enemies and murky textures.

Worst of all, the developers have fallen into a trap that was looming ever since fans witnessed the (rather mushy) ending sequence of Panic: They have badly misjudged the characterisation of the protagonists. The original TJ+E only allowed the characters to communicate in brief text snippets and even briefer (1-2 second) speech samples. The second game added RPG-style conversation sequences, that while still frequently amusing, began to descend into Disneyfication and unconvincing 'dude speak'. The script of TJE3 screams 'white, middle-aged programmer' every time the characters issue forth lines of (swearing-and-drug-reference-free) stilted ebonics. If Johnson and Voorsanger had exercised some restraint and left the player to fill in the gaps instead of shoving attitude-heavy marketable characters down our throats, the game would be much more palatable.

I should probably admit at this point that I have only played the game briefly (so don't take this as a review), but my fears seem to be confirmed by the lukewarm critical reception that the game has received. In the game's defence, its development was as protracted and fraught with difficulties as can be reasonably imagined (even when you consider that the dreaded Sega of America were involved). The project started life on the Dreamcast around 1998, and was canned just short of completion before being revived (seemingly with minimal technical enhancements) for the Microsoft Xbox. We can only speculate as to how far over budget the game might have gone, and what compromises had to be made to fulfil the contract. Hopefully, given a blank slate, Toejam & Earl Productions can (and should) get to work on a new game in the series that will be worthy of the name.

Peace Out.

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