When you hear the name “Game Freak,” the first thing that pops in your head is the ever popular “Pokémon” series from Nintendo. The Japanese developer’s gaming library has been dominated by these “Pocket Monsters” titles since the original 1996 Game Boy games. It’s understandable why Game Freak would focus so much of its attention on a franchise that continues to print money every year, but everyone needs a break now and then. Enter “Tembo the Badass Elephant.” A 2D side-scrolling action series that harkens back to the classic age of gaming.
At first glance, “Tembo the Badass Elephant” isn’t what you expect from the house of “Pokémon.” Its Western influences are apparent with its Saturday morning cartoon visuals, comic book inspired cutscenes and title hero sporting the “Rambo” look. But it’s exactly what you would want to see from a developer breaking the mold: something fresh. Judged by its own merits, the visual package is appropriate and delightful to look at. The comic book sound effects appearing with every action doesn’t lose its charm. And the panel-to-panel cutscenes get the game’s simple story of Tembo’s mission to defeat the evil Phantom Army across perfectly, while providing some comical moments.
There are other influences in “Tembo the Badass Elephant,” besides its cartoon art style. “Donkey Kong Country,” “Sonic the Hedgehog” and “Splosion Man” are three games that come to mind, when playing “Tembo.” “Donkey Kong Country” players with fond memories of stampeding as Rambi the rhino will understand the connection between the two games, as blazing through enemies as Tembo offers the same thrill. It even goes further, as “Tembo” borrows the cannon-based gameplay mechanics of “Donkey Kong Country,” along with the foreground to background transitions from the recent games. Heck, even collecting the numerous peanuts onscreen produces the same sound effect from collecting bananas as Donkey Kong.
Perhaps it’s noticeable with Sega as the game’s publisher, but “Tembo” shares the same momentum-based gameplay as the famous hedgehog. Tembo can dash with the press of the square button and execute various moves to aid his speed. Ground pound, slide kick and a slanted bounce attack are all useful moves for progressing through the game and keeping momentum. Of course, the game will throw obstacles in your way, such as enemies equipped with sharp objects, or explosions placed on your path. Much like the early “Sonic the Hedgehog” games, “Tembo” players with fast reflexes are rewarded with an exhilarating experience. This game could be a favorite for speedrunners.
Lastly, the comparisons between “Splosion Man” and “Tembo” deals with the way levels are structured. Both games emphasize on increasing the difficultly with each new challenge, along with making players pray for a checkpoint in the next area. A running sequence in “Tembo,” where a laser field grid chasing after you on various conveyor belts is reminiscent of the ones seen in “Splosion Man.” There’s also an emphasis on clearing sections filled with enemies, whether it’s to advance to the next section, or to the next level. Both games also know how to contentiously build on the new mechanics it introduces, such as the rotating sling shot, or the bouncing pads in need of water from Tembo’s trunk.
With all these gameplay influences mentioned, “Tembo” may seem like a retread, but the way it compiles all these inspirations, while adding its own unique ideas to the mix, makes the game feel like a completely new experience. Levels are beautiful with their colorful palette and impressive 2D landscape. The action is intense, with heavily armed tanks, helicopters, and mechs in need of a good thrashing. And the music fits the game’s military theme, setting the mood for ambushing enemies.
This game isn’t perfect, though. While “Tembo” never cheats the player, the game’s difficulty can cause moments of frustration. Extra lives equating to 300 peanuts, instead of the typical 100, doesn’t make death easier to swallow. Adding to the frustration are levels that sometimes drag on, in an effort to make up for the game’s weekend length. With the exception of the final and satisfying boss fight, the previous bosses are uneven in design. First boss is too easy, while the second is too hard and the third goes on for too long.
Despite these critiques, “Tembo the Badass Elephant” is a joy. It’s fast, action-packed and just downright fun to play. Looking for every civilian to save and every enemy to smash never gets old. If this is what Game Freak is capable when unchained from “Pokémon,” than may the company never return to the Nintendo franchise again… at least for a year or two.
“Tembo the Badass Elephant” is available on PS4, Xbox One and PC. This review, provided by the publisher, is based on the PS4 version.