Tembo The Badass Elephant’s title is brilliantly descriptive in a way that few modern video game titles are – there is an elephant called Tembo and he is a badass. It’s all in the title, and it’s all true. There is none of that modern day ambiguity to be found here. Like just about every aspect of this game, the title is fantastically old school. This is 16-bit era gaming in every conceivable way – from its absurd premise and its almost complete lack of story to its side-scrolling 2D gameplay and, of course, that absurd title. In fact, the only thing new about this game are the visuals. It’s still 2D, but the fidelity and level of detail is in line with modern day expectations creating a game that looks and plays almost exactly how you wish a modern day Sonic the Hedgehog would.
Developed by Game Freak (those of Pokémon fame) and published by Sega, this is unquestionably the best Sega-type game that Sega have released in quite some time. Don’t get me wrong, Sega still publish a host of very good games (last year’s Alien: Isolation immediately comes to mind), but come on, when was the last time they released something in any capacity that both looked and played like an actual Sega game? Other than a brief run of decent Sonic games (oh, Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing was also very good), Sega haven’t been very, well, Segary in quite some time.
Tembo though, despite being a Game Freak developed video game, is undoubtedly pure Sega. From the fast-paced gameplay to the bright primary colours, Tembo has that special something, that special Sega blue sky vibe. It does have a few issues, most of which could have been easily avoided, but still, fundamentally, Tembo The Badass Elephant is a fantastic video game, one that revels in its 16-bit inspirations while doing more than enough to stand on its own two (four?) feet.
The brief intro explains pretty much all that you need to know – there are bad guys and you are an elephant working for the military. You need to stop the bad guys by being all badass and stuff. From there, it’s off to the races so to speak. You’d think that a game staring an elephant would be slow (I guess you’d say the same about a game starring a hedgehog too), but like Sega’s surprisingly swift mascot, Tembo gets around a lot faster than you might imagine. He’s not quite Sonic fast, but with his array of dashes and rolls, Tembo can certainly move at a fair old clip. You will need to stop for basic puzzles every so often and despite some impressive level design, taking down all of the enemy soldiers or saving all of the civilians on each stage will usually take a bit of backtracking, but for the most past, this is a pleasantly fast paced affair.
While the design is relatively basic, the surprisingly varied move-set ensures that the game feels fresh for the duration. Yes, it is a rather short game, but with plenty of collectibles, there is more than enough content to keep you busy if you wish to stick with the experience. Saying that, it is a shame that certain stages are only unlocked once you have taken down a certain number of enemies – it’s an ethos that needlessly flies in the face of the otherwise fast paced action. I’m something of a completionist, so that wasn’t really an issue for me, but for those who want to tear through the stages as quickly as possible and couldn’t give two sh*ts about saving civilians or taking down enemies, it is annoying that the game needlessly forces you to backtrack to hit a selection of arbitrary collection figures.
Speaking of slowing down, there are moments in the game in which you will be forced to take your foot of the gas to complete a number of pleasingly diverting puzzles. Using your trunk, you will occasionally have to put out fires or grow plants by squirting water at them. It’s a simple mechanic, but one that does offer up a change of pace, and along with uppercut attacks and ground pounds, deliver a sense of variation to the gameplay that was often lacking from many of its 16-bit inspirations. Not everyone will be happy with the enforced change of pace, but for me, the additional moves ensured that the game never became a one-note experience.
While I certainly enjoy many of Tembo’s old school sensibilities, one it arguably could have done without is the life system. There are checkpoints, but lose your five lives and it’s back to the start. Some will inevitably argue that is fair game and that Tembo is still a lot more forgiving than many games from the 8-bit and 16-bit era, and while that is true, I for one don’t have the time to be losing hours of gameplay because of an overtly harsh checkpoint systems. It’s clearly a matter of taste, but I for one found it hugely annoying to get towards the end of a stage only to be mercilessly dragged back to the start and have to do it all over again. The other downer comes in the form of the boss battles. Few are genuinely terrible, but given the quality of the level design throughout, these are a relative low points in an otherwise exemplary video game.
It’s not perfect then, but Tembo The Badass Elephant is about as close to the modern Sonic game that we’ve all wanted as we are ever likely to get. With its great level design, fantastic visuals and brilliant move-set, this is old school gaming done right. It immediately evokes the memory of 16-bit gaming while adding the modern day trimmings that we have all become accustomed too. A few poor design choices do ultimately keep it from greatness, but despite these most minor of issues, Tembo The Badass Elephant remains a genuinely fantastic video game and proof that Game Freak can do more than just Pokémon and Sega, well, they can still be Sega.
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