Do you remember the original Sonic games? Probably, but do you remember the last good Sonic game? Chances are you don’t, but maybe, just maybe, we might have an answer, thanks to Pokémon developer Game Freak.
They’re not really the studio you’d expect to create a new 2D platformer, but they’ve gone and done something rather fantastic. Instead of a hedgehog, this time you’re an elephant – a badass elephant, in fact – and your mission is to repel the evil troops invading the city. Tembo rolls, crashes, and stamps on his enemies as he hurtles through levels, with areas of pure momentum broken up by slower platforming sections and semi-boss fights.
The story is light, but that’s all the motivation Tembo really needs. Several comic-strip squares at the start show an old human comrade calling the elephant out of retirement, followed by a few small moments during the course of the game to flesh it out a bit more.
Things are deceptively simple: as well as being able to jump higher than any elephant ever, Tembo also has a charge attack, allowing him to smash through enemies with abandon. The two can be combined, either performing a running leap (useful for clearing gaps) or turning Tembo into a deadly, Sonic-like pinball, depending on the order you press them. With an uppercut mapped to charge and up, there’s not really a massive repertoire, but in practice it’s more than enough.
You’ll need to make full use of your abilities to make it through each level, as while the platforming is as you’d expect – reaching a button to open a door, making your way over narrow precipices – the enemies liven things up. As well as regular grunts, there are baddies that’ll shoot at you, along with flamethrowers, hovering drones, armoured mechs, and tanks, each with their own attack patterns to contend with. It makes navigating the levels a real challenge. Clever checkpoints for the most part helps it strike the right balance, and reaching the next one always feels rewarding without becoming frustrating.
New ideas are introduced frequently; keeping things fresh. Sometimes it’ll be a new enemy type, or giant bowling balls you can flick around the level to smash stuff. Being an elephant, Tembo can also shoot water from his trunk, which useful for passing fiery barriers.
In classic arcade style, lives are collectable, with 300 peanuts netting you a jar of peanut butter (one life). There’s plenty dotted around the levels, and even if you do lose them all you’ll only be kicked back to the start of the level. Also hidden around each level are ten trapped civilians, which you cam (and should, you monster!) rescue. In a nice touch, when they’re rescued they appear on Tembo’s back for the rest of the level, and finding them all nets you extra points, which are also awarded for getting all the baddies in a level.
The boss fights are more of a mixed bag, though. The game-world is split into four zones, each culminating in a boss battle which put you in a single screen room and has you hit the the glowing weak points. While each requires a different approach, they’re massively inconsistent, with the first very being a cakewalk (at first it’s not even apparent it’s a boss, it’s that easy) and the final one the only part of the game I found maddeningly frustrating. Aside from the frustrating boss or two, the only real issue with Tembo are the controls, specifically the rolling attack. Too often you’ll mean to charge jump, but hit the buttons in the wrong order, and Tembo bounces rather than rolling, frequently chucking you into an enemy’s bullets.
The graphics are a combination of 2D cartoony visuals and 2.5D objects, the latter breaking towards the screen as Tembo smashes through them, which is cool. Enemies are clearly marked in purple, while the background is always colourful, moving from a paradise island through to a cityscape, and on to a circus. It all fits perfectly with the retro vibe Game Freak are clearly going for: bright, colourful, and never taking itself too seriously.
There’s a surprising amount of replayability too. Progressing between zones means clearing enough baddies in the preceding levels, a stat monitored on the level select screen. It becomes surprisingly addictive getting all the baddies in each level, and Tembo’s actually the first game I’ve hit 100% on in a quite a while.
The few issues here aren’t really enough to spoil things, though. Bright, silly and literally tons of fun, Tembo is an excellent platformer, in the spirit of Sonic of old. SEGA are publishing this one, too, so maybe this will help remind them of how good the genre can be.
Xbox One version also tested.
Bright and colourful.
Full of character.
Slightly awkward controls.