‘Tembo the Badass Elephant’ Is a Sonic-Style Game That Doesn’t Totally Suck

The old-school platformer mostly hits high notes, which is good news for its director at Game Freak, James Turner.

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Jul 13 2015, 6:00pm

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

It was at EGX Rezzed earlier this year when my eyes were first assaulted by Tembo the Badass Elephant. I didn't play the game then, but its accompanying branding was too boisterous to be blanked. A plump protagonist, made up like a Cartoon Network Rambo, like a total flashback to the 1990s era of platforming animal heroes—what's not to like? And then there were the names attached to the game: Game Freak, famous for its long-running Pokémon games, on development, and SEGA as the publisher. For someone whose childhood was largely spent pushing a blue hedgehog from left to right, and who remembers the fuss surrounding Pokémon Red and Blue on the Game Boy (I had—I have—the latter), every electric tingle from my amygdala was screaming: this will not totally suck.

And Tembo does not totally suck—which is more than can be said of most recent hedgehog-starring games (but let's not dwell on that, again). It's not exactly on a par with either the best of Sonic's 16-bit games—the second on the Genesis and Sonic CD (mmm, Mega-CD)—or the Pokémon series at its most gotta-catch-them-all addictive, but it pairs zingy aesthetics and zippy gameplay with a decent challenge and repeat-play encouraging collectibles—humans imprisoned by invading "Phantom" forces (look, this isn't one where the plot matters)—to comprise an entirely engaging way to see out a few dull evenings when there's nothing on the telly but Paul Hollywood's permanently haunted face.

'Tembo the Badass Elephant' announcement trailer

Tembo smashes left, he smashes right, he smashes down; he devours peanuts like they're coated in the tastiest MSG this side of a large chicken in black bean sauce; he battles tanks and cannons and mechs and legions of flamethrower-wielding nasty bastards and rolls bowling balls four times his size through obstacles just because, and all in the name of freeing Shell City from purple-clad bad guys. Seriously, the story, just don't bother—it makes a Michael Bay–helmed movie script seem like a lost Dostoyevsky. And, equally seriously, if you told me this was coming out for the Genesis, even in 2015, I'd probably believe you.

Tembo's creative cast includes director James Turner, Takashi Iizuka, Sonic Team head with past credits on Nights into Dreams and several games featuring SEGA's spiky mascot, and Ken Sugimori, character designer for the Pokémon franchise. That's some fine talent, which likely tells you enough to know if you'll personally enjoy your time with this weaponized pachyderm. Nonetheless, I got onto Turner to learn just a little more about this mechanically retrospective but resolutely current-gen collaboration.

Screenshots via SEGA

VICE: When I think of Game Freak, I think of Pokémon, and so I think of Nintendo. So what the hell are you doing siding with the enemy here, with SEGA?
James Turner: Game Freak has a long association with Nintendo, largely through the Pokémon series, but the studio has always been independent. Our production department is dedicated to trying out new things, and we created the Tembo prototype, which SEGA came to our office and played, and liked what they saw. We felt the partnership matched the spirit of the game, so that's how the collaboration began.

The gameplay feels instantly "SEGA." I'm not saying it's basically a Sonic game without Sonic in it... but it sort of is, isn't it? It's fast, you smash things, you run left to right, and the peanuts are rings.
The game is certainly inspired by the classic side-scrolling games of the 16-bit era, Sonic among them. We tried to make the game control in an intuitive and immediately fun way, like the best characters from those games. Tembo himself isn't a direct homage to Sonic, but as we adjusted how he controlled and ramped up his speed, we noticed the game began to take on a bit of that kinetic Sonic feel. We also had feedback from Sonic Team later on, as we were creating the game, so it's possible you may feel their influence as you play.

The art style's got a contemporary sharpness to it, but that 16-bit-era cuteness going on, too. Did you specifically look back to that period for aesthetic inspiration?
Games of that era were definitely an inspiration on the artwork. I especially like the design of characters and machines in the Metal Slug series—as military-themed games, those could have had a hard and drab graphical style, but instead the artists infused their designs with tons of personality and humor. We wanted that kind of liveliness in our game world. And for Tembo himself, his design formed pretty quickly. I wanted our elephant to be very round and heavy-looking, and when I put the bandana and face paint on him, his look was pretty much sealed.

The gameplay is fairly minimal, stripped-back, and uncluttered. Do you think that, with all these inputs on modern pads, it's too easy to have to assign a command to everything? Could more designers benefit from taking a more minimalist approach to control and objectives?
We kept Tembo's game design pretty simple and easy to understand. I personally like things that are designed to be simple and intuitive, so that's what I naturally go for when creating something. I think it's fine to have more complexity though—more collectibles and mini-games can be fun, as long as they don't feel like a chore, or are there just to pad the game out.

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The difficulty's fairly easy going to begin with, which attracted some criticism in places like IGN. But it increases pretty significantly, right?
The starting levels of the game are pitched a little on the easy side because we want the player to simply enjoy the feeling of being a badass elephant, smashing stuff up with joyful abandon. We didn't want to put too many obstacles in the way of this fun, initially. But rest assured, the difficulty ramps up quite a good amount as the game progresses, there are some really challenging levels and enemies later on to test your action skills and your nerves.

Is Tembo the beginning of a series, do you think? Does this bestial hero have designs on a Sonic-like run of games?
I think side-scrolling games like Tembo offer a kind of immediate and pure fun, so I hope they'll always be around, and I have ideas in mind for other adventures for Tembo, and other characters he could fight alongside. I hope he's a popular character, I think the world would be a better place with a badass elephant out there, butt-stomping evil.

Tembo the Badass Elephant is released on July 21 for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC. Play it if you like fun.

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