Tembo the Badass Elephant looks like a family-friendly game, with its adorable pachyderm mascot and bright, colorful worlds. Its side-scrolling 2D gameplay brings me back to when I was a kid playing Super Mario, but it's also a game that I will only play when my own kids leave the room: Tembo is equal parts fun and frustrating, and it's hard to play a few minutes without letting out a burst of expletives.
The game itself plays sort of like a mash-up of Sonic the Hedgehog and Contra. As Tembo, an elephant who has been enlisted by the military to help fight off an enemy force, you primarily smash things. Tembo's main ability is a dash that bashes aside bad guys and debris, allowing you to run straight through everything from piles of cars to towering trees. You can also use it to destroy enemy tanks and helicopters, and much like in Sonic, the levels are designed to accentuate this ability: there are lots of hills and big jumps, encouraging constant movement.
Tembo is at its best when you're going fast
Tembo is at its best when you're going fast — when everything clicks, it's exhilarating. But it's also filled with well-designed twists that use the elephant's small range of abilities in clever ways. In addition to running, jumping, and smashing, Tembo can also squirt water from his trunk. At first you use this to put out some fires, but eventually water can help you alter the landscape. Watering certain seeds can them into platforms and bridges, useful for reaching new areas.
When you combine these puzzles with some tricky platforming and a thrilling sense of speed, you have a game that calls to mind some of the best side-scrolling classics. And just like those older games, Tembo can be very challenging, with moments that require precision, despite the fact that you're controlling a clumsy, lumbering elephant. It's an old-school sort of difficulty: when you die, it's almost always your mistake, and not because the game is unfair. That kind of challenge makes Tembo particularly satisfying and intense. When I fought one of the early bosses — a mechanical dragon that needed to be pushed into a vat of lava — I found myself moving my body along with my hands, trying everything to get the machine over the ledge.
An otherwise fun game turns into a slog
Unfortunately, the wonderful gameplay is undermined by some terrible design decisions. For one thing, Tembo employs an unnecessary life system. Each level is filled with checkpoints, but when you run out of lives, you're forced to start over from scratch. This means that you either a) have to complete a stage without dying five times, which isn't always easy, or b) you'll need to play easier levels to farm for peanuts, which can net you extra lives once you collect 300. Running out of lives was fine in 1990 because we didn't know any better. In 2015, it just feels archaic.
Even worse, certain levels are locked until you kill a specific number of enemies, many of which are hidden throughout the levels. This means that, unless you're fantastic at the game and can find and kill most of the bad guys in a single try, you're going to have to replay levels multiple times. Since Tembo's levels are very long and very challenging, this can turn an otherwise fun game into a slog.
If the core of gameplay wasn't so fun it'd be hard to look past these frustrations, but Tembo is definitely worth playing even if you have to do some grinding. There are plenty of games that try to be retro, but Tembo is one of the rare few that actually channels what made 2D games so great: it's bright, fast, fun, and hard as hell.
Just be sure to clear the room before you start playing.
Tembo the Badass Elephant is available today on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.