Game Freak trades Pokémon for Tembo the Badass Elephant
Gotta smash 'em all.
Finally, a game with the guts to ask: what if Rambo had been an elephant? If Rambo had been an elephant, it transpires, things would have been just fine. Faced with an invading army from another world - or so I imagine; I was tying a shoelace during the opening cut-scene - Earth turns to its greatest hero. And that's Tembo, several tons of trunk and ears and leathery hide set upon the strange stubby feet that elephants have. Called back to action and decked out in warpaint and one of those scarves you tie around your head when you want to look like a badass, Tembo starts smashing stuff up. Cities quake. Enemies pinwheel through the air. Cars are compacted and a lot of glass is shattered.
This is the work of Game Freak, best known for Pokémon. But it's also the work of Game Freak, the developers of the delightfully chuggy platformer Drill Dozer, a GBA treat that came with its own rumble pack added to the cartridge, providing a vital haptic connection as you chewed your way into foes and heavy masonry while cast as a sassy jewel thief or somesuch. Tembo has the same sort of texture to it - this is a 2D platformer about going through things rather than hopping, politely, on top of them. Its signature moment involves busting past concrete pillars that crumble, joyously, sending any upper floors they may have supported collapsing downwards, opening up potentially interesting paths. Its signature move is even better, a kind of bounce-spin you can chuck Tembo into, before thumping him down the street, splatting as many baddies as you can steer over. If this sounds familiar, it's basically a 2D version of Burnout Paradise's rhythm-action crashes, right down to the multiplier you're nursing as you go.
Tembo has a surprising number of moves, actually, including a dash attack, a ground-pound, and a strained flutter jump he stole from Yoshi, and they're mostly concerned with combining traversal with destruction as you bust through side-scrolling stages collecting peanuts and human survivors and taking out purple-suited enemy soldiers and the range of delightfully juddery tanks and mechs that they pit against you. Occasionally there is a stand-out gimmick, like a huge bowling ball you get to fling down a hill, or a distant turret you can play tennis with in a 2.5D spin on the old Zelda boss battle. Speaking of boss battles, the first is an admirably direct affair: a huge robot dragon who seems unbeatable until you realise that your best bet is to simply ram him backwards along the platform he's stood on until he drops into a furnace. Set the agenda! You're an elephant.
Having spent a morning zipping through the first world of Tembo's campaign, my initial concern was that the unlock system for opening up new stages could get terribly grindy: after three whirlwind stages, if you want a fourth, you must have despatched a total of 600 baddies along the way, and I hadn't. What I then discovered, though, is that Tembo is one of those games that has different facades dropping away as you play. Once the dust has fallen on your first explosive runthrough, a return visit reveals a tricksy degree of complexity to the maps. Equally, the suite of moves you're given aren't just for killing everything as seismically as you can, but for crossing gaps that initially seemed impassable and sounding out regions that you didn't even see on your first trip.
All of this is given a veneer of cartoon exuberance, from the comic-book sound effects that unfold on the screen with each of Tembo's thuds and poks to the agonised poses of the enemies you send reeling. Rambo? As an elephant? I'm on board, I think.