Super Tempo (1998, Red Entertainment and Aspect for Sega Saturn)

Thank God for Red Entertainment and their madcap stubbornness. I have no idea what inspired them to create a wildly goofy, genre-hopping 2D videogame, a style all but extinct in the year of groundbreaking 3D hits like Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Half-Life and Tony Hawk Pro Skater. I am very thankful that this team of artists stuck to their guns, defied the winds of popular trends and crafted this wickedly inspired little gem.

Super Tempo puts you in the roles of the Tempo and his girlfriend Katy on a quest to rescue the Prince of Music World from Planet Technotch (according to Hardcore Gaming 101, at least). It’s visual design is wildly colorful and cartoonish, with wonderfully fluid animation drawn on 1’s and 2’s. The character designs are wonderfully surreal and zany, like an anime cousin to Ren & Stimpy or Animaniacs. The music and audio incorporates cartoon sound effects that were ripped right out of the Hanna-Barbera vaults.

Red is best known as the creators of Bonk’s Adventure on the Turbografx-16, which spawned five sequels on that system and multiple appearances on NES, Super NES and arcades. The games are known for their skillful, inventive level designs and a wicked, irreverent sense of humor that extended to the terrific cartoon character designs and animations. In 1995, they teamed up with Sega for the excellent mascot title Tempo for the ill-fated 32X; a Game Gear sequel, Tempo, Jr. was developed by Sega offshoot studio SIMS. For Sega Saturn, the studio teamed up with software studio Aspect and pulled out all the stops on Saturn, creating the finest genre title for the system.

Super Tempo is a glorious example of 2D games in the 32-bit era, with a tremendous sense of freedom and boundless surprises. At one moment, you are running in a standard 2D platforming environment. The next, you are engaging a robot boss in a bodybuilder’s muscle-flexing competition. In one stage, you are in a haunted graveyard, escorting the spirits of an animal band to their stage. In another, you are flying in a side-scrolling shoot-em-up against icons of black-and-white arcade videogames from the 1970s. The next, you fly a house steered by a Pegasus unicorn through outer space, navigating through starry nights, giant mines, sheet music, cheerleaders and portraits of Beethoven. In one scene, as you battle a giant robot chicken, your character is transformed into a buxom anime femme fatale with boxing gloves. In another, your character is transformed into a cartoon steroid freak who is accompanied by flying cows and sounds of yodeling, which eventually drives him so crazed that he pops like a balloon and returns to normal. One boss fight is resolved by giving your opponent a kiss.

The sheer wild unpredictability is Super Tempo’s great strength. When playing for this review, I can confidently report that I never knew what to expect next. Every five minutes would yield another surprise or sight gag. For example, in the very first stage, you dive through a small pond, dodging frogs and pollywogs, then jump up onto the side of a wooden platform. You climb up and walk left, just over the pond, and discover…well, there is no way I’m spoiling that surprise. You’ll also get a kick out of the video arcade mini-games, a long vertical climb across a series of gears and boulders followed by one nasty puzzle at the top, and the final boss battle that again changes genres, this time a 3D shooter in the vein of Konami’s classic Gyruss. This randomness is probably the greatest challenge of the game, always keeping you on your toes, guessing what you’re supposed to do next.

In addition to your main quest, there are numerous secret bonus rooms that can be discovered, many of which contain some trippy visuals of geometric shapes and floral patters as you blow cartoon notes out of a horn. There are also many collectible items to find, some of which are easily found and others that are very sneakily hidden. Some are even awarded at the end of each stage, and afterward you admire all your collected toys. At the end of the game, your collection is tallied up and you receive one of twelve ending screens.

Super Tempo has such a wonderful spirit of creativity and fun that it reminds you of why you play videogames. It always leaves a shocked smile on my face, and a sense of, “Did that just happen? How did they come up with that?” Great job. That’ll do, Red. That’ll do.

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