Tempura of the Dead: Review

President Tompson is a bad enough dude to save the country. And if he dies, there’s always loyal Gates to back him up, without regard for the intricacies of presidential sucession.

Tempura of the Dead is a three dollar Xbox Live Indie game. It is also a great game, a game design master class in a year where all the big names are flubbing and floundering. It’s a game that is flabbergasting in how well done it is, despite its premise being that a Barack Obama look alike jumps out of a helicopter and fights hordes of zombies, vampires, and GERMs (weird alien things) with the help of a loyal samurai…chef? He sure likes tempura, at least.

There’s more details under the cut, but it is at this point where we will implore you to download this game. It is three dollars that will go to some likely cool people who really know what they’re doing, and it is five times better (at least) than Sonic the Hedgehog 4, which is five times as expensive.

Additionally, the above video of the opening cinematic will do all the convincing you need.

The closest analog to Tempura of the Dead is Ghosts and Goblins. Sure, it’s more forgiving than that horrible fuck of a game, but that’s not saying too much. Tempura of the Dead is maddeningly difficult at times, to the point where it makes Super Meat Boy look friendly and cuddly. This is not an easy game, and doesn’t not have easy enemies. Even the first couple stages can be a bit rough if you’re not used to the conservative style of play necessary in old school platformers.

The other close comparison to the game is the made famous by Scott Pilgrim NES classic The Clash at Demonhead; in fact, one could very easily call this a modernized version of that game. The world map has a lot of the same perceived style, and the gameplay has the same general feeling, especially once the vampires start becoming regular occurrences. It’s got that old school exploration feel to it, even though it’s entirely linear.

Of course, that’s what we want out of our games. The illusion of openness, in a linear, exciting world. This is not even the thing Tempura of the Dead gets rightest, either.

What Tempura of the Dead gets the most is the balance between immediate intensity and distant goals. And my stars it gets that. Every level in Tempura of the Dead has the same goal: kill a certain number of GERMs, which are big purple alien monsters that appear relatively harmless until provoked, but will spit various substances at you once they are. There are anywhere between one and seven in a level, usually paced pretty well, but they qualify as distant goals. What Tempura does best is make every fight exciting. Every fight is exciting because of the enemies, who only truly die when you juggle their heads roughly ten times in an insane game of kick the zombie’s head. It is the perfect mechanic for a game like this. Each fight is rendered interesting because a perfect kill will give you a fair deal of lefts (the currency/lives system in the game. That is the type of game this is: where lives are currency), but doing so requires a fair deal of skill, with headless zombies walking everywhere and with head physics that are, bluntly, hilarious. But it is an immensely satisfying mechanic, one of the best this year.

Tempura of the Dead is nothing if not satisfying. The first half of the game is designed for you to learn the mechanics, and the mechanics are kind of like a plate full of barbeque ribs: soul-satisfying and sticky (if you are from the American South, please add grits and collard greens to this meal. If you are not, add…fuck, I don’t care). The jumps feel heavy in an old school way, where they are slightly unresponsive but physical, like you are actually jumping. The attacks are visceral and effective. Everything feels good. Especially good is the character switch mechanic, where the playing character jumps, turns invincible, and switches to the other character; well-timed, this lets you circumvent all sorts of damage. The second half of the game is satisfying as well, but in two different ways. For one, you get a double jump, and everyone loves a double jump. In fact, when I started the game, my one negative bullet point was no double jump. So, of course, they add a double jump.

(And yes, lack of double jump is a negative bullet point, not just a design decision. My one similar negative on Super Meat Boy was a lack of a double jump, and you know what? I feel totally justified in that. Adding a double jump is like packaging your game with heroin. I dare you to find me a game with a jump mechanic that would not have been improved by reducing that jump to 75% effectiveness, and adding a second jump that went an additional 35%. You will not find one. Pressing jump a second time and getting a slim sliver of air control is the most fantastic feeling video games have ever made.)

The other way it becomes satisfying is the difficulty. This is a game that, in no short order, becomes patently, NES-era unfair. It becomes so fucking difficult that I don’t fucking know what to do with it. It is always fair, in that every problem has a solution, but like Clash at Demonhead, grinding is sometimes necessary to get the items that will solve the problems without liberal application of the character switch. It’s not unforgivable grinding, because it is fun to replay old levels in a classic NES way, but it is grinding. And eventually, you’ll find bosses who will make you bite the controller, which is satisfying and hopeless at the same time.

Don’t let that put you off, though. This is a masterpiece of a game, a love letter to a time when games could be uncomplicated and awesome without burying it under hackneyed plots and mountains of tutorials. Tempura of the Dead is everything that is right about video games, and definitely worth your three dollars, even if you give up halfway through in a fit of rage.