Shhhh… Don’t tell Breath of Death VII, but I may have a new retro indie sweetheart. Like the retro-themed RPG, The Tempura of the Dead lovingly replicates the best aspects of 8-bit games and infuses them with a dash of modern sensibility. The resulting experience feels like an undiscovered Nintendo gem, but at the same time is legitimately superior to some frustrating classics because it takes advantage of lessons learned over the last twenty-five years.
Tempura opens with a familiar enough scene: the world has been overrun by zombies, and someone has to do something about it. Who better than a samurai and the President of the United States? This isn’t just any old boring suit that we’re talking about though, and I’m not sure how many world leaders have the balls to leap from a helicopter into a zombie-infested city with only a Tommy gun to break his fall. So, yeah, it’s gonna be that kind of game, and yeah, I’d say it’s safe to assume President Thompson and his samurai buddy are bad enough dudes to save the country.
This game doesn’t just rest on its 8-bit aesthetics; it truly feels like an excavated action classic. It’s a brutal combo of Ninja Gaiden and Contra, but far more gruesome than would ever be approved by the so-called “seal of quality.” Zombies spawn from the ground and erupt into bloody explosions upon decapitation. You can swap between the machine-gun wielding President and sword-donning samurai at any point, and you’ll need to utilize both of their strengths to survive. The samurai lacks a ranged attack, but he can jump higher and does more damage than his long-ranged counterpart.
The innovative feature of the game is the system of handing out 1ups, which essentially act as experience points. Naturally, each level contains a bunch of huge baddies, and those monsters net huge numbers of extra lives. Living up to its subtitle “The zombie head jugglers,” zombie domes pop off into the air like dandelions in the hands of a six-year-old. Juggle a head a few times and you’ll enter ‘Tempura Fever,’ which allows for even more 1ups. Those 1ups aren’t just for show though, they’re used as currency and are exchanged for more hearts, new weapons and additional moves.
The head-juggling system is a cool concept, but it kind of feels like an afterthought to the actual game. The timing feels just a smidgen off, so it can be a bit hard to juggle the heads in the heat of battle. Later levels tend to contain more bosses and enemies, and it’s tough to juggle heads when trying to avoid swooping vampire monsters and bloody zombie legs that are darting right towards you. Still, it’s a fun idea, and at the very least it’s amusing to hear the hyper sped-up music.
Even though the juggling system isn’t perfect, it really cannot be understated just how gripping this game is to play. Its simple, but precise controls and authentic sound effects really sell the experience. But, what really makes it special is how it embraces some modern conventions to improve upon the formulas of the past. While it wholly embraces the difficulty curve of games like Mega Man and Castlevania, it also hands out 1ups like crazy. Even when you die thirty seconds into a level, you are still earning experience and are building towards a better character.
Plus, you’ll really need those extra lives. While the first eight or nine levels might feel like a bit of a cake walk for NES veterans, Tempura really ramps up the difficulty as the levels start to stack up. It sometimes got the point where I felt as if I was grinding in order to acquire enough health or that next weapon upgrade in order to finish some later levels. If I was better at juggling earlier in the game, I”d probably have acquired enough lives, but as it stood, I simply replayed some levels to gather more lives.
It’s also worth noting that you’ll definitely be swapping between the two characters fairly regularly, and each clearly has its place. The samurai was my go-to character, with his higher jumps and stronger attacks, but, the Prez was clearly the weapon of choice against larger enemies due to his ranged attacks. Some of his attacks temporarily stun bosses, and there were times when I mashed the B button so hard I wished I could morph my controller into an NES Advantage.
For everything it does right, I do have some minor gripes with the game. The catchy soundtrack became lodged firmly in my brain during my day job, but it got a bit stale after seven-or-so hours. Also, although the deadly duo is theoretically traversing across America, there is never anything that grounds it to a specific locale. A Statue of Liberty or Golden Gate Bridge backdrop would have really gone a long way.
But again, those are minor qualms, and definitely should not deter you from checking it out. Like its equally magnificent peers, Protect Me Knight and Breath of Death VII, Tempura manages to accomplish things that would be impossible on an actually Nintendo, but still feel warm and fuzzy enough to remind you of those afternoons gripping that boxy controller. Anyone with a fondness of classic 2D-action games like Ninja Gaiden, Mega Man, and Castlevania simply must give The Tempura of the Dead a try. It’s a truly epic adventure, is unquestionably one of the best Xbox Indies, and it is an exemplary example of what the service does best and why it is so important.
The Tempura of the Dead was purchased for 240 MS points ($3).