It's safe to say the Sega 32X was a failure. Despite a low launch price and early praise from critics, public opinion on the console quickly soured as people flocked to bigger and better systems. Developers working with the 32X must have known this, since the few original games for the system reflect that sentiment. They were the last hurrah of the 16-bit generation, demonstrating what gave that generation its character before the next wave of consoles would wipe the slate clean. Knuckles Chaotix took 2D Sonic games to an absurd extreme, and Kolibri was basically a tropical Ecco the Dolphin.
Far less appreciated is Red Company's obscure contribution to the 32X: a disco-themed platformer by the name of Tempo. Released in early 1995, the game released just as Bonk was starting to wind down, but before Sakura Taisen saw its debut. So when understood like that, it's easy to see why the game might have been overlooked: it debuted on a failing system and into a genre that was already heavily saturated. Ironically, though, that's precisely what makes the game so memorable in the first place. Not only did Tempo show what the 32X could do in the right hands, but it also tried to expand on what mascot platformers were capable of.
That much is clear by looking at one of the game's more distinctive features: its art style. At first glance, it looks like many of the game's artistic choices were made to flex the 32X's muscle. That's why Tempo emphasizes its fluid animations, vibrant colors, and pre-rendered 3D bosses: because the technology made them possible. Look a little bit closer, though, and you'll find the game has a more well realized art style than it initially lets on. Some levels make you feel like you've wandered into a music video; they bombard you with flashy pop art and rapidly changing colors, and you pass by enough conveyor belts and monitors to think you've stumbled upon a factory-turned-dance-club. (The stylish soundtrack only deepens the feeling.) Other levels are just cartoony, their soft pastels and curvy geometric backdrops resembling cartoons from the 1970s. In any case, the two work well together to create the exuberant dance vibe that Tempo thrives on. Even the bosses' claymation appearance contributes to the game's nostalgic overtones.
And we can't ignore the game's protagonist, either. His enthusiastic personality helps to set him apart from similar characters at the time. Where other characters were marketed largely for their attitude (think Bubsy and Aero the Acrobat), Tempo's style is just one part of his personality. He's also a joyful and expressive guy. Watching him run through the levels, you get the feeling that he's happy to be here at all. And the animations only reinforce that feeling: Tempo's loose, rubbery movements lend him both flair and a fun personality.
The only flaw with the game that's worth addressing is the gameplay, strangely enough. Now this isn't to say that Tempo is poorly constructed or anything like that. If anything, the game demonstrates a solid understanding of platforming principles. Yet for all its understanding, Tempo is unable to adapt those principles to its own circumstances. The story tracks the eponymous hero's journey across a dance show called the Major Minor Show, but how much of that is actually reflected in play? Very little, from the looks of it. Gameplay consists of methodically exploring each level for hidden goodies and carefully navigating a sequence of tricky jumps. While such conventions would make sense for a traditional platformer, they lack both the rhythm and the expressive qualities that the disco motifs seem to demand.
Indeed, the game's dance themes are less a vital part of the experience and more an occasional concession. Or at least they are where the gameplay is concerned. You'll dance for a few seconds, sure, or maybe you'll collect a power-up that replaces the music with yodeling, but these are temporary, and they do little to affect the game's tone. After all, not many of the power-ups you collect actually change how you engage with the levels. They're tools for tackling challenges, not tools for meaningfully expressing yourself through play. Katy (Tempo's partner) proves this well enough; she serves the same purpose an option would in Gradius.
The idea here isn't that pursuing challenge in games is verboten; it's that it doesn't make sense for this particular game. Tempo is framed as a dance party, so asking the player to take their time moving through the world just feels out of place and makes the game that little bit less cohesive. Granted, there are moments when the game appears to get it. Some of the game's most fulfilling moments involve you collecting notes to complete a song, the rhythm-based mini-games, wandering around backstage when the show is wrapping up. Unfortunately, they're such a small part of the overall experience that it would be misleading to say they represent everything the game does.
At the time, reception for the game was mixed. GamePro praised the game for its beautiful aesthetic, and Famitsu gave it a respectable 30/40. Meanwhile Game Informer condemned the game with a 3/10 score. Although they gave that score in 2003 (well after the 32X's heyday), it's not as though those attitudes didn't exist at the time. Gamepro reviewers still expressed ambivalence, seeing the game as another unoriginal mascot platformer. (The clumsy rap intro probably didn't help.)
Tempo Jr's existence is a testament to what plans Sega had in mind when they were making these games. The company was apparently confident enough with the Tempo franchise that they had two developers working with it at the same time. Red Company handled the 32X game, while SIMS, a minor company known for their work on the Master System and Game Gear, worked on the portable installment. (This may explain why Tempo Jr. saw a European release where the original Tempo didn't.) So Tempo Jr. can hardly be expected to be an exact mirror of its 32X cousin. However, that might be one of the game's stronger points.
One of its most striking aspects (at least compared to its predecessor) is how much the game omits. Platforming aside, there also isn't a lot to say about Tempo Jr. There are two mini-games (Simon Says and a strongman game), but that's about it. The Game Gear just wasn't as powerful as the 32X, and even late in its life, Tempo's repeat appearance on the Major Minor Show couldn't accommodate everything from his first. Some of the features from the first game that are missing here are dancing as a gameplay mechanic, Katy as a power-up (Tempo still dances with her after each boss fight, though), power-ups overall and different endings based on your score.
Admittedly, cutting so many major features makes this a very simple game, but that's precisely what makes it work. As good as these features might have been individually, there was just something about them that refused to work together. Each one pulled Tempo in disparate directions, preventing the game from ever fully realizing any one facet of itself. Since many of them are absent in Tempo Jr., the game is finally free to do one thing and do it well.
And that thing is relaxation. An odd choice, but an understandable one in context: Sega released the game as part of the Sega Club, a line of games aimed specifically at younger players. So what better way to reach that audience than with non-demanding gameplay? While this approach does backfire on the game in a few places (the boss fights spring to mind), it more often works in the game's favor. The levels are a breeze to walk through. Their slow pace affords the player enough time to appreciate one of the best looking games the Game Gear has to offer. The game is a perfect fit for the handheld system, and certainly a more focused experience than what came before it.
Unfortunately, that's not how contemporary critics saw the game. Famitsu, one of the few publications to give Tempo Jr. any attention, gave the game a score of 18/40. It's easy to see why: people had already criticized the original Tempo for being too easy, so a sequel that's even easier would only compound the problem.
The Saturn is most fondly remembered for its strong library of 2D games, so it only makes sense that something like Tempo would find its way to the system. And in 1998, almost exactly three years after the first two games, that's exactly what happened. Red Company teamed up with Aspect (an obscure developer known for their work on the Game Gear and Master System) and returned to the franchise with Super Tempo. While that might sound like an odd partnership, the companies' efforts paid off, as this is easily the best game the series had to produce. Super Tempo combines Tempo's charm with Tempo Jr.'s focus to create the most fully realized game in the series.
Of course, phrasing things like that may be a little misleading, given how much has changed between installments. For example, the Major Minor Show doesn't comprise nearly as much of Super Tempo's focus as it did in previous games. Instead of competing on a dance show, Tempo now teams up with its eponymous host and his girlfriend Katy to rescue the Prince of Music World from Planet Technotch. (Not that you can actually play as Major Minor. You can play as Katy, though.) Thus, it only feels appropriate that the game's art style would shift to follow suit. The dance club vibe, the series' signature trademark, is nowhere to be seen, as Super Tempo has chosen to mirror the same Saturday morning cartoon sensibility that Earthworm Jim had mastered several years before.
Just as Tempo Jr. drew strength from its calm tone, so does Super Tempo's outlandish zaniness prove to be its greatest aspect. It lends the game a delightful sense of humor that just wasn't as present in either of the previous games. Now that doesn't mean either of those games lacked a sense of humor; just that the humor in this game is definitely more palpable. The backdrops prove that well enough, as all the peculiar curves and shapes that go into making them lend a playful quality to the levels. Likewise, the character designs are so bouncy and rubbery (even more so than they were in Tempo) that just watching the characters animate is enjoyable on its own. This comical tone isn't just limited to the visuals, though. It permeates every part of the game's design, from the peppy soundtrack to the gags scattered across the levels (including a sly reference to Bonk).
Yet it is felt most strongly during the gameplay. While the game presents itself much like a typical 2D platformer, it doesn't make sense to approach it like one. In fact, it doesn't make sense to approach this as a cohesive game. Super Tempo jumps so frequently between jokes that it makes a lot more sense to look at it as a loosely connected series of gags. One minute, you're flying through classic arcade games like Asteroids and Missile Command; the next, you've powered up and are punching apart a robot chicken. Granted, several other contemporary platformers dabbled in similar genre mixing experiments, but there's no denying just how effective that approach is here. On the one hand, it provides an easy way to incorporate series mainstays into the experience, like the mini-games and the score-based ending and (to a lesser extent) collecting notes to form a song. Although these features occupy a minor role in the grand scheme of things, they feel consistent with everything else the game is doing.
Which is precisely why the game's humorous tone works as well as it does: it allows the game to have a consistent image in the first place, something neither of its predecessors can claim. Tempo had trouble conveying a proper mood in the gameplay, and while Tempo Jr. didn't suffer that problem, the game could only avoid it through negation. Super Tempo succumbs to neither of these problems. By switching so rapidly from gag to gag to gag, the player knows exactly what they're going to get. What's more, they're more likely to enjoy it. Putting aside the non-sequitur side of the game, what makes Super Tempo work is how involved the world is. All those gags bring the game world to life. Each one reaches out to you, asking you to interact with it or laugh or just get yourself involved with what the game's presenting you. Even the power-ups get in on the fun: they're more interested in making you laugh than they are in actually powering you up.
Unfortunately, for as great as the game was, Super Tempo was never released outside Japan. It's easy to see why: It was a 2D mascot platformer (a genre that wasn't as respected as it had once been), and it was released for the Saturn in 1998, well after the PlayStation had completely eclipsed it. Outside importers, it's hard to imagine what audience this game would have had at the time. So it shouldn't be any surprise that Tempo quietly faded from existence after that. It hasn't even been referenced in later games, like some of Sega's other forgotten titles have. Still, as far as final games go, Super Tempo left the series on a high note. In making this game, Red Company cut away every unnecessary frill and imparted just the right amount of personality the series had always needed.