James Turner is director and character designer at Game Freak, collaborating on Pokémon Black Edition / White Version and Pokémon X / Y, and also designed many of the new Pokémon.
He was also responsible for HarmoKnight, the first title in a new initiative by the Japanese developer, in which every employee can sideline in working on smaller projects between larger development cycles. And now comes Tembo the Badass Elephant, which will be released in the summer for PC, Playstation 4 and Xbox One.
So, you were imprisoning cut monsters in small plastic balls, and now you're sending an elephant into a conflict zone?
Ha, technically true. But you don't need to worry about this elephant.
He's a War Elephant; like Rambo in elephant form. He can smash tanks to smithereens. He can butt stomp through enemy bunkers and uppercut helicopters into oblivion. He's a badass.
How many elephants got hurt, burnt and crushed while developing this game?
Generally game development does not involve live animals. We are mostly working with Microsoft Excel, Unity, pens and paper, things like that. I can say with 100% certainty that we did not destroy an elephant while making this game. I would definitely remember something like that.
So what's the game's premise?
Tembo the Badass Elephant is a super fun side scrolling action game with badass combat and fantastically satisfying destruction. You play as Tembo, the elephant commando, whose mission is to save Shell City from the dastardly PHANTOM army and the mysterious PHANTOM Commander. You will smash. You will dash. You will crash through hordes of heavily armoured enemy troops, and go head to head with some truly massive mechanical bosses.
There's a peanut connection here as well. Now, as peanuts are from South America and as we all know, elephants live in Africa - how does that all fit together?
Tembo is an elephant from an Asian island called Tuskland. Many years ago a war was being fought in Tuskland by two human armies. To protect his land, Tembo joined the fight with the Shell Army, under the command of a soldier named Krenman. Years later, Krenman, now a high-ranking colonel, is back in his native Shell Island when it's invaded by an evil force known as the PHANTOM army.
Krenman soon realizes that he needs the help of his old friend Tembo to defeat PHANTOM, and so calls the veteran elephant up. Tembo comes stampeding to the rescue.
Now, Shell Island is a landmass in the shape of a peanut, and so the symbol of the city - and its army - is the peanut. Peanuts are also a common resource on the island; they're scattered around everywhere.
Tembo loves peanuts, they get him back on his feet when he's knocked down, and so it's kind of a match made in elephant heaven.
Do you like the Disney classic Dumbo?
Definitely. I like any Disney animated feature from that golden age. The legendary animator Bill Tytla did the animation of Dumbo and it's considered some of the best ever done. Also it has that awesome pink elephant sequence. Two tusks up.
What came first, the elephant or the gameplay mechanic for rescuing people?
The idea of the elephant character came first. I was walking home from work one day thinking about game ideas, and I saw the picture of an elephant on a sign. Immediately I imagined a platform game with a badass elephant hero, and thought it could be really fun. By the time I arrived home I already had a rough idea of the type of game I wanted it to be, and started sketching the character.
The idea of rescuing people came when we were already quite a few months into development. We wanted to show off Tembo's heroic qualities, and having him rescue stranded town people was a good chance to do that. It also gave us a good reason to create secret areas and alternative routes in the stages, also something we thought could be really fun.
What has inspired you?
From a gameplay point of view, definitely classic side-scrolling games from the 16-Bit era, including Yoshi's Island, Donkey Kong Country, Metal Slug and even Final Fight, great games like that. From a setting point of view, 80's action movies like the Rambo series or Commando.
From a spiritual point of view, I'd say the ancient Greek commander Hannibal. That guy did not give up, and he also worked alongside some ancient badass elephants.
There is a lot of speed in the game. Have you thought about the option to turn it into an endless runner?
Yeah, I have thought about that a little bit. I like runner games and I'd like to make one featuring Tembo. I directed HarmoKnight, which is also a runner game, so it'd be fun to combine those play styles. Whether it'll come to pass, I don't know!
What kind of modes are you going to offer?
This game is a single player game, with a main story mode. You can revisit stages, search for all the captured civilians, destroy every last PHANTOM enemy, and finish the stage with a quick time, all in order to get a total stage score. The score will then be shared on worldwide leaderboards. I'm really looking forward to seeing replay videos and high scores for this game!
Game Freak started to support its developers to have smaller projects alongside bigger ones around three years ago. How many prototypes have been in development since that time?
Well, the prototypes that got made into actual games were HarmoKnight and Solitiba, both for the 3DS eShop, and now this game.
There were a few other prototypes along the way, some fun and weird things. And more are being worked on right now.
I love this company because we have this great main franchise that we all enjoy working on, but we're also given the chance to try our hand at new ideas; it's a good balance.
The first project with this new approach was HarmoKnight.
What do you think about the game today? Is Game Freak satisfied with its success?
We had a lot of fun making that game and I'm very happy with how it turned out. It's really fun! Everyone reading this; check it out on the 3DS eShop, if you get the groove of it I guarantee you'll have a great time. Those last few secret stages are super hard. Remember to take a break from time to time and rest your thumbs.
Is it difficult to think about something else than Pokémon when you're working so heavily with this franchise?
No, the company is called Game Freak for a good reason; we all love playing and thinking about games, and I think many people here have a lot of original game ideas.
Why is your new game not coming out for Wii U?
When I was writing the presentation documents for this game, I drew a mockup poster, and I put the Steam, PlayStation, and Xbox logos at the bottom. It seemed to fit, and it happened to stick that way. We thought about other hardware during development, but our hands were pretty full with those three platforms!
Are you planning a version for iOS, Android or 3DS as well at a later point?
Information on the potential for other platforms is classified. Right now our main mission is deployment on PC, PS4, and Xbox One. Please look forward to Tembo, it's going to be great!