The objective of Tempest is to survive as long as possible and score as many points as possible by clearing the screen of enemies The player controls a claw-shaped spaceship that crawls along the near edge of the play field, moving from segment to segment. This ship can rapid-fire shots down the tube, destroying any enemies within the same segment.
There are multiple types of enemy, each of which has different behavior. At higher levels, some enemies leave a spike in the middle of the lane as they travel toward the player, a spike can destroy the player's ship when the player warps out to the next playfield. The game consists of sixteen screens with unique geometric shapes, some of which are closed tubes that allow the player to loop around, while others are open fields that have distinct left and right endpoints. When all sixteen screens have been played, the sequence repeats with a different color scheme and a higher difficulty level.Each sequence of levels adds additional enemies that are faster and more deadly to the player's ship.