Developer: Data East
Release Date: December 18th, 1987
System: Nintendo Famicom/NES
Version Reviewed: Famicom (NTSC-J)
I saw this game in the junk bin at a Hard Off recycle store for 100 yen and thought "What the hell". I remember playing Karnov in the arcades when I was a kid, but I haven't touched the game since then. Why not relive a forgotten memory at the cost of just 100 yen?
The story is printed on the back of the cart for our convenience.
Translation: To the peaceful country of Kriamina where people dwelled,
God sends one man to save the people from the evil army of Arakatai.
The man's name is Karnov. Go, Karnov! Fight, Karnov! Get rid of the monsters!
In the Arcade version Karnov is a circus performer who is after a big treasure, and in the NES version there is no story at all in the game intself. As you can see, the Famicom version has a much deeper story. A city has been ravaged by the evil sorcery of a dragon named "Ryu" (which means "Dragon", how original). You are Jimborov Karnovski (or Karnov) who has done some bad deeds in his past (haven't we all?) and God is giving him a chance to redeem himself and save him from going to Hades.That is a pretty big difference. If you know how Nintendo was in the 80s, then it is easy to see why Data East didn't include this storyline in the NES version. You would think God would choose somebody a bit more valiant to save the earth, but you are given an overweight circus performer.
Other than the inclusion of a story, there are a couple key differences between the Famicom and NES versions of this game. In the Famicom version, you are given no continues unless you execute a cheat code. Even then you are only given 2 continues. Knowing this, I think the Famicom version is far more challenging as you are trying harder than usual to preserve your lives. Remember back in the 80s and 90s when Japanese developers thought Westerners were too stupid to play a challenging game so they would make it easier? Karnov is one of those games.
Karnov is armed with a fireball attack which can be upgraded. You can shoot up to 3 fireballs at once when your power is maxed out. 3 fireballs is more than enough since enemies don't require You obtain red orbs to build power. Karnov also can be hit by enemy projectiles twice. If you are hit once, Karnov turns blue. The red orb power-ups also turn blue and when you acquire one, Karnov turns to red but your fireballs are not powered-up.
There are 9 stages that vary in style, weather, and location. Most stages are typical jump-and-shoot fare, but there are flying and swimming stages just to add some variety to the game. You have the requisite desert, snow, night, and cavernous stages which all have a biblical feel to them. Perhaps since the arcade version of the game is somewhat biblical (Looking for the lost treasure of babylon), the home port carried this theme with it.
Karnov has a variety of power-ups and tools at his disposal. You can have jump shoes, a ladder, smart bomb, regular bombs, among other things. All of your acquired power-ups appear as icons on the bottom of the screen. To select a power up, just move the cursor to the desired power-up and press "select". The problem with this system is that you do not pause the game to select a power up. This happens during live gameplay. So if you're at a ledge and you need to use a ladder, but your cursor is on the bomb, you have to move your cursor to the right. But if you tap right, you'll fall into the pit. Another scenario is if you're crouching to dodge an onslaught of enemy projectiles and you want to use a smart bomb to kill them all, you have to stand up to select what you need, which then in turn causes you to lose a life. If you're in a jam and you need a tool or weapon quickly, this system of choosing what you need can cause unnecessary deaths.
The ladder will help you reach God!
I think it is interesting that this game was released in the west during the 80s since the hero is of Russian descent. The cold war was still waging, and we were programmed in our childhoods to think of Russians as the enemy. Nonetheless, the game showed kids that Russians were cool, too. How many games back then did this? Strangely enough, another Data East game by the name of "Chelnov" (Atomic Runner in the US) also has a Russian character as the lead hero (Who is a relative of Karnov, According to Data East), but the US and European versions were changed so that the entire Russian element was completely removed from the game. Darn. Some say that Karnov is Asian, and by the cover art of the Famicom version he certainly looks that way (right down to the chu man fee mustache).
Things didn't end here for Karnov. He became Data East's mascot and has appeared in numerous games up until Data East's demise in 2003. He is a boss in Bad Dudes VS Dragon Ninja, Fighter's History series, Joe & Mac II, as well as several Japan-only releases. Believe it or not, Karnov also appears in fan-made movies and games. It seems to be that the Karnov character has a cult following and it could perhaps be wise for the people of Data East who created a new game company, Paon, to make a new game starring our genie shoes-wearing wonder.
Karnov in Bad Dudes VS Dragon Ninja
For the ups and downs of Karnov's personal life, watch this video made by G4. G4 interviews Dhalsim & Maximo on their relationship with Karnov.
The game does offer a great challenge in the later levels. Enemy patterns are consistent, but enemy spawning isn't. The difficulty adjusts to your power-ups and how many times you have died in a given level. More powerful enemies will spawn in unexpected and random places based on your skill level, which keeps the game somewhat fresh. I don't know if this is present in the NES version, but the Famicom version sure does keep you busy for a while.
The graphics could be better, a lot better. The Famicom's hardware is capable of more colors. The backgrounds are dull and the colors clash pretty badly. There are parts of the background that seem like platforms in which you can land on, but in reality they are just part of the background. They would be identical to platforms that you can land on, which makes some parts of the game confusing. The colors used in this game are not easy on the eyes and the enemy sprites are pretty ugly. It doesn't help that almost all of the enemies are on every level of the game. I don't have a problem with recycled enemies which is common in 8-bit games, but at least the enemies should be aesthetically pleasing. Mega Man 1 did it right, this game didn't.
In the later levels you have to take leaps of faith. You don't know until it's too late if you're falling into a bottomless pit, or if you're going to land on solid ground. In the Famicom version, this is especially a hindrance since you do not have unlimited continues. Stage 6 is especially guilty of this crime.
As mentioned earlier, the process in which to use a tool or weapon needs polishing. This could have been easily remedied by being able to choose what you need while the game is paused. You'll fall into pits or crash into enemies while selecting a weapon or tool.
The boss fights are a complete joke. There are no elaborate patterns or strategies to the bosses. You just shot at them. Most of the time they sort of stand still, walk towards you or jump over you. Most times I didn't even know I was fighting a boss until the end-level music played upon defeating said enemy. There are a couple of bosses, especially the T-Rex, that takes a couple of cheap shots at you making it impossible to dodge his projectiles.
The music can get annoying after spending some time playing. This is one of those games where the music doesn't match the game. It sounds like a slapstick cartoon soundtrack, even down to the music that plays when Karnov dies. To make matters worse, every level has the same music. The sound effects are OK and are typical fare for a Famicom/NES game.
The Verdict: 6/10
After putting a few hours into this game, I am still divided. It's not really a bad game, but it isn't that good either. I hate to use the word "mediocre", but that is all that comes to mind. I went through the game hoping that it would improve somehow. If you're a fan of old school platformers, Karnov is almost worth a try. In 1987 there were better games of this vein available. Ghosts N Goblins, Mega Man, Adventure Island, etc. If you've already tried them all, don't expect anything better with Karnov.
No pirated or emulated reviews, my copy, with the 105 yen pricetag from Hard Off still intact!