So… We’re taking a short break from Neil Gaiman month at the moment to bring you a new 8-Bit Rage column. This time, we’re talking about the oft-overlooked 1987 Data East gem Karnov!
I’ll skip the general bits of introduction as I’m sure you’re already familiar with Karnov. I mean, who isn’t familiar with him? A more classic tale there isn’t! A chubby Russian circus fire-eater who spits fire at enemies (or shoots the projectiles from his nipples… I’m not certain). Up to three at a time, when you collect the right power-ups.
And why does he do this? Well… 8-bit games aren’t generally known for their plotting. And this is no different. Is he fighting for a kidnapped lady-friend? Did someone steal his vodka? I don’t know. The end screen of the game only shows three words: Congratulations!! and The End
(necessary addendum, according to a manual I found online… An evil dragon named Ryu [not to be confused with Ryu from Street Fighter II or Ryu from Ninja Gaiden] stole the lost treasure of Babylon from Karnov’s home village)
OK, really? You don’t know Karnov? You know… Karnov! From the Arcade\NES\Famicom game Karnov? Yeah, you know the guy. He fights off enemies like… uhhh… well I don’t know their names. I never had the manual growing up and sure as shit don’t have it now.
But there’s that grey guy who throws the rocks. Oh and the red guy who throws rocks faster. And then there’s generic flying alien enemy. And lest we forget the second level boss Man Walking Lion. I wish I were kidding. Leash and everything. Oh and random circus strongmen rain from the sky, there’s a bizarre dragon… thing that has completely different shading from pretty much the rest of the enemies, and… well, here’s some pictures.
There’s also this really weird enemy that looks a HELL of a lot like the Starman from the Earthbound series… If you wait too long to kill him, he’ll split into several parts and be invincible. What a dick.
This game has one strategy. The NES Advantage. Yup, just flip the Turbo button and blast away. That’s pretty much the ONLY way you’ll be able to progress in this game. Like many games of the era… it is hard as fuck. The difficulty of some of the enemies is compounded by the fact that many enemies won’t show up until you reach a certain part of the screen. As soon as you uncover about an inch of the right hand side of the screen… BAM! There’s a giant head shooting fireballs at you.
Two hits and you’re dead, too. You start out shaded in red, but one hit and you’ll be looking like something out of Picasso’s Blue Period. Not a great look for Karnov. Is he suffocating? Drowning? A Smurf? I don’t know, but it’ll definitely provide incentive to find a healing item (that is, the same item that gives you a second or third projectile… it also heals you, but doesn’t provide an additional projectile…).
But giving two hits means that the game is actually a bit more forgiving than others of the period (and allegedly easier than the Arcade version, which only gave you one hit). Add into that the most excellent choice to give the player INFINITE CONTINUES and you’ve got yourself a semi-reasonable challenge that is frustrating, but at least possible. With lots and lots of trial and error.
What I think I love most about this game, though, is how it came to me. My cousin was selling off his NES stuff to get a Genesis (fuck you with your Mega Drive bullshit… The box said Genesis, it’s a fucking Genesis) and I really, really wanted his copies of Double Dragon II and RBI Baseball (Tengen represent!). So I bought the whole pile of games he had (DDII, RBI Baseball, Karnov, Amagon, and a few others) and spent at least two years playing RBI Baseball and Double Dragon II before I realized… hey… this Karnov game is pretty badass looking on the cover… I should try it.
And as strange as it was… it wasn’t the weirdest game on the NES. Super Mario Bros had Super Mushrooms that caused you to grow, A Boy and His Blob exemplified a child’s enabling of an obese friend (well, Blob), and Princess Tomato In The Salad Kingdom was… well, Princess Tomato In The Salad Kingdom (before you ask, no I didn’t make that game up…), so Karnov, though odd… is more just quirky.
Just because the game is fun, though, doesn’t mean it isn’t flawed. For one thing… the graphical models on a lot of the enemies (and Karnov himself) are quite good… but the color schemes on the early levels are a muddy mess, especially when Karnov is still undamaged. His red color blends him with a lot of the backgrounds (and some enemies also hide well, causing unnecessary damage).
Collision detection is also a bit busted. Nice jump over that enemy! Too bad you didn’t really clear it, even though your pixels never touched its pixels. And you should never touch your pixels to an enemy’s pixels. You dirty, dirty bastard. On the other side of things, ducking will dodge most enemy projectiles, even if they go right through poor Karnov’s head.
The most annoying this, however, is item selection and use. In many games, items can be selected using the Select button. Not shocking. However, given that the NES controller only has two buttons (A and B for those of you who are somehow unfamiliar), the Select key is instead assigned to USE an item. Worse than that, pressing left or right on the D-pad will change the item you have selected, so tense boss fights are all the worse because you can’t select the right item and look like an asshole when you set up your Ladder when you really just wanted to chuck a Boomerang.
Ha ha, look at that loser with his ladder! What an asshat!
Still, the game is kind enough to go with the industry standard A = Jump, B = Fire set so many decades ago by Mario. In fact, remember this… If you’re playing an NES platformer and B makes you jump… You’re playing a shitty game. Hate to say it, but it is true. Very, very true.
But these are minor quibbles. The game has some issues, but overall is a solid enough (and weird enough) title to stand out from the normal platformer offerings. Indeed, I would go far enough to say that it beats a majority of platformers of its day, including fan favorite Kid Icarus.
And if you take nothing else with you, take this image.
When Karnov falls from a high place, it looks like he’s taking a massive dump. See you all next time!