RetRose Tinted is a regular feature of my Cblog, in which I re-examine games that we have fond memories of and see if they still hold up. If you have suggestions for titles to be featured in the future or ideas on how I can improve the column, please let me know.
Karnov, 1987 by Data East
Generally, when you think of fat, mustachioed gaming icons, a certain plumber comes to mind. There is, however, another lardass who stole my heart in the late eighties: Karnov.
Karnov is a platforming shooter in which you take on the role of a Russian, ex-circus strongman who breathes fireballs on a quest for fabulous riches. Honestly. Originally an arcade title, it was ported to the NES where I played it for countless hours as a seven year-old who really wanted to see what the third level looked like. His entrance at the beginning of each level, crashing from the sky in a bolt of lightning, will forever be ingrained in my consciousness. Such a legend has Karnov become that I have used his name as an adjective ("Karnovian") to describe something of epic proportions.
Karnov is a shark. Suck his dick.
Graphically, the game is nothing to write home about. Karnov looks cool, but how could he not? Many of the enemies tend to look more like splotches of color than anything threatening and there's barely any backgrounds to speak of most of the time. The Karnov theme song is kinda catchy and I can hear it in the back of my mind as I write this. Good thing, too, since it's the only music in the game. Stage after stage, it's the same tune from start to finish.
The standard rules of the genre apply here. Jump around, shoot fire at enemies, rinse and repeat. Karnov initially fires one fireball at a time (and can do it quite rapidly) but by collecting additional fireballs in a stage, he can upgrade to as many as three. These same fireballs also serve as life recovery. Once Karnov takes a hit, he palette-swaps to a depressing shade of blue to indicate how sad he is that you suck at his game. Grabbing a fireball in this state will restore his vigor instead of increasing his incendiary output.
Astounding that those things can keep such massive bulk aloft.
Other power-ups abound throughout the levels. A pair of uncomfortable looking boots, complete with high heels and pointy toes, will enable Karnov to jump higher and move with more agility. Tiny bombs (with an even smaller range) can be dropped on the ground to kill foes (yeah, right) and destroy some walls or floors to access hidden areas. There's also a boomerang, a shield that reflects enemy fire and some sort of strange, sun icon that acts as a smart-bomb, laying waste to anything on screen. Oh, and a ladder.
The ladder always really intrigued me about this game. Obviously, it has great utility, since you can use it to access the many power-ups placed frustratingly above Karnov's vertical leap. What made it cool was that, unlike most power-ups in platformers of the time, it was persistent. When you climb down the bottom step of the ladder, it returns to your inventory to be used again and again. It's not exactly the sort of item that I would think conducive to a frenzied, action-packed experience. There are points where the game actually punishes you for using it by sending out a dragon that you can't escape and are forced to destroy.
In addition to all of these fine items, there were others that could only be used at specific points in levels (indicated by a highly annoying beep). The mask makes hidden caches of items appear, while wings allow you to (duh) fly. And then there's the SCUBA helmet, only used once in the entire game for the single underwater level, which makes Karnov move faster in water.
The item bar can be a real pain in the ass.
One of the major problems I have with the gameplay lies in using these assorted items. Along the bottom of the screen, the icons representing the power-ups run in a line. Selecting an item can be done by pausing the game, pressing left or right on the d-pad, resuming play and pressing select. It can also be done without ever pausing at all. Every time you press left or right, the selected item changes in accordance with your movement. This is no doubt a result of the game's arcade predecessor, which wouldn't have a pause feature for obvious reasons. By not removing it, however, the developers left plenty of opportunity for you to accidentally use the wrong item because you had to move suddenly and there's now some other item selected.
A T-Rex is the most normal thing you fight in the whole game.
This game is pretty strange and it's no more evident than in the enemies you face. I really have to wonder what the designers were thinking when they threw together this mish-mash of fantasy genre rejects. Gargoyles? Sure, I can deal with that. Pixies? Okay. A Gort look-alike who explodes into six pieces and reforms a few feet to his left? A massive fish-man who hops about on one leg? Yoda with gigantism riding a flying bird's nest? Not a bird, a bird's nest
. Now you're playing with psychosis!
Another oddity is the manner in which you occasionally acquire items. Much like in Hudson's classic Milon's Secret Castle
, often power-ups appear simply because you happened to bump into some invisible trigger. From an arcade game perspective, this makes sense in that it rewards players who play often enough to memorize where these all are. It just annoys the hell out of me. Other times, they'll give you an item for seemingly no good reason. The SCUBA helmet, for example, can be picked up not far into the first level of the game but you don't have an opportunity to use it until the fifth.
I don't even know where to begin with this one.
Karnov is a challenging game. Actually, Karnov is a cheap bastard of a game. Enemies spawn (somewhat randomly) in the most inconvenient places possible and the hit detection of their projectiles isn't programmed all that well, causing you to take damage at points when it doesn't seem feasible that you were hit. Karnov doesn't move too quick, but he's nimble for a guy his size and it isn't all that hard to avoid a lot of the attacks thrown your way. So, when you kick it for the ten-thousandth time because a shot went directly under your feet, the game tends to lose some of its luster.
The arcade version differs from the NES port in a couple of significant ways, apart from the obvious hardware limitations. In the arcade, Karnov would die after just one hit, so you can imagine how quickly quarters could be munched. Also, instead of the shield item, you could ride a trolley (wtf?) to kill ground enemies for a limited time and the smart-bomb was originally a high-powered fireball that killed most enemies in a single hit. Japanese purchasers of the port were treated to story segments in between levels that never made it to the US market. I shudder to think what those might consist of.
Karnov is a much badder dude.
Karnov was popular enough in its time for Data East to make its titular character their mascot for several years, having him make cameo appearances in several games. And, as a mascot, he's a pretty good one. When you see an overweight, washed-up Rushkie who breathes flame, you remember him. While the game is fun in short bursts, the frustration level can be so high in some of the later parts that, combined with its general flaws, it's perfectly understandable to want to put the thing away for six months or so.
A mediocre arcade port fondly remembered more for its main character than any actual quality gaming.