Karnov (Data East, 1987)
Today we'll tackle another notable game that's long overdue for a NRW once-over. I'd been saving this one, because I'd really like to pluck heavily from 1987 this year, and Karnov is one of the most laughed-at yet loved games from the era.
Today we’ll tackle another notable game that’s long overdue for a NRW once-over. I’d been saving this one, because I’d really like to pluck heavily from 1987 this year, and Karnov is one of the most laughed-at yet loved games from the era. Karnov is a nested set of dichotomies; It’s nothing complex, yet a deeper look reveals it as far from simple. It’s a fairly silly game in some regards, but its solid gameplay and decent overall production value make it difficult to casually disregard.
Karnov was originally released in 1987 as an arcade game by Data East. I won’t wast a lot of time on the “fluff” because there isn’t much. Karnov (Jinborov Karnovski is his full name according to original Japanese material) is a strongman from The Soviet Union who has set off on a quest to find the ultimate treasure. I guess it’s good not to get bogged down in a bunch of lofty morality-play crap every time we want to shoot some fireballs or murder some dinosaurs. It’s nice to just have some buttons, a joystick, and an army of bizarre monsters begging you to slaughter them as you stomp your way to glory.
Karnov’s main weapon as he treasure-hunts across a monster-filled wasteland is his ability to breathe fireballs. Despite being a strongman, who would likely consider using a baseball bat or even his massive fists, Karnov didn’t settle for being a one-trick pony. He learned how to breathe fire. No big deal. You wouldn’t get it anyway. You don’t even lift, bro. You don’t even look good in Zubaz like he does. Just leave this shit to Karnov.
Anyway, inexplicably breathing fire isn’t the only trick Karnov has up his sleeve. As you move through the game world, our broad-shouldered buddy can pick up trick shoes, magic ladders, and even disposable pairs of wings. There are also power-ups that will improve your fire breath, and one even makes you crazy fast and super dangerous for a while. It doesn’t last long, but you’re basically a tubby little volcano god while it does. The more mundane tool-like power-ups go into an inventory below your field of view, and you can select and activate them from there. The only maddening part is that you select them using the same controls you use to move, so being precise with something like the ladder can be a tricky task until you get the hang of it. But then, who’s ever as precise as they’d like to be when they’re using a magic ladder? Shit, my insurance premiums are through the roof just from the last incident.
There aren’t a staggering array of baddies in Karnov, but what’s staggering about them is their sheer weirdness. My personal favorites are the fish dude who tosses shit at you out of his purse, the disturbingly undressed regular human dude who jumps down on you, the skeleton riding the ostrich, and the prominently featured dinosaur who ends up being an absolute bitch. If you’re fast and can keep from getting whacked (and losing the power-up that turns your fire breath into the equivalent of three hardworking artillery crews), then you’re probably in good shape. If not, your gaming experience with Karnov will probably be short. The game does two things that aren’t uncommon elsewhere in gaming, to keep things spicy: it recycles bosses later as regulars and it has no shame when it comes to using huge fuckoff crowds of monsters. You’ll also find that birds win their usual award as “most annoying enemy,” and they’re not the only thing that flies. Only the later bosses are super hard, but Karnov‘s daunting feel diminishes when you realize it’s kind of like a shoot-em-up game, except your fat little ship walks and jumps, and you’re able to move forward at your own pace.
The arcade version’s graphics are pretty good, being standard for 1987 and comparable to most other similar titles released around the time. They take a huge hit on any of the console/computer ports, but that’s to be expected. The sound is minimal, and the music is comprised of only a few tracks. It’s not bad, though… there’s just not a lot there. Karnov is all about the game itself, and the dressing is served on the side.
The game was officially ported to the NES, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, and Amstrad CPC machines. Karnov himself went on to star in a series of fighting games, one of which is titled Karnov’s Revenge. He also makes appearances in other Data East games, most notably in Bad Dudes vs. Dragonninja as the boss of the first level. He’s become something of a staple in that region of pop culture where video game stuff sticks well… just search on YouTube and elsewhere and you’ll see what I mean. Jinborov Karnovski may have started out as a weird but novel protagonist for an arcade game, but he’s found a place for himself.
Screenshots of the NES and ZX Spectrum versions. The C64 version looks remarkably similar to the ZX, and the Amstrad one looks horrible, so you can look that one up yourself and blame you, not me. Click to open either image in a new tab at full size.
Karnov gets a 7/10 from me, mostly because it’s just a solid platformer with some good style crossover. It’s not what one would expect at first glance, and while it’s a bit bland on its broad face, it delivers once you start playing it. Even the ports are decent fun, although the NES one rules the roost. The game and the character have ended up etched into the collective culture of retro gaming, and it’s not just because a chubby Russian fire-breathing weightlifter is a funny idea.