Friday, August 7, 2015

Friday Night Rentals: Karnov

There's nothing quite like spending a Friday evening playing as a muscled and mustachioed fire-breathing ex-circus performer Russian who fights dinosaurs, flying eyeballs, and Inca heads in his spare time.  Truly, those were the best and...oddest of times. I had no idea how oddball this game was when I rented it as a kid, after all, weird things just happened in video games.  Mario ate fungus to grow big and fought a dinosaur/dragon thing to rescue a princess while being attacking by turtles and scowling mushrooms.  Master Higgins ran around in leaves and road a skateboard to fight a head-changing witch doctor.  Rock travels around the planet defeating various robot masters and collecting their weapons after defeating them. Whatever the vehicle was, platformers were fun when done well but even then, as I've mentioned before, you need to stand out from the crowd.

Data East's Karnov may not have had nearly as much going for it as other platformers, but it certainly had replay-ability and weirdness going for it.  When I rented this game on Friday night as a kid, I'm pretty sure I beat it by Saturday night when I learned the patterns of the enemies.  By Sunday afternoon when the game was due, I had little reason to replay the game other than get a higher score...which I did.  In fact, I remember Karnov was such goofy, accessible fun that I rented it a second time (a rarity only shared by a few games) just because I enjoyed playing and wanted see if I could grab more power-ups and a higher score.

When I ran across it in a video game store not too long ago, I knew I had to pick it up and play as that brawny bruiser of blasting breath once more.  Was it as good fun as I remembered?  Or was it just fond memory romanticized by a nostalgic heart and head full of weirdness?

Music and Sound

"Stage Theme"
I imagine if this were played a violin it would have an even more Russian feel.  The stage music has a quality that reminds me of the Russian ballet section from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker.  Note that I say stage music, as in, there's only one tune for every stage.  It doesn't get too old too quickly as the game itself is fairly easy to beat, and is something you could speed run if you wanted to.  There's a melody for when you beat a level, lose a life, or get a game over.  Nothing really special here, and mostly just functional, but it does it well and it never gets annoying to listen to.

Again, not too much to talk about here, the sound gets the job done, but maybe it's worth noting that it does so in a satisfying way.  I like it when I game has individual sound effects for my weapons and for when an enemy gets hit.  It brings a certain level of satisfaction to the gameplay that sometimes was missed by other platformers of the time.

Graphics and Style

Beware the...uh...alien with wings...

If I haven't made it clear already, Karnov was weird.  The graphics were decent for the time, the style was uniquely it's own.  There were plenty of odd games out there for the NES.  But seeing your guy go from flesh-tone to green after he gets hit was just funny.  In my mind he was about to hulk out, but I guess the reality was that he was supposed to look sickly.  In any case, as you run around you notice a cornucopia of characters.  Bats, other muscle men, mermen--and more.  They were each drawn well enough, never really had a theme in the game for each stage.


There are monsters and you kill them with your fire-breathing awesomeness much like you would were you holding a gun.   But you only have two hits, then you are dead.  Not to worry though as teh monsters are largely easy to defeat and in some cases outright avoid.  The game offers little in the way of background design, and seems oddly cobbled together in places when it comes to set pieces, but that's not really a big deal.  Never do background and bad guys blend together to running along and fire-breath'ing bad guys stays satisfying every time you do it.  As for the bad guys themselves, they are so easy to beat that it's almost like they're oblivious to the oncoming Russian firestorm.  The only real challenge of the game lies in the fact that if you jump, you can make it a fair distance as the titular Karnov can do Mario-esque jumps.  However, if you fall, you can't control your decent at all and are locked into the fall, even if that is over a pit or into enemy fire.  It doesn't ever get frustrating though.  Just more of an, "Oops!  Hope I don't pay for that," moment here and there.

Final Thoughts

I was going to write an "In Soviet Russia fire breathes you" joke, but honestly the game is so-danged weird that such jokes don't do much for it.  All these years later and I still have no clue what's going on and why Karnov does what he does.  He doesn't rescue a princess at the end, the power-ups are neat and all but seem to serve little of the story other than provide you the opportunity to get more points.  And there-in lies part of my answer as to why the game is so...unique.  This game was a port of an arcade game.  Not that this somehow magically explains the odd realm that Karnov inhabits, nor does it make the game any less fast to play through.  The whole thing is beatable in under half an hour.  What it does tell me though is that the reason so much attention was given to points was the fact that most arcade games revolved around the concept of who could get the highest score.

There's not much depth to the game, and spoiler alert......the game ends on just a text scrawl of telling you congratulations.  Thing is though, I still have a fondness in my heart for the game.  As a kid, I always like it when I could beat a game in a weekend.  It made me feel as if I had actually gotten something done in between wasting time on stuff like chores and homework.  Well, you'll have to excuse me.  I'm off to speed run Karnov rather than waste time cleaning the kitchen.

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