I’ve always had a soft spot for Karnov. Like a handful of other NES games, Karnov was a cartridge I returned to time and time again when I was a kid, and, unlike games I played basically because they were there (like Fester’s Quest or Friday the Thirteenth), I genuinely enjoyed playing Karnov.
I also barely ever got past the second level.
I’ve examined this phenomenon before, but when you’re a child, you assume there’s something wrong with you, not the game, and it must be your own immature skills that are causing the problem. Mr. Sandman isn’t impossible, you’re just bad at this. Your friend’s older brother beat him, he said so, and you could do it too, if you tried. I want to say it’s a side effect of a child’s natural belief in authority (it must be right, Mom/Nintendo said it), but whatever the source, the end result is an almost innate belief that there are no bad games, just bad players.
But, sorry folks, Karnov is a bad game.
For the benefit of my younger self (who, I guess, I’m assuming has the ability to peruse the internet through some kind of time tunnel), I will now list everything that is objectively wrong with Karnov.
It’s Mega Man with Super Mario Bros HP
Number one issue by a long shot: this is an arcade “quarter killer” (ala Contra) ported with the tiniest of concessions for the couch. Karnov is a stocky Russian fellow with the ability to shoot fire from his maw (for some reason), and you’re responsible for guiding this intrepid fellow on a quest for booty and maybe a shirt. In the arcade, you’re collecting the torn scraps of a treasure map, and, after the finale, Karnov will be rewarded with a McDuckian pile of gold. The NES version stripped out all traces of plot, so now it’s just Karnov mowing down monsters in pursuit of… a congratulations screen. And it’s one that you will never see, because Karnov is dead within two hits.
Yes, Karnov is extremely fragile, but that shouldn’t be much of a surprise, as his arcade twin couldn’t even sustain that much damage: you lost a life (7.5 cents) after a single blow. I can almost forgive an arcade game getting greedy for change, but it translates very poorly to a home port. Mega Man? There’s a robot that can take a hit, and Karnov’s gameplay is a lot closer to that of the Blue Bomber than Super Mario. And it really doesn’t help that…
Enemy spawns seem completely random
Now I’m sure this point could be disproven by cracking open the rom and checking the base code for Karnov’s adventure, but even with 25 years of experience with the game, I still wouldn’t be able to tell you what makes some enemies appear in particular areas. Just within the first level, there are a few dragon-birds and rock monsters that are entirely consistent, but then an army of scimitar wielding thugs appear out of nowhere to surround Karnov completely arbitrarily. I have no idea what triggers this deluge of monsters, and it doesn’t get better when highly mobile “cloud creatures” pop out of the woodwork on the next screen. It only gets worse in the following level, where a shining, golden alien appears to almost certainly slay your hero… or Goldie sits this one out, and Karnov saunters by completely unmolested. I have no idea what causes either situation, but one is completely fatal, while the other just boring.
This is, ultimately, why Karnov’s limited health is such an issue: with monsters (some of them dramatically overpowered) materializing haphazardly (and sometimes right on top of our hero), you barely have a chance to react to an encroaching threat. And after abandoning a bald corpse and returning to the scene of the homicide… that enemy isn’t coming back. You’re ready to dodge, but, no, nothing. And then an arbitrary rock monster poofs out and you’re dead again. And then your third life is lost because the first monster decided to return. The joy of death!
Contra was fine with its limited health, because the enemies’ rules were well established, and it was possible to anticipate and avoid danger. Karnov can’t be consistent for ten seconds. Actually, I take that back, there’s one place where Karnov is maddeningly consistent…
All of the bosses are exactly the same
The boss of Level One is a green fish creature that advances and shoots a storm of bullets. Boss #2 is a… I don’t know… dog walker that advances and shoots a storm of bullets. Then we’ve got a T-Rex that advances and shoots a storm of bullets, a centipede woman that advances and shoots a storm of bullets, and then King Ghidorah, who advances and shoots a storm of bullets. Sometimes the same boss is reused between a pair of levels, not that you have any hope of noticing a difference.
The challenge here, of course, is that you have to rapidly spew fireballs while dodging every blast from the boss du jour like it’s friggen Gradius. Do it quick, or the monster will be right on top of you, and then it’s time to repeat half the stage over again! Woohee!
Oh, but don’t think that repeating the stage is going to do you any favors preparing for its finale, because…
Powerups are terrible
There is one worthwhile powerup in this game, and it’s the little red ball that either restores your health or expands your firepower. That’s about it. Despite this immediately apparent fact, there’s an entire inventory of powerups available to Karnov, and they all range from “too limited to ever be useful” or “required for one particular purpose”.
Let’s see here: in the “too limited” column we have items like the speed shoes, which will increase your walking/jumping abilities for a limited time. This is great!… except you’re very unlikely to get any enjoyment out of accidently careening into the nearest enemy at high speed. There’s a boomerang that does massive damage!… but they’re generally far too hidden to ever be reliably useful. And a shield! That should help against the bullet-hell bosses! Oh, no, wait, the shield only blocks Karnov’s torso, so do your best to duck and jump every fireball that isn’t aimed at one particular spot.
And then there’s the “required” powerups. There’s a reusable ladder that you obtain early in the game, and it’s the only way out of a few traps or over expansive pits. There’s a mask that allows Karnov to see hidden powerups, but by the very nature of hidden powerups, there’s rarely a clear indicator as to where it might be useful to use your (limited) masks. And bombs are terrible offensively, and appear to exist only to blow a few holes through like two walls in the entire game.
The wings might be outright most useful powerup in any 2-D game. While their time is limited, using the wings allows Karnov absolute, unfettered flight around any given stage, which is a boon not only to his mobility, but also his dodging prowess. Unfortunately…
Without the right powerup, you can get stuck forever
Stage 8 appears to be some sort of “city in the sky”, and if you didn’t have the foresight to bring a pair of wings, you’re done. Jump as far as you can, you won’t reach anything but a bottomless pit. Made it all the way to Level 8, but didn’t bring the right gear? You’re done. Brought your wings, but lose ‘em to an overzealous monster? You’re done. Continue? Sorry, you don’t get to keep your items after a game over, so you’re done.
Level 8 is the most obvious example, but there are a number of lesser areas that require bombs or a ladder and, don’t have what you need? May as well just sit and wait for the timer to kill you, because you’re not going anywhere. Boobeam Trap has nothing on this game.
This all adds up to a game that is, from a design standpoint, objectively bad. Karnov makes mistake after mistake, and doesn’t ever seem to offer a play experience that warrants trying to overcome its many shortcomings.
Which is a shame, really. Karnov has an interesting, unique Central Asian (like Russia and Middle East) theme, appealing music, and an unusual, endearing protagonist. Perhaps with some kind of health bar hack, a “pause menu” to select powerups (oh yes, I forgot to mention that the mere act of selecting an item from your inventory is likely to get you killed), and a greater variety of bosses, Karnov could actually be a great game. “Super Karnov” could have been a wonderful 16-bit reimagining of the concept, but, alas, Karnov never again scored a solo mission.
Maybe it’s just as well. I just got past the second level of his first adventure.
FGC #113 Karnov
- System: NES is what I’ll always think of, but the arcade game is pretty similar. Come to think of it, the arcade version has graphics that I would describe as “very Genesis”.
- Number of players: There can be only one Karnov.
- Just play the gig, man: I will say that the main (only?) theme of Karnov is something that has been stuck in my head forever. Oddly, when I try to recall Tetris’s Type A theme, sometimes this one pops into my mental playlist.
- Karnov through the ages: Karnov was apparently Data East’s mascot, so he popped up in a lot of other games, generally as an enemy. We already covered Fighter’s History some time ago, so let us reflect on Bad Dudes. Karnov fought against the eponymous Bad Dudes. Does that make Karnov a Good Dude?
- Special K: Oh, and Karnov collects a bunch of K boxes. Can’t he grab something a little more innovative, like a bunch of tiny Karnov heads?
- Did you know? There’s a “code” that involves the second controller that allows you to… instantly kill Karnov. I can only imagine this “cheat” was inserted into the game because the development team found a number of places where “wait around to die” was the only option. Good design!
- Would I play again? I really want to say no! But I know I’ll get that Karnov urge again, and I’ll be right back to Karnoving around.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Donkey Kong Jungle Beat for the Nintendo Gamecube! Get your bongos ready! Please look forward to it!