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FGC #470 Donkey Kong

MONKEYS ARENT DONKEYSIn 1981, Donkey Kong was released in arcades. This joint effort of Shigeru Miyamoto and Gunpei Yokoi was the first videogame to feature Mario, Pauline, and the titular Donkey Kong. It was also a pretty amazing way to spend a quarter or two. Donkey Kong resonated with many an arcade gamer, and became a success that wrote Nintendo, and its biggest stars, inexorably into the book of videogame history.

But damned if I have any idea why this game is any good.

Look, I’m not stupid. I know Donkey Kong came out in an era when a game having two whole stages (left alone four) was revolutionary. Nearly everything about Donkey Kong was ahead of its time in 1981, and it transformed gaming with something as simple as jumping. But here’s the thing: people still play Donkey Kong today. I still play Donkey Kong today. It’s fun! I like it! And I have no idea why! I could be playing any game on the planet that has dropped in the intervening (nearly) forty years, yet I still get excited when Donkey Kong Arcade is released for the Nintendo Switch. Why? I demand answers!

My first thought is…

Jump Man Jumps

Jump along!According to some sources, Donkey Kong is the first game to have a dedicated jump button. This seems insane, as, Jesus, what did games even do before a jump button? Was every videogame some variation on the absolute worst stages from Super Mario Maker 2? Or did some manner of Bionic Commando star in these adventures? I don’t want to live in a world where jumping is forbidden!

But the thing about Mario’s virgin jumps is that, unfortunately, they absolutely suck. Don’t get me wrong, I admire a man that can effortlessly leap over a rolling barrel (I, unfortunately, barely have the physical acumen to vault a rolling pickle jar), but Mario’s jumps are massive failures in every other scenario. Want to see Mario jump from a high elevator to a lower platform? Instant death. Need to make it over a girder gap and a mobile fire duck in the same bound? Burned to a crisp. Mario’s jumps are really only effective on barrels and the occasional pie, and they’re a far cry from the joy of motion Mario would eventually experience. Mario’s Donkey Kong jumps are, at best, simply utilitarian.

For the Sequel

Still jumpin'You ever wonder if Nintendo itself had any idea why Donkey Kong was successful? Given DK’s sequels, my personal theory has always been a resounding “no”. At best, it seems like Mario’s sad ups from Donkey Kong were repurposed into amazing leaps for the Mario Bros. series. The Mario of Mario Bros. lives in a very different world than his Jump Man ancestor, and it requires a man that can rise nearly a story in height on a routine basis. Later games took Mario’s jumps a step further by making them dangerous not just through his brick busting dome, but also through the raw stomping power of his magnificent boots. Jumping on things is what Mario is all about, and it seems like that was wholly codified by about the time they were cracking wise about it on the Super Nintendo.

Yes, it seems that if Nintendo wanted to carry one thing forward from Donkey Kong, it was that Mario could jump, and that is apparently a lethal weapon.

Restraint is Key

I hate these thingsBut even if future Mario titles expanded on Mario’s jumps, Mario’s Donkey Kong mobility is still pretty terrible. But maybe it’s deliberately terrible! Momentum is a huge part of any Mario title, and Mario’s lack of acrobatic prowess is supposed to be part of the fun. Mario is a very limited man that is just doing his best to rescue his princess du jour, so it makes sense that he can barely leap off an elevator without a trip to the hospital (and you know his insurance isn’t going to cover acts of Kong). It is important that Mario has a little weight to his jumps, and that his actions have consequences. It’s the restrictions that make Donkey Kong fun.

For the Sequel

OuchMario may have become a villain for Donkey Kong Jr., but the titular Donkey Kong Jr. inherited Mario’s fragility. DKJ is a mighty ape, but attempting to use a spring in the wrong place, or dropping off the wrong vine will lead to a very painful reminder of an ape’s mortality. Someone decided that short jumps and flimsy heroes were the essence of the Donkey Kong experience, so future games directly based on Donkey Kong carried that thinking forward for decades. Mario vs. Donkey Kong still features a Mario that earns a concussion after every missed jump. And is that any fun? Well, your mileage may vary, but I’d still prefer a Mario that can successfully leap out of black holes, and not an average joe that can barely survive broken knees.

Power is the Key

DESTROY THEM ALLBoundaries suck. But you know what doesn’t suck? Breaking barriers and going hog wild on your enemies. The hammer powerup is the Pac-Man-esque route to not only achieving victory, but also having a good time. It may not appear in every level (because, let’s face it, it would be completely useless for overcoming an elevator), but the hammer is the great equalizer of the Donkey Kong universe. Grab that hunk of lumber and rubber (I assume?), and the barrels that menaced Mario for so long are now a direct path to points galore. Even fire means nothing to a hammer! Sure, you’re not completely invincible to threats, and you lose the ability to jump (there’s those restrictions again), but, dammit, it always feels good to turn the tables on that stupid gorilla.

For the Sequel

Take that“Powerups” became another staple of the Mario franchise, complete with a Star Man that granted Mario the invincibility to feel like he was wielding his favorite hammer all over again. But in Donkey Kong Jr.? Or Mario Bros? Not a single powerup to be found. A powerup of sorts did return with DK being a villain again in Donkey Kong 3, where Stanley the Bug Man can occasionally earn an exterminating powerup that will tear through the big gorilla like an ape through a banana factory. It won’t last forever, but the return of an all-powerful tool in DK3 does feel a lot more empowering than DK Jr. and his silly fruit drops.

Let’s Collect Things!

COMPULSORY!But maybe the way the hammer inflates your score is the real prize here. Donkey Kong stages are littered with Pauline’s missing items: a hat, a purse, and an umbrella. Can Mario collect ‘em all? Can you? Well you damn well better if you want to say you’re the best Donkey Kong’er out there! This additional, optional challenge is perfect for the player that claims they’ve done everything the game has to offer, and it seems only appropriate that such an enduring game has more to its levels than initially meets the eye.

For the Sequel

Go YoshiGetting a coin or two used to be all Mario needed in his life, but the late nineties exposed how Mario has been a compulsive collector since he was a baby. Ever since that reveal, it seems like every Mario title has reveled in collecting stars, shines, and the occasional thousand or so moons. Mario no longer enters levels, he only sees his worlds as a series of locations with different doodads and trinkets to collect. And, yes, it all started back in the day when he was grabbing accessories for Pauline. It may have taken a few games of collecting spare change for him to get his groove back, but later Mario titles are practically defined by their collectibles.

It’s All About the Spectacle

BONKIt’s easy to discount it all now, but Donkey Kong is also a surprisingly cinematic game. The opening invasion of Donkey Kong is very straightforward, and his impact on a local construction site explains the initial level design. And, while we might not have a clear account of why a gorilla would invade a pie factory or elevator/jack store (?), we do know the end result of his evil deeds is a rapid trip to the bottom compliments of Mario’s quick thinking. Bowser barely got wiggly toes for his first defeat, but Donkey Kong’s descent is memorable and ends with a kiss. Sure, it all precedes everything happening again for on a nigh-infinite loop, but it’s still a fun end for a fun game. Maybe the most important aspect of a game is its charm point.

For the Sequel

Looking chillyMaybe the NES just didn’t need much of an attract mode, but it seems like Nintendo didn’t return to the realm of big monkey spectacle until Donkey Kong Country. But let me tell you, once those pre-rendered chimps started running around the screen again, we were never going back to a mundane Donkey Kong ever again. DK has become one of the most animated characters in the Nintendo pantheon, and whether it’s because he’s mostly mute or monkeys just lend themselves to exaggerated actions, this Kong is back in the spectacle sphere. I can’t think of any other Nintendo hero or villain more likely to kick it to swing music and belt out an autobiographical rap.

So Why Play Donkey Kong?

Hmmm… playing Donkey Kong and its many Nintendo descendants has brought one thing to my attention…

Poor gorilla

Mario…

Poor birds

Is…

Poor thingy

A…

Poor goomba

Sadist.

Wanton cruelty? That’s why I play Donkey Kong and its many sequels? Hm. Can’t really argue with the evidence.

Sorry, guys. Sometimes the right answer isn’t always the nice one.

FGC #470 Donkey Kong

  • System: Arcade, Nintendo Entertainment System, Nintendo Switch, N64 Donkey Kong Unlockable, E-Reader, Animal Crossing, etc. It gets around. For the record, Random ROB technically chose the NES version that includes Donkey Kong Jr.
  • Number of players: Has anyone ever figured out what 2-Player B Type is all about? Can Mario Punch another Mario?
  • Favorite Stage: I’ve always been a fan of 100m, as defeating Donkey Kong is satisfying, and nothing beats a level bathed in sentient flames. Also, the final challenge is appropriately crowded in the arcade version.
  • Bit of a graphical hit thereSpeaking of crowded: You lose it on the NES, but a number of Arcade Donkey Kong stages can get very overpopulated with enemies as the stages progress. And then Donkey Kong Jr. has its “final level” with an endless number of birds that practically turn the game into a bullet hell situation. Frankly, when you look at some of these challenges, it’s no wonder that Donkey Kong 3 became a shoot ‘em up.
  • Save Your Fork, There’s Pie? Okay, the cut level from Donkey Kong Arcade, 50m, is actually supposed to still be a factory area, and there are tubs of cement that are conveying around to cause Mario’s death. So Mario is not allergic to pie, he’s simply being drowned in cement. That make enough sense to everybody?
  • Did you know? Donkey Kong 64 is a poor way to play any Donkey Kong title, left alone the only legal way to play the complete arcade version at home for decades. Real Donkey Kong’s paw situation there.
  • Would I play again: I legitimately have no idea why I enjoy Donkey Kong, but I do enjoy playing it every once in a while. It’s not my favorite by any means, but it’s always good for a quarter or two. Bless you, you crazy monkey.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time! Cowabunga! Please look forward to it!

Delicious
They’ll always be pies to me

FGC #331 Super Mario Galaxy 2

It's a-him!So here’s why Mario games are good.

Today’s game is Super Mario Galaxy 2, the final part of the Super Mario Galaxy duology. While some endlessly debate whether Super Mario Galaxy or Super Mario Galaxy 2 is the better game (and I will remind you that SMG2 contains Yoshi), it is perhaps better to look at Super Mario Galaxy as one solid piece, accidentally fragmented into two sections. Let’s face it, SMG was released on the cusp of Nintendo learning how to add expansions to games (see the eventual joys of Smash Bros, Hyrule Warriors, and Mario Kart), and, should SMG have initially been released on the WiiU, we likely would have seen new planets until the release of the Switch. But, for now, the two games are separate but equal, with slight differences between the two, and an aggravating need to switch discs when you have to choose between riding a dolphin or a vulture.

But the reason the difference between the two games is insignificant is because both titles are amazing. Super Mario Galaxy is easily the apex of the Mario franchise (note for future readers: this article was published before the release of Mario Odyssey, or any other inevitable future endeavors, like Mario… Omniverse?), and the sheer volume of creativity and care on display in these games is astronomical. Yes, there are a few misses bouncing around the title (mostly experiments involving motion controls), and it would be nice to be able to play this Mario game with a “real” controller, but, by and large Mario Galaxy & Mario Galaxy 2 are perfect Mario games.

But why are they perfect? What is it about blasting around Mario’s Galaxy that makes these games so much fun? Is it the gravity? The enemies? The Bowser fights? (No, it’s never that.)

I’ve got a theory for Mario games (and nearly all action/platforming games), and it’s called “The Joy of Movement”. What makes a great Mario game? It’s whether or not you actually enjoy moving around.

WeeeeeAt first blush, this seems abundantly obvious. After all, sloppy controls are often the death knell for poorly received games. Amagon probably would be a passable adventure if it were at all possible for the hero to actually deal with the encroaching threats of Everything-Kills-You Island. And while even games with terrible controls may occasionally succeed (looking at you, Grand Theft Auto), they usually nail at least one thing completely perfectly (like using rocket launchers on pedestrians). But for successful franchises, it’s obvious that enjoying actually moving your digital avatar is the most important thing. Sonic the Hedgehog is the poster child for this phenomenon (and the recent Sonic Mania being essentially Sonic & Knuckles 4 and being wildly successful cannot be a coincidence), but Mega Man also slots in perfectly here, too. Mega Man might not have 360° aiming or the ability to bend his robo-knees, but he’s perfectly suited to his world, and there’s joy to be had in flawlessly stomping over the corpse of a robot monkey on your way to barbecuing a wooden man. The joy of movement is real, and you’ve subconsciously experienced it practically every time you’ve played a worthwhile videogame.

And Super Mario Galaxy 1 & 2? Here is the apex of joy of movement.

It’s initially very simple: Mario just plain controls well. You’ve got analogue walking/running, you’ve got the triple jump, and you can even hold a button to crawl along. Start combining some of these commands, and you’ve got the inimitable long jump and backflip. Go a little further, and you’ve got Mario exploring weird little planets with their weird little gravities, but still “moving” exactly the same. And intuitively, too! Leaping from one planetoid to another always “feels right”, and switching gravities is as natural as stomping on goombas. And speaking of feelings, the aggressive spin attack or the frantic spin jump both feel wonderful when you use the technique to survive an incoming chomp or avoid a crushing black hole.

Well, I like itBut the powerups… now that’s where things get crazy. Bee Mario buzzes along and crawls exactly how anyone who has ever been outside would expect (though, granted, not every Mario fan has been outside recently). Boo Mario’s spectral floating feels fittingly weightless. Rock ‘n roll Mario moves with all the heft of a boulder, and no one bats an eye when inertia causes that Mario to go meteor. Running around at full tilt with an invincibility star is always cool, and fire flowers exploit a player’s desire to shake that wiimote and vaporize everything on six planets. Cloud Mario is likely the best thing to ever happen to the franchise, as generating your own platform with a panicked spin is something Mario has needed since he first dropped into that hole in World 1-1. Spring Mario can be a blast… you just have to think like a kangaroo. Or maybe an injured bird? Frog? I think frogs hop a lot.

Even Yoshi gets into the act. Tongue twisting across platforms is an innate delight, and swallowing every troopa in a ten mile radius is literally the reason these Yoshis were born. And Yoshi gets his own powerups! Balloon fetishists delight at a round and floating Yoshi. And the dash pepper leads to new and exciting challenges of the Turbo Tunnel variety, but with the important caveat of not being terrible. And, whether you’re riding a dinosaur or literally skating around a frozen planet, it’s all completely instinctive and… fun.

WeeeeeAnd that’s the joy of movement, the joy of a good Mario adventure. Every trot, every jump, every powerup just feels good, and that’s what keeps the player running towards 242 stars. Every obstacle course is masterfully crafted with Mario’s skills in mind, and every powerup is utilized in unique and electrifying ways to surmount new challenges.

When it feels good to just move, that’s when you’re playing a wonderful videogame.

FGC #331 Super Mario Galaxy 2

  • System: Nintendo Wii. Also available on the WiiU download service… but that system plays Wii discs, anyway. So does that even count?
  • Number of players: I laud any game that involves a two player mode that is meant for casual accompaniment. Not enough people celebrate the humble person that wants to participate in a friend’s favorite past time, but has absolutely no skills suited to the task. I blindly tried to help my buddy, One Handed Joe, with his carpentry hobby a couple of years back, and it ended… poorly.
  • And where is the joy of movement in Fluzzard? The joy of Fluzzard is selecting another level that does not include Fluzzard.
  • Question for the Ages: What nimrod decided they should replace Princess Rosalina with Party Pants Starfy?

    GO ON A DIET

    Hey, Rosalina, get out of the shot! You’re ruining my bullet point.

  • Favorite Powerup: Cloud Mario has saved that plumber’s peperoni more times than I care to admit.
  • So, did you beat it? Of course. I got all the stars, and conquered the final daredevil challenge. I even tried that final stage again for this article… and I barely got past the first area. Look, I need to get back in practice, okay?
  • But you still beat the repeat of Luigi’s purple coins, right? Some things never leave you.
  • What’s in a name? The internal title for Super Mario Galaxy 2 is Super Mario Galaxy More. I agree.
  • Did you know? The Flying Star that barely appeared in Super Mario Galaxy is buried in the code of Super Mario Galaxy 2. But it’s not completely forgotten! It has an updated theme, and can be patched into being a wholly working powerup. This seems to suggest that the star was intended to be used in Super Mario Galaxy 2, but was left on the cutting room floor because it was too joyous for this fallen world.
  • Would I play again: I love this game. I love it so much. I’d like to be able to play it with a “real” controller, as the wiimote/chuck has never felt 100% natural to me, but, other than that, this is one game that I can practically guarantee I’ll play again.

What’s next? Random ROB… better shut his trap, because I feel like playing Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite. That’s just the way it is, robot. Please look forward to it!

Yay Mario!

FGC #266 Trevor McFur in the Crescent Galaxy

Trevor!The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is an incredible game, and, should the Nintendo Switch crash and burn before we even get to see New Donk City, the Switch will be remembered fondly for its remarkable maiden voyage. Yes, there were other launch games, and, yes, Breath of the Wild is also available on the WiiU, but, for a healthy chunk of the gaming population, BoTW is always going to be the Switch, and you can’t buy that that kind of festering nostalgia. Like its ancestors, Super Mario Bros., Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, and Wii Sports, BoTW is a game that is going to define gaming for a console generation. BoTW makes one thing clear: We’re here, we’re top tier, and we wanna ride some bears. While there are many, many reasons this is the case, it all boils down to the fact that, from the first moment and until Ganon is in the grave, BoTW is just plain impressive. And, when you’re the ambassador for a whole new videogame system, “impressive” might be more important than anything.

Trevor McFur in the Crescent Galaxy is the least impressive console launch game in history.

The Atari Jaguar might be the worst videogame system ever released (and, as the owner of a Virtual Boy, I don’t use that phrase lightly). For those of you that missed the heady age of the Sega vs. Nintendo days, back during the 16-bit era, Atari attempted to reassert its console dominance with the release of the Jaguar, the first 64-bit gaming system. Unfortunately, that “64-bit” headline legally required asterisk after asterisk, and, spoilers, the system was “64-bit” in the same way that a “Diet Slim Jim” is healthy eating. Aside from the fact that most of the Atari Jaguar library was simply a collection of (marginally) upscaled 16-bit ports, the Jaguar also possessed what may have been the worst controller in gaming history. Look at this abomination:

What?

We’ve got three “action” buttons, a start/select, and a damned contemptible phone pad. What was the reasoning there? No one has ever enjoyed gaming on a phone pad (just ask anybody that tried those 1-900 “phone videogames” back in the 80s… not that I know anyone silly enough to try those things… on their parent’s credit cards… cough…), and it’s just few enough buttons to not work as a keyboard. I guess it could come in handy for a calculator-based videogame, but there is absolutely no part of that phrase that sounds fun at all. And heads up, holding that block of plastic is about as comfortable as attempting to beat Super Metroid with a particularly spiky rock. That is also on fire. And that fire burned off all your flesh and nerve endings long ago, so all you can do is sit and watch in horror as it consumes the last vestiges of your soul. And then your dog tells you she’s leaving you because you smell so horrible. Look, what I’m saying is that playing the Atari Jaguar is not in any way an enjoyable experience.

PEW PEWBut there were people that bought the Atari Jaguar. Not many, mind you, as the system was a flop the likes of which the world hadn’t seen since the last time Atari tried to make videogame consoles, but there was definitely a user base (and, to be clear, I was not an Atari Jaguar early adopter, because Nintendo Power didn’t tell me to buy this system I have excellent taste). This means that, technically, there had to be people that purchased their brand new 64-bit videogame system, and, in a desperate need to see all this new system had to offer, purchased Trevor McFur in the Crescent Galaxy, the only non-pack-in game available at the launch of the Atari Jaguar. This isn’t the demo game! This is the real McFur! The first real game for the first 64-bit system in gaming history. This is going to be marvelous!

And… it’s a lame Gradius clone.

But a shoot ‘em up could have worked! If you look at the Dreamcast (from a far-flung future where Sega crashed and burned as badly as Atari), it seemed to do well with showing off “next gen” graphics on vertical and missile-based shoot ‘em ups. Sure, we’re still talking about “primitive graphics” compared to the likes of Soulcalibur and… Sonic Adventure? Huh. Yeah, maybe a shoot ‘em up is the best way to go. After all, it started the Super Nintendo off well with Gradius 3. Do you remember that stage that was totally on fire? That was rad.

But Trevor McFur doesn’t even muster the raw graphical impressiveness of its 16-bit brethren. What we have here is a “space shooter” with levels that appear to be endless slogs in front of the most generic backgrounds available. There’s something distinctly… No need to dodgelow rent going on here, as if someone made one passable tile, and then copy and pasted it ad nauseam. All of the worlds start in space, which is penny-saver black, and then you’ve got the planets themselves, which are “generic sci-fi fantasy”, save the one level that is inexplicably just a child’s drawings. I guess it’s supposed to be a virtual world or something? Don’t know, don’t care. What I do know is that these stages all feature approximately three different enemies, and they’re repeated about as generously as their tiresome backgrounds. All told, it makes every level seem about five times longer than it really is, because you’ve literally seen everything a stage has to offer within its first few seconds. Except the bosses, which, legitimately, appear to be where the “64-bit graphics” of Trevor McFur went… except they have way too much life and the dumbest patterns, so even those showcase pieces crumble too dust (albeit, not nearly fast enough).

In short, there is nothing about Trevor McFur that encourages you to play the game.

And it’s funny how that complete blunder can sour you on an entire system. The Atari Jaguar has an awful controller, and its smattering of software was terrible. Trevor McFur was just the leader of the first vanguard, it’s not like (the other launch game) Cybermorph, Kasumi Ninja, Zool 2, or (ugh) Atari Karts ever did anything to rectify the situation. There was never any fun to be had on the Atari Jaguar, so it’s no surprise it crashed into the annals of Horrible Videogame History. And, yes, it all started with Trevor McFur, the least impressive launch game ever.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Trevor McFur was never a videogame. Perhaps Trevor McFur in the Crescent Galaxy was nothing more than a warning to others in cartridge form. I suppose it’s a warning a number of people heeded.

FGC #266 Trevor McFur in the Crescent Galaxy

  • System: Atari Jaguar. Just the Atari Jaguar.
  • Number of players: This kind of suffering can only be experienced by one person at a time.
  • What is even happening here?Favorite Powerup: Oh yeah, unless I’m missing a button here, there are a myriad of powerups available, but you have no control over which powerup is used at any given time. Maybe I’m supposed to touch that damn keypad? I’m not doing that. Regardless, one of the powerups summons a little ship dude to help out, and that’s a damn bit more useful than the magnet attack that drags monsters right into Trevor’s windshield.
  • Say something nice: I do like that there’s a full paragraph of “lore” for every planet and monster. They’re not really well thought out (there seems to be no distinguishing between a “planet” and a “moon”), but at least somebody tried the tiniest bit.
  • I just got that: Trevor McFur is a jaguar. Right. Duh.
  • Did you know? Trevor McFur in the Crescent Galaxy was released the last day of November, 1993. Star Fox, a furry-based shoot ‘em up designed to showcase new videogame hardware, was released in North America on March 26, 1993.
  • Would I play again: Does anybody want a used Atari Jaguar?

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Home Alone for the NES! Wow, ROB, really great picks here, champ. What’s next? Spice World 2? Bah, please look forward to even more fun!

Rawr

FGC #113 Karnov

Just, like lightningI’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 Hate those guysgold. 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.

Hate this guyThis 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 Maybe it's a lion?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 Hate hershield! 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.

Flying right alongLevel 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.
  • Does this make any sense?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!

Kinda alright