Review by Overdrive

Reviewed: 01/13/06

Flawed but fun - a good way to spend an afternoon

Karnov doesn’t contain the most likely of heroes I’ve ever controlled in my decades of video gaming. I can’t say I’d feel comfortable being alone in a room with a bald, obese circus strongman, yet alone depend on one to singlehandedly hunt down a three-headed dragon to rescue Babylonian treasures....even if he can emit fire! Personal prejudices aside, I’ve always been a fan of this NES cart, viewing it as one of the system’s more endearingly bizarre platformers.

Ported from the Data East arcade game of the same name, Karnov, takes the burly musclehead (named Jiborav Karnovsky, or “Karnov” for short) through nine short, action-packed stages; many of which possess some attractive architecture. There are hordes of eclectic enemies, ranging from floating djinn and snake-like dragons to truly bizarre entries like exploding golden robots and bullet-spewing seaweed.

You won’t be empty-handed, though. Unlike most strong guys I’ve met, Karnov can toss fireballs (up to three at once) at his myriads of foes, which is enough to chop many enemies down before they’ve even had a chance to react. He also is able to utilize a ladder, a boomerang, bombs and a few other highly useful (and in many cases, necessary) items.

Early in the game, it’s likely you’ll find the ladder the most useful of these tools. An item of unlimited uses (as long as you CLIMB down it, as opposed to jumping or falling off), its purpose is to allow you access to items too far off the ground for Karnov to reach by jumping. Since the big fellow isn’t the most nimble NES protagonist, odds are this item will be in near-constant use after it’s found. As the game goes on, though, other items become crucial to your success. Going up against a few bosses without the amazingly powerful boomerang is a near-suicidal proposition for most players, while not having collected a couple sets of wings by the eighth stage will prove to be a fatal mistake.

If you’re playing this game on the NES, you’ll have one more advantage that fans of the arcade incarnation of Karnov don’t get — the ability to take multiple hits. In the arcade game, one unfortunate encounter with an enemy or projectile was lethal. In the home version, it takes two hits to kill Karnov, with the first merely causing him to turn a sickly shade of blue — an affliction that can be cured by snagging a power-up gem.

Needless to say, being able to slip up once or twice WITHOUT necessarily getting sent to an early grave does a lot to make Karnov one fun game. It’s always been a pleasure for me to sprint through its quirky levels from time to time just to see the various sites. Whether I’m smirking at the sight of a macho circus strongman clad with a mermaid’s tail during the underwater portions of the fifth stage or wondering just how a common boomerang can INSTANTLY kill an enormous dinosaur, I’m typically having a blast when Memory Lane takes me past this game.

Part of that has to do with the seemingly random way in which some monsters appear. I’ve played through Karnov countless times and still can only guess why monsters seemingly randomly appear in certain places. While some foes are triggered to appear as you move forward, others seem to pop up when you cross invisible “tripwires” on the screen. So, if you’re walking along and suddenly notice that knights are popping out of thin air and charging you from both the front and back, odds are you stepped on the right square to trigger their attack.

It’s less clear as to what influences the appearance of other foes. Sometimes when I use the ladder to get items at a certain point early in the third level, a snake-like dragon meanders onto the screen looking to make things tricky for me. Other times, nothing happens. If I take a certain path to reach the boss of the final level, odds are one of the game’s previous bosses will drop in to give me a tough fight — but that’s not set in stone. This gives Karnov a certain degree of unpredictability that I don’t see in every old-school platformer.

That randomness plays a big role in why I’ve never gotten tired of Karnov. It’s a fun game with some decent atmosphere and it’s full of a bunch of interesting monsters, but certain aspects leave a lot to be desired. The hit detection can become questionable at times. When fighting the game’s first snake-woman boss, I suffered more than one hit from her fireballs although I never actually saw them collide with me. At times, it seemed as though the game was assuming that I wouldn’t get out of the projectile’s way and made the decision I was taking damage and that was that.

That snake-woman, as well as most of the other bosses, could have used a little sprucing up. With the first couple of baddies, all you have to do is kneel and shoot as fast as you can. After that, the main strategy with bosses is to hit the critter with your boomerang once or twice while dodging its fire. The final confrontation with the three-headed dragon is the only boss fight that actually requires any real technique or skill — the rest are little more than average enemies on steroids.

Karnov has its share of quirks and annoyances, too. There’s a room full of goodies in the fourth level that you have to bomb your way into. However, when you’ve finally gotten there, you’ll soon realize a good number of the items have scrolled off the screen and you can’t get back to them. Also, it’s possible to “trip” enemy encounters repeatedly. In the fifth stage, there is an island full of items where you’ll have one of many rematches with the first stage’s boss. I triggered his appearance four or five times before finally getting all the goodies and moving back to the water.

Still, I have a soft spot for this game. While its quirkiness does get annoying at times, I find it to be Karnov’s most endearing quality. You’re controlling a pudgy Russian strongman in his quest to recover stolen Babylonian treasure — even by the admittedly bizarre standards of old-school platformers, that’s definitely a top-of-the-line, can’t-miss idea! Data East may not have made the perfect game to surround Karnovsky’s mystique, but it’s a fun diversion that’s still worth coming back to from time to time.

Rating:   3.5 - Good

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