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RELEASE DATE (NA): January 1988 GENRE: Platformer
// review by SoyBomb

A particularly scenic journey awaits a fire-breathing circus performer.

That NES seems to have a whole plethora of cult classics. Some people go nuts for the trippy Shadowgate, perhaps a foreshadowing of Myst; others simply wanted to be bad enough dudes to rescue the President in Bad Dudes; there are even people who continually say "BARF!" just to reminisce about River City Ransom. (I doubt, however, that Home Alone 2 is a classic by any standards...) Karnov is another one of those cult favourites; it's certainly far from the worst game in the NES library, and it's just strange enough to warrant the attention of an enthusiastic elite. But what do I, Captain Skeptical, think about Karnov?

Well, it seems that our plump hero, Karnov (that's short for Jinborov Karnovski) the circus strongman, is searching for the lost treasure of Babylon, which has been stolen by a dragon named Ryu from the town of Creamina. You wouldn't be able to tell this from just playing, as there are no story elements present in the game itself. But would you believe that there was a meeting of people at some point in time to flesh out this story? I guess they'll pay anybody for anything.

The play control is simple for the most part, but with a quirk that may drive you occasionally batty. Karnov can walk left and right, climb and descend ladders, and jump. He can also shoot fireballs; I'm not particularly sure how he does it though. He picks up these little fire orbs that pop up in arbitrary places to enhance his mad flame-harnessing skillz. Oh well, it's nice to have some projectiles to kill foes with, so I shouldn't complain too much. As a whole, the control system works well enough, but there are definite faults. If you actually have Karnov jump, you can guide him left and right as he falls (or floats) to whatever surface that hopefully lies below. However, he just sort of falls on his own accord, you won't be able to affect his travel direction, so you'd better damn well hope he's not going to fall into one of those infinity abysses you hear about so often. But as a whole, the player controls are pretty decent as long as you avoid forgetting to jump.

Another feature that will come in handy for players at times is the arsenal Karnov has to work with. As he progresses through the various stages of the game, he'll come across items of particular importance, including a ladder, sets of wings, bombs, etc. While some of these are required for the completion of the quest, others are just there as placeholders, really. You'll definitely need a few sets of wings to get through a certain stage, and bombs will help you blast walls and continue on your journey, but what of the Clapper? (No, it doesn't turn on appliances; it destroys all the enemies on screen.) And the Swimming Mask, which speeds you up underwater? I didn't plan on going any faster below sea level; I have enough trouble fighting off randomly appearing seaweed to bother with going into overdrive. Alright, perhaps some people will need these items... but I didn't. Now, as for selecting these items for use... *sigh* One item is selected at a time (shown from your list at the bottom of the screen), and to move the cursor over the next item, you have to press Left or Right on the Control Pad... WHILE YOU ARE STILL CONTROLLING YOUR CHARACTER! This can be irritating, especially in tight situations where quick selection is necessary. A separate menu screen would have sufficed, but that might have been too much effort for the programmers. And we all know how hard it is to implement a menu screen -- gosh, it's no wonder very few video games use it! Stupid.

But everything looks okay in the game, especially considering it was developed in 1987, which was still relatively early in the NES game cycle. Every level showed some new backgrounds, so you didn't feel like you were going through the same stage twice -- enough variety leads to a happy gamer, after all. The enemies are used quite a bit (especially boss figures, which are often used more than once, and even rehashed as standard enemies in a stage), and many are not detailed to a great extent and/or are not animated particularly well (if at all). Data East, how we love thee.

Here's another odd point of order. If Karnov gets hurt, he turns blue. Clearly he belongs in the circus freakshow from whence he emerged, for humans who turn perriwinkle upon immediate contact with flying projectiles need not apply to regular society. I'm not racist, I'm tintist.

And what's the deal with the enemy programming in this game (OK, it's officially a rant now)? I mean, these enemies just seem to pop up at random, whenever they damn well feel like it! That was one of the things that drove me nuts when I was perhaps seven years old playing this game. It's more tolerable now, but it still feels awkward playing this game, always expecting some random enemy from another level to appear but never quite knowing when. Like when would a flying dragon appear in the frickin' ocean? And when would a TYRANNOSAURUS try to stop Karnov from finding his treasure? Makes you wonder about the quality of the cocaine that was being snorted during the development process of this game.

Voilą! The various poses of Jinborov Karnovski! See him leap, swim, do jack, or even throw a temper tantrum.

The music does sort of have a Russian tinge to it, but still, there isn't too much variation here. Besides, you're not really listening to the music when you play this game -- you're trying to figure out why strange birds and flighty musclemen in Speedos are chasing you down in the ice level. The sound effects are subpar as well (and in fact, are few and far between). If you could hear the sound your fireballs make when they come in contact with a boss, you'd likely raise but one eyebrow in disbelief, for the sound of injury doesn't sound like it belongs in a cheap eurodance track.

Before I conclude this review, I have to mention one thing: the ending ranks among the worst in video game history. After foostering my way through nine levels of hellish boulder-tossing lizards, exhaustive K-Mark scavenging, and excessive ladder planting, it shouldn't be considered inappropriate to expect that once I defeat that final boss, I will get an ending featuring Karnov being proud of whatever the heck he just did, or at the very least a lavish paragraph praising my work. Nope. All I get is this:

Bull. Total bullplop. The programmers at Data East were just being incredibly lazy. "CONGRATULATIONS!! THE END" doesn't give me any satisfaction for wasting my time or brain power on your game. So what did Karnov do after he defeated that evil skeletor dragon who tried to kill him at the end? Did he ever actually find that lost treasure of Babylon? Did he meet an attractive bearded lady and get married? Did he bring his car to the Jiffy Luborov? We'll never find out because the end has already arrived! The ending is just a black screen with white text! I would've even been slightly more satisfied if Karnov had walked out onto the screen and waved or even just stood there staring blankly into the distance. But no, apparently we gamers are not worth that amount of effort. You might as well have just performed some crazy programming technique where as soon as someone finishes the game, the cartridge pops out of the NES deck and a tranquilizer dart is fired off into the exposed neck of the player, thus temporarily paralyzing them and forcing them to forget that there really is no ending at all. Definite bullplop encounter.

Karnov is a decent enough game if you look at the grand picture, but it certainly has its failures as well. Still, this platformer dared to go in a different direction than most of the others. It was a rather unusual direction, resulting in sloppy programming and a pudgy main character who defies the laws of gravity when he falls, and these can often add to the already slightly manic difficulty level presented before you. The game's worth a try, but as soon as you defeat the final boss, run to your NES deck and shut it off before you get really pissed off and throw a scummy galosh at your television set.

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