Karnov is a game that I had always wanted to play, because I have heard many players say they could never beat it. I really wanted to give it a shot, just to see how hard it really is. Now, years later, I have finally gotten my hands on a copy of Karnov, and I am happy to say that I have beaten it! In Karnov, you play as a fire-breathing, Russian circus strongman who is stomping around the world, fighting monsters. It plays similar to the Mega Man games, only without all the special weapons.
For a game that's as old as this, Karnov's graphics are rather nice! Every level has a different "theme", such as Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Prehistoric, and Ice Age, and the backgrounds always fit with that theme. Therefore, each level looks completely different, but they all share a similar graphic style. There are many different kinds of enemies, and some of them are very strange. They range from gargoyles, genies, golems, dragons, mermen, mummies, and ravens, to bats, owls, knights, samurai, a T-Rex, Medusa, a Greek god walking a lion, and flying circus strongmen. Karnov, himself, is drawn and animated well, but he is rather...fat. He actually looks like Wario, although this game came years before Wario's introduction. The downside to the graphics is that they are rather standard, and many of the enemies and objects lack detail. The graphic style is somewhat reminiscent of Monster Party. Karnov has nothing that's far above average NES platform graphics, except maybe its final boss. The only other valid complaint I would have is that sometimes it's not clear what objects in the background can be stood or climbed on, and what objects can be passed through.
Everything about Karnov's sound, from the music to the effects, is average. When you shoot fireballs, there's the stereotypical NES "fire" sound effect. When you leap, Karnov makes a loud swooshing sound. There isn't much noise from the enemies, except for the strange ringing noise the bosses make when you shoot them. The music is not bad, but there is a severe lack of diversity. The same exact song is used in every level. It sounds like circus music, which is fitting since Karnov and some of his foes are circus strongmen. The only other themes are the final boss theme, which is actually rather good, and the music that lets you know when the timer is running out. The actual quality of Karnov's music is not a problem...it's the lack of variety that hurts.
Karnov has pretty solid play control, but it does have a few annoying quirks. First and foremost is the item selection system. You have a row of items that you've collected shown at the bottom of the screen. Each time you press left or right on the control pad, a different item is highlighted. You can activate the highlighted item by pressing the Select button, which is an awkward method of using items. For example, it can be difficult to place a ladder exactly where you want it, because when you move to place it, a different item lights up. It is also cumbersome when fighting a boss, and you have to press left and right to highlight the item you want. Other controls, such as moving, climbing, and shooting, are simple. However, Karnov's jumping control is a little odd and took some getting used to. Because of Karnov's huge size, it's very easy to get hit, and I often find myself using odd techniques, such as jumping backwards, to avoid that. When Karnov falls down from something, he falls straight, and you have no control over him until he lands (except that you can still shoot.)
Karnov's story would almost seem nonexistant if you don't have the manual. There is absolutely no in-game text, whatsoever. But from what I've read, the plot is actually about a dragon named Ryu who stole the treasures of Babylon, and Karnov, an ex-circus strongman, is trying to get them back. Another version of this story merely claims that Karnov is just looking for treasure. However, neither of these plot variations seem to relate much to the game at all. Karnov never comes across any treasure. He fights a lot of monsters, beats a boss that's based on some mythological creature, then moves on to the next level. Each level is based on a different time era, such as Egyptian pyramids, Prehistoric, or Ancient Greece. At least the idea is somewhat original: What other game lets you play as an overweight, firebreathing circus freak? And there is a sense of atmosphere from the different levels. But without revealing anything, I'd like to note that the ending is probably one of the worst in video game history.
I had heard that Karnov was a very tough game. I have heard many accounts from people who said they could never finish it. After only a few hours of playing, I had worked my way up to Level 7. A few days later, I got to Level 9 (the final level), and after a few attempts at the final boss, had beaten it. It was not the easiest game I've ever played, but it sure was not the hardest, either. Most of the levels are actually quite easy to get through. Once you learn enemy patterns, when and where they appear, how they attack, and how to deal with them, the levels, themselves, become a cinch! The stages are actually very short, and usually end quite abruptly. Some levels require a special item to get through, such as the Greece level where you'll need wings to fly (it's amazing that something as massive as Karnov can actually fly.) But those items are usually plentiful in the level and not that difficult to find even if hidden. But the most forgiving part of Karnov's challenge is its continue system: Not only are continues unlimited, but you also keep all your items if you continue! The real challenge of this game comes from the bosses. Many of them shoot a volley of bullets, which are extremely hard to dodge, due to Karnov's size and jumping controls. These bosses also tend to walk slowly towards you, and if you don't defeat them before they reach your end of the screen, then you either have to jump over them with the super shoes item, or you'll get trapped for sure. Karnov can only take one hit, and the second hit kills him, a la Ghosts n Goblins. Overall, I don't think this game was too easy, and nor was it impossibly difficult. Some areas took me many tries to get through, but with practice and memorization, and sometimes the use of a special weapon, nothing couldn't be overcome.
Karnov is a game that is very easy to pick up and have a lot of fun with. The levels are somewhat creative, and there is some variety, such a level where Karnov swims, one where he flies, and levels that are like mazes with multiple paths. But like most NES games from Data East that I've played, the levels are suspiciously short. I often ran into a boss when I didn't really expect it. Karnov has a number of different power-up items at his disposal. He can collect crystals that make him shoot up to three fireballs at once. You will only lose this powerup if you die. There are other items like a reusable ladder that Karnov can climb to get to higher places and reach items that are too high to jump to. There are bombs which can be used to break down walls and find secret passages. A special shoe lets Karnov jump twice as high as normal. The wings allow Karnov to fly in the Ancient Greece level. There's an item that destroys all on-screen enemies, and a boomerang that can only be used once, but can kill some bosses in 1-2 hits. The game generally seems to focus more on fighting enemies than platform jumping. The boss battles are challenging, but they aren't really done all that well, because they all have the same attacking pattern. Some take forever to kill, while others go down before you know it, and some bosses are even repeated. Despite having 9 stages, it feels very short, because of how abrupt many of the levels and boss fights are.
Overall, I think Karnov is a decent game with good graphics and challenge. There are better action games out there, but I definitely think it's still worth picking up if you're an NES fan.
SCORE (not an average): 7.5/10
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