Karnov NES: The Ultimate Gamer Guide
Release Dates: December 18, 1987 (Japan) / January 22, 1988 (North America)
Developer: Data East
Publisher: Data East
Players: One or Two Players Alternating
Debuting in arcades in early 1987, Data East’s Karnov was the company’s attempt at fashioning a parallel to Nintendo’s success with Mario as the pixelated face of its gaming ventures.
In place of a mustachioed plumber is Jinborov Karnovski, or Karnov – a fire-breathing Soviet Union former circus strongman with zero fear of danger and a penchant for collecting mythic treasures. Oddly and amusingly enough, a later interview with a Data East employee revealed an anonymous company manager as the aesthetic prototype for the game’s lead character.
The game’s designers created Karnov in his image without his prior knowledge, leading to a reported tirade/tantrum by the anonymous manager when he found out.
A platformer closer to the run-and-gun stylings of Contra than the run-and-jump motif of Super Mario Brothers, Karnov was an overall arcade success which vexed many a gamer with its difficulty. However, arcade patrons kept feeding quarters into the machines and thus prompted Data East to begin conversion plans for various consoles and home computers.
In addition to its NES/Famicom port, Karnov was ported with varying faithfulness to the arcade version for the Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum, IBM PC, and Classic Mac OS.
The Japanese release of Karnov for the Famicom was carried out under the Namco banner on December 18, 1987. Just over a month later, Data East would take the reins themselves for the North American release of the game – a version which vastly differs from the Japanese Famicom port both in terms of storyline and overall difficulty.
With the NES/Famicom ports of Karnov, Data East threw its hat into the ring in hopes of garnering some measure of the critical acclaim and commercial success of the booming Super Mario Bros franchise.
While retrospect may deem Data East’s plans for Karnov as a failure, the game has found its footing as a cult favorite that’s hardly been forgotten.
Ever wanted to take down a T-Rex solely with the fiery belches of an East Russian circus freak?
Karnov is the game for you!
Karnov pits the game’s namesake strongman against a variety of mythical creatures and off-the-wall baddies over the course of nine extremely short levels. A run-and-gun platformer which replaces gun play with the aforementioned incendiary indigestion, Karnov allows you to run, jump, climb, and shoot your way through its cast of eclectic evildoers.
The problem with most versions of Karnov is balance. Rather than giving each enemy a nuanced skill set for a player to counterbalance with an intuitive approach, Karnov simply rains enemies and their accompanying firepower down on you like a monsoon of primary colored sprites.
Luckily for North American players, the NES port of Karnov dialed this down a bit and forgives inevitable missteps with unlimited continues (unlike the Famicom version).
Furthermore, it takes two hits to die in the North American port as opposed to one in the Japanese version. After one hit, Karnov becomes draped in a blue hue to clue you in that you’re one mistake away from death. You can pick up a blue fireball orb power-up to boost your health back to 100%.
Power-ups are the real equalizer in Karnov. Red orbs allow you to boost your fireball power up to three projectiles at one time. There also Option power-ups which do anything from speeding up your character’s swimming ability to giving you a one-shot giant flame to torch anything in your path.
The North American port includes a Spike Bomb (in place of the Super Fireball) which can be used at a key moment to clear every enemy on the screen.
The varied powerup goodies range from extremely handy to meh, but at times they can be rendered moot by the game’s sticky jump controls. You’ll have everything in place and be ready to jump over danger and then the jump button becomes a glorified paperweight and you’re dead.
It’s not pervasive and you can get past that, and Karnov is pretty dang charming once you do. The levels are quick, but the bosses are fun including the final three-headed dragon which replaces the sadistic Wizard from the Japanese port.
Karnov doesn’t look the best nor does its sound effects and music really linger in the memory. However, its real value comes in its chaotic gameplay and the damage your little Soviet strongman can do once you get settled in.
Interesting Codes and Glitches
The Nintendo Entertainment System port of Karnov has three useful in-game cheats for the enterprising gamer.
The first is a doozy, an easy level select trick which allows a player to choose any level between 1 and 9 from the title screen and go from there. To pull it off, hold right, Select, A, and B on controller 1 at the same time. While doing so, press A on controller 2 the corresponding amount of times to the level you want to start at. Finally, press Start and voila! Russian warp zone!
If you’re in an untenable situation in the game and want to start over from the previous respawning spot, press A & B at any time on controller 2 to kill Karnov dead.
Finally, there’s a way to access underground areas below in-game ladders without playing by the rules of basic physics. At the bottom of any non-inventory ladder in the game, press left or right and down over and over. If there’s an area to be accessed below, you’ll slowly move through the floor and down into that area!
The Famicom version’s inclusion of limited continues can only be accessed as an unlisted cheat at the game over screen. When the character on screen stops talking, hold Select down and press Start right away. If you time this right, you’ll pick up a continue! This cheat can only be used three times, but it’s better than nothing.
If you’ve got a Game Genie peripheral handy or are using the add-on for your emulator, there’s also a virtual cookie jar full of glorious cheat codes to utilize. These codes are as follows:
Unlimited Lives – SXKISXVK
Start Game With 1 Life – AAOSIAZA + AESIVTZA
Start Game With 6 Lives – IAOSIAZA + IESIVTZA
Start Game With 9 Lives – AAOSIAZE + AESIVTZE
Can’t Lose Most Items – AEOKSYPA
Add 3 Items Of Most Types – LEEGOYPA
Freeze In-Game Timer – GZVZNIVG
Start Game On Level 2 – PAUSAAAA
Start Game On Level 3 – ZAUSAAAA
Start Game On Level 4 – LAUSAAAA
Start Game On Level 5 – GAUSAAAA
Start Game On Level 6 – IAUSAAAA
Start Game On Level 7 – TAUSAAAA
Start Game On Level 8 – YAUSAAAA
Start Game On Level 9 – AAUSAAAE
Reception and Legacy
The story of Karnov didn’t end with the cultural paradigm shift that some Data East executives may have been looking for, but that’s not to say that Karnov didn’t leave an indelible imprint.
In fact, the game reached a healthy 250,000 overall copies sold before the end of the 1980s – not a number for any game developer to scoff at.
Acclaimed to this day by some who champion it as an overlooked Nintendo Entertainment System gem, the North American NES port of Karnov remains a solid critical favorite thanks to its balanced difficulty level and the relative tightness of its gameplay mechanics compared to other ports of the title.
While some bemoan the censorship of the Japanese version’s heavy religious storyline overtones, the word-of-mouth reputation of Karnov’s NES port keeps it as a sought-after commodity in ROM and cartridge form.
(In truth, it’s pretty hard to find Karnov as an NES cartridge. If you do, though, you can likely pick it for three to five dollars from the right spot!)
Karnov has no true sequel, but the titular character has had quite a career of cameos since the game’s release.
Data East’s affection for the Soviet fire-spitting musclehead has led to his inclusion in three games as a normal enemy (Trio The Punch – Never Forget Me, Tumblepop, Garyo Retsuden), one game as both a boss and a silhouetted version of himself (Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja), and one fighting game as the M. Bison-esque final opponent (Fighter’s History).
Karnov also makes a random-as-heck appearance in the NeoGeo game Street Slam wearing a shirt with the letter “K” emblazoned on it.
Add in a couple more oddball cameos (I Wanna Be The Guy, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse) and an unofficial homage/cameo as a boss character (Big Karnak) and Karnov’s influence becomes clear.
It’s not the most well-known or even influential title, but Karnov has earned a healthy measure of good will amongst retro gamers and game developers alike.
Our 60 Word Review
The jumping controls are unresponsive at times and the graphics are rudimentary even by 1980s standards, but Karnov largely outstrips its flaws with constant action and an undeniable pick-up-and-play fun factor.
Much more forgiving than its Japanese counterpart, the NES port of Karnov offers a breezy playthrough perfect for platformer completists and those just looking for a damn good time.
Overall Score: 7 out of 10