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Retroversity: Karnov Review

by on November 18, 2014

Karnov is an arcade-style platformer for the NES that has you taking the role of an overweight circus strongman in his quest for treasure.

# of Players



- gameplay has a nice challenge that mixes platforming with run and gun elements

- graphics are adequate

- your character looks funny


- the same exact song plays for every level

- graphics are merely adequate

- nearly zero story and the ending sucks

Editor Rating


Sound Effects and Music


Writer's Score

Bottom Line

If you like the difficulty of arcade-style "run and gun" platformers that constantly bombard you with enemies yet balance it out with endless powerups, and if you like the idea of playing as an atypical protagonist, then you'll find Karnov to be moderately fun.


Back in the 8 bit era of video games, there were really just two types of protagonists: gritty, semi-realistically proportioned, muscular heroes on the one hand, and stylized, cartoonish heroes of varying proportions on the other. Karnov was neither of those. Originally an arcade game from Data East that was ported to the NES in 1988, Karnov stars a circus strongman from Russia who sets out to fight some dragon or something. He’s also morbidly obese.

THEMATICS: The only way you’d ever know this game even had a story was if you read it in the instruction manual or played the Famicom version. The NES version has nothing; no intro and no real ending. As far as you can tell, it might as well be about some overweight lunatic invading the otherwise peaceful world of mythological creatures, golems, smug stick figures, and streaking bodybuilders. Come to think of it, most platformers do involve a lot of trespassing on the hero’s part that would seem kinda shady were it not for the proper exposition before and after the game.

The funny thing is, when you do manage to find the story, you realize it’s not that far off from what I just said. Karnov is seeking the treasure of Babylon. He’s not saving a princess, protecting his people, or even getting revenge in a vain attempt to right a wrong. He just wants treasure. That makes him the George Costanza of video games. I have to give it some credit for deviating from the usual narrative of a chiseled warrior fighting for some noble cause. This game just doesn’t care about all that cheesy crap. In fact, it may be one of the oldest anti-hero stories in the world of video games. Despite the points it gets for going against the grain, there’s still the problem of very little story being presented in the first place.

retro karnov 02

I didn’t even learn my ABCs until Karnov came around to teach me.

AESTHETICS: Karnov’s overall style is another area that has some of its more glaring flaws. The visuals are okay. You’re never confused about what’s an obstacle and what’s just the background, where ledges are, and so on. But it won’t impress you much. Karnov himself looks tubby yet in some box art he looks more lean-muscled, so I’m not even sure what body type he’s supposed to have. I guess the levels look pretty good for what they’re supposed to be. After all, this is taking place in the ancient world, so it’s not like you’d expect to run into any technicolored metropolises. You have an ice level, a water level, a desert level, and a flying level, in addition to the more generic temple levels. That’s not a bad mix, and they are all adequately detailed for their themes.

The graphics are weakest when it comes to the enemies. Most of them have a color palette consisting of a single hue. Not only that, but they often lack any outlining, causing them to blend in with the environment in a way that can make them harder to see and uglier when you do see them. Some of them are outright absurd looking, which can be a good thing if you like hilarity and a bad thing if you like immersion. The best example of this is the first boss, the giant fishman who needs to have the cops called on him for public indecency.

The music in the first stage is actually pretty good, as it’s catchy, memetic (even appearing in another Data East game), and it fits the feel of Karnov. Problem is, this same exact song plays for every level, all nine of them. You heard me. There’s only one stage tune in the entire game. Even Queen could start to sound like Nickelback if you had to listen to the same song nine times in a row, all the while fighting off merman exhibitionists. There aren’t many sound effects in the game besides Karnov’s fireballs, which is another blow to the aesthetics.

retro karnov 03


MECHANICS: Karnov started out as an arcade game, so you know its design is based on a formula that’s meant to eat away at your lives and quarters. It’s also a run and gun platformer, just like Ghosts ‘n Goblins and Contra. Typically with these games, you’re given a quick moving projectile that is upgraded (or switched) each time you run into a powerup, and you’re also being assaulted from every direction by continuous hordes of enemies. Karnov is no different. However, due to the slow moving nature of your character, it does feel slightly easier than other run and gun games. Karnov takes about two hours to land from a normal-height jump, so it would have been pretty broken to not slow down the enemies as well. Their fireballs are moderately fast while Karnov’s break the sound barrier, which also helps to balance things. You can collect up to three powerups, which allows you to spit three fireballs at a time, and it’s rapid fire.

Something Karnov has over most run and guns is a bunch of secondary items, like ladders, bombs, and boomerangs. Most of them will come in handy at one point or another, but the ladders are probably the most useful. Karnov’s a bit heavier than the average hero, and it shows with his poor jumping skills. The ladder is an item you can use infinitely as long as you climb back down instead of jump off, and it will help you reach most other items that are otherwise out of your grasp. The boomerangs are good for bosses, as they are usually a one-hit-kill, and some of the bosses can be mean, like the T-rex.

Karnov is able to take two hits before losing a life, and by collecting enough “K” items, he gains a life. Ks are all over the place, and sometimes they’re even placed in sequences that would be offensive if we didn’t know they stood for Karnov. There are nine levels, a couple of which have unique stage gimmicks, and each one has a boss. The gameplay is probably Karnov’s best asset, as it has the fulfilling challenge of a run and gun but without the same level of frustration.

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