Poor Karnov. In our modern, cynical age, the fellow is widely mocked on this thing we call the internet. This is somewhat understandable. After all, Karnov isn't your typical video game protagonist. He's not sullen, introspective, amnesiac young man fated to save the world; nor a 16 year old girl who just happens to be the best mech pilot in the universe; nor is he a woodland animal with a surplus of attitude and a reserve of infectiously clever catchphrases. No, he's the least marketable sort of video game character: a "fat"*, bald, mustachioed fellow of Russian/Slavic/Asian persuasion.
Some of the blame should rest with Data East and their localization of the game for the US. The Karnov manual informs us he's a circus strong man! In search of treasure! Specifically, the "Treasure of Babylon!" The game itself provides not the slightest hint of any sort of narrative. After the title screen, Karnov beams down on a bolt of lightning and then the fireballs go a-flyin'. After defeating the final boss, well... if there really is such a thing as the "Treasure of Babylon," we never get to see it. (For the record, Karnov never offers any explanation as to what exactly the Treasure of Babylon is supposed to be. Maybe its the same treasure Nicolas Cage found in that movie?)
Karnov's plot is just the sort of typical, goofy, setup found in many 80's games. Thus, I was a little surprised when I played the Japanese version of Karnov for Chrontendo 26. It turns out Karnov isn't just some cirus freak traipsing around Asia shooting fireballs everywhere. No, it's revealed that he has been personally sent down to Earth by God himself in order to rid the world of a plague of demons. Karnov is apparently some sort of deceased fellow who's been called into God's service in penance for the bad deeds done in his lifetime. In between levels God zaps Karnov back up to heaven, and gives him helpful tips and little motivational speeches.
Data East's track record for the Famicom has not been exactly been phenomenal up to this point. Yet Karnov is a solid post-Ghosts 'n' Goblins platformer. Each level is given a distinct setting, and is crammed with power ups** and hidden items. The later levels have multiple paths to the end point, mostly of the "high road or low road" variety. There's nothing too out of the ordinary in Karnov: a bit a basic jumping, climbing ladders, falling down vertical shafts, etc. Karnov swims through one level and acquires wings and takes flight in another. While there's nothing groundbreaking in the game, one only has to compare it to similar games of the era, such as Data East's Kid Niki, to see the amount of craft put into Karnov.
Karnov is often called a difficult game. And while its not exactly easy, those seeking a real challenge need look no further than a cart released one day before Karnov in Japan. I'm talking about Mega Man. Capcom's game takes the standard Famicom run and jump formula and changes all the rules. Rather than a typical linear run through a series of levels, Mega Man lets you play the first six levels in the order of your choosing. The experience may change significantly depending on the order in which you tackle the levels. Defeating a boss will net you a new special weapon; certain weapons are very effective against specific bosses. Additionally, having a specific weapon or item, such as the magnetic beam, can make difficult segments easier. Finding the most efficient path through the game is left up to the player.
As for the game play mechanics, Mega Man is perhaps the first instance of what I would call "advanced platforming" for the Famicom. Games prior to MM certainly had moments that required some precision jumping, and moving platforms could be found in such titles as Super Mario Bros. and Adventure Island. But Mega Man went far beyond those games by adding a number of new and surprising elements: randomly moving platforms, disappearing and reappearing platforms, blind jumps from one screen to the next, creating your own platforms with the magnetic beam, and so on. Perhaps the pièce de résistance is the Yellow Devil, an insidiously difficult boss that disassembles itself and then hurtles each piece across the room, forcing you to memorize a series of precisely timed jumps over the pieces. Extremely controlled and careful jumping is not a luxury in Mega Man, it's a necessity for survival.
None of this would have been possible had Capcom not created a game with the most finely tuned controls we've seen for the system. It's clear than considerable time, love, and effort went into Mega Man, but it seems to have made only a slight blip upon release. Capcom clearly hoped it would do well it the US and gave the game almost simultaneous releases for the Famicom and NES. Perhaps the hysterically awful box art - maybe the most infamous video game cover ever - helped kill interest. Mega Man went almost entirely unnoticed in Nintendo Fun Club News; one ad in the Winter 1987 issue was all I could find. It wasn't until the extremely successful Mega Man 2 that the blue bomber found his way into the hearts of gamers.
Both Karnov and Mega Man will be contained within the forthcoming Chrontendo 26, perhaps the most massive, monstrous episode yet.
*Everyone says he's fat. But check out the guns on that guy. He's solid muscle. He just has a lot of stomach muscle.
** Best "power up" ever? The Ladder. Just imagine if Simon Belmont had one of those on hand. Or the guy from Kung Fu.