words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by SAS Sakata and Data East for NES, originally released in 1988, and based on the Data East arcade game released in 1987.


Data East Corporation
SAS Sakata / Data East

Karnov is a home console port of the Data East arcade game of the same name, which hit arcades in 1987. The port was released on a number of systems, but is probably best remembered from the NES port, which was released in the U.S. in January of 1988 (December 1987 in Japan). There was even a Tiger Electronics handheld LCD version of the game.

The character of Karnov went on to appear in several other Data East games, most notably the Fighters History series, and Bad Dudes Vs. DragonNinja, where he appears as the fire-breathing first level boss.

Karnov is a side-scrolling action/platformer, where the player controls an ex-circus performer who can shoot fireballs from his mouth, as he travels through various mythical settings in search of a stolen treasure.

From the instruction manual:

The story of Karnov begins in the peaceful village of Creamina, where the Treasure of Babylon has been kept for centuries, hidden away from the outside world. The Treasure has been sought by Ryu, a huge and evil dragon, for thousands of years. But now, Ryu has discovered the secret of Creamina and descended upon the little village, accompanied by all of his demonic cohorts.

Ryu has made off with the Treasure, leaving his monstrous minions behind to terrorize the countryside. The helpless townsfolk have only one hope: Jinborov Karnovski, otherwise known as Karnov, a one-time circus strong man with a unique talent for shooting fireballs.

Only Karnov can find a way through the monster-infested countryside, to seek out the evil Ryu and regain the Lost Treasure of Babylon for his people.




Press Select to use an Option

At first glance, Karnov may appear identical to numerous other action/platformers of the late 80’s, with the only apparent standout being an overweight main character whose primary weapon comes in the form of fireballs, which he shoots from his mouth. But the robust “Option” system sets this game apart from others of its kind, and adds a layer of strategy beyond simply destroying everything that you see on the screen.

First, let’s start out with your primary weapon: fireballs. At the beginning of the game, Karnov is capable of shooting a single fireball in a straight line across the screen, and through walls. Three fireballs are allowed on the screen at once, and they move quickly, so the player can pretty much fire a steady stream of them by simply mashing the Shoot button. Additional fireballs can be gained by picking up a hovering sphere powerup, and the player is introduced to these right at the beginning of the game.

Picking up a sphere upgrades Karnov to the double-shot, which sends one fireball shooting forward, and another shooting down at about a 45 degree angle. This lower fireball also moves across the ground, essentially making it a double forward shot while Karnov is standing, and also allows Karnov to hit enemies while jumping without having to line them up directly.

Picking up another sphere upgrades Karnov to the triple-shot, with two fireballs moving forward and one moving down. Karnov gets to keep these upgrades until he dies.

All of this firepower would turn Karnov into mobile pain-distribution center, but for an important weakness: he cannot walk and fire at the same time. Yes, just as Karnov’s contemporary, Mega Man, could not operate his knee joints to duck under danger (yet somehow he could bend his knees to run), Karnov's fire-breathing ability seems to be limited to standing still. Unless, of course, Karnov is jumping, in which case he can soar through the air and hurl fireballs at will.

This odd logic pushes the player into a couple of different directions: Either the player walks Karnov forward and stops every few steps to take out the surrounding enemies, or he sends Karnov bounding through the levels in jump after jump, raining down fire on all he surveys. Fortunately, for players who choose this second course of action, Karnov goes into a glide just after the peak of his jump, allowing him go fall slowly to the ground whilst picking off surrounding enemies. In fact, the player is able to control Karnov completely during these jumps, instantaneously changing direction mid-air as needed. But players still need to be mindful of just where the glide move kicks in, however, because it can sometimes cause Karnov to overshoot platforms.

Karnov has a couple other movement quirks as well, which don’t necessarily add positively to the gameplay. For one, Karnov has trouble with edges. If he gets too close to an edge, he will fall. This makes sense, but the problem is that platforming characters in most other games can get much closer to the edge of a platform before falling (actually, many game characters can stand on a platform and hover over empty space if even one pixel is still touching the platform), meaning that there are a number of accidental falls and cheap deaths lying in wait for most players until they become accustomed to this.

The second part of the problem is that Karnov falls straight down – very slowly – until he hits the ground, or falls into a bottomless pit. Given that the player can move Karnov in any direction during a jump/glide, it seems odd that the player has virtually no control over Karnov when he falls. Combine this with some narrow platforms (particularly the tops of ladders), and the player can find himself falling far too often. Fortunately, Karnov can still shoot while he falls.

Karnov also deals with ladders a bit strangely, which is a bit unfortunate given how frequently they are used in the game. If the player pushes up or down on a ladder, Karnov enters a climbing animation, during which time he can still stop to shoot in either direction, but he can no longer jump. However, if the player simply jumps onto the ladder, Karnov will stand on it as if it were a platform, allowing him to jump off at will. But, pressing up or down at this point will “lock” Karnov onto the ladder.

Karnov is capable of taking two hits of damage before he dies. The first hit will turn him blue, and grabbing one of the fireball spheres returns him to normal. This adds an extra level of protection – especially when dealing with bosses – which is needed to balance the fact that Karnov isn’t an incredibly mobile character. Health is also fully restored between levels.

The player starts the game with 3 lives and infinite continues (although the instruction manual says you only get 3 continues, which was the case in the Japanese version, but not in the U.S.). Additional lives may be added by collecting 50 “K” icons spread liberally throughout the game, and can also be found lying about in huge stockpiles in hidden areas.

Now, let’s discuss the “Options”. At the start of the game, the player has 10 slots at the bottom of the screen, all of which are empty except for the far-right slot, showing how many K icons the player has collected. Options appear throughout the game and are represented by the following icons:

The ladder is the very first pickup available to the player at the beginning of the game, and it is far and away the most useful. Ladders can be placed anywhere in the environment in order to reach a higher area. While only one ladder can be carried, it will be returned to your inventory if you stand on the bottom rung and press down on the D-pad, essentially making it an infinite-use item.

Ladders will always extend to a certain height, unless they are placed below a solid object, or an Option pickup, at which point the ladder will stop extending just beneath it.

A side effect of using ladders seems to be the summoning of a flying dragon-like serpent (should have checked the warning label before use). In a number of areas, planting a ladder will cause one of these creatures to appear and bounce around the screen. They’re not particularly difficult to kill, especially while using the maneuverability of the ladder, but it’s interesting that they seem to show up to cause you trouble specifically because you’re trying to get something.

Boots double Karnov’s jumping height temporarily. In most cases, the ladder will get you where you need to go, but the boots can give the player some additional height (like jumping from the top of a ladder), or can get the player into areas he might not be able to reach unless he leaves his ladder behind (more on this later).

Bombs can be placed on the ground and cause damage to enemies caught in their blast. These are given out pretty liberally, but are not incredibly useful in combat. However, a secondary function is that they can damage certain objects and walls, revealing hidden paths, and/or allowing access to additional Options.

The boomerang is more powerful than your standard shot, but it is limited to having one on the screen at a time. However, it can do double-damage by passing through an enemy twice, and if the player is able to catch it, it is returned to his inventory and may be used again.

The “clapper” as it is called in the instruction manual is essentially a super-bomb, and destroys all enemies on the screen, with the exception of bosses.

The instruction manual refers to this icon as “glasses”, but it looks more like a mask. For the most part, you will find that you are unable to select the mask in your inventory However, at certain points in the game, a charm will sound, and equipping the mask here will cause hidden Options to be revealed. Once you use it, it’s gone, and you can only carry one at a time.

The “swimming mask” (i.e. diving helmet) can only be used in one area of the game: level 5. Level 5 is a water level, and equipping this Option here allows Karnov to swim faster (and still spit fireballs, under water, while wearing a helmet!). This is another item that you can only carry one of, and it disappears from your inventory when used.

Wings give Karnov temporary flight, allowing him to bypass obstacles and enemies at will, but Karnov drops straight out of the sky when the timer runs out on them, potentially dropping him into danger. Wings do not appear frequently, and they are an absolute necessity for beating the 8th level. As such, it is best to hold onto them until that point.

The shield blocks enemy projectiles. It is pretty useful against a number of bosses, giving Karnov some additional defense. It can absorb five standard hits before disappearing.

Options are spread liberally throughout the levels, some in plain sight, some in hidden areas, some by equipping the mask at certain points, and still others by moving over or shooting a particular seemingly-random spot in the background. Options remain in the player’s inventory throughout the entire game, from level to level, and even through death and infinite continues, which allows the player to stockpile certain items, and to build some additional strategy in regards to how he chooses to tackle levels and/or bosses.

Options are used by moving the D-pad left or right. This occurs live in the game, and you can see the cursor moving about between Options as you walk around the environments. This makes it pretty difficult to select a needed Option on the fly, but it does allow you to use Options when you are out of danger, without requiring you to enter a separate screen. This is completely balanced by the fact that you can pause the game and select Options at will, even activating them from the pause menu. So, if you are being overwhelmed by enemies or a boss, you can drop into the pause menu, activate an Option, and unpause, and the Option will immediately be used.

There are some odd issues that occur related to enemy spawning and screen scrolling. Some enemies are capable of respawning if they are moved off the edge of the screen and back on, which is a particular pain when you accidentally step backward to avoid fire from a troublesome enemy, only to take it out and have it reappear when you take another step forward. Also, it’s possible for you to move your character out of the center of the screen and toward the right-hand edge of the scrolling area. This can cause some enemies to not spawn at all, or can cause them to spawn after you have passed them. You don’t have to be all the way on the right-hand edge of the screen for this to occur, so these irregularities can occur even if you are just a little bit right of center. This means that players will not always encounter the same enemies on each playthrough, which can make it somewhat difficult to develop a solid strategy when replaying a level.

The levels themselves are based on mythology, and are therefore have some different elements than your standard platforming fare. There are a number of statues spread throughout, ancient buildings, and mythological creatures. Plus, let’s not overlook the fact that Karnov (somehow) enters and exits each level via lightning strike.

Most of the levels offer alternate/hidden paths, which can encourage exploration and enhance gameplay. For instance, in level 3, you encounter a pit, which at first looks like it might be bottomless. However, it actually leads to a narrow passageway under the mountain which has a stockpile of K icons, and allows you to avoid a number of enemies.

Several other levels have a “high road” and “low road” option with different enemies and pickups. Even the underwater level allows you to climb out of the water at a certain point and cover most of the level on land. You are free to take either, but once you reach a checkpoint, the screen will lock and prevent you from scrolling to the left, so not every path can be explored in a single playthrough.

Another strategy for reaching alternate paths is to leave your ladder behind. Ladders can be picked up at several points throughout the game. If needed, you can drop a ladder to reach a higher area, and leave it behind until you find another. This is particularly useful in level 6, where you can find a path across the rooftops and avoid a number of difficult enemies.


Golden Man When the golden man first appears in level 1, he seems to do absolutely nothing except absorb a huge amount of damage. However, if you don’t kill him quickly enough, he will explode into 6 balls of energy. 5 of the balls will shoot out at 45 degree angles from each other, causing damage as they go, while the 6th ball will remain in the center and move toward you. Eventually the balls re-form – causing damage to you if you’re in the way – and turn back into a Golden Man. Yeah, chances are, you won’t let him do that twice.

Light Stream This enemy makes its first appearance in level 3. It doesn’t look like much, just a glowing ball of energy floating in the air. But it is actually a stream of 5 balls of energy, which move erratically about the screen in 8 different directions. All 5 balls must be destroyed individually to take this thing down, and it can be difficult to dodge at full size, especially given how quickly it moves and how difficult it can be to predict its movement pattern.

Chubby Red Demons This is just a palette swap for the green floating demons in the first level, but these things are much faster, and they shoot pretty rapidly too. To make matters worse, they’re introduced in level 6 while you’re going through a pretty tight area (which can be avoided by going over the rooftops as an alternate path), and they can be respawned multiple times due to the way the game scrolls and brings in enemies.

Gray Rock Man He moves, he shoots, he turns into a tombstone! Aside from walking around and trying to make Karnov eat death, this 7th level enemy can also turn into a block of stone at will, making him all but invincible. He’s a menace on his own, and even more so when the game drops you into a room with 2 of them at once, right before the boss! It’s fitting that his stone form looks like a tombstone, because that’s his next destination!

Outside of the final boss encounter, there isn’t a whole lot happening with a lot of these bosses. Most of them move slowly and have minimal animation, and they are re-used between levels. (To be fair, however, the bosses were also re-used in the arcade version, so this is a faithful port in that respect). Generally speaking, most of them will simply creep toward you while absorbing damage, until they are eventually destroyed.

First Boss: Merman This guy moves pretty slowly while shooting and occasionally jumping. He’s not too difficult to defeat, but he reappears several times throughout the game as a regular enemy.

Second Boss: Trainer and Lion This is probably the most interesting boss fight in the game. A white-robed trainer enters the screen and holds back a green (!?) lion with a leash. The lion seems to be trying to pull away as it shoots energy balls from its mouth and pulls the trainer forward.

One of two things can happen here: Either you will kill the lion first and have to deal with a knife-wielding trainer (this is the “easy” way to win), or you will kill the trainer first and the lion – no longer restrained – will charge at Karnov at full speed while continuing to shoot at him.

Third and Fifth Boss: T-Rex This is a big red dinosaur that marches slowly toward you and spews fireballs. The fireballs line up with your current location on the screen, and then move horizontally across. It can only be damaged by hitting it in the head.

Fourth and Sixth Boss: Scorpion Woman She looks more like a green centipede than a scorpion, and like the other bosses, she creeps toward Karnov and shoots. Occasionally, she rears up on her hind legs and fires.

Seventh and Eighth Boss: 2-Headed Dragon Hey, it’s the same boss used back-to-back this time (At least it’s better than the arcade version where the T-Rex was used as the end-level boss 3 times). This one jumps and shoots while moving forward.

Ninth Boss: Dragon Well, here it is, the final battle. And at least this one’s a bit more interesting than the last several. To make things (arguably) more interesting, the game knocks Karnov down to a single fireball again, regardless of how many he had when he entered the final room. But you can still balance this out with your boomerang and shield, right? Nope, all Options are locked and cannot be used. They just mock you from the bottom of the screen and make you sad that you didn’t use them up when you had the chance. Oh well, on to the fight.

You enter a room with 3 windows and a dragon statue on the floor. Behind the wall is a 3-headed dragon whose heads will emerge from the windows to attack you. It is worth noting here that the original arcade game had you facing off against an evil wizard, rather than a dragon, although the final boss area looked about the same.

Arcade Version

Before the dragon head emerges, its eyes will glow in the window, allowing you the chance to get out of the way before it strikes.

The head will lunge toward Karnov, and then shoot a fireball.

Once a particular head has sustained enough damage, it will turn red. From this point, it can no longer be harmed, but it can continue to strike and throw fireballs. This allows the boss to remain equally deadly throughout the battle, but also allows the player to wait and focus his firepower on the remaining head(s). Once all 3 heads have been destroyed, the player is treated to one of the least rewarding endings of all time.


Why this game should be part of your 2D heritage:
  • Robust inventory/item system
  • Options remain in inventory throughout the game
  • Multiple paths, hidden items

The downside:
  • A few control quirks
  • Screen scrolling can cause irregular enemy spawning
  • Uninteresting bosses that are re-used