Monday, April 1, 2019

At Random: Karnov (NES, 1987)

I recently acquired Hyperkin's Retron 5 multi-console -- it's essentially an emulator in a console casing, with a generic wireless controller, clean HDMI output, and support for cheats and patches, video filtering options, screenshot captures, and save states for games that never had a save capability originally. 

It's not tremendously well constructed, and emulation will always have some shortcomings here and there, but this little box has one great feature from my perspective: physical cartridge slots for the Nintendo Entertainment System, its Japanese counterpart the Famicom, the Sega Genesis, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and the Game Boy Advance family (including the original Game Boy and the Game Boy Color).  This means that a lot of cartridges I've acquired over the years at rummage sales and flea markets can now actually be played on a modern display, and moreover with minimal cleaning and fussing, avoiding a basic issue that has kept me from enjoying NES games in particular as often as I'd like.

So I've been digging into my collection a bit, and I came across a title that was always something of a personal nemesis back in the 1980s: Data East's Karnov.

This title screen is the cartridge's entire attract mode.  There's no title music, no demo sample.  Push start or go home.

The original 1987 arcade version of Karnov was a challenging side-scroller -- one-hit deaths and a barrage of incoming enemies discouraged me from investing many tokens in playing it, but it was a visually interesting experience.  It was one of the first 16-bit coin-op games I had seen at the time and it was clear that my beloved NES was rapidly falling behind the state of the arcade art.  When the NES conversion arrived in 1988, I rented it once, spent an evening failing to get through the first level despite the home version's more generous two-hit deaths, and decided to leave Karnov alone for a while.  (I was disappointed that the original coin-op did not turn up on Data East's Arcade Classics compilation for the Wii back in 2010, but recently learned this was because the rights to Karnov and a few other Data East games were sold to Paon in the mid-2000s, instead of to G-Mode like the rest of the company's library, and the current IP owners haven't done much with the property.)

Of course, a decade or two later the NES cartridge turned up somewhere in my travels at a reasonable price and became part of my library.  I don't recall spending much time with it in the intervening years, but it came to hand as I was looking for something to play on the Hyperkin box, and so it was time to take Karnov for a spin.

Karnov is powerful Russian!  Karnov needs no shirt!  No neck!  No eyeballs!
  
Karnov is a fire-breathing Russian (ostensibly a circus performer and strongman of the non-Putin variety) who has to face down a number of bizarre creatures across 9 fairly brief, relatively slow-moving side-scrolling levels, with the customary boss at the end of each.

First level boss!  Crazy green fishnik tosses missiles from stupid American fanny pack! 

There's a little more depth to the game than that summary suggests -- an RPG-lite inventory system tasks our hero with collecting and using bombs, magic wings, ladders and other special items along the way.  The wings and bombs are critical to getting through level eight, but the other artifacts are more or less optional, which is good because the two-button NES controller means we can only select items by nudging Karnov himself left and right until the desired item is flashing so we can finally press the SELECT key to use it.  Since the game's side-scrolling structure and limited NES-era memory generally spawns enemies as the screen inches to the right, and re-spawns them if we retreat to the left, this mechanic isn't as much fun as it ought to be.  

To the game's credit, there are alternate paths for the exploration-minded available in most of the levels, but dogged left-to-right movement will finish the game just as readily.  Even with the simplest, most straightforward approach, Karnov remains a difficult game for yours truly; many of the enemy creatures fire missiles at angles that are tough to avoid by ducking or jumping, and even though their individual attack styles become more familiar as the game goes on, my aging skills were soon outmatched.  I did manage to get through the first level, finally, but then I spent half an hour dying in more or less the same spot early in level two, only once getting to the mid-way checkpoint before hitting game over and starting back at the beginning of level two (the game supplies infinite continues but one has to complete an entire level on a single "credit" to make any real progress.)  

So... I took advantage of modern emulation technology to apply a cheat code, giving Karnov invincibility against everything but falling in a (mercifully rare) hole in the level design.  This enabled me to see all nine available environments, and witness the endless repetition of the same background music and the re-use of boss enemies across multiple levels, because, hey, cartridge ROM space didn't grow on trees in 1988.

Darn you, capitalist Pepperidge Farm fish-crackers!  Go back to your barrel and gorge on American hearty-attack breakfast!

Finally, after swimming and running and shooting and flying and shooting and shooting and shooting and jumping and shooting some more, our dauntless Russian has to fight off a single-headed, triple-entrance dragon creature:

Hold, please.  Mr. Karnov is taking damage and currently unavailable to come to the screen.

And after all that -- battling legitimately through nine increasingly difficult levels or waiting three decades until a wondrous technological solution becomes available -- the game's ending is... well... a bit of an anti-climax:

In Soviet Union, game finishes you!  Exclamation points are expensive, third one sold on black market.

So that's my experience with Karnov on the NES.  I'm glad to have finally sort-of-played through the entire game, instead of just watching a YouTube video, but there's not a lot I can say about Karnov.  It's very much of its time -- colorful and challenging, reasonably well-ported from the arcade, but also early enough in the life cycle of the NES to get by without pushing the hardware, cartridge size or gameplay possibilities.  It's a competent, typical example of the 8-bit side-scrolling videogame, but history has pushed it into the background, overshadowed by NES genre-mates like Super Mario Brothers, Castlevania and Battletoads.  


Wednesday, February 13, 2019

At Random: Magician Lord (Neo Geo, 1990)

It's been quite a while since I've posted anything here, and I'm heading into another busy period so this may be my only post for a while to come as well.  But I've recently found myself drawn back to SNK's Magician Lord, a launch title for the Neo Geo arcade system/console.

He's a Magician!  He's a Lord!  He's Magician Lord!
This side-scrolling, single-player fantasy action game was developed by Alpha Denshi working closely with SNK during the Neo Geo's development.  And it was fairly impressive when it hit arcades in 1990 -- the graphics were bold and colorful with scaling sprites and deep parallax scrolling, the audio included digitized speech and music with sampled instruments, and while it was an arcade machine with a difficulty level designed to keep the coin slot fed, it was possible to get a feel for the visual style and gameplay on a single token.

But what I think appealed most to me was that you could play THIS version, exactly as it was, at home on SNK's Neo Geo console in 1991.  Today we're used to coin-ops arriving at home in arcade perfect form, or as close as emulation and control options will allow, but the Neo Geo was the first system to deliver actual arcade hardware to the living room.  The system was an investment -- around US$600 for the system, and building a game collection was even more expensive with titles in the neighborhood $200 apiece.  But look at that massive Magician Lord cartridge -- packed with so much gaming goodness it needed TWO edge connectors!

23 Megabits of Magic + 23 Megabits of Lordliness

Magician Lord isn't a bad game, but it falls short of being a great game.  The action is simple and repetitive -- walk, shoot magic, jump, duck, climb a ladder, take a couple of hits, use up your lives, and put another token in to continue.  Occasionally there are transforming power-ups to acquire, with six different alternate forms for hero Elta the Magician Lord to take, but the game throws so much at our man that (at least in my less-than-capable hands) these temporary modes tend to be very temporary indeed. 

There are also some unintentionally amusing bits between levels when the main villain stops by to complain about the player's progress, from the days before careful Japanese-to-English localization was a thing:

Sticks and stones...

Aren't we all, dude.  But we're only two stages in.  Chin up!

Magician Lord was an early title for the Neo Geo, and the relatively small 46 megabit cartridge's limitations become apparent as one gets deeper into the game.  Many enemies encountered in later stages are palette-shifted versions of earlier foes, the excellent 80's-synth background music gets reused on multiple levels, and the maps are generally compact aside from a few late-game mazes that seem very out of place in an arcade experience.  The bosses are large and nightmarish and varied enough, but rather stiffly animated and predictable, and the end of the game wisely features a mini-boss rush rather than revisiting the big guys. 

But maybe these limitations are part of what I like about this title -- it feels stuck halfway between a coin-op and a home console experience, and it's more richly textured and progression-oriented than most of its arcade and Neo Geo brethren.  Over time, it only became more unique as SNK's later success (and title releases) focused almost exclusively on fighting games.

As tempted as I often was, I could never quite convince my checkbook to ante up for the Neo Geo console back in the day, so I only actually played Magician Lord a few times in the arcades, most memorably for the first time at The Circus in Marinette, Wisconsin.  I remember being surprised and disappointed that it was never ported to home consoles -- it seems like the Genesis and SNES could have handled a reasonably accurate conversion, or the Playstation if cartridge space limitations were the problem.  Maybe it just wasn't popular enough to be worth the effort; the game didn't resurface in any officially licensed form until emulation of the original arcade software became possible some fifteen years later on the Wii, PS2, Playstation Vita, SNK's own Neo Geo Mini line, and most recently on the Nintendo Switch, PS4, XBox One and PC via HAMSTER's Arcade Classics Archive series.

And despite owning the game in multiple forms over the years (even the physical cartridge shown above, despite never owning the console... yeah...) -- and playing it many times -- I realized recently that I'd never actually finished Magician Lord, or even gotten very close to the end.  So I bought the most recent PC emulated version (from Microsoft's store, as it doesn't seem to be available via GOG.com or Steam) and set out to tackle it seriously.  This time I finally navigated patiently through a couple of frustrating, game length-padding later levels where I'd gotten stuck before, where visually identical doors and ladders are not in fact identical, and made it to the penultimate stage.

It was here that the nails-hard difficulty very nearly exceeded my abilities, where a series of platforming moves are combined with a plethora of floating, firing enemies and, despite the game's generous continue approach, I couldn't survive long enough to get anywhere at all before putting the next virtual token in.  The idea is to jump/walk across a series of floating platforms without getting hit by the floating spheres or their fireballs.

I either fell off the platform or exploded into Elta fragments while trying to capture this screenshot
But!

I did finally make it -- not quite getting all the way across, but somehow getting far enough that keeping the joystick pressed leftward allowed me to land on a lower level instead of falling to my usual untimely death.  And a little more navigation led me to collect the final book (yes, each boss guards a mystical tome of power that will ultimately restore freedom to the land when the magical, lordly shelf is filled or something to that effect):
 
I am not an animal!  I am not a human being!

After this point, inserting far more in virtual quarters than the $7.99 I paid for this incarnation of the game to continue whittling down the various mini-bosses and final boss while getting my hat handed to me every few seconds, I managed to make it to the end!

Not the final boss either, but these giggling, leaping mini-boss twins are just too cute

"Of course, everyone has died while crops and water were unavailable all this time.  I survived by eating my beard."
So now I have experienced all that Magician Lord has to offer, and yes, I still have a nostalgic soft spot for this game and will probably return to it now and then.  If I'm honest, it was the technology advance the Neo Geo represented, and the just-out-of-my-reach pricing at the time, that really made an impression on me, and this game was just the most personally appealing of the launch titles.  But it still makes me very happy to be able to finally play it at home more than 25 years later.