Atomic Runner (Genesis)

What a verbose fellow.

You could always count on old Data East to bring the weird. From the house-sized hamburgers and ferocious attack pickles of classic Burgertime to the borderline Dadaist stylings of the obscure Trio The Punch: Never Forget Me…, the late lamented studio’s staff delighted in surprising gamers with singular characters and scenarios. Hell, their most prominent mascot was Karnov, a fat, shirtless, flame belching man with a handlebar moustache. Love you, buddy. In the case of Atomic Runner, however, they may have taken things a step too far.

See, the original 1988 arcade release, Atomikku Ran’nā Cherunobu – Tatakau Ningen Hatsudensho (“Atomic Runner Chelnov – Fighting Human Power Plant”), starred a Russian coal miner (and cousin of Karnov!) who gained atomic superpowers after surviving a nuclear accident. This was a mere eighteen months after the very real, very tragic Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster. A segment of the public was purportedly none too pleased to see such a terrifying catastrophe repurposed as silly action game fodder so quickly. With “Cherunobu” and “Power Plant” right there in the name, it’s not like Data East could play innocent, either. Whoops.

It should come as no surprise, then, that this 1992 Sega Genesis port was kitted out with an entirely new story. Not only was it scrubbed of Chernobyl references, it no longer includes any mention or Russia or nuclear power. Chelnov the Atomic Runner is the now an ordinary man who derives his amazing abilities from a high-tech suit designed by his scientist father. He must use them to overcome the Deathtarians, a group of freaky monsters who claim to be the original inhabitants and rightful owners of Earth. As if saving humanity wasn’t motivation enough, the Deathtarians also murder Chelnov’s dad and kidnap his sister in the opening cut scene. Rude. As the text on the map screen commands, let’s go go!

First, I should take a moment to acknowledge that this version of the game is a rare example of an arcade-to-home conversion that’s superior to its source material in every respect. Each level’s layout has been faithfully copied over with the added benefits of drastically improved pixel art, catchier music, and the ability to remap the controls however you see fit. The team behind this one really went all-out and I commend them for delivering the definitive experience.

At its heart, Atomic Runner is an auto-scrolling horizontal shooter, not all that different from countless others. You move from left to right through a total of seven increasingly tough stages shooting down or avoiding waves of minor enemies, collecting weapon power-ups, and squaring off against a big boss every now and again. The real hook is the main character’s means of transport. Rather than employing a spaceship or airplane with smooth, cursor-like eight-way movement, he obviously runs along the ground. This one change to the standard formula has profound implications. Dodging enemy fire is far more difficult when you have gravity and jump arcs to consider. Falling to your death is a distinct possibility, too, with some pinpoint jumping between platforms and the heads of enemies necessary to clear certain tricky sections. It’s intense, frankly bizarre at first, and definitely ensures you won’t mistake Atomic Runner for the likes of Thunder Force.

As a novel twist on a personal favorite genre by a respected developer, I fully expected to love Atomic Runner. Sadly, things didn’t shake out that way. There are isolated things I like about it, sure. The outré enemy designs, the lush parallax scrolling backgrounds with their “ancient aliens” theming, the funky tunes, and the bombastic final showdown atop the Statue of Liberty are all right up my alley. The one thing that truly stuck in my craw and dragged the whole affair down several notches was the control. Chelnov does three things over the course of his alien slaying marathon: Run, jump, and shoot. That’s simple enough, but the devil’s in the details. First off, he’s only able to run to the right. If you want to reposition him closer to the left side of the screen, you’re limited to holding left or crouching, which will cause him to stand still while the screen itself continues to scroll. This is a wholly arbitrary restriction that serves no purpose I can see except to make it harder to evade threats and impossible to grab power-ups that end up behind you. Thus, you’ll die more often and hopefully drop more coins into the machine. To get an idea of what it’s like, imagine trying to dodge bullet salvos in Gradius if the Vic Viper couldn’t fly left. It feels bloody awful! Most galling of all, Chelnov can run left…during boss fights. So the designers did actually add backpedaling to the game, it’s just reserved for those few encounters. Another senseless annoyance is the need to press a button to toggle the direction Chelnov faces. Foes enter the screen from both sides, so you’ll be doing this a lot. Why not use dedicated buttons for firing left and right as in Capcom’s Section Z for the NES, which would still leave one for jumping? Beats me. Manually changing Chelnov’s facing takes more getting used to and will trip you up more often in tense situations, so I suspect it again comes down to maximizing the arcade cabinet’s cash flow.

Atomic Runner is a frustrating near miss for me. There’s so much to appreciate here on the presentation side and its hybridization of the auto-scrolling shooter and run-and-gun platformer still feels fresh over three decades on. Above all, it has that wacky Data East mojo in spades. If they’d just updated the arcade’s punishingly clunky control scheme to something more user friendly, it could have become part of my regular rotation.

Poor Chelnov. He ran all that way and still came up short.

Bloody Wolf (TurboGrafx-16)

Now that’s what I call a relatable ending.

After losing myself in the intricate turn-based RPG Live A Live last week, I wanted something nice and basic to ease me back into the action groove. What could be more straightforward than a military-themed overhead run-and-gun?

Though relatively rare today, these games were inescapable throughout the ’80s and early ’90, their popularity fueled by the big screen bloodbaths of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and countless other uber-macho action icons. Key titles such as Taito’s Front Line (1982), Capcom’s Commando (1985), and SNK’s Ikari Warriors (1986) codified the template: A hardass super soldier (or possibly two, if you have a buddy with a second quarter to spend) stomping through the jungle, ruthlessly gunning down legions of hapless mooks. Sometimes he’s out to liberate P.O.W.s or take out a world threatening megaweapon. Other times he’s taking on the enemy because, hey, what else are enemies for?

In 1988, developer Data East threw their green beret into the ring with yet another take on this crowded subgenre: Bloody Wolf, also known as Narazumono Sentō Butai Bloody Wolf (“Rogue Combat Squad: Bloody Wolf”) in Japan and Battle Rangers in Europe. I’m thinking this original arcade release must be pretty scarce here in the U.S., since I’ve never actually encountered the cabinet in the wild. That’s why I’m reviewing the much more common TurboGrafx-16 port from 1990 instead.

TG-16 Bloody Wolf adds an extra stage and expands most of the others, albeit at the cost of the arcade’s two-player functionality. That’s a tradeoff I can live with. The real loss, however, is the new English translation. Arcade Bloody Wolf’s script is a sublime catastrophe which includes perhaps my favorite mangled video game line of all time: “Get you the hot bullets of shotgun to die!” Mmm. That is some primo stuff right there. The home version swaps it out for “You’ll make a nice target for this gun!” Weak.

Bloody Wolf tasks you with rescuing your kidnapped president from behind enemy lines. There’s no hint anywhere as to who your antagonists are supposed to be. The instructions simply refer to them as a “berzerk military unit” led by a “crazed General.” Maybe it’s supposed to be a coup attempt of some kind? All that really matters is there’s two of you and hundreds of them, so you’d best get shooting!

Wait, two? Didn’t I say this was a one-player game? I did and it is. At the outset, you’re expected to choose one of the two strapping commandos shown on the title screen. He’ll then serve as your primary character, although you’ll still end up controlling both heroes as the story plays out. You even get to name these guys. Their default handles are Snake and Eagle, but that’s no fun. I named the one with hair Will after myself and the bald one…Baldo. Guess I wasn’t feeling very creative that night.

Gameplay-wise, Bloody Wolf doesn’t break the mold in any major way. Your primary weapon is a pea shooter rifle with endless ammo that can be temporarily upgraded to a shotgun or bazooka via pickups obtained from crates and rescued prisoners. In addition, you start with a secondary attack in the form of grenades. These can later be powered-up or swapped out entirely in favor of a flamethrower or flash bombs. Finally, there’s your trusty combat knife, which is automatically used in place of your main gun whenever a bad guy is within shanking range. Redundant as this last option seems, some armored foes are bulletproof, so getting in close to stab them may be your best bet.

Taking a page from Ikari Warriors, Bloody Wolf also allows you to commandeer enemy vehicles in order to create even more carnage. Bizarrely, these aren’t tanks or other common weapons of war. Rather, they’re Harley-Davidson style motorcycles you use to run your adversaries down. It’s as effective as it is hilarious. Sadly, these have a very limited supply of fuel. Enjoy them while they last.

The one slightly unorthodox thing here is your characters’ ability to jump, a feature more closely associated with Contra and other side-view run-and-guns. Hell, even the Harleys can jump! They don’t need ramps to do it, either. They just spontaneously levitate when you tap the button. I love it. A few levels and boss fights incorporate rudimentary platforming, though this aspect of the game comes across as a mere novelty, by no means co-equal with the combat.

In light of its arcade roots and hardcore two-man army premise, you might expect Bloody Wolf to offer up a fierce challenge. If so, you’d be wrong. Your characters enjoy the mercy of a health bar rather than the usual one-hit kills. Body armor, medicine, and sketchy sounding “muscle emphasis tablets” can all either restore lost health or lengthen the bar itself. On top of this, the eight short stages include frequent checkpoints and continues are unlimited. This makes for a smooth, low pressure play experience from start to finish. I can see this being a point of contention for those who bought the game at full price and weren’t expecting to race through it in a couple of hours. Me, I found it pretty fun to be able to kick back and casually exterminate the opposing force on my mystical leaping motorbike.

While neither a historically important work like Commando nor a must-play masterpiece like Jackal or Shock Troopers, Bloody Wolf is a successful arcade conversation and a thoroughly competent example of its kind. It looks fine, sounds fine, and delivers precisely the sort of no frills testosterone-drenched thrill ride you’d expect. If all you’re looking for an excuse to switch off your brain and take in the interactive equivalent of a vintage Chuck Norris flick, you can do a whole lot worse.

Will and Baldo, I salute you!

Karnov (NES)

Hell, yeah! Time to talk about my boy Karnov!

There’s no foolproof method for designing a great gaming mascot. For every Kirby or Mega Man that successfully scales that lofty peak, the mountainside below holds the desiccated corpse of a doomed Alex Kidd or Rocky Rodent. While there are no guarantees, there does exist what we might call a set of best practices built up around the commonsense notion that an appealing protagonist should be some combination of cool, sexy, and cute. If players want to be, do, or own a plush toy of your hero, you’re probably on the right track.

Enter Jinborov “Karnov” Karnovski, an obese balding Slav with a serious aversion to shirts who lays waste to all those around him with his deadly breath. Everything about this pitch is less “awesome video game mascot” and more “highly unpleasant bus commute.” Regardless, Karnov became the mustachioed face of the Data East Corporation in the wake of his self-titled arcade debut in 1987. He went on to be a playable character in all three of the Fighter’s History games, a boss in Bad Dudes Vs. DragonNinja, and even a non-unique recurring enemy in the absurdist beat-‘em-up Trio The Punch – Never Forget Me…. Why a fire breathing Russian? Beats me. For whatever reason, the staff at Data East seem to have had a general fascination with Russian themes and characters around this time. They also released the underrated auto-scrolling run-and-gun Atomic Runner Chelnov in 1988, which starred Karnov’s cousin as a nuclear-powered superhero seemingly inspired by the Chernobyl disaster. Seriously.

Leaving out his many later ensemble and cameo appearances, this NES port of the original arcade game by Sakata SAS is probably where most gamers made their acquaintance with the big guy. It sold fairly well and was one of those perennial second string options for the system. Karnov was always there, waiting patiently on the sidelines for me and my friends to finally get bored with Mario and the rest of the A-listers. When that day finally came, I discovered that the game is essentially an action-platformer in the Ghosts ‘n Goblins tradition. The goal is to guide Karnov (described in the instruction manual as “a one-time circus strongman with a unique talent for shooting fireballs”) through a total of nine stages in an effort to recover the undefined Lost Treasure of Babylon from an evil dragon named Ryu.

What I didn’t learn until almost thirty years after its initial release is that Karnov on the Famicom is another title like Magical Doropie/The Krion Conquest which includes a full in-game story told through cut scenes that was completely excised when it was localized for release outside Japan. Whether this decision was made to save money on a translation was or was due to the nature of the story itself, I can’t say. Since it involves Karnov being the spirit of a dead man directed by God to return to Earth and stop a plague of demons in order to atone for the evil deeds he committed in life, it’s possible Data East didn’t want to risk running afoul of Nintendo of America’s ban on religious content in NES releases. At least the way Karnov begins every stage by materializing from a lightning bolt makes a lot more sense to me now. That always seemed like quite the trick to pick up from circus work.

If there’s one word that best describes Karnov’s approach to the genre, it’s “odd.” Your hero’s floaty moon jumps belie his flabby physique. The background music (the one and only piece of it you get up until the final boss battle) seems to be some sort of off-kilter carnival jingle. Enemies include flexing bodybuilders, dinosaurs, and curiously pensive-looking fish men. Karnov isn’t full-on Monster Party bonkers or anything, but its weirdo cred is above reproach.

On the downside, odd isn’t always the best way to go about implementing basic game mechanics. Take the inconsistent air control, for example. You can steer Karnov mid-jump no problem, but drop down off a ledge or ladder and you’re suddenly limited to watching helplessly as he slowly plummets straight down into waiting hazards. In other words, the method you use to get airborne determine how much control you have once you’re there. Huh? When it comes to being different in the worst possible way, however, it’s the hit detection that really takes the piroshky. Karnov is liable to take damage from enemies and projectiles that make no visible contact with his sprite. Either he, his opponents, or both seem to have outsized hit boxes which render any sort of precise evasion a total crapshoot.

There. Now that my spleen is sufficiently vented, allow me to walk things back a bit. There’s actually a lot to like in Karnov once you’ve made your peace with its more irritating quirks. Decimating baddies with a torrent of flame breath feels great, even more so once you’ve upgraded to a double or triple shot attack by collecting red orb power-ups in each stage. There’s a respectable amount of variety and ambition on display across the game’s nine stages, too. One sees the burly Karnov donning an adorable set of swim fins to cross the Black Sea. Another takes place entirely in the sky and requires liberal use of the temporary flight power up to navigate. Most levels also feature branching paths to explore, allowing for a bit of extra replay value. For a “walk to the right and kill the boss” exercise, there are also a surprisingly large number of items laying around the stages for Karnov to collect. These include a handy portable ladder, bombs, boomerangs, a shield for blocking attacks, and magic glasses to reveal still more hidden goodies.

Karnov has something of a reputation as a bad game. The copy I picked up at the Seattle Retro Gaming Expo earlier this summer even came with “BAD” written across the front of the cartridge in permanent marker by a previous owner. I laughed so hard I just had to take it home. Well, I’m here to tell you that Karnov is not bad. Oh, the music and hit detection are wretched, no doubt. Thankfully, though, they’re balanced out by the satisfying shooting action, wide selection of power-ups, creative stage design, and bizarre art direction. It’s a decidedly average mid-’80s side-scroller that’s worth the paltry asking price so long as you’re aware of its mixed bag status going in. If nothing else, it will always hold a special place in my heart for introducing the hobby to the least likely mascot in its decades-long history and my personal sentimental favorite. Karnov as a character was considered strange enough in his day, but such a resolutely unpalatable goon serving as the figurehead of a major game publisher in the 21st century is pretty much unthinkable.

Above all, I love me an underdog.