After visiting the Stone Age in the last article, I thought I'd take a trip to the more recent - but still distant - past by facing the gods of ancient Egypt in Gaelco's 1991 arcade game Big Karnak! Yes, I'm definitely playing it for that reason and not because the name Gaelco reminds me of perennial VGJunk "favourite" Jaleco. I honestly just want to stab some mummies.
Who or what is "Big Karnak"? Does it mean the great complex of ancient temples at Karnak itself, a place you could certainly describe as "big"? Is Big Karnak like Big Oil or Big Pharma, a cabal that control all the Karnaks? I think the most likely answer is that your character is called Karnak. He seems pretty big.
Here's Karnak now, enjoying an afternoon chariot ride with a young woman by his side. It would possibly be a bit presumptious of me to say she's called Cleopatra, but that's what I'm going to call her. Not that I'll have much chance to use her name, because this is the start of an arcade game and I'm sure something will be along to kidnap her any second now.
Yep, as soon has Karnak parked his chariot a winged giant in golden sandals and a purple skirt swoops down and carries Cleopatra away, because that's the kind of thing that happened a lot in ancient Egypt. It's the Egyptian equivalent of Zeus chaning into a variety of different shapes so he can put the moves on some mortal woman, I'm sure. For his part, Karnak does nothing to stop the abduction: despite having a sword in hand he just stands there. One look at his body language tells you he's saying "erm, excuse me..?" in a timid voice.
You know what this intro reminds me of? Ghosts 'n Goblins. A shirtless hero and his lady love are enjoying a nice day out - a graveyard picnic in Ghosts 'n Goblins and a chariot ride in Big Karnak - before a winged being flies down and kidnaps the woman. I really hope I don't have to play through this one twice to see the true ending.
Once the action begins, and it's the standard hack-and-slash, jump-over-a-pit-sometimes action. I'm reminded of another Capcom game: Black Tiger. There's something about the scale of the sprites and the relatively high tempo that made the comparison an obvious one to my mind.
And hey, look, a mummy! I know I said I wanted to stab some mummies, but I wasn't expecting them to be the very first enemy in the game. You may have shot your ancient Egyptian bolt here, Gaelco.
Thus Karnak boldly strides across the desert, hitting lots of different things with his sword. Mummies, skeletons (AKA naked mummies), cobras, all shall fall beneath his blade, apart from the snakes that I jumped over. Early impressions are good: aside from a slight delay between pressing the jump button and Karnak achieving lift-off, everything works well. The sword has enough range to avoid the frustration of having to get right up to enemies to hurt them and Karnak swings it fast enough that "Human Blender" is probably the job title on his business cards. Jumping delay aside, Karnak feels quite nimble. A lot of the backgrounds have different levels that you can jump between for a choice of different routes. That's all fine, but at first it all felt very samey, a little too much of a reheated hack-and-slash stew. Then I got to these monkeys.
They sit in the treetops and throw coconuts at you. With a well-timed sweep of your sword, you can hit their coconuts right back at them, knocking them out of the tree and rewarding you with both the satisfaction of an enemy well dealt with and a comedy "sproing!" sound effect. It was a section that gave me hope, hope that Big Karnak wasn't going to be entirely the same as every other hop-n-chop adventure but with a Pharaoh-coloured coat of paint. We'll see how that pans out as I progress.
Here's an illustration of the different height levels in the first stage. You can climb up onto this wall, which lets you bypass most of the mummies, but you have to jump over a few spike-pits and avoid this wall-mounted snake - not necessarily an easier route, but a different one. I'm glad I came up here, mind you. Gives the cobra something to do. He must get bored, stuffed into that little crevice.
A boss approaches! It's a huge skeleton. A skeleton with a ponytail, it seems. How does that work? When your head's a skull, you really have to get over your insecurities around your baldness. It's not as though you're going to fool anyone by glueing a horse's tail to your bone box.
Anyway, the boss is fun enough without being particularly challenging - the range of his attacks is obvious and consistent, and I probably wouldn't have died if I hadn't spent the fight trying to push him into one of those spike-pits. I thought it would be worth a try, but apparently not. If the boss does manage to hit you, he can kick you down into the snake pit at the bottom of the screen, which is a fun little touch but not enough of a threat to stop me from winning the fight by smashing his shin bones into dust whenever he jumped at me.
Karnak's reward for beating the skeleton is a glowing dumbbell. Just one dumbbell, though, which means my workouts are going to take twice as long. Also, is Karnak doing an anime-schoolgirl-style peace sign? The next stage better start with him running into the area with a piece of toast hanging out of his mouth, shouting about how he's late.
Not surprisingly, that isn't how the second stage begins, but I didn't expect it to start with a boss fight either. The pyramid Karnak wants to enter is guarded by this big purple fellow, and somewhere between stage one and two Karnak has managed to lose his sword. Not to worry, because he knows ancient Egyptian kung-fu and can even do flying kicks. Maybe that was what the dumbbell symbolised: martial arts training. I don't need a sword when I can punch people to death, just like how I don't need a shirt as long as I have gold bicep bands.
Now, those of you who have played a lot of eighties arcade game might find this boss rather familiar. That's because, as has been noted in several places around the internet, the boss looks an awful lot like Data East mascot Karnov, especially as he appears in Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja. How similar?
Well, it's quite obviously ripped from the same sprite so "extremely similar" would be a good way to describe it. Cheeky as hell might be another.
Beyond Karnov's Egyptian ancestor is a great pyramid filled with enemies and traps that must be conquered. Your kidnapped lady friend isn't in here, so you might be wondering why Karnak didn't just walk around it rather than facing the were-panthers and statues that shoot lightning bolts that lurk within, but the game does give you a reason: there's a boomerang inside, a weapon of such mighty power than it alone can secure victory in Karnak's quest. Wait a minute, that doesn't sound right. A boomerang?
A powerful weapon or not, this screen that appears before the pyramid stage implies that I won't be able to continue if I don't collect it, so I have very little choice in the matter. This screen is an odd touch, a map of the pyramid that pops up before you enter the stage and which you can peruse at your leisure, like an information booth in a shopping centre. Collect the boomerang, watch out for traps, Marks & Spencer is located on the second floor, next to the canopic jar storeroom.
I would suggest you read the information thoroughly, because it not only tells you where you're supposed to be going but it also informs you how to activate a necessary staircase and tells you the secret password required to advance into the depths of the pyramid. What a helpful screen.
The tagline on Big Karnak's arcade flyer is "You live an odyssey in Egypt... if the Gods allow you," and seeing Horus and Anubis pottering around the pyramid as normal, non-boss enemies means that the gods won't allow me, but also that they're not in as much of a position to stop me as you might have expected. Anubis attacks by throwing bricks at Karnak, for example. Anubis is the god of the dead, having him chuck rocks at my face is a trifle underwhelming. Surely brick-slinging should be performed by Ptah, god of craftsmen and architects?
At least Horus fights using magical bolts and teleportation, but both these gods are easily defeated by the weapon Karnak picked up at the end of the last stage. Yes, the dumbbell. Turns out it's actually a magical rattle that creates a short-range shield thing when shaken, a shield which both harms enemies and negates their projectiles. This is bad news for Horus and Anubis, because projectiles are really all they have. I wonder which god gets to look after Anubis once I batter him to death with my magic rattle?
Here's something that took me a moment to figure out, probably because it wasn't mentioned on the helpful information screen. To get down to the lower levels of the pyramid, you have to shin down this rope. Just make sure you jump onto the rope. Walking off the platform into the rope does not have the desired effect, unless you're trying to fall far enough to get Karnak's shins to burst out of his own shoulders.
Once you've managed to grab the rope, there follows an interesting mini-boss of sorts as you pummel the dangling lizard. I wish I hadn't used the phrase "pummel the dangling lizard" there. It doesn't sound very heroic, or legal in public. The fight's cool, though: the lizard climbs towards you, but you can push it back by attacking downwards with your rattle, and sometimes rocks fall from the ceiling, forcing you to stop attacking to avoid them by leaning left and right on the rope. It's a fun section, it definitely feels very swashbuckle-y, long enough to be a challenge but not long enough to drag on. Above all it's interesting, something outside the usual gameplay mechanics for this type of game. This is true of most things in this stage - on a basic level you're still just walking around and hitting enemies, but things like the rope climbing and the "secret" password give it it's own unique feel.
Here's where you need to enter the password, on the stone just below where Karnak is standing. The password is GAELCO, but to enter it you only need to spin the two halves of the block so GAE and LCO line up together. If you skipped the hint screen at the start of the stage or just didn't pay attention to it, you might still be able to figure it out, possibly. Me? I knew the password but my feelings of superiority were challenged by Satan's sudden appearance. He kicked my arse, if I'm honest. I think it's because he didn't mess around throwing bricks at me, he just burned me alive with his hellfire breath.
More rope fighting, this time against a big snake and it's smaller - but still impressively large, as snakes go - minions. Big Karnak does not use bosses sparingly, and there's three on this stage alone. This one's a lot like the fight against the lizard, except instead of dodging rocks you have to keep forcing the snakes back into their holes so you can concentrate on damaging the leader.
Beyond the nest of snakes and just past a mouth in the wall that vomits a stream of six-foot eyeballs at you - I didn't manage to get a good screenshot of that bit, so you'll just have to take my word for it - is the pyramid's final boss. What else would guard the pyramid but a mummy? See, this is why I was wary of the decision to have mummies all over the place right from the word go, now this mummy's appearance has lost a lot of impact even if he is much bigger than all the other mummies. He's not just big, he can also shoot fire out of his hands, a battle strategy that seems singularly unsuitable for a dried-out corpse wearing flammable strips of cloth to be using. It's like a vampire throwing garlic powder around his castle while he opens all the curtains.
The multiple levels work really well in this fight, allowing for a lot of enemies the feature in the battle without it becoming too overwhelming, and fighting the boss itself strikes a good balance of difficulty and simplicity. The strangest thing about this and almost every other boss in Big Karnak is that while they do have a health bar, it doesn't seem to work as you'd think - it takes a lot of hits to get the first bit of damage in, but once you've started hurting them they take damage faster and faster. Very strange, although hardly important gameplay-wise.
This boomerang, on the other hand? Now that's important. Or so I'm told. My sword and rattle seemed to be working out for me fairly well but okay, I'll trust you. Boomerang it is.
The boomerang immediately proves it's worth at the beginning for stage three, where an eagle flaps dementedly about the place, dropping a never-ending stream of eggs on Karnak's head from it's poor, battered cloaca. I wouldn't be able to hit the eagle without the boomerang, which can even be thrown diagonally, so a big thank you to both that mummy for being entombed with it and the information kiosk for letting me know about it.
Killing the eagle brings the ship on the right a little closer, so I can simply jump across and continue my quest.
Oh dear, I wasn't expecting a pack of angry dogs to disembark. Ha ha, disem-bark, because they're dogs. That'll keep me smiling even as they tear me to shreds.
After making it past the dogs, boomeranging a few pirates and climbing up the rat-infested rigging, Karnak faces off against another boss. From here out Big Karnak does become something of a boss rush, and while that's usually something I'd complain about this is the best kind of boss rush - the kind where I haven't already fought all the bosses before. For instance, this one's new, a woman with an anchor who rolls exploding barrels at you. I think I'll call her Nefertiti Kong. At first it seems like a difficult fight, but after a little trial-and-error I found there was a "sweet spot" that you can stand in where continually throwing boomerangs will destroy all the barrels before they reach you, with one occasionally slipping through to hurt the boss. The boomerang has already proven its worth, and yet I still felt safer when I had the sword. Could I not use both? Link manages it, and he's a weird mute kid who grew up in the forest.
After dispatching Nefertiti Kong and making it off the ship, Karnak is soon thrust into mortal combat with some shrubbery. The boomerang does little to harm this overgrown pot plant, but there's a trick to the fight - hitting the plant's "head" will make it burrow underground for a moment, allowing you to attack the crumbling statue behind it. Hit that statue enough times and the wall collapses, burying the boss and allowing you to continue.
Of course, it's not quite that straightforward. A carpet of tiny snakes is constantly growing under your feet, so you have to pause every now and then to clear them out, a process that has finally cured me of the notion that taping razor-blades to a boomerang would be a low-effort way to mow the lawn. The goddess Isis serenely hovers behind you, watching the battle unfold. Not really, she kept stabbing me in the back with her spear.
Big Karnak's cavalcade of bosses continues with an oversized octopus. It's a very similar fight to the last one, the barrels replaced by rolling tentacles the octopus can launch and regrow at will, but it's far superior to that battle thanks to the octopus' frankly amazing facial expression. Never mind that it's not even close to an octopus' real anatomy - why does it have eyebrows? To keep the sweat out of its eyes when it's in the sea? - it's got such a wonderful look of slightly-confused contempt that I didn't mind when it killed me over and over again. It looks like elderly British man who's just been asked about his sexual preferences by someone doing a door-to-door survey, and I'm glad I had this opportunity to throw boomerangs at him.
It would have taken a lot to top that octopus, and sadly Big Karnak couldn't manage it. I'm not complaining about the robot sheep skull that fires smaller sheep skulls at you while you throw your boomerang at its ruby-studded eye - that might be something that's above complaining about - but it's not quite as fantastic as the previous boss. It also dies a lot more quickly, which was nice. My boomerang-throwing thumb was staring to get tired.
It really is all bosses all the time now, with the latest assault on Karnak coming from a pterodactyl and its many, many accomplices. So many accomplices: smaller pterodactyls, little dragons and, in an inversion of the usual "Egyptian deity" template, frogs with the heads of men. They look unhappy with the situation, as well they might. No-one wants to worship man-headed frogs. They can take comfort from being involved in the hardest part of the game, however - the sheer amount of deadly things on screen means that you'll struggle to both avoid taking damage and to even hit the big pterodactyl. There's so much cannon fodder between you and the boss that it's difficult to land a blow, but eventually the tide of enemies will thin out a bit and you'll make it through.
At last - I was going to say "at long last" but this is a pretty short game - Karnak faces off against Osiris, lord of the underworld and abductor of women who were just trying to enjoy a nice, peaceful chariot ride to the pyramids.
What follows is rather strange battle. Aside from that first big skeleton, it's probably the easiest boss in the game. All Osiris does is fly back and forth at the top of the screen, dropping slow-moving and easily-avoided nets. However, the catch is that if you are entangled in the net, you're killed instantly and, unlike every other boss, Osiris gets all his health back if you use a continue. Normally, I wouldn't simply offer "don't die" as my advice, but in this case it's fair enough because it's not difficult to avoid death. Just keep firing upwards and concentrate on dodging the nets rather than on hitting Osiris and you'll soon triumph.
Osiris almost had the last laugh by bursting into flames when he died. His flaming body fell from the sky and killed Karnak: the heart in the screenshot above is Karnak's soul, floating away to be weighed against the feather of truth. Until I put another credit in, anyway.
Karnak has slain just about every god except Ra and rescued Cleopatra. The statues in the background nod their approval. They never liked Osiris anyway. Big Karnak is over!
Her imprisonment has taken a toll on Cleopatra, and now her head has twisted around to face the wrong way. Or her left arm is on backwards, her anatomy has become a little difficult to interpret. She seems happy enough, mind, and I'm quite pleased that the ending is a roll-call of all the enemies in the game. I always like to see that in an ending, and Big Karnak was no different.
That said, I liked it a lot better once this monkey had scrolled of the screen. Did his nipples have to be quite so prominent? He's looking right at me. He knows I've seen his nipples, and he likes it.
The roll call also taught me that the pirate boss with the exploding barrels was Nut, goddess of the sky. I suppose that explains why your fight her right up in the crow's nest.
That's Big Karnak, a simple hack-and-slash arcade game with an Egyptian theme that tried a few different things and, on the whole, succeeded in having those things be interesting. I enjoyed playing it, I know that, mostly thanks to the extra little flourishes that break up the usual formula: the rope-fighting, the choice of paths, the mysteries of the pyramids and that octopus, that fabulous, grumpy octopus. It's not perfect - the jumping controls are stiff, it's very short and it would have been nice to have a bit of regular action between the later bosses, but as action-packed arcade games go I can recommend this one, especially if you like people with animal heads instead of human heads. It's got plenty of those. Just try not to think about that monkey's leering face waiting just over your shoulder as you play.