When evil threatens the Earth, one man dashes into the night on a mission to save the world. A man who's pretty good at running and slightly less good but still well above average at shooting things. A man who looks like a bobsleigh rider for a team sponsored by McDonalds. A man called Chelnov, star of Data East's 1992 Genesis / Megadrive run-and-gun-em-up Atomic Runner!
He may be wearing white leggings and firing lightning out of his hands, but Chelnov wasn't always this way. Before he started dressing as a rejected Power Rangers villain, he was a mild-mannered young scientist.
A scientist who lives in a castle in the middle of the woods. That's not usually a sign that the scientist in question is conducting ethical, peer-reviewed experiments for the betterment of mankind. I'd say that there's around a ninety-five percent chance that these guys are trying to reanimate dead tissue or create a race of grotesque animal-man hybrids.
The Chelnov family's peaceful existence is suddenly shattered, which is good because a game about two scientists sitting in their garden and drinking tea probably wouldn't have been that enthralling. One day, while Chelnov is out on a jog, (ooh, foreshadowing, nice,) his home is attacked by aliens.
The Deathtarians, folks. Not as nice as the Puppykind from the planet Cutiepie-Alpha, but better than the Killer Klowns from Outer Space. If you're wondering how Chelnov's dad knows all this Deathtarian info - because surely they didn't give him all this exposition as they were blowing up his house - it's because he's known about the Deathtarians for years.
"I didn't tell anyone about the Deathtarians because they'd say I was mad. But you know I'm not crazy, right son? You believe me, don't you Chelnov? Good, now go put on this experimental, nuclear-powered suit I made."
And then Papa Chelnov dies. Fortunately for mankind the Deathtarians didn't plan their attack very well and Chelnov's dad is only killed after he's finished work on his anti-Deathtarian weapon - the Atomic Suit. As far as I can tell the "Atomic Suit" consists of a lycra body stocking and a motorcycle helmet, but it does at least have built-in weaponry.
Fight, Chelnov! For everlasting peace!
Equipped with his new suit, Chelnov embarks on a grand adventure to avenge his father and defeat the Deathtarians. Oh, and rescue his kidnapped sister. That happened too. Chelnov's a man with many problems, but happily they can all be solved by running forwards and shooting the Deathtarians to, uh, death. Now that the scene is set, let's check out the game itself.
And we're off! Chelnov's running! Those Deathtarians are bringing him power-ups! Are they new to this "world domination" business? Maybe it's a trick - I'm not sure I'd trust any item brought to me by these guys. There's a reason that Santa Claus isn't depicted as a spider-legged skull with glowing red eyes.
What we have here is a run 'n' gun game in the most literal sense. All Chelnov does is run forwards, shoot things and occasionally jump. He has no choice but to run, because the screen continually scrolls and pushes him along to his inevitable fate: many, many deaths and Game Overs. For now, though, he's making his escape from the prison the Deathtarians were holding him in... oh, sorry, I forgot to mention that. Yeah, he gets captured and subsequently breaks free before the game even starts, a point Data East presumably included so that they could go all-out when designing the Deathtarians' lair. It starts off in a generically technological corridor, but Chelnov quickly breaks out of this area...
... and into a lava-filled cavern filled with mysterious pyramids, blood-red skies and phoenixes with cyberpunk ocular implants surrounded by disturbingly blank-faced guardians. Alright, I'm sold. I'm gonna have to see what's waiting in the later levels now, although a Final Fantasy summon as imagined by William Gibson is going to be hard to top.
Back to the gameplay, and Chelnov does have slightly more to do than jog forwards with violent intent. He can actually turn around and fire to the left, although he still runs to the right. You can stop him in place by holding the pad in the opposite direction, but eventually the screen's relentless scrolling will force you to move. There are power-ups to collect, naturally: mostly colour-coded "UP" symbols that increase the power, range or firing speed of your current weapon. There are several different weapons to collect and picking one up replaces whatever you had equipped in the first place. You start with a basic laser shot, but there are boomerangs, wheels of fire and a set of spiked maces that don’t travel across the whole screen but sure do feel satisfying when used to crush a skull-spider/robot phoenix/swarm of golden trilobites.
If this style of gameplay (or the name Chelnov) is sounding familiar to you, you might be thinking of the game that Atomic Runner is remake of - the 1988 arcade title Atomic Runner Chelnov.
Notice the Soviet Hammer and Sickle on the title screen. Yeah, there were some problems with that. The Megadrive Atomic Runner's story of a scientist family with battle-suits and knowledge of a secret alien conspiracy is not the original plot. In the original title, Chelnov is a Soviet coal miner who gains super powers after a nearby nuclear power plant goes into meltdown and has to fight an evil organization who want him for his new-found abilities. Combine this with the fact that in Japanese "Chelnov" is spelled very much like "Chernobyl" (using the syllables Cherunobu against Cherunobuiru) and you can see why some people thought the game may have been a not-particularly tasteful appropriation of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which has occurred only two years before the game was released. Data East apparently hemmed and hawed over whether the Chernobyl connection was intentional, at first stating that Chelnov was named after their semi-mascot character Karnov, but the whole thing was obviously enough of an issue for them to create a completely new story for the Genesis port.
While I was yammering on about the original game, I managed to reach the first boss. It's a dragon sticking out of a wall, and that statue behind me looks just as shocked as I did when I stumbled across it.
The dragon may look menacing, but he's not that tough. Although Chelnov isn't exactly flush with amazing powers, he can at least fire diagonally-upwards at a 45 degree and once you figured that out it's a simple matter of hopping over the dragon's attacks and mashing the fire button. Easy as you like, stage one over.
So what's waiting for me in stage two? Hopefully something as intriguingly bizarre as the first stage.
Yep, that'll do it. Twisted, vaguely humanoid figures loom in the background, entangled in the strange growths of what are probably just plants but I wouldn't take a chance on going near without a flamethrower, thank you very much. I've got to be honest, my usual disdain for valuing graphics over gameplay has gone out of the window and I'm playing Atomic Runner almost solely for its visual charm, which seeps into almost every screen. Just look how restrained the on-screen displays are - your score and your remaining lives in a discreet white font, and the rest of the screen given over to whatever dreamlike landscape the developer came up with next.
The Deathtarians have also deployed robot bunnies to stop Chelnov's advance, perhaps operating under the assumption that he'll find them too adorable to resist and cease his jogging to pet them. He seems more interested in the spider-skulls, though, probably because their carrying power-ups and all the rabbits can offer him is a swift death if he so much as brushes one pixel against them.
Another boss arrives to stop Chelnov's remorseless rampage of running, although he's unlikely to freeze Chelnov's heart with icy terror: after fighting a dragon, a large pottery figure is hard to see as a viable threat. This guy hails from the prehistory of Japan, as he's based on the Dogu clay figures that were made in Japan thousands of years ago, and when I say "based on" I mean he's a thoroughly-accurate pixel reconstruction of a Dogu statue but with the addition of a rocket launcher hidden inside his head. Atomic Runner has taught me something new already.
The Dogu bounces around the screen, occasionally firing missiles from his head but mostly trying to squash you. I was struggling to stay alive long enough to make my attacks count - you have to shoot him right in the eyes - but then I realised that as well as shooting things Chelnov can jump on the enemies, Super Mario style, to kill them. Obviously you can't kill bosses by jumping on them, but you can bounce off them to move around a little more safely. Armed with this new knowledge I managed to survive long enough to hit the Dogu's eyes the requisite amount of times, causing him to explode. Stage three it is, then.
I'm not sure what the theme of this stage is: Mayan, possibly? It seems to have Moai statues too, statues with some wonderful facial expressions that really capture the confusion you would undoubtedly feel if a Russian man in silver spandex was jumping on your head. Jumping from head to head, in fact, because Atomic Runner has started to incorporate platforming sections. This does pose something of a problem, because Chelnov isn't exactly an expert in aerial manoeuvres and the forced scrolling means you don't get much time to plan your jumps, leading to many botched landings and instant deaths in the waters below. Mind you, everything in this game kills you instantly, so at least it's consistent. It's a good job I figured out you can bounce off the enemies, because using them as impromptu platforms is vital for your continued survival.
The Deathtarians seemed to have realised that the mysterious artifacts of the ancient world aren't doing much to slow Chelnov down, so for the third boss they've put their faith in high technology and deployed a hovership laden with weapons and packed full of troopers. Fortunately, I managed to pick up the Homing Missile weapon somewhere along the way - you can see one of the missiles just in front of Chelnov. Yeah, the one that's far too big to have been launched from Chelnov's tiny hands. That rocket must be about four feet long, but maybe that's why Chelnov's dad was so confident in the powers of the atomic running suit.
The homing missiles are great, probably the best weapon in the game... as long as you've picked up some items and powered them up. The un-powered version fires one incredibly slow rocket at a time and is something of a liability, but with enough juice you can fill the screen with an endless barrage of fire-and-forget Deathtarian-seeking justice. Just don't die and lose all your power-ups, okay?
Stage four is Cyber-Egypt, complete with Terminator Sphinx, sent back in time to kill Cleopatra so that her descendants won't prevent Skynet from enslaving the human race. I'm just waiting for Erich von Daniken to appear and tell me that Atomic Runner is proof that the ancestral races of Humanity were visited by aliens, who built a totally sweet robot-lion-man thing in Ancient Egypt.
Oh, and roaming squads of mobile pyramids. I absolutely love these things: they don't interact with you, they just zoom around in the background like the fins of a colossal sand-shark. In terms of its presentation, Atomic Runner is fast becoming one of my favourite Megadrive games to look at...
...if not to actually play. As is so often the case with arcade titles ported to the home consoles, Atomic Runner is simply too difficult to be that much fun, especially when held to modern standards. To call it unforgiving would like calling Beethoven "a German dude who wrote music" - technically true but rather missing the scale of the thing. Atomic Runner does not give you much of a chance at all: between the auto-scrolling stages, enemies attacking from all angles, your lack of a health bar and Chelnov's tendency to not quite land on the enemies correctly when attempting to stomp them, (although admittedly this could be more down to me than the game itself,) you will die a thousand cheap deaths that'll make you wonder why you're bothering. If the Deathtarians are this dedicated to taking over the world, maybe we should just let them have it because Humanity doesn't seem to be doing that great a job.
It's a shame, because at its core the gameplay is pretty good - it's certainly action-packed and clearing a new section, usually achieving safety by the narrowest of margins, does feel very satisfying. If I'd been given this game as a kid and I'd had the long, friendless hours of my misspent youth to memorise the game and its foibles I'd probably have loved it, but I just don't have the time to master it.
I'm not quitting now, though, because I have to see if anything can top the pyramidmobiles.
Gold! Always believe in your soul / atomic-powered running suit (delete as applicable)! I'm guessing this is either the Aztec stage or it takes place in Mr. T's jewellery cabinet.
The Aztec theory is confirmed as Chelnov runs past a mask of ha ha ha just look at this guy!
This cheerful fella is based on a real-life ceremonial mask of the Aztec god Tezcatlipoca. Yes, that's how the Aztec chose to depict one of their gods. Okay, so the real mask is a little more sinister - things constructed using actual human skulls usually are - but it still has those big googly eyes. Maybe Tezcatlipoca was hella kawaii, maybe toad-licking was a large part of his divine duties - sadly, we'll never know.
It seems a bit of a letdown after the pleasure I derived from Tezcatlipoca, but the boss is... well, I'm not sure, really. Some kind of robot snake-chicken. Something Quetzalcoatl knocked up in his garage, maybe. It saves him having to make so many appearances before his humble worshippers: he just records himself saying something vaguely god-like, "SACRIFICE ME A GOAT, WOULD YOU?" or "KILL THAT TRIBE OVER THERE" or what have you, pops the cassette in this robot's tape-deck and then sends it out in his place. And hey, if any angry scientists run nearby it can defend itself by firing rocks and feathers, so I'm sure it can handle itself.
Suddenly we're a world away from the Aztecs, and Chelnov arrives in Barcelona to find snowy conditions and relentless waves of flying enemies. The frequency of my deaths has jumped from "often" to "near-constant", due in no small part to the fact there's a platforming section... with no platforms. Bouncing from enemy to enemy is your only chance, and the slightest cock-up means a long fall, death and presumably some very surprised Spanish pedestrians.
Ignore that. Forget about the difficulty, the inaccurate platforming, the frustrations of getting hit by a bullet you didn't see. This is a level based on the work of architect Antoni Gaudi, particularly the Sagrada Familia, and this kind of thing just doesn't happen often enough in videogames. It certainly beats the hell out of yet another grey warehouse or dimly-lit cave, and for at least bothering to try to create a game world that's worth looking at Atomic Runner gets a big thumbs up from me.
Barcelona is not known for its giant robots, but the Deathtarian are hoping to change this with this stage's boss. The robot looks menacing, and it's a tough battle because one second's carelessness will mean being killed by one of its many bullets, but the robot has a generous side that he demonstrates by periodically taking all his armour off for no discernable reason. All you have to do is survive for a while and the boss's vulnerable core detaches from the main body and starts wandering around with the air of a senile pensioner. I managed to regain the homing missiles, so this guy never really stood a chance.
The final stage sees Chelnov riding through New York City on a dragon's head. I can't really add much more to that description. The difficulty level reaches a peak when our hero - a man with the power of running and not much else - decides to take a route straight over a river. There are just about enough bad guys around for him to bounce on, but it's a close-run thing.
The Deathtarian's leader appears! He's performing some kind of ritual, but whatever it is I'm sure it's not important. Chelnov strikes him down, for justice and freedom!
Oops. I have no idea what that thing is supposed to be but it looks like you'd probably get quite a good price for it down the pawnbrokers. It spends most of the fight trying to poke you with its pointy arm, but Chelnov hasn't made it this far just to get jabbed by the world's tackiest dildo and he shoots the bloody thing's legs off. That doesn't end the fight, because the boss can fly using thrusters located in its torso, which makes you wonder why they bothered giving it legs in the first place. Anyway, the scene is now set of the true final battle atop the Statue of Liberty!
I know I keep banging on about Atomic Runner's visuals, but seriously, just look at that. That's pretty goddamn majestic.
Oh yeah, and there's a boss fight up here, too. Compared to the previous areas, this fight is surprisingly easy and I started to get almost cocky, repeatedly bouncing on the boss' head as it tried in vain to hit me. It's also useful to know that anything which takes place off the top of the screen is rendered null and void, so if you're being chased by homing attacks try jumping up above the field of play. You can't get hurt up there. If only this game was called Atomic Flyer.
Some well-placed attacks later and the Deathtarian menace is vanquished, and my fire-button thumb can begin the long road to recovery.
Moments later Chelnov was felled by snipers from Homeland Security. Lady Liberty don't take kindly to Russians walking all over her face.
As the credits roll, we're left to ponder the cruel hand that fate had deal poor Chelnov. Sure, he defeated the Deathtarians - but his father is still dead, he never found his sister and his feet must be covered in blisters the size of golf balls. But what's this?
During the montage of defeated enemies, the airship boss from stage three reappears and chases Chelnov off the screen, firing rockets and generally trying to redeem its poor showing from the first time I fought it. Chelnov tried valiantly to escape and then [SCENE DELETED].
Oh, I see. When I make Chelnov fall into the water he drops dead, but when the game does it he manages to float to a tropical paradise where his sister is conveniently waiting for him. I say "nearby": I don't know much about New York but are there really any beaches in the Manhattan area that look like that? There are palm trees over there, for christ's sake! If Chelnov's sister has been sunning herself in Barbados this whole time, I'm going to feel a little aggrieved. On that bizarre note of almost Dickensian coincidence, Atomic Runner draws to a close.
Well, that was an odd one. Playing Atomic Runner is like raising a wild tiger cub - it's wonderful to look at and fun to interact with, but as time goes by the odds that it's going to turn around and claw your metaphorical face off increase dramatically. There's nothing wrong with the mechanics of the game, apart maybe from the awkward turn-around command: you have to press a button and the opposite direction, which can be a pain when you need to do it quickly and is especially aggravating when you realise they could have just made it a push-button command. Other than that, the gameplay is quite good fun, it's fast and relentless and it never becomes too complicated or too simplistic. It's just that ridiculous difficulty level, always grinding away at your will to play. There are two ways to get through Atomic Runner - you can either put in hours of time and thousands of digital deaths trying to memorise the stages and hone your reflexes, or you can cheat. I recommend the latter, because I think it's worth going though the game just to see the stages in motion. That Statue of Liberty background is worth the price of admission alone.
As a footnote, Chelnov went on to become something of a minor mascot for Data East, popping up in several later titles. He appears in a background of quite a few games (including Sly Spy), he's an enemy in Tumble Pop and he even appears as the final boss in the Super Famicom fighting game Fighter's History: Mizoguchi Kiki Ippatsu.
I've never played that game, but surely Chelnov can't be that tough a final boss if the slightest physical contact causes him to drop dead. I don't think M. Bison has much to worry about.
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