Atomic Runner Chelnov - Arcade (1988), Sega Genesis (1992), X68000 (1993), Wii Virtual Console (2007)
Data East Corporation had a long and generally successful run in the game industry. While none of their future releases would reach the prolific nature of their Bad Dudes and RoboCop games, even within this brief period they put out several other fun games which are mostly forgotten today. One of these is Atomic Runner Chelnov.
It's not too surprising that, despite being generally liked, Chelnov never really took off like some of Data East's other games despite the company's fondness for the titular character. Unlike Bad Dudes which Data East was quick to get released on any many home systems as possible, Chelnov was not released outside of arcades until four years after its debut. Without the constant stream of home ports Bad Dudes was treated to or the ubiquitousness of RoboCop in the late 80s to keeping their licensed games visible, Chelnov quickly faded into obscurity, though Data East had him make an appearance in several of their other games. While the game offers nice animation, an intense challenge, and some outlandish graphics, arcade games with much larger character sprites than anything in Chelnov had become the standard very shortly after its release, making it seem more primitive than it actually is. While Data East read the tea leaves correctly in making a game about a superhero in a robotic suit so close to the release of RoboCop as a complement to the way Bad Dudes successfully evokes cheeseball 80s martial arts films like Enter the Ninja and Ninja: American Warrior, the game's high challenge and tiny character sprite held back its potential popularity.
At the same time, the game's visual weirdness and simple but catchy music is a great indicator Data East's identity as a publisher. Several Data East regulars came together on this game. Notably Azusa Hara, Takaaki Inoue and Tatsuya Kiuchi. Azusa Hara's music in Atomic Runner Chelnov is lighthearted while still lending an air of urgency to the game. Data East's music would be composed via a collaboration between two or three composers, they would often take on other projects or leave for other companies. Azusa Hara was a regular with Data East, however, and is the most responsible for the music in their arcade games from the late 80s through the mid 90s. Takaaki Inoue is a programmer who has a smaller resume with Data East but programmed Windjammers, an addictive and unique Data East sports game for the Neo Geo. Tatsuya Kiuchi, another composer and sound designer who would often work with Azusa Hara, would go on to provide music for two of Data East's coolest games, Night Slashers and Magical Drop.
While Atomic Runner Chelnov's learning curve may have been a turn off for players about to be exposed to titles with much larger character graphics, there was also some controversy surrounding its release. With the hammer and sickle on the title screen, Chelnov's origin, and his name being spelt almost identically to how Chernobyl is written in Japanese (チェルノブ and チェルノブイリ respectively), it's seems to be obvious where Data East got the inspiration for their would be superhero. Exposure to radioactive chemicals is a common enough origin for how superheroes would gain incredible abilities, but having one so clearly based on the Chernobyl disaster just a year and a half after it happened raised a few eyebrows.
According to Super-Arcade by Tane Kiyoshi et. al, after they were called out by an article in the Asahi Shinbun newspaper calling the game imprudent, Data East flip flopped a bit in trying to explain the decision. At first it was dismissed as a total coincidence, and that the name Chelnov was chosen for the main character just as a way to say that he is a relative of Data East's more popular hero, Karnov. Other members of the development team, however, claim that the game was to have a completely different title, and that it was specifically changed to Chelnov because of the Chernobyl accident. While Data East to realize how this might be in bad taste, the latter explanation seems likely. Despite being a coal miner working near Chernobyl, other elements of the game indicate that the character is a New Yorker, with the game's title screen and climax even featuring the Statue of Liberty. He also dons an armored suit and wields a variety of weapons. Even the artwork on the side of the game's arcade cabinet portrays a Dolph Lundgren lookalike firing a machinegun (as well as punching out a huge fellow human, something that never happens in the actual game) rather than a masked man in a robotic suit firing lasers out of his hands. All of this would indicate that he wasn't initially designed with having radiation based super powers as shown in the game's introduction scene.
In the end Data East did little to rectify the situation. The game has had some awkward title changes, originally being called Atomic Runner Chelnov: Fighting Human Power Plant in Japanese arcades. In the US, the full name of the game shown on the title screen is the more awkward Atomic Runner Chelnov, The Nuclear Fighter, though in US Data East documentation of the time the game is given the more reasonable title of Atomic Runner: Chelnov. While the Japanese name was not altered as it was released on other platforms. For the US and European Genesis and Mega Drive releases, however, it was shorted to just Atomic Runner. This change is probably unrelated to the controversial arcade game introduction, as the character is still named Chelnov in the game across all regions and was more likely done just to keep the name simple. Either way, once a player inserts a quarter and presses start, a typo filled and grammatically hilarious introduction quickly fills us in on the game's events:
ONE WINDY, A DISASTER OCCUERED, AN EXPLOSION OF NUCLEAR POWER STATION. RADIO-ACTIVITY POURED OVER MANY PEOPLE. A COAL MINER CHELNOV WAS AMONG THEM. HE SURVIVED THE DEADLY ACCIDENT, HOWEVER, HE WAS POSSESSED WITH AN ABNORMAL POWER. HE MADE UP HIS MIND TO ACT IN THE CAUSE OF JUSTICE, TURNING DOWN DEVILISH DESTARIAN'S ENCHANTING SOLICITATION. GO AHEAD AND FIGHT! CHELNOV, THE INVINCIBLE WARRIER, CHELNOV.
The intro and its accompanying artwork implies a world of colorful comic book super heroes and futuristic technology, and we see Data East also emphasizing this with the game's arcade flyer which is evocative of typical western superhero comic book covers of the time. The game's actual setting, however, goes in a different direction. Players run through a long dead world where the ground itself is overgrown with Destarian's biological horrors. The action begins with Chelnov awakening after being captured by Destarian, breaking out of a reactor fueled by his "abnormal power" and then rushing out of a ruined castle, where he confronts a dragon before proceeding with the rest of the game. Despite Chelnov's origins, however, the rest of the game involves a race throughNew York City to reach the Statue of Liberty for the final confrontation. It's a weird opening, with much of the first level looking like something more suitable to a Castlevania game than a science-fiction adventure. This setting is used regularly throughout the rest of the game, with Chelnov entering some sort of more mythical compound about halfway through each level as we see dystopian skylines and harsh forest like areas around them.
The most interesting of these is found in the second level. Here Chelnov finds himself running through a massive cavern where gigantic humanoids, twisted and petrified, are overgrown with various plant life and cocoons. While the intro builds him up as something special, it seems Chelnov had been imprisoned by Destarian (or the Deathtarians depending on what version of the game one is playing) for quite some time. Data East has made several games in a post-apocalyptic setting, but Chelnov is the only one where the entire setting so effectively portrays a world that is ours, but now permanently changed and alien to us. The mix of bio-mechanical enemies with robots, giant animals, and cybernetic mythical creatures really helps the game stand out and set it apart from most other action games. While no individual enemy is quite as bizarre as the rogue's gallery found in Karnov, Atomic Runner Chelnov's variety of scenery and creatures to battle through set it apart. For all the strange scenery, however, the game has the most adorable screen for entering once's initials upon achieving a high score. Each letter of the alphabest has a cute face on it, which then changes as a letter is chosen. It's surprising that Data East didn't make these characters a standard across all of their future arcade games.
Chelnov looks like a typical side view shooter at a glance like Contra or Gunforce, Data East actually created something completely unique with the game's structure and pacing. The first thing players will notice is that the screen never stops scrolling, making it easy to miss vital items that improve Chelnov's abilities. Despite the constant forward momentum, enemies will still approach Chelnov from the left side of the screen. To help keep pace, Chelnov runs forward automatically, you have to actually hold the joystick back just to stand still. Chelnov can also jump very high, and this height can be increased even more by picking up a power up item. Besides shooting a variety of weapons at foes, he can also defeat them by jumping on them and can even bounce off of stronger enemies to avoid their attacks. None of these abilities are wasted as the speed at which the screen scrolls combined with the enemies constantly coming at you requires some intense maneuvering to survive. It makes for an impressive mix of intense action and strategy. All of the enemy placements are pre-designed, so while it can be brutal at times, it also gives players a chance to try different tactics depending on what power ups they've acquired throughout the level. Those power ups are plentiful, and all of the game's weapons are very useful even the laser gun he starts the game with. The trick however is that in a game with no way to turn back (Chelnov cannot move left under any circumstances, he can at best come to standstill until the scrolling screen catches up with him), the power ups can actually be a challenge to acquire, and are often carried across the screen by enemies that will instantly kill Chelnov on contact like any other opponent in the game.
So even if one has the game memorized, it's easy to have to approach the game's many enemies differently depending on what items the player has or has not obtained. Almost more important than items which increase Chelnov's jumping height or give him new weapons, are ones which increase the size of each weapon's projectile as well as their range. Acquiring these or not can completely change how players have to the approach the game's enemies, which keeps it consistently interesting. Chelnov also always faces right by default, the player has to press a button just to turn around. This will seem awkward at first, but the game is built around it, requiring Chelnov to shoot in any direction while still pressing forward at all times.
With so much intense action, Data East could have called it a day. However, the game also poses several impressive platforming challenges that take advantage of his ability to bounce off of enemies. There are several instances where there is no ground to walk on, only a series of foes Chelnov must jump off of expertly to avoid falling to his death. This sort of gimmick is scene rarely in more recent action games like Bujingai: The Forsaken City (2003) and Shinobi (2002), but was unheard of at the time of Atomic Runner Chelnov's release. It's put to especially great use in the final level, where Chelnov makes the final push to the Statue of Liberty by repeatedly bouncing off of an armored orange dinosaur encountered earlier in the game.
While it's obscure today, Chelnov was generally liked when it was released in arcades, but failed to gain a lasting following like some of its contemporaries. In the April 1988 issue of Commodore User, as an example, Nick Kelly describes the game's action as more sophisticated than Rastan Saga and other typical action games of the time. He also notes of the game's location test that “Chelnov is already proving a most popular product. I had to return several times to my local arcade before I managed to beat the crowds of onlookers and competitors and get on there myself. Expect to see this all over the island by summer.” He also speaks highly of the game's fantastical aesthetic and variety of weapons. A brief review of the game in the March 1989 issue of Advanced Computer Entertainment was less impressed, praising the small but fluidly animated sprite of Chelnov himself but dismissing the game as nothing special.
The game proved popular enough that four years later Data East chose to release it both on the Sega Genesis in 1992 and on the X68000 computer in 1993. An effectively perfect port for the Sega Saturn was also being developed. Data East intended to be release it in the mid 90s as complement to several other arcade games they ported to the Sega Saturn in '96 and '97. These included Bust-A-Move 2 Arcade Edition, Wolf Fang: Kuuga 2001, and Skull Fang among a few others. While this Saturn port did appear at the Tokyo Games Show, it was actually never released. It was considered completely lost until some collectors were able to locate a prototype copy of the game in early 2012. Seeing the game in action, it's an exact replication of the arcade game, but is clearly unfinished as there are no sound effects. No one knows why it wasn't completed and released, but it was probably seen as too old to warrant a stand along game compared to what else was being released on the Saturn. In the wake of Data East's slow liquidation and eventual bankruptcy the company went through from around 1995 and on it was probably seen as not worth the trouble. While a perfect arcade port appearing on home consoles was a rarity at the time, Atomic Runner Chelnov's Saturn version is completely missing the little extras and options seen in other arcade to Saturn ports. This has lead to speculation that it was possibly intended to include other games like Karnov or the Genesis version of Atomic Runner as well. Unfortunately attempts to find more information on this topic have come up with amusing, but unhelpful results.
Atomic Runner on the Genesis is among the best arcade to home conversions ever made. The game has received a complete visual overhaul that changes the entire aesthetic of the game while actually improving on the arcade version's graphics and sound. At the same time, the actual enemy placement and level design is unchanged. The story is heavily altered, however. Instead of a coal miner working in near Chernobyl, Chelnov is instead the son of an altruistic scientist. His father is murdered by evil beings known as the Deathtarians, but with his dying breath he informs Chelnov that he created a robotic suit for him to wear to help him handle just such a situation (the developers may have been big fans of Casshan: Robot Hunter). We also learn that Chelnov's sister, Chelmi, has been abducted and probably killed by the Deathtarians. Chelnov vows to stop them and suits up, but is then immediately captured and imprisoned like in the arcade game. When he busts out of his containment cell as the game proper begins, however, players will see a completely different setting. Now instead of running through what is implied to be a single conquered city in arcade game, Chelnov must race around the entire world to defeat the Deathtarians.
Each level is now based on a different ancient civilization that has been resurrected and corrupted by the Deathtarians, who have assumed forms of the mythological creatures of these different societies. The environments have parallax scrolling unlike in the original, and the enemies are bit more robotic in nature. All of the new artwork is extremely sharp, and Chelnov retains his trademark fluidly animated flip as he jumps (a minor animation detail that is proudly pointed out in the documentation of every release of the game). It's also a bit more morbid, with more detail paid to backgrounds with content like those bizarre frozen giants in level two, and even the little flying enemies that carry in Chelnov's power ups are now flying mechanical skulls with spidery legs. The redesigned bosses are real standouts, with many based on Mezo American mythology now. They're extremely colorful, and the game's graphics do an incredible job of showing them off as robotic simulacra of colorful artistic depictions of said creatures. The soundtrack has also received an upgrade, using samples similar to Data East's also excellent Vapor Trail Genesis port and even has some digitized voice samples.
Atomic Runner even features an impressive number of control options. Instead of having the three buttons to make Chelnov shoot, jump, and turn around, players can instead have the buttons cause Chelnov to shoot left, shoot right, and jump. There's also an option that requires players to hold the digital pad left or right while pressing the turn button to change directions. Most importantly, however, is the choice to have weapons fire rapidly by simply holding down the button instead of having to hit the button once for every shot. Like their Midnight Resistance port, Atomic Runner successfully meets the challenge of getting a non traditional arcade game layout to work on the Genesis' three button controller. It's also interesting that some more context is given to the game's story and environments. The Deathtarians, rather than being aliens or a villainous contemporary organization, are instead said to be the original inhabitants of the earth, bent on reconquering it and turning it back into their own world.
The X68000 port is excellent, but a bit less interesting. It's actually extremely accurate to the arcade game, even duplicating its start up and copyright screens. It would be a flawless port of the game except for one issue: the game no longer lets you fire your weapons upwards while standing still. This needlessly makes a challenging game even harder, as it's now much more of a chore to reveal the game's many needed power up items. It also means players have to be much more precise when attacking enemies above them, as one will need to keep moving while shooting at them. There is a saving grace, however: the included dongle pictured on the game's cover is actually an adaptor that allows players to connect their Genesis controller to the X68000. It's a great port overall thanks to the work of Dempa Micomsoft who were responsible for many great arcade conversions to the X68000. Having something so close to the original is impressive technically, but it being so barebones makes it feel less relevant today than the Genesis remake.
As Data East's financial situation got worse through the late 90s, ending in their bankruptcy in 2003, Atomic Runner Chelnov was among the games they made that were completely forgotten. The Genesis release of Atomic Runner, however, did receive a Wii Virtual Console port in 2007 thanks to a collaboration between Sega and its new owner, the Paon Corporation. Atomic Runner Chelnov is all but forgotten today, but is a fun and challenging game. It and its Genesis remake are great examples of the creativity that helped make Data East popular. It's notable that their attempts to make more conventional games like Fighter's History Dynamite coincides with their long running financial troubles. Some of this can be blamed on their Cannon Films-like aggressive overbuying of pinball hardware and film licensing, but at the same time, it's often their less traditional games like Chelnov, Karnov and Windjammers that are most fondly remembered by fans today.