In 1988, Japanese developer Data East found itself in a bit of trouble. Its latest game, an arcade shooter called Chelnov, looked like standard stuff at first glance: a little character ran from left to right, blasting at enemies as they assailed the screen from all sides.
The problem lay in the plot and that strange title. Chelnov was the name of the central character – a Russian coal miner who, according to Data East’s original plot, survived an explosion at a nearby nuclear power plant and emerged from the rubble as a fast-running, laser-firing superhero.
It sounded like something from a classic American comic book, and might have glided by without comment had the Chernobyl disaster not occurred less than two years earlier: news of the nuclear power plant’s meltdown in northern Russia was all over the news in 1986, and the 19-mile exclusion zone remains in place to this day.
With Chelnov‘s title sounding remarkably like Chernobyl (particularly when rendered into its Japanese text), Data East were accused of appropriating a recent tragedy by the nation’s media. Still, the game proved to be at least a modest success in Japan, since Data East ported Chelnov to the Sega Genesis in 1992.
Perhaps stung by that earlier blast of controversy, however, the company opted to remove all traces of the original game’s Russian theme, with the hammer and sickle removed from the title screen and the backstory altered almost beyond recognition. For the console version, Chelnov’s job description was shifted from a coal miner to a scientist; the explosion occurs at his house rather than a nuclear power plant, and there’s no mention of nuclear fallout giving Chelnov special powers. Instead, his father (who’s mortally wounded in the explosion) furnishes Chelnov with a high-tech suit that allows him to run at superhuman speeds and so on.
While the game was still called Chelnov in Japan, Data East changed the title to Atomic Runner in the US and Europe. What’s more noteworthy than the changes to the title and story, though, is how much effort the studio lavished on the game itself. Rather than simply port across the arcade version, they completely overhauled the graphics and sound; the fast-moving action remains broadly the same, but the Genesis version is a far more slick, handsome-looking game than its predecessor. We’d go even further, and argue that it’s the best arcade conversion Sega’s console ever saw.
At first glance, Atomic Runner might look like a cut-down version of a run-and-gunner like Konami’s Contra. The vital difference here is that the game’s tiny protagonist can’t stop running; like a typical 2D space ship shooter of the period, Atomic Runner auto-scrolls, meaning the player has no choice but to keep up with the rolling action as enemies and platforms hurtle in from the right-hand side of the screen. It’s only when Chelnov reaches an area boss that the screen stops moving for a moment – and that’s only to give the gigantic bosses the time to throw salvos of bullets around the screen.
Atomic Runner is, therefore, your typical silver-age arcade game in a number of ways: it’s simple and fast-paced, and its action is designed to relieve your pockets of their coins within a few cosy minutes. What lifts Atomic Runner from the run-of-the-mill is its range of movement; Chelnov may be a fidgety hero, but he’s also athletic. He can perform huge jumps that can reach the top of the screen with a power-up or two; he can in almost any direction, bounce on enemies and use them as platforms, while his firepower can also be upgraded with a range of alternate projectile weapons.
Atomic Runner on the Genesis takes all this and polishes it to a mirrored shine. Where the arcade version’s graphics were flat and somewhat austere, the home edition gives every element more detail and personality. The game starts in a typical industrial setting, but the level designs soon diverge from the arcade version completely; there are backgrounds full of Egyptian pyramids and Maoi heads from Easter Island. Enemies range from the mechanical to the biological to the downright weird: level two takes place in a kind of fantasy monster’s nest that’s full of robotic rabbits, spiders and owls. A later stage takes place in a parched desert, before moving into an ancient tomb where the player’s attacked by a living demon statue. It’s all deliriously, wonderfully bonkers.
The music also adds to Atomic Runner‘s batty urgency. The arcade version’s catchy melodies are spruced up and given added body here, with additional channels of flutes, weird voice samples (including what we can only describe as tribal grunts and screams) plus a generous helping of drums and splashy snare hits. All of this goes to create a game that’s both immediate and hugely replayable. Atomic Runner is a tough game, certainly, but not unfair; when you’re inevitably hit by an enemy charging onto the screen, it’s because you’ve made a mistake, not because the game’s trying to cheat you out of a life.
There’s a pleasing flexibility to Atomic Runner, too. The game’s control system asks you to use one button to shoot left, another to shoot right, and a third to jump; the option menu allows you to tailor the button layout to your liking, as well as choose from a range of difficult levels – the latter is a particularly thoughtful addition, since Atomic Runner is surely one of the Genesis’ trickier titles, even when played on Easy mode.
Whichever difficulty level or button layout you choose, Atomic Runner remains an imaginative and deceptively well-programmed experience. Everything from the animation of Chelnov’s smooth run cycle to way you can somersault backwards, hit an enemy with one shot and take out another by jumping on it just feels right somehow. It’s often said that Nintendo know how to design their controls and levels so that everything feels perfectly of a piece, and Data East achieved a similar thing here. It’s essentially an infinite runner title before that genre even had a name, and it’s fascinating to note how much variety and strategy the designers manage to wring out of such a simple premise.
It’s arguable, too, that Atomic Runner benefits from dropping its cod-Russian theme. Where the arcade version repetitive, with its visuals taking in broadly the same industrial and metropolitan settings from beginning to end, the Genesis throws all sense of logic out of the window. One minute you’re fighting a giant robot outside the Gaudi cathedral in Barcelona, the next, you’re shooting at flying monsters in an Inca temple. Given that, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, most players expected a visual downgrade from their arcade conversions, the level of detail and thought that’s gone into Atomic Runner becomes even more remarkable.
Had Atomic Runner remained as an arcade exclusive, it would have likely faded from memory by now – a fun if not essential footnote in videogaming history, better remembered for its insensitivity than its action.
The Sega Genesis version, on the other hand, is arguably a classic of its kind: a sharp, intense adrenaline rush that made the most of the console’s much-vaunted processing abilities. Sonic The Hedgehog may have been Sega’s zippy mascot, but Atomic Runner is its darker, crazier cousin.