Atomic Runner (Genesis) Review

  • Title: Atomic Runner
  • Developer and Publisher: Data East
  • Released: 1992
  • Platform: Sega Genesis / MegaDrive

Atomic Runner, also known as Chelnov in Japan, is a very good Data East game from 1992.  This Genesis version is a remake of a four or five year older arcade game, much improved versus the arcade original.  The game plays like a run & gun game, except it’s auto-scrolling, which makes it feel unique.  There are a variety of weapons and powerups to collect, lots of enemies to kill, jumps to make, some short alternate routes, challenging bosses, and more.  The game is a memorizer for sure, and the main challenge is in learning what to do at each moment.  Enemies will appear in exactly the same places each time, though many will then fire at where you are, so the game isn’t 100% identical every time.  There aren’t many levels, but it’s really good while it lasts.

The story of the game was completely changed from the arcade original, where evidently Chelnov (that’s the name of the main character in any version) was transformed into a superhero by a nuclear explosion (and this was right after Chernobyl, obvious reference…), and had to beat the badguys or something.  That’s gone on the Genesis.  Instead, your character Chelnov becomes the Atomic Runner after an alien force attacks Earth.  Supposedly they once inhabited the earth, and now are back to reclaim it from the nasty humans.  You, of course, will have to stop them.  Anyway, your family were scientists, and the aliens attack your house early in the invasion.  Chelnov’s sister is kidnapped and father mortally wounded.  Your father’s dying words are that he knew this would happen and that he had been preparing for this by readying the Atomic Runner suit, so go and save the world, Chelnov!  … Except Chelnov almost immediately gets captured and tortured, until finally he snaps and acquires his powers.  So, you start the game by breaking out of an alien facility.  Go and defeat the aliens and save your sister!  So yeah, very generic plot.  At least there are cutscenes at the beginning and end of the game, though, so this isn’t one of those games with one-line endings or something like that, it’s a substantial ending that makes the effort beating the game requires more worthwhile.

“Go, Atomic Runner!  I will not fail.  No enemy can put a stop to justice!”  Yes, the story is entertaining. 🙂

Overall, this game is very good.  It has good graphics, great art design, and great music, and the gameplay is great as well, and the unique auto-scrolling run & gun design is great.  That makes it play somewhat differently from just about anything else.  The weapons are varied and are all pretty cool, the game is well balanced and well designed, there’s a good variety of enemies and obstacles… yes, I really liked this game.   The graphics are very nice looking and your character is really well animated — Chelnov runs extremely smoothly, you don’t see that often on the Genesis.  The enemy sprites don’t animate as much as Chelnov, but all look good, and the bosses are particularly impressive, with giant Chinese dragons, animated statues, and more.  The style, which is a mixture of ancient cultures and futuristic high-tech areas, is interesting and gives the game a great look.  And the music… it’s great, catchy stuff.  Really good work.

The controls are interesting.  You can fire right and left and jump.  Enemies come from both directions, so get used to firing both ways.  Also, you cannot move backwards on the screen except for in boss fights — otherwise, you can only move forwards or stop where you are, until you hit the back end and start being forced forwards of course.  This means that you should never shoot enemies holding powerups who are behind you if you want to get the powerup, because you will not be able to go back and get it; wait until they’re in front.  This design is a little annoying at times, but it works well enough and does help keep the game original.  Also, when you are jumping, if you land on top of an enemy you’ll bounce off and do damage, instead of dying.  This is a key mechanic.  However, be sure that you’re jumping!  If an enemy hits you from below while you’re on the ground, you’ll die.  Your boots only provide invulnerability when you’re not touching the ground, evidently, for whatever reason.  This DEFINITELY can be frustrating, when you try to jump on an enemy under the floor but just miss and they come up under you and kill you… jumping on enemies can be a little hairy, but you’ve got to do it.  This is the only controls-related complaint I have with the game.  Jumping on enemies mostly works fine, but could have been done a little better.

However, it is important to mention that you cannot control how high you jump in this game. Every time you press jump you will jump the full height of your jump, so you can’t strategically choose to jump but not high enough to hit something above you, etc. This means you have to carefully plan when you’re going to jump, because you will always jump full height.

Also, you can fire either straight forwards or diagonally up. You fire diagonally by holding up while shooting. If you hold left or right while jumping, however, you will do a spin jump and fire in all directions while you’re in the air; this is annoying and unhelpful as often as it is helpful, but it’s important to remember. Holding up or down while firing will not do the spin, so remember to let go of forward when jumping if you want to continue to fire diagonally while you jump; if you jump while holding diagonal up, you’ll spin instead of continuing to shoot as you are. I’ve died a few too many times because of accidental spins, though other times they are helpful (It is good to have something at least that hits all directions, I just wish it wasn’t so easy to accidentally do them when you don’t want to).

As with most shmups and run & guns, you die in one hit.  There’s no shield.  When you die, you get sent back to the last checkpoint.  Fortunately the game has many checkpoints, so you don’t usually lose much progress.  Game over also just sends you back to the last checkpoint, though there are limited continues; you can set how many, from 3 to 15, in the options menu.  There are also difficulty settings and various control options.  I recommend, and use, control option C-1, where A fires left, B jumps, and C fires right.  The default controls have C switching direction and A firing, but the game is easier and works better with this Forgotten Worlds/Sidearms control style.

The designers even gave players a break.  Instead of sticking with the merciless difficulty that it could have, after you’ve died at a single checkpoint four or five times or so in a row, the first powerup you see after that checkpoint will change from whatever it is into a full-power one, so that you can try it with full weapon power.  This is incredibly helpful and makes a massive difference in reducing frustration, particularly at the harder bosses.  Otherwise, after you die once often bosses would become incredibly hard, having to pick away at them with weak weapons… instead, just die a few more times and you’ll have full power for the fight.  This game is quite challenging as it is, it’s great that the designers gave players a little break like this.

The final boss’ last two forms (it has three) were definitely tricky, and held me up for a few weeks — I got to the final boss a week or two ago, but got frustrated at dying there repeatedly (you have limited continues and no saving), and I quit for a while.  Well, I picked the game up again today, and beat it on my first try!  Okay, I used a bunch of continues, but I didn’t run out and have to start over, I beat the game first.  Pretty awesome, I thought I’d gotten a terrible start but as I went along I got better and remembered the game more and more… I really like this game, I’d never heard about it but it’s pretty cool.

There’s really only one major negative: It’s short.  Hard, but short.  There aren’t many levels, only seven or so, and once you start to learn them you can get through them fairly quickly.  The main part of the challenge is simply in learning things, so once you’ve done that it’s mostly just about trying to do it faster… it’s so much fun while it lasts, though, that I don’t mind.

Other than the short length and the aforementioned issue with jumping on enemies (that sometimes you miss and die instead of bouncing on the enemy as you were trying to), the only other possible negative really is that the graphics are a little small (very good looking, but the sprites are on the small side, not that I mind much), and that the backgrounds in a few levels are so gaudy and impressive that sometimes I can lose track of the enemies and bullets.  This is particularly true in the gold and jade Chinese-ish level.  It looks amazing, but sometimes the enemies can be hard to see… or maybe it’s just that the backgrounds are so awesome looking that they distract me. 🙂  Either way, it’s something you get used to.

Overall, though, those are minor compared to how great the good elements of this game are.  Atomic Runner, aka Chelnov, is a very good game, and I like this one a lot.  This game is not well known, but it should be.  Try it, you might like it.  Anyone who likes run & gun games or shmups should definitely give this a play.  This is probably one of the best unknown Genesis games I’ve played, it immediately addicted me.


90% (A-).

Here’s a video.  The set goes through all the levels, but I chose the middle one because these levels are pretty awesome.

About Brian

Computer and video game lover
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