Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Trojan - A Quick Trip to Hell
Keeping with those arcade values.

It's odd how my older brother, and not I, was the bigger contributor to our game-buying binge in the months following the NES' arrival into our household. It was my system, after all, and not something in which he'd ever showed any interest, but there he was, packing my quickly growing NES collection with titles I'd either never heard of or would've been predisposed to overlook (he was always more adventurous that way). The first unanticipated game to arrive in my hands was Trojan, whose conspicuous box art depicted some crazy-eyed, punker-looking warrior brandishing a gleaming sword and a well-worn shield as he crash through a wall to confront a bald axe-wielding guy as some scary, faceless masked fellow (Shredder?) watch on menacingly from the background. Box covers were usually composed of pixel art or realistic renders, but this visual was completely abstract. What was this?

I wouldn't know this until years later, but Trojan was a port of a coin-op game of the same name, brought to arcades in 1986 by an upstart company called Capcom, whose early arcade escapades produced well-known titles like 1942, Section Z, Commando and Ghosts 'n Goblins. These were games I'd seen or played, but I never encountered or even heard of Trojan, which apparently wasn't worth arcade-owners' time (sadly, I'd say, since it was probably worth a brief look for the history lesson alone). Neither my brother or closest friends had ever heard of it, either, so it was a brand-new game as far I was concerned.

I liked arcade-style games, particularly those featuring fast-moving action or platforming, so I instantly took to Trojan, which had a large dose of the former. It was the first side-scrolling game I played where the A and B buttons were assigned action commands (one for swinging your sword, and the other for jutting out your shield, which you could even extend vertically or diagonally upward!) and you had to push up to jump, which was initially off-putting but made sense when I considered the limited options the developers had; I got used to it after a while. I thought it was really cool how the knife-tossing enemies' secondary hatchet-attack, if defended against, would knock away your weapons, forcing you to instead rely on martial arts (mainly normal, crouching, and flying varieties of punches and kicks) until you could retrieve your hardware. I was also a fan of its aggressive boss characters, whose names I didn't know until I found its missing manual and saw the game's ending; in the interim, we gave them our own names--Goblin was "Jack," for instance, and the Mamushis were "The Great Goudini Brothers." Don't ask--I have no clue.

What grabbed me most about Trojan were its aesthetics, like the background visuals in its first levels' two stages. The action in the first stage, for instance, is flanked by a distant cityscape, which shows many darkened buildings whose assemblage resembled those I'd see in the Manhattan backdrop any time I'd ride with my father along the highway at dawn. In closer view were the tattered, dilapidated structures that were once a sign of active civilization; shops, garages, tenements--all still standing but mortally wounded, their glassless windows and damaged frames welcoming only to temporary visitors and specifically the dynamite-throwing baddies who occupied them. I loved the atmosphere they created, and I'd always wonder what it'd be like if I could somehow enter its world and see how it measured up to my imagination, the picture in my head one of the many familiar Brooklyn streets as viewed from the side opposite. Those distant buildings, for decades abandoned--when was the last time anyone visited them, I pondered, and how desperate and lonely would it be for anyone still lurking high up in one those skyscrapers?

The second stage was more of the same, but it included one of the most memorable video-game visuals of my youth: a fenced-in lot serving as the final resting place for a broken-down Buggy whose very existence, alone, told the story of when modern civilization came to an end. This was a game based in a post-apocalyptic setting, of course, and it fascinated me how the designer's vision of such a future featured the ravaged-but-familiar environs of a typical 1980s urban scene rather than the usual desert wastelands and metallic ruins. The opening stages serve as contrast to the rest of the game, which takes you through more-uninhabitable spaces like sewer systems, mountain ranges, and stone fortresses; these bleak, inhospitable sections stirred my imagination in a different way, as I would always wonder what type of creatures could possibly come to inhabitant these spaces should humans ever decide to dump this "Earth" place in favor of something better.

We always made sure to drop into the two opening stages' manholes and enter the leftover human-built sewers, with their eerie music, mini-bosses, and hidden items (which you had to uncover by high-jumping and flailing wildly); these green-hued, neglected conduits represent one of my lasting images of the game and are part of why I find its landscapes so interesting. Trojan's was a long-existing post-apocalyptic world presented as heavily "lived in." Whatever men and mutants were left over from the fallout developed new types of technologies but relied mostly on primitive weapons like flails, swords and clubs. I thought the level design was creative in how it interspersed the identifiable geography with these tech-driven, machine-based complexes, like the vertical strongholds with their motion-activated elevators and fall-through chutes. It's not a world I'd ever want to live in, but it was always fun to think about. 

True--its graphics seem so dated, now, and probably weren't even that great for 1989-NES standards, but this was a different time, when the best part of being a child was filling in the gaps with your imagination and sense of wonder.

The soundtrack was, I thought, an underrated part of the package. It was an early taste of what I call "Capcom music," whose representative tunes always had a familiar combination of MIDI instruments and a certain pitch; after becoming more familiar with the company, I could recognize a game as a Capcom property merely by hearing a simple stage theme. Trojan--my first sampling of its NES game-selection--had only eight or nine tunes, but each was indelible for how it made me feel about the game's world. I liked how they generated a sense of urgency or caution and really defined each set piece (the level-6 catacomb theme, for instance, made me feel like I was being chased and should never stop moving), the eclectic mix of adrenaline-raising, creepy, and sometimes scary tunes befitting of a dystopic world.

Most importantly, the game was fun--a true arcade experience that retained its values in the "conversion" (which was a term convenient to Capcom, which would use the label for arcade ports that didn't quite measure up to their arcade counterparts, if not just visually) to a more-manageable NES game. It was rough in how you'd take a beating from enemy clusters, struck consecutively by clubs, knives and arrows without the luxury of invincibility frames, but it was still fair compared to its arcade sibling; there may have been no continues (save for a secret code), but you could get better if you studied the enemies' movements and learned how to counter them, and the game was short enough and paced well enough to where it wouldn't be a lengthy grind.

In those early days of my NES ownership, my circle of friends and I would always find time to load up Trojan and try to clear it for better times or attempt no-death runs, whether we were waiting for the Chinese food to arrive or we had a few minutes to spare before heading out to the batting cages. It didn't matter which company was behind the game (before I became familiar with the likes of Capcom and Konami, I really didn't pay any attention to who or what created them), or if it was farmed out, I'd later learn, to an infamous development house called Micronics, whose track record was kind of poor; we just knew that we enjoyed playing it.

The NES version of Trojan is actually another case of a home-console port being better than the arcade original (joining such luminaries as Rygar, Ninja Gaiden and Bionic Commando). My more-recent experiences with Trojan have been with the arcade version, which is brutally tough. Your health drains rapidly as quickly respawning enemies crowd you and overwhelm you from both sides with projectile storms; the stage checkpoints are unforgiving, placing you back at highly undesirable starting points; and you're sometimes expected to take down two bosses at once, which is never a good thing when the nightmarish Iron Arm is either one or both of them. 

You can learn to approach and counterattack the predictable NES bosses, but you've got to be a video-game god to master the swordplay and defensive postures of the arcade version, which, depending on your deity status, is possibly unbeatable even with unlimited credits. It looks and controls better, certainly, but they forgot the "fun" part. It's no wonder I never saw it in arcades.

Still, I admit that I like the idea of an arcade game and its console port being somewhat different. The arcade version is faster-paced; visually superior with its scrolling cityscapes (including stores with actual names!) and mountainous backdrops; and it lacks the storage limits that would require, say, its ninth and tenth stages being condensed into one.

The NES version is more playable, has the better-composed musical score, and is more fleshed out, featuring those sewers you can duck into to corral exclusive power-ups (like health refills and the "P" icon, which doubles your striking power), a separate stage for the final Achilles battle, and as a result the unique catacomb boss King Shriek, whose brick-flying breakout-entrance was always a sight. Also exclusive is the two-player fighting mode, which might have been Capcom's first foray into multiplayer combat; it's a nice extra, if anything, even though we only gave it an occasional look. 
The NES version ultimately wins out, but I truly do appreciate its progenitor, if not because of my love for old arcade games then for how ambitious it is.

Capcom was eventually a king, and Trojan was part of my introduction to the company. Though it's usually dismissed as mediocre and often labeled forgettable, it was an essential piece of my gaming library and always serves as reminder of good times with friends.

 For that, Trojan will remain in my memories forever.

1 comment:

  1. Trojan is a game I've seen in advertisements and second-hand shops my entire life, but I didn't even know what the gameplay looked liked until very recently. Nobody ever talks about this game.

    Fortunately, it's quite easy to find. Looks like I'll have to become better acquainted.