[“Might Have Been” is a bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, concepts, and companies failed. This week’s edition looks at Capcom's Trojan, released in the arcade and NES in 1986.]

History and Wikipedia tell us that Capcom was founded back in 1979, but in every way that mattered, Capcom didn’t start until the mid-‘80s. It was only in the latter half of the decade that the company birthed the games that first defined it: Street Fighter, Mega Man, Ghosts ‘n Goblins, Strider, Bionic Commando and, if you’re charitable, Forgotten Worlds.

Trojan sits somewhere in the middle of all that. It was too successful to join Capcom obscurities like Avengers and The Speed Rumbler, but it didn’t stick around long enough to become a franchise or a cult favorite. Trojan even went one step beyond the usual arcade flash-in-the-pan and missed its chance two times: once as an arcade game, and again on the NES.

Leaving the Bronx

Like countless chunks of mid-‘80s arcade machismo, Trojan wholeheartedly stole from movies and comics, piecing together a post-apocalyptic world from the bleak future of Mad Max, the broken skyscrapers of Escape from New York, and the hulking mutant thugs of Fist of the North Star. As a result, Trojan resembles some sort of Italian-made Mad Max rip-off with a title like Lost World Warrior of the Bronx Wasteland Escape 2000. In the harsh piecemeal future of Trojan, a tyrant named Achilles (who was actually a heroic figure in the Trojan War of the Illiad, but never mind that) rules over everything, possibly with the help of evil spirits, and only a clean-cut warrior named Ryu bothers to challenge him.

Trojan’s biggest inspiration, however, came from earlier side-scrolling action games like Kung Fu and Capcom’s own Ghosts ‘n Goblins. Ryu trudges through relatively short stages while enemies swarm from both sides, overwhelming him if he stops moving for too long. And when those enemies get too close, Ryu can either strike at them with his sword or block them with his shield, which absorbs several attacks before flying away and taking Ryu’s sword with it. Ryu is then left with only punches to defend himself until he recovers his sword. An interesting concept at first, the shield doesn’t really work; it can absorb only a few hits, and defending at all usually lets enemies overtake you from both sides.

The World Hates You

Trojan makes another curious misstep: instead of jumping by pressing a button, the player must move the joystick up. It’s a precursor to the mechanics of Street Fighter, but the idea’s unnatural and confusing for a side-scrolling action game. Perhaps Capcom didn’t want to spring for a three-button arcade cabinet, but whatever the reason, Trojan’s harder to play than it should be.

And the game allows no mistakes. In Trojan’s strangely gun-free setting, Achilles makes do with an army of basic purple-haired grunts, knife-throwers in bondage gear, crossbowmen, human doodlebugs, and flying, bomb-dropping midgets. And all of them will kill you in a hurry. Ryu has a life meter, but it depletes easily, and it’s not always clear when he’s taking damage. Ghosts ‘n Goblins won its fan base by being gruelingly hard, but Ghosts ‘n Goblins had a variety of weapons, multi-directional shooting, and a constantly changing selection of enemies.

For that matter, Ghosts ‘n Goblins also had some personality. Yet there are no giggling devils or underwear-clad knights in Trojan. The rotted post-nuclear backdrop of its first stage is impressive for a 1986 arcade title, and that's the highlight of the entire game. The following stages are a dull array of valleys, castles, and elevator-driven gauntlets, all of them rote in design. Trojan’s just there to kill you, and that’s it.

Ported and Depleted

Like most profitable Capcom coin-op games of its day, Trojan was ported to the NES not so long after it hit arcades. The game’s graphics were diminished, and not always in understandable ways (Ryu’s NES incarnation has red hair and the knife-throwers look strangely androgynous), but the game’s progression is much the same: hack at enemies, jump when you can, and don't stop moving.

And that's where Trojan really went wrong. Many arcade games were greatly improved on the NES. For example, Rygar went from a mediocre side-scroller to a complex rudimentary action-RPG, while Ninja Gaiden’s action-platformer NES version shamed its tedious arcade brother. Capcom’s Bionic Commando saw an amazing change, too; the arcade-born original was a chaotic mess where players died once a minute, but the NES incarnation remodeled the game into a unique marvel.

Whoever ported Trojan to the NES only flirted with expanding it. Hidden bonus icons are strewn throughout the levels, and falling into manholes on the first stage brings you to hidden rooms never seen in the arcade game. After killing the sub-bosses there, Ryu can find jumping boots that, unfortunately, wear off in about twelve seconds. That’s about it. There’s no world map, no item hoarding, no gameplay improvements and nothing to push Trojan beyond its tepid arcade source.

After the Apocalypse

Swept quickly aside, Trojan never made it into the upper Capcom hierarchy. To see just how far it went, look to Marvel vs. Capcom. The game has a pile of non-playable supporting characters, and many of them are old-school Capcom cameos: Arthur from Ghosts ‘n Goblins, the Unknown Soldier from Forgotten Worlds, Lou from Three Wonders, and even Michelle Heart from Legendary Wings. Trojan and Ryu sat out in the hall.

Trojan survives today as part of the recent Capcom Classics Collection, where it's likely played only by people who enjoyed it two decades ago. There's no shame in ignoring Trojan, though. It's just a dull, frustrating relic, good only as a footnote in the rise of Capcom, and perhaps as a source of snickers from children half the game’s age.