Retro Gaming Challenge Week Six: Trog (NES)

A dinosaur, some cavemen and the core gameplay of Pac-Man with added powerups. Should be a winner, right?
The retro gaming wheels roll ever onwards as I continue this slightly silly challenge. For those coming in late, I’m going to play a different retro game, not always to completion, every week for 52 straight weeks. The Internet votes (from a selection) of titles each week to determine what I play the following week. And so it rolls on…
Retro Gaming Challenge Week One: Shin Nippon Pro Wrestling: Toukon Road 2: The Next Generation (N64)
Retro Gaming Challenge Week Two: Donkey Konga (Gamecube)
Retro Gaming Challenge Week Three: The Firemen (SNES)
Retro Games Challenge Week Four: Space Invaders (2600)
Retro Gaming Challenge Week Five: Three Dirty Dwarves (Saturn)

Trog (NES)

Trog’s a weird title. Weird in that I can’t quite recall where my NES copy came from. It bears the sticker of a rental outlet, but I don’t explicitly recall picking it up ex-rental, which means it’s most likely come with a job lot of NES games that I must have picked up from eBay for some reason.
Except that I can’t recall doing that either. These are the perils of getting older, folks.
Anyway, Trog is based off a Midway arcade game that featured lots of cute claymation and is arguably best known for appearing extremely briefly in Terminator 2. I’m not going to lie; the reason it ended up in the voting matrix at all for NES games was because I watched Terminator 2 a couple of weeks ago, and there it was, and obviously there it stuck in my subconscious, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.
Trog, it strikes me, is an oddity amongst Midway’s games for one simple reason. Unlike pretty much the rest of Midway’s catalog of titles, it’s not one that’s appeared on endless compilations again and again and again.
You want Smash TV? There’s endless ports, plus compilations on offer. Same deal for Defender, Joust, Robotron… I could go on. You get the point. Sure, Trog’s nowhere near as fondly remembered as those titles, but you’d think if you owned the rights and the code you’d do something with it. Relative obscurity never stopped Capcom throwing oddities onto their collection titles, but all Trog gets is this NES version and a PC port. Which means it has something in common with last week’s Three Dirty Dwarves, because that’s a title that only exists on one console format and the PC as well. Big clap for synchronicity there.
Trog didn’t start life as a Pac-Man clone (Hardcore Gaming 101 has a great little article about Trog’s weird, puzzle-like origins if you care) but there’s no doubt that’s what Trog is. It took my kids all of about three seconds of me playing it to figure that out, although in Trog (that’s the name of the cavemen, by the way; in the NES game you play as Bloop or Spike the dinosaurs) the balance of peril isn’t so heavily weighted towards your enemies. The Trogs are dumb. Really, truly dumb, and what’s more you’re able to punch them away, as well as eat them when pineapples randomly appear onscreen.
Trog should be a great game. It’s basically Pac-Man, but with a cute dinosaur character, evil-yet-ineptly-funny cavemen adversaries and a plethora of powerups from pineapples that inexplicably turn you into a Trog-munching T-Rex to fire sticks that equally perplexingly grant you the ability to breathe fire.
It should be, but at least in its NES incarnation, it really isn’t, and it’s for one of the most basic reasons possible. It’s an arcade conversion, and most arcade games are best experienced in short exciting bursts. Nobody really cares if you’re blasted off the moon in Space Invaders, because for those few exciting minutes you’re in the thick of the action, even if the odds of survival are poor.

You want to know why the dinosaurs died out? Because they were finger lickin' good, that's why!
You want to know why the dinosaurs died out?
Because they were finger lickin’ good, that’s why!

In Trog, the odds of surviving are very good indeed, even if you opt for “Expert” mode, which simply jumps you ahead four islands for a 400,000 point bonus. Powerups are so plentiful, and the Trogs so fundamentally stupid that they only start getting tricky when the game throws multiple types at you all at once, and that doesn’t really happen until level 30 or so.
Which means, for those keeping score, that every time I fired up Trog I had to trawl through 26 levels of what was essentially tedium in order to get to the hard, exciting arcade bit. After those 26 levels, however, I was generally always burnt out on Trog’s basic premise, so the fact that it was suddenly unfairly hard didn’t make enough of a difference to me.
Two player Trog is a little better, because it’s always more fun to play with another human being by your side. I think this is one of the lost arts of retro gaming, because while online multiplayer through services such as PSN or Xbox Live is extremely convenient for gaming any time with any number of players all over the world, there’s no simple substitute for that gamer you can “accidentally” punch in the arm when they steal the last powerup.
Again, though, it’s game balance that spoils Trog in multiplayer as well. You’re still stuck with only two continues, which means somebody’s going to fall out of the game at some point, but while you last, you’ve only got to get your “own” coloured eggs. The powerup balance means that often whoever gets the most speed powerups, or has the fewest Trogs, or doesn’t have fire or oil hazards to contend with wins. That’s not a game of skill or good planning; it’s just dumb luck, and it left me feeling dumb.
Given the rate at which Bloop and Spike eat the Trogs, it's a wonder humanity survived at all.
Given the rate at which Bloop and Spike eat the Trogs, it’s a wonder humanity survived at all.

It’s a geniune pity, because the NES variant of Trog does almost everything right. There’s a minimum of sprite flicker, the colour design avoids clash and the whole thing chugs along at an acceptable frame rate. I will admit I’ve never played the original arcade title – the closest I’ve ever come would be that scene in Terminator 2 – and maybe it does mix challenge with innovation to the right level to be truly fun. I can’t imagine grizzled early 90s arcade operators being too happy with a game that people could last 30+ minutes on a single credit otherwise. Maybe that’s why I’ve never seen one in the wild?
Anyway, the Internet’s choice of Trog put me in a bit of a bind this week, because while everything else I’ve played has had its ups and downs, Trog very quickly had me essentially bored. Sure, I could chase high scores if I felt like it, because Trog absolutely loves giving you points for every single activity, up to and including “bonus” levels where you’ve got to eat random trogs or collect gems or such. Again, though, the thrill of the score chase is reduced substantially when you’re routinely scoring in the millions with ease.
Is there a good practical takeaway lesson in all of this? I think so. Trog isn’t great, but then there’s a strong tendency in retro gaming to look at everything with rose tinted glasses on. “It was a limitation of the technology” or “you don’t understand it” or similar. Trog at a technology level does absolutely everything it can with the NES hardware, and visually, it’s a great title.
A great, boring title. Not everything retro gaming is a classic, after all.
Next week:
The voting was a little slower this week, which meant that the lead title changed multiple times. Still, there could be only one winner, and that winner was Robocop vs Terminator. Again, that’s not the result I expected, what with the general Internet love of ToeJam & Earl, although maybe folks are burnt out after the Kickstarter revival, which appears to be stillborn. Pity, that.
Also, I’m sensing a Terminator theme here, what with Trog, but after Robocop vs Terminator I think I’m out of Terminator games. Except Terminator 2 for the NES, but I’m not that cruel to myself. I think.
So next week’s game selection will be from Microsoft’s first foray into gaming with the original Xbox. A console Microsoft spent an absolute fortune on, only to kill it rather rapidly in favour of the Xbox 360. But which game should I play? You can vote for your selection by clicking on the choices below, and that’s what I’ll play the week after I play Robocop Vs Terminator.
A quick note: The week AFTER my Xbox game, there will not be a vote.
Why? Because back in week one, I suggested my list of games, took in the votes, and one title on my shelf won. Godzilla Generations for the Dreamcast. Only problem was, post voting I went to grab it… and it wasn’t there.
At all.I’m still not sure where it went, but I wanted to keep to the spirit of the challenge, so I headed to eBay and secured a “new” copy. That copy has now arrived, so it shall be the week eight challenge game, with its own voting at the end.
Now, on with the Xbox choices! Click on the title you’d like me to play to vote for that title, and feel free to leave feedback below. Just don’t ask me to play Trog again, OK?
[socialpoll id=”2358760″]

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