Popeye (1982 Arcade Review)

As the story goes, Nintendo attempted to take a license on Popeye 1981. King Syndicate approved the license.. after the game was too far into production to be reworked. You know that game as Donkey Kong. That’s right: had King Syndicate not dragged its feet, there would be no Mario, no Donkey Kong, and no Pauline. They would have been Popeye, Bluto, and Olive Oyl respectively. Just imagine.. a video game world without Pauline! What would have happened to the Super Mario Odyssey song? Oh and the video game landscape as we know it would look totally different. King did eventually grant the license, but by that point, Nintendo had no clue what they would do with it. It was too late to pull back Donkey Kong and turn it into Popeye, and they also had nothing on the drawing board. All they had was a license. The rest of Popeye’s development is shrouded in mystery, but about a year-and-a-half after the license from King Syndicate arrived, Popeye reached arcades. Sometime between their “oh crap, they gave us the license!” moment and November of 1982, Nintendo somehow managed to make what I feel is the best of their early arcade output.

No early 80s game had such cartoon-like graphics. Well, yea. Shigeru Miyamoto literally watched Popeye cartoons while drawing the sprites. Of course, the backgrounds look more like Sky Skipper’s, which is not a very pretty game.

Popeye is one of those games that grew on me. As I started getting into playing retro games, I began to better appreciate what it accomplished in 1982. It’s the best maze chase I’ve played that’s played from a side-view, and Bluto is the best pursuer the genre has ever seen. You could just as easily retheme this as a Terminator game and it’d work. Bluto stalks you and isn’t limited to the platform he’s on. He can reach down to the platform below him. He can jump up to swipe at you. If you’re two stories below him, he’ll jump down two stories to come at you. If you’re across the screen he’ll throw bottles at you. He will not stop, until you’re dead. He’s an ever-present menace that makes Popeye one of the greatest maze chase games ever. This is a game of close calls, tight squeezes, and a surprising amount of action. As you move about the stage, the Sea Hag throws bottles at you too. Sometimes she does it from both sides at the same time. You have a punch move that doesn’t work on Bluto but it can break the bottles and the bouncing skulls (introduced after a complete level cycle) that come your way. In a maze chase with one of the most relentless pursuers the genre has seen, those moments where you’re forced to stand still and smash bottles become some of the most nerve-racking in all of classic gaming. And it’s awesome!

After completing one cycle of Popeye’s levels, the game goes truly bonkers. You still have Bluto and the Sea Hag to watch out for, but now you also have ANOTHER Sea Hag throwing skulls that bounce randomly around the level. Oh and you lose a life if any of the stuff Olive Oyl throws lingers on the bottom stage too long. It’s Nintendo’s way of saying “okay, you had your fun and rescued Olive Oyl. Now, please get the fudge off the machine so someone else will pay a quarter to play it.”

Popeye also works because you can’t create some kind of a preset strategy to walk the maze. Olive Oyl throws the collectables onto the playfield, which sorta float about. Their speeds and trajectory are completely random. Much like I do through life, they just sort of drift aimlessly until they reach the bottom. Improvising is the name of the game. You have to constantly fight to scratch-out a safe distance between you and Bluto, but you also have to chase down the hearts/notes/letters that your main squeeze tosses down at you, and they constantly shift directions. You can let them reach the bottom floor, but once there, they’ll slowly start to sink into the floor. If they linger there too long, you lose a life. This will lead to moments where you’re making squeeze-plays right by Bluto trying to get to the basement and collect the items with the urgent DU-NU-LUNT-LUNT-DU–NU-LUNT-LUNT music playing that’s right up there with Baby Mario’s crying from Yoshi’s Island in the “MAKE IT STOP!” Hall of Fame.

Despite my attempts to learn the idiosyncrasies of these classic games and what makes them work or not, I’m rarely any good at them. But, in gathering media for this review, I reached the seventh screen for only the second time on the arcade version. I shouldn’t really get nervous because who gives a crap about a high score of a forty year old game played on an emulator that doesn’t count anyway? But, in fact, I ultimately broke for 100,000 points (without cheating!) for the first time playing this and my hands were sopping with nerve-sweat the entire time. It was both disgusting and glorious.

Being Popeye, you can also grab a can of spinach from the edge of one of the screens. When you do, all the action on the screen stops. Everything except Bluto, who will try beat-feet-it away from you. But, annoyingly, you can’t just give chase. You have to do the HE’S POPEYE THE SAILOR MAN! HE LIVES IN A FRYING PAN! TURN-UP THE GAS AND BURN OFF HIS ASS HE’S POPEYE THE SAILOR MAN posing. By time you actually can move, Bluto usually has distance on you. My strategy was to put myself in a do-or-die situation where Bluto WOULD kill me coming up or down the stairs. It might have worked, but I had to pay attention to what position the spinach was in, and how long it’d been there. And I have the attention span of a housefly. My personal best game ever, which I actually had while making this review, would have been even better but I lost two lives mistiming the spinach. When I went to grab it, it was gone, and I had SUCH egg on my face.

About a half-second after this was taken I finally game-overed. I was ten times more excited to have broke for 100,000 than any functioning adult should be.

The three levels are fun and unique, and they each have their own gimmick. In the first level, you can drop a bucket on Bluto’s head. In the second level, you can use Wimpy to launch yourself from the basement to the top floor. The third stage has a moving platform near the top of the screen, and it introduces the Sea Hag’s buzzard, which you can just sock right in the beak for easy points. Of course, three levels makes this the shortest game of that initial Donkey Kong trilogy and leaves you wanting a lot more. But, this is also the Nintendo coin-op with the fewest weaknesses in that initial run. There’s no jumping physics to learn. There’s no objects to jump over. It’s you, a 2D landscape, projectiles flying in from the sides, and the best chaser in the genre. In only three levels, Popeye provides more close-calls and nail-biting moments than any maze chase that’s done from a side angle. Shame about the license, though. It means Popeye is the one Nintendo coin-op that gets no love these days. We were THIS CLOSE to Nintendo’s most important game ever being forever shackled by a license from a company with no passion for gaming. Everything you need to know about how lucky we all are can be summed-up by Popeye being a non-entity in 2020s. For the want of a signature, it could have been Donkey Kong. Then again, maybe this game would have featured a carpenter gathering hearts while being pursued by a gorilla and everyone would celebrate it today while Popeye Kong would be buried, never to show its face again. Life finds a way, right?

Make sure to check out my review of modern Popeye tribute Gon’ E-Choo! It’s so close to Nintendo authentic that you’d swear it really was a 1983 sequel to Popeye that was reskinned.

Popeye was developed by Nintendo

Popeye is Chick-Approved

About Indie Gamer Chick
Indie game reviews and editorials.

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