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Monday, January 20, 2014

NES Replay: Popeye

Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: June 1986
I know we keep talking about Donkey Kong, but a lot of Nintendo's early success hinged upon it. For example, Donkey Kong came about by accident. Originally, Shigeru Miyamoto wanted to make a game about Popeye, and the game was almost complete when they realized that they couldn't get the rights to the characters. Nintendo still had a game to release, though, so they changed the characters around. They swapped Popeye for Jumpman/Mario, Olive Oyl for Pauline, and Bluto for Donkey Kong. The rest, of course, is history.

After the wild success of Donkey Kong, King Features gave Nintendo a shot at a Popeye game in 1982. The inevitable NES port was among the second wave of NES games, and it's only fitting that it was released alongside the game series and characters that it helped inspire.

Popeye subverts your expectations. Popeye cartoons have Popeye beating things up and using his strength frequently. You would expect a Popeye game to be similar, but it's really not. Sure, there's a "punch" button, but you could probably get through the entire game without throwing a punch if you were really good.


Instead, Popeye is about avoiding danger for as long as possible. Olive Oyl stands at the top of the screen, walking back and forth and throwing down kisses, musical notes, or the letters in the word "help." You have to run around and catch them while avoiding Bluto and a few enemies that are running around.

The punch button is only there to fend off a few of the enemies, but you can't go toe to toe with Bluto or he'll pummel you into a pulpy red slush. In order to take him on directly, you need spinach. Periodically, a can of said spinach will appear alongside the level. If you grab it, Popeye can punch Bluto and knock him off the stage for a few brief seconds.

Popeye, therefore, is another fascinating example of Nintendo's early commitment to rethink what a game really needed to be about. While most games would have had Popeye punching his way through enemies, Nintendo took what's widely used as an aggressive move as changed it to a defensive move instead. This was in stark contrast to most early games (and, frankly, most modern ones) that saw aggression as the problem and solution.

Is Popeye a good game, then? Kind of. There are actually a lot of things to do in each level. For example, in the first level you can punch a bag that drops a barrel on Bluto's head if you time it right, and in the second level you can jump on a see-saw and touch Sweet Pea for bonus points. None of these things have any benefit to the actual game, though. They're just "cool things to do" that net you some extra points but don't really matter in the long run.

There are very few enemies onscreen at once in Popeye, and for good reason. The NES could handle 64 sprites onscreen at once, but only eight on any given vertical line at once. If there were more than eight, the ninth would disappear. Developers would try and get around this by making that extra sprite flicker if they were on the same vertical line, but it wasn't an optimal solution.

With that in mind, the kisses/musical notes/letters that Olive Oyl tosses down to the player float down slowly, and there are sometimes five or six onscreen at once. If you add in Bluto, Olive Oyl herself and the can of spinach, that's about eight or nine sprites at once on the screen. They were staggered carefully so they wouldn't end up on the same vertical line, but they really couldn't add a lot more or else they would start losing sprites. That makes Popeye feel a little barren.

The arcade game wasn't much of a looker, but even with that being said, some of the levels in the NES port look pretty bad. You could tell that Nintendo didn't really care about Popeye like they did their other arcade games, and that lack of attention really shows.

The average player will loop through the three levels, come back to the beginning, maybe play through the levels again and put the game down for good. Unlike Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr., Popeye wasn't compelling enough to sustain a player's interest for a really long time. That's a shame, but Popeye had some interesting ideas that Nintendo would flesh out over the years.

Final Rating: