Overall Rating: 2.5/5 Stars
In the very early days of the Nintendo Entertainment System, 1986 to be exact, the video game Popeye was released in America, a title very comparable to Donkey Kong and, similarly, based on an earlier arcade cabinet, which in turn was based on the classic Popeye character that starred in comics and cartoons.
Controlling the spinach-loving protagonist Popeye, the player (or second player taking a turn in two-player mode) must navigate one of three successive, repeating one-screen stages while avoiding nemesis Brutus. The goal in each level is to collect a quota number of tokens dropped by Popeye’s love interest, Olive Oyl, who drops them from her position near the top of the environment. These vary from hearts in the first area, then to music notes in the second, and finally the letters H, E, L, and P in the third and final location.
The tokens are essential, not optional, and all must be collected; 24 for the first and last levels, and 16 musical notes for the second. Doing so requires Popeye to traverse multiple levels via ladders, a point at which the screen wraps from one side to the other in levels one or two, and well-timed use of traps and spinach power-ups. Grabbing the spinach allows Popeye to hit Brutus and temporarily disable him; typically, contact with Brutus (or the hammers he throws) kills Popeye.
If any of the tokens hit the water at the bottom of each level (all have maritime themes, like a dock and ship itself), the background music changes and Popeye has a short period in which he has to go down and grab it, or his life is lost. Like Pac-Man or Donkey Kong more aptly, this is an arcade-style, high-score game with repeating levels in an attempt to gain the most points via skillful navigation of on-screen elements and pattern recognition.
This game looks quaint, in a “Wow, this sure is a retro video game” sort of way. The pixels seem to be as big as goats, even if the game is technically no more pixelated than most NES cartridge visuals. It is almost as though the visual effects are so crude that it enhances the nostalgic presentation to the point that it could be considered good. If you think about it too much, it can be confusing. Either way, the animations are actually very smooth, oddly enough, for an 8-bit title. Well, at least Popeye’s animations are (boy, look at him descend those stairs), but the showing for Brutus landing in the water is laughable.
Simple background tracks, but fortunately they include the classic theme as an interstitial to start each level. The effects are your basic “boop” and “beep” and jingle bell types of sounds, but they get the job done and provide a bit of sentimental punch for anyone who also knows other old games with these sounds relatively in common.
Those familiar with Donkey Kong may find it so similar to Popeye, in fact, that it demands an explanation: As it turns out, the original Donkey Kong video game was supposed to be a Popeye game, with Popeye in place of Jumpman/Mario, Brutus in place of DK, Olive in place of Pauline, etc. However, there were licensing issues (perhaps ironic, considering the problems that resulted with producing a game with “Kong” in the title) that ended up with the decision to scrap the idea of using Popeye characters. But with the smash success of Donkey Kong, it made sense to launch another, similar game, and after properly getting the license Popeye saw the light of day. As far as video games go, Popeye is a perfect example of that intersection of arcade units and home consoles. It can certainly be considered fun today, and hardcore high-score gamers still find Popeye as one of their worthy targets, but it would be difficult to place it in the pantheon of the greatest games ever. Nonetheless, it still stands the test of time as being much better than many other NES cartridges, and while the gameplay may lack depth it still offers an experience worth two and a half stars out of five.