There are certain games than when you grew up, in those arcades of yore when they didn’t cost a fortune to play and kids would crowd round the latest game amazed at how far Little Jimmy got on one credit, it was hard to imagine these games being transferred and ported from the arcades to the home console because they were that good on the arcade. I always remember for some reason not only X-Men at the arcades, but as well Popeye with its distinctive theme song from the cartoons we know so well. It seems Nintendo had the idea of porting this to the NES as a black-box game under the “Arcade” series, so how away from the bright lights and loud noises of the arcades, how did the game fare up, will it make you big and strong, or sickly green like the spinach that gets eaten?
Popeye is the quintessential text-book definition of an “arcade” game, ported over to the Nintendo Entertainment System (if that wasn’t made clear by the “arcade classics series” on the box and the graphic of a gamer hunched over an arcade cabinet). As per most of the early arcade games, played either on the console or in it’s original format at the cabinet, there is no end screen and not a point where the game is completed, your playing to attain the highest score possible so to keep playing until you run out of lives. Popeye is no different, and plays like Urban Champion in which you have to keep going further and further, the enemies becoming more difficult and the player needing the reflexes of a dog consuming too many Mars Bars.
Popping in the game and turning the console on, your treated to an 8-bit rendition of the theme tune and you know what? It certainly is not a bad effort at it, it’ll have you singing along before any button is presses and you won’t want it to end. You get the option of playing game mode A, or game mode B, and that is both for 1 or 2 players. The difference between game mode A and B is that Game Mode B starts with a creepy old witch throwing skulls at you making your game more difficult. The 2 player option unfortunately is not the option to play co-operatively, but taking it in turns to completing the levels – bearing in mind this game was released in 1982 then it certainly is no loss to not being able to play side-by-side with your buddy. The idea of the level is to collect whatever Olive Oyl throws your way, in the first level this is hearts but later levels it can be musical notes or letters that spell the word “HELP”. Sounds easy enough right? Well, trying to stop you collecting and saving is good ol’ Bluto ready to punch you hard into the ocean. In terms of weapons, all you have is your fist ready to punch him out, however you cannot do this unless you’ve eaten (drumroll please…no guesses needed) a can of spinach – that’s right nul points to you if you thought it was a mushroom or rupees. Well collect 24 hearts and you make your way to Level 2, where the scenery changes and musical notes are the items to collect, and so wash, rinse and repeat.
From level 2 onwards, minor characters from the cartoon do make an appearance, to the top left of the screen sits Swee’ Pea upon some hover board going up and down holding a balloon, directly below him a see saw. Hit the see saw right to hit Swee’ Pea (nothing sinister about uppercutting a hovering raft a baby is on, is there?) and claim extra bonus points. It’s a nice touch that Bluto can hit that same see-saw and try to hit Swee’Pea but nothing happens when he does. Level 3 is set upon a ship, and when you collect the letters it builds a ladder for you to rescue Olive, but at this stage you get a vulture dive bombing at you, this time you can whack it right in the face (no need to call the RSPCA then) to get points and stop it attacking you costing a life. So there is some variety in the levels colours and design however after level 3, although it states it is level 4, in terms of graphics and enemies it reverts back to Level 1 but the levels get tougher so you really need your wits about you to get further. As mentioned, although the top score gets saved, as soon as you turn the console off you lose your top score so get ready with your camera.
The control’s are simple but responsive, which is what you need when being chased by Bluto. The d-pad moves Popeye left and right through the level, up and down to traverse the ladders, the A button is the punch and the B button does…well nothing. But the controls are simple enough for what needs to be accomplished in the level. There is no jumping in the game (either by pressing up or whatever button usually is jump in games) and there’s no ducking either, its a question of using your fantastically honed reflexes, and the ability to walk past the walls to the other side of the screen, with an arrow saying “thru” to helpfully point out where to go.. It’s good that your not penned into the 2 sides of the level in the effort to evade Bluto. The music, well what can you say? When you turn the game on, and before the level starts your treated to that famous music – it certainly does add some oomph into the game, and its not like Superman 64 that uses stock music and possess none of the characteristics of the movie.
Arcade ports certainly fared well when they were ported to the Nintendo early in the NES catalogue, and although nothing can recreate the feeling of pumping coins into a smoke-filled loud arcade machine, Nintendo done a good job porting this to the console to recreate the gameplay you’d expect at the arcade. The controls are responsive and like most things in life, its easy to get the basics right however will take a lifetime to master. It’s doubtful you’d get to the point where you beat the world record of over 3 million, but there’s nothing to stop you practicing – pretending to pump coins in to top that score! The game is definitely one to have in the collection, however copies in the wild are uncommon but it is worth the price – its not often uncommon games are worth the money but in this instance it really is worth it. Even for non-Popeye fans the gameplay alone makes it a classic for the console, and the challenge of old witches throwing skulls at you makes you more determined to plant a kiss with your fist right in his kisser, so grab a can of spinach, holler your best A-GA-GA-GA-GA-GA-GA-GA and get ready for some retro arcade action! I’m off to recover from the copious amounts of spinach I ate whilst writing this episode, I have some big blokes to go and hit…
Rating – 5 out of 5