We keep challenging him and he keeps knocking them outta the park! The popular Popeye on Nintendo’s 8-bit takes centre stage but how has it aged? And is it still worthy of your pocket money? Here’s our Andy (UKNESBoy) to reveal all…
Way back when, when the world was a lot greener and a lot less modern than it is today, in darkened hazy neon-lit gaming arcades with colours and sounds that illuminated the senses more than television ever could, there were games played that to play in the comfort of your home was beyond a dream of a humble gamer. Arcade games that didn’t cost a fortune to play and anyone with a modicum of ability and talent would find themselves crowded round by eager gamers observing how well they were playing on that one credit, how far they would actually get. There were certain arcade games, with distinctive music and recognisable characters that could never be believed would arrive on home consoles, not needing to throw 10p after 10p into them to enjoy them. Case in point today – Popeye. Yes, that Popeye with its memorable theme tune and characters such as Popeye himself, Olive Oyl and Bluto. Nintendo ported this to the NES, on its black-box series conveniently under the “arcade” genre, so how does it stack up today? As strong as a can of spinach or make you feel as green and sick like a, er, can of spinach?
Popeye is as true a definition of an “arcade” game as can be, and was ported over to the NES as one of its black box games released at the launch of the console. The box itself features a fancy arcade classics series emblem and a graphic of a gamer hunched over an arcade cabinet.
Typically, as per most arcade games, there was no story in order to progress through the game and a plot that would put long-running television series’ to shame. The idea was to keep playing until you had run out of lives and had obtained the highest score, to sit upon the top of a high score table for bragging rights and increased sexual prowess*.
Thrusting the game into your console (I see what you did there – Ed) and turning on the power, the first thing you are treated to is an 8-bit rendition of that famous theme tune. There are a few games on the system like this and Top Gun where the music is actually pretty good, especially for a game so early in the console’s library. It is memorable, hummable and will stick in the mind as you are playing the game.
If you and your ears can drag yourself away from the main theme tune, you get the option of playing Game Mode A or B, with which both options you can choose to play one or two players. The difference between the two game modes is that when you select game mode B, you get an olden creepy witch attempting to make your life more difficult than it already is by throwing skulls at you, which is always a welcome sight. NOT. If you’re wondering what the two player local multiplayer is like, alas it’s not the good co-op kind of multiplayer, it is the kind where you take turns completing levels like Super Mario Brothers.
The idea of each level is to collect whatever Olive Oyl be throwing at you. So, for example, in the first level it is adorable hearts but different levels have musical notes and also letters that spell the word “help”. If you think it is easy to collect these things then standing in the way between you and that heady whiff of success is Bluto, giving you a big bunch of fives smack bang into the water. No weapons in the game however you do get to use your oversized meaty fists of doom but you cannot use these until you have picked up a can of – that’s right – salted red kidney beans. Sorry, Spinach.
Anyways, Spinach and hearts aside, collect this in level one and you progress to the second level, and you carry on through the game in such manner. But no kidney beans, alas.
The more you progress in the game, you may start to notice minor characters from the cartoon show up, such as Swee’Pea holding a balloon ho sits upon what looks like a hoverboard taken from Back to the Future and goes up and down with which directly below is a see-saw. Get your aiming and timing just right and claim those sweet extra bonus points. Bluto can try to do this as well, but no matter how well the execution and technique he possesses, nothing happens as a result. What a wasted effort. Level three sees you upon a ship, and upon collecting letters it builds on-screen a ladder for you to climb and rescue Olive however what stops you is a dive-bombing bird that you can smack right in it’s face should you need to in order to stop it taking a life. Please don’t call the RSPB though, no amount of explaining will stop them hanging the phone up at you….You will find there are variety in the different three levels you have played so far, differing colours and designs that tease the eyes and make the game enjoyable. Completing level three though brings you back to the design of level one, but with the label entitled level four. confused? Don’t be, grab a can of good ol’ fashioned red kidney beans and sit back taking everything in that the game has to offer, smacking a dive-bombing bird in the mouth whilst your at it too.
Controls-wise, it is straightforward enough and feel very responsive to your touch. This is exactly what you need when being harassed by Bluto and collecting various items that are being thrown your way. D-pad moves Popeye left, right, up and down to traverse the ladders, the A button is the punch and the B button does nothing. The controls are simple enough for what needs to be completed in the level so it feels adequate for the task at hand. In Popeye, there is no jumping and no ducking either, so it is a case of using your fantastically trained reflexes, and the ability to walk past the walls to the other side of the screen. Helpfully, there is an arrow saying “thru” to helpfully point out where to go. It is a nice touch that you are not penned into the 2 sides of the level in an effort to escape from the evil Bluto.
Music wise? Well as noted earlier, when you turn the game on, and before the level starts you’re treated to that famous music – it certainly does add a certain je ne sais quoi to proceedings, and is always a treat to listen to, such as the podcast of a certain retro gaming outfit….. (awwww, shucks – Ed)
Looking back at not only Popeye but a number of arcade ports that came to the NES, especially in the early part of the console’s library, they certainly stood well alongside the original games that were on the system and could hold its head up high. It is a difficult task to recreate that feeling of inserting coin after coin in neon-lighted smoke-filled arcades of yesteryear, but Nintendo did a fine job porting over the controls and visuals from what you would have expected from an arcade machine. The visuals of Popeye matched that of the arcade, the controls were smooth and responsive and like a lot of things in life, the game is easy to pick up and play but difficult to master.
The world record was around 3 million points, so you may never reach that when playing the game yourself but it certainly is fun practicing. The game sadly is not on the Switch Online Service, maybe due to licencing, who knows. In terms of the original cart, copies of the game are uncommon in the wild and you may be lucky enough to find a copy at your local retro gaming store or market. As such, the price is a bit higher than that of a more common black box game like Golf or Super Mario Bros but the quality of the game alone is worth the extra few pennies or cents.
Even if you are not a fan of Popeye, the gameplay itself is worthy of a playthrough and makes you feel pumped up ready to smack an old witch or nasty bird right in its face with those fists of fury. So turn on the music, eat that can of red kidney beans spinach, do your best A-GA-GA-GA-GA impression and get ready for some fine arcade action. Kudos to you if you can replicate that figure of the gamer hunched over the arcade like on the black box Arcade series of games…..
*note, there is nothing to suggest ruling the roost on a leaderboard increases sexual prowess. Much.
All screenshots taken from Moby Games.