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Popeye (NES) artwork

Popeye (NES) review

""I yam what I yam and what I yam is a mediocre Donkey Kong clone.""

Now here's a game that doesn't get referenced in the Smash Bros. series. Popeye is a NES port of the Nintendo-developed arcade game starring the titular sailor man. Yes, that's right: a Nintendo-developed licensed game! These are few and far between.

Popeye can be thought of as a sister game to Donkey Kong, though instead of climbing to the top of the screen to rescue his girlfriend, Popeye has to catch the items she throws from her perch while avoiding Brutus and, starting with the second “cycle,” skulls thrown by the Sea Hag. The skulls even use Donkey Kong bouncing sound effects. Early on, Brutus isn't very aggressive. He can throw deadly bottles at you, or jump down on top of you from an overhead platform, but at first he mostly just ignores you as long as you keep your distance. On later cycles, he'll pursue you much more actively.

Popeye has a limited moveset. He can hop off the edge of a platform, but he can't manually jump anywhere. He can punch, but he can't damage enemies by doing so. He can destroy some projectiles (bottles thrown by Brutus, specifically) by punching them, but his blows aren't strong enough to affect Brutus on their own. Of course, every level contains a single can of spinach that can be grabbed. Under the effects of the nasty green vegetable, Popeye is invincible and can knock Brutus out simply by touching him. This gives you a score bonus and grants you a reprieve, but Brutus does re-spawn after a few seconds.

There are three levels, each with its own quirks. The first area is a dock, and Olive Oyl throws hearts in your direction. You have to catch all 24 of them, and if any float down into the water at the bottom of the screen and linger there long enough to sink out of reach, you lose a life. There's also a barrel hanging from the top of the stage, as well as a small punching bag. If Popeye can punch the bag, it will hit the barrel and knock it down, landing on Brutus' head if he happens to be underneath it at the time. This action awards a score bonus and keeps Brutus from moving for a few moments.

The second level plays out in a city street, with a seesaw that can be used to propel Popeye to the top of the screen where Swee'Pea hangs from a balloon, waiting to offer up some bonus points. This is mostly the same setup as you saw in the first level, except the platforms are arranged differently and you have to collect 16 music notes instead of hearts.

The third stage takes place on a ship, with a moving ledge to bridge two platforms near the top of the level. This stage introduces a vulture enemy that flies around the screen, making things trickier than they were in the two preceding settings. In this stage, you must collect the letters in the word “HELP.” Each letter adds a rung to a ladder in the middle of the stage. Once the ladder is completed, the level is over and the game restarts at a tougher version of level 1, just as happened in Donkey Kong.

There's one thing all three stages have in common: they're hideous. The sprites are okay, and at least recognizable, but Popeye may have the ugliest stages featured in any NES game ever created. They all look like they would be right at home in an Atari 2600 game. The steps on the ship level look like a string of rectangles. I can't tell if they're supposed to be stairs, chains, ladders turned to the side and propped up against a wall, or what. The closest any environmental elements come to detail are some black rectangles that rest on the staircases in the first and second stages, which suggest that the steps are made of brick. Everything else is just a solid mass of enormous pixels.

There's a different song on every level, but they can best be described as “inoffensive.” The Popeye theme plays on the title screen and when you collect spinach, but otherwise, the songs are pretty similar and generic. Each song only uses one audio channel at a time, so none of them are very complicated. You'll probably forget about them as soon as you're finished playing.

Popeye deserves some praise for being such a faithful port of the arcade version. Sure, it's ugly, but so was the arcade game. Unlike Donkey Kong, nothing of importance was cut from Popeye. The only obvious sacrifices are a few characters sprite animations, along with a Wimpy sprite who was responsible for helping you to bounce off the seesaw in the second stage (I question the physics involved there anyway, since Popeye flies much higher than the height from which Wimpy falls).

Ultimately, Popeye can be thought of as a poor man's Donkey Kong. The game is competent but inferior, since Donkey Kong outshines it in just about every department despite of the stage that Nintendo chopped from the home conversion. Popeye is only worth playing as an old school score attack arcade-type game if you're sick of both Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr., or if you're the only person living in the 21st century who still cares about Popeye…


Roto13's avatar
Freelance review by Rhody Tobin (March 08, 2013)

Rhody likes to press the keys on his keyboard. Sometimes the resulting letters form strings of words that kind of make sense when you think about them for a moment. Most times they're just random gibberish that should be ignored. Ball-peen wobble glurk.

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