Popeye might be the most insulting adaptation of a classic arcade game

Popeye Header

Hot dog torso

I really don’t know how you become the sort of person who would use the fantastic 1982 Popeye arcade game for evil. If someone told me they were remaking Popeye in 3D, I would think it was a strange concept, but I would never assume ill-intentions. Yet, somehow, Sabec got the license.

It’s strange to say they “got the license.” Popeye is technically in the public domain in Europe and will be in the U.S. in 2024. Maybe there’s a loophole there, but credit to King Features is presented on the title screen in a similar matter to the arcade classic. In any case, the developer of games like Teddy Gangs, Fight, and Calculator got their hands on Popeye and proceeded to sin.

Pirate Ship

The 1982 Popeye arcade game is a classic. It’s a single-screen action game similar to Donkey Kong. Astute readers probably remember that Donkey Kong came from legendary designer, Shigeru Miyamoto’s desire to create a Popeye game, but they couldn’t get the license in time. The next year, he’d get the opportunity and created Popeye with Genya Takeda.

Despite its origins, Popeye is not just a clone of Donkey Kong. Unlike the sedentary ape, Bluto pursues you throughout the level. Your goal is to collect hearts dropped by Olive Oyl while avoiding danger. Like in the cartoon, spinach gives Popeye the ability to punch the ever-loving crap out of Bluto, giving you a chance to grab a few more hearts unmolested until he pulls himself from the brine.

There are three levels in all, with the second one having you grabbing music notes and the third being letters in the word HELP. Then, as arcade games often do, it loops until the RAM can’t handle it anymore. Except not really. Popeye doesn’t have a kill screen. Bit of pointless trivia for you.

Popeye Raining Hearts

So, you may be saying, “Zoey, you typically stick to retro games. What are you doing covering a game from 2021?” The simple answer is that I love Popeye. Not just the 1982 arcade game, but also the pre-war cartoons. They’re distilled violence. Every short was just about Bluto and Popeye competing in some job. Then they start sabotaging each other. Then they throw hands. Popeye isn’t necessarily the hero most of the time; he’s just less obnoxious than Bluto. He always wins simply because he knows how to dope with canned spinach.

Seeing the name Popeye on the Switch shop caught my eye immediately. Then, I saw that it looked like a self-aware cesspool. I saw that it was based on the arcade game and was confused. How could anyone with an iota of respect for the 1982 arcade classic pervert it in such a fashion? I waited for a sale – a deep sale – to find out.

Brutus

If your like me, your first question is, “how do you translate a single-screen arcade game to 3D?” You can’t. Not a 3D environment. Latterday games based on concepts like Frogger and Pac-Man either just played with the original formula using 3D graphics, or they just became generic platformers.

Wait, hold on, I just thought of a game that would translate: Lunar Lander. Except that has been made obsolete by Kerbal Space Program.

Anyway, Popeye doesn’t have some magical answer for how you’d translate the formula, it just shows you why it doesn’t work. Again, your goal is to collect hearts thrown by Olive Oyl, but she just hurls them around willy-nilly. Bluto chases after you, but he can be outsmarted by going around a corner or just circling around him. It’s kind of embarrassing if he ever does catch you. He’s the least effective slasher enemy I think I’ve ever encountered.

Popeye Eating Spinnich

There are some credible reports that Popeye is a Unity Asset Flip game, and it really doesn’t take much digging to confirm that, yeah, it definitely is. Research isn’t even required; when you play it, you can tangibly feel the out-of-place assets. The buildings and landscape aren’t really what I think of first when I think of Popeye. Sure, some of the shorts would change time periods, so a pirate theme isn’t that out of the ordinary, I just figure that if you wanted to remake the arcade game, you might select something more recognizable.

It’s less effort than I typically put into my high school homework. At least I didn’t just buy all the answers to pass off as my own.

It’s technically a functional game, but I wouldn’t put much stock into that claim. It’s not like a lot of time was spent on bug testing. Quality assurance, pah! That would imply there was any quality to assure. Even pressing the home button on Switch kills Popeye instantly. They probably should have done that with the screenshot button. That would at least prevent any evidence of the crime scene.

Popeye Asset Flip

The theme song loops throughout the levels. I think I was too distracted with everything else wrong with this game, but as I researched for this article, I found a lot of people complaining about it, so watch out, I guess.

It just fascinates me that the license was used as a cash grab. Popeye is a level below shovelware because at least most of the shovelware I’ve played has some level of effort. Popeye doesn’t even feel like a prototype that was accidentally published, it feels like someone was given a deadline of two weeks to push something out the door. It feels like something that was pushed out in the early 8-bit era. It’s Pac-Man on the Atari 2600; recognizable but very, very wrong. No, scratch that, it’s someone’s high school programming class project.

But why do that to the Popeye arcade game? Was there someone hopeful that a good game could come from it, quashed by a money vacuum that wanted a cheap turnaround? Did the license come first, and then someone didn’t even want to come up with a unique idea, so they just lifted the arcade classic and made a poor imitation? Is nothing sacred anymore?

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Zoey Handley
Zoey is a gadabout gaming hobbyist. She's been playing video games all her life and is a lover of both new and retro games. She enjoys digging in the dirt and picking out the games that are perfectly fine if you clean them up a bit.