Head-to-Head with Popeye the Sailor

Bill Loguidice's picture

Author: Mark R. Wiesner Jr.
Editing: Bill Loguidice and Matt Barton
Online Layout: Matt Barton and Bill Loguidice
Special Thanks: The Video Game Museum (www.vgmuseum.com) for use of the screen captures

Scan of the label for the ColecoVision Popeye Cartridge (Courtesy of Bill Loguidice)
Scan of the ColecoVision

Popeye Cartridge label

Popeye the Sailor is an internationally renowned superstar, and it’s no surprise that he earned a video game in his honor. The 1982 arcade game was very popular and was ported to numerous consoles and home computers. In this article, we will examine four particular ports out of the many: the Atari 2600, Atari 5200, ColecoVision, and Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).

Popeye, of course, has a long history that predates video games. The character first appeared in newspaper comics, animation, and live-action film before making the transition to video games. Popeye was created in 1929 by cartoonist E.C. Segar. It is said that Segar based Popeye on an actual man he knew, a local tough man named Frank “Rocky” Fiegel, whose ability to fight amazed everyone.1 Originally appearing only as a temporary character in Segar’s comic strip, Thimble Theatre, Popeye was an instant hit with the public and soon overtook the comic itself. His popularity spawned cartoons, merchandise, and even a live action film in 1980 with Robin Williams in the title role. With the Golden Age of video games in the early 1980s, the people at Nintendo finally decided to bring Popeye to this new but popular medium.

Before we can compare the four ports of Popeye, it would be only fair to examine the original arcade game first. Nintendo's Popeye (1982) is an action game with a plot resembling something straight out of the cartoons. As usual, Popeye and his arch nemesis Bluto (alternately referred to as Brutus) compete for the romantic attention of Olive Oyl.

In each of the three levels, Olive Oyl throws out items that represent her “love” for Popeye and the sailor must catch them all in order to advance to the next level. But Bluto will have none of this, and is gunning for Popeye. Popeye’s abilities are the ability to walk, climb ladders and staircases, and punch.

The first level consists of four floors connected by staircases and one ladder in the middle of the screen. The top floor is where Popeye starts play and is the only floor that he can move through one end of the screen to get to the other. Bluto wanders around the last three levels. Popeye must avoid Bluto while catching the hearts that Olive Oyl drops. Bluto, however, is one persistent customer and follows Popeye around the screen. He can’t come up to the top floor, but he has a reach that rivals any professional basketball player. If he gets directly above or below Popeye, Bluto can reach Popeye with a powerful punch. If Bluto hits Popeye, a life is lost.

Screenshot of Popeye Arcade Version (MAME)
Screenshot of Popeye, arcade version (MAME)

What’s a sailor to do to stop the big lug? On the first level, there’s a punching bag on the top floor next to a bucket. With proper timing, Popeye can punch the bag so it knocks the bucket onto Bluto’s head, temporarily immobilizing the big schnook. There’s also another way of stopping Bluto, and anyone who’s seen a Popeye cartoon ought to know what it is. (Hint: It’s a green leafy vegetable that the sailor made famous.) You guessed it: Spinach! Once on each level, a can of spinach will appear. If Popeye can grab it, he will be temporarily invincible for as long as the Popeye theme plays. He can deliver a knockout blow that will send Bluto into lower earth orbit, briefly removing him from the game. All point values are doubled while under the influence of spinach.

Bluto, however, is the least of your worries. In addition to Bluto, Popeye also has to deal with the Sea Hag on each level. She’ll briefly appear and throw bottles at him, which must be punched or dodged. The items that Olive throws can be an enemy too. If they hit the bottom level, Popeye has 10 seconds to grab them or die.

The second level is set in a nighttime neighborhood. Olive Oyl throws down music notes for the sailor to catch. There are four floors, including a top floor similar to the one from the first level that Bluto can’t get to (but can still reach you from with punches). Two more Popeye characters put in an appearance too. Swee’Pea, the baby, hovers on a platform and the hamburger loving Wimpy operates a springboard that Popeye can use to vault up to the higher levels with. If Popeye catches onto Swee’Pea’s platform while jumping from the springboard, points are gained. As before, Bluto aggressively chases Popeye and can reach up or down if he passes directly under or over him. He can use the springboard, too.

The third and final level is the trickiest of all. Olive is trapped up on top of a tall ship and tosses down the letters “H-E-L-P” for you to catch. Popeye cannot take shortcuts on any tier as he did in the earlier levels. The only items that can help him here are the spinach and a small sliding platform on the upper floor. Besides the Sea Hag and Bluto (who can now jump up or down two levels), there’s also Bernard the Vulture to deal with. When the level is beaten, the Popeye theme plays briefly. The game then starts over again, albeit with faster, smarter enemies and white skulls to deal with.

The arcade game was a hit and is very enjoyable even today. It’s not hard to see why this game was ported to a number of home systems, to the NES by Nintendo and the 2600, 5200, and ColecoVision by Parker Brothers. But how do these four ports stack up against each other?

Screenshot of Popeye for the Atari 2600
Screenshot of Popeye for the Atari 2600

The Atari 2600 Popeye is arguably the weakest of the four systems. While the game itself is playable and has pretty good sound (especially considering the fact that it’s the least advanced of the systems), there are many flaws. The graphics are drab with Olive Oyl, Popeye, and Bluto being displayed in only one color and not very well detailed. The stages are also very drab in color. The bottles and the spinach are represented as flickering blocks, which further detract from the graphics. Popeye’s punches are hard to time because his fist does not extend outward when he punches like it does in the other games. The Sea Hag doesn’t appear (though her bottles do) and neither does Swee’Pea, Wimpy, the bucket on the first level, or Bernard the vulture on the third level.

Screenshot of Popeye for the ColecoVision
Screenshot of Popeye for the ColecoVision

The ColecoVision version is the first home version of Popeye that I played and is much better than the 2600 counterpart. The music is excellent. Just about everything from the arcade version is present, and boasts the full cast of characters (including Wimpy and the others) that the 2600 game lacked. The only real flaw in the game is the color. Some of the characters and backgrounds look monochromatic. The character design is slightly flawed too. While Bluto looks good, Wimpy, Popeye, Swee’Pea, and Olive could look better.

Screenshot of Popeye for the Atari 5200
Screenshot of Popeye for the Atari 5200

The Atari 5200 version of Popeye features good music too, and its graphics stand up well against the ColecoVision port. Its color even surpasses the ColecoVision game because it looks brighter and more colorful to the naked eye. This is apparent when you compare the screens of the ColecoVision Popeye with the Atari 5200 equivalent. The 5200 Popeye’s only real flaw is its collision detection. When Popeye punches a bottle or other item, it doesn’t always register and is counted as a hit on Popeye, costing a life.

Screenshot of Popeye for the NES
Screenshot of Popeye for the NES

The NES version was the last of the four made and showed up on the NES with the console’s release in Japan and the USA. Hands down, it beats out the other three in technical terms. The outstanding graphics, color, and the superb sound effects and music outshine the other three versions. It’s probably the one that plays most like the arcade version. “Most” is the key word, for it is not a perfect translation. The Sea Hag throws skulls instead of bottles and Wimpy is missing from the second level. The biggest flaw, though, is actually the size of the characters. Popeye, Bluto, and Olive look very small.

Atari 2600 Popeye (Parker Brothers, 1983)
Advantages: Good music, good playability
Disadvantages: Punches hard to time, weak graphics, many things missing from arcade game
Rating: Good (3 out of 5 stars)

Atari 5200 Popeye (Parker Brothers, 1984)
Advantages: Excellent color, good music, plays like the arcade game
Disadvantages: Collision detection is off
Rating: Good (3 out of 5 stars)

ColecoVision Popeye (Parker Brothers, 1983)
Advantages: Good graphics, good sound, plays like the arcade version
Disadvantages: Monochromatic color, a few characters lack detail

Rating: Good (3 out of 5 stars)

NES Popeye (Nintendo, 1986)
Advantages: Excellent graphics and sound, most resembles the arcade game
Disadvantages: Characters are small
Rating: Excellent (4 out of 5 stars)

The Final Verdict

When it comes to the best version of the four, the NES takes the checkered flag as having the best playability, graphics, color, sound effects, and music. The other versions stand up well though. They are definitely worth playing if you enjoyed the Popeye arcade game or if you’re a diehard Popeye fan. Versions were released too on other systems like the Intellivision, the Texas Instruments 99/4A computer, and the Commodore 64 computer, but that goes beyond the scope of this article.

So what are you waiting for? Grab your spinach and go help Popeye take down that big schnook, Bluto!

Guide to Game Rankings:

1The Absolute Popeye Page - http://www.everwonder.com/david/popeye/based.html