Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Popeye the Sailor Man Deserves Better Than Popeye

Look, I wasn’t going to write this piece.

A really rough draft has been sitting on my desktop for months.

But I couldn’t let 2021 come to a close without talking about this game. I just couldn’t.

Matthew and I did our Nintendo Watcher Game Awards podcast earlier this month, and we named Balan Wonderworld our Worst Game of the Year. Makes sense. That game was such a disappointment to so many of us: It had the backing of Square Enix, it was written and directed by Yuji Naka, and it was supposed to be the spiritual successor of the classic Nights into Dreams.

Hell, fallout from Balan Wonderworld caused Yuji Naka to resign from Square Enix.

But as bad as Balan Wonderworld is, it has some redeeming qualities — the animated cutscenes look amazing, and the little vignettes are surprisingly mature.

So despite what I said on the podcast, the worst Nintendo Switch game of 2021 is Popeye.

I get it — we’re not comparing apples to apples here. Balan is a AAA title. Popeye is… well… not. Popeye was published by Sabec, a studio known for such classics as Calculator and Spy Alarm. And if it didn’t have Popeye’s name on it, I wouldn’t be writing this right now. But this team — somehow — got the rights for this classic IP and used it to build a terrible game.

(Just for perspective, getting rights for the Popeye IP was something even Shigeru Miyamoto couldn’t get.)

Popeye is a bad game in a sea of bad games on the Nintendo eShop, but because it uses the Popeye IP, it’s especially deserving of all the ridicule it gets. Even if that means the people who criticize it get threatened with a lawsuit.


Taking a Gamble With A Classic IP

There are some characters — and intellectual properties in general — that are absolutely sacred. Just their image alone is incredibly valuable, and it’s so easy to misuse them and cheapen the character.

It’s always a gamble when you make a video game based on an established character. Will it be good? Will it do justice to the original source material?

In the early 1980s, none other than Shigeru Miyamoto designed an arcade game based on Popeye the Sailor Man. The game had the player take control of Popeye as he collected hearts, music notes, and other things thrown down by Olive Oyl from her perch at the top of the screen. While you’re walking from side to side, you’re also trying to avoid Brutus — Popeye’s main antagonist — and other enemies.

If the gameplay sounds similar, there’s a good reason. It’s Donkey Kong.

When Nintendo failed to get the rights to use Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Bluto in the game, Miyamato created new characters that would form the same love triangle. He called those characters Donkey Kong, Mario, and Paulina.

Donkey Kong was released in 1981, and Popeye was eventually released in 1982.

The original game begins with a short animation that shows Bluto and Popeye vying for Olive’s affection. Bluto gets down on one knee and tries to give his heart to Olive; she rejects him, breaking his heart. Then, she turns around, and tosses her heart to Popeye, who’s standing on a platform below her.

From here, the game begins. You take control of Popeye, avoiding Bluto and catching the hearts Olive throws down. The more hearts you collect, the more difficult the game becomes. In addition to avoiding Bluto, you’ll also have to start punching projectiles, eating spinach, and using the environment to reach certain platforms. As you move from level to level, Olive throws down different things — first hearts, then music notes, and eventually letters.

Popeye isn’t the most interesting arcade game ever created, but it’s a fun challenge featuring some of the most beloved characters from the early days of animation.

This year’s Popeye is a modern take on that classic 1982 Popeye arcade game. For anyone who’s the Popeye arcade game, 2021’s Popeye kind of looks familiar. Instead of running up  — you still play as Popeye, navigate obstacles, avoid Bluto, and collect things Olive Oyl tosses down.

But when you actually start playing Popeye, you realize that the “modernizing” might have gone too far.

The concept of taking a classic arcade 2D platformer and reimagining it as a fully 3D adventure is a great idea. And it’s worked for so many other games. Just look at Donkey Kong (1981), Mario Bros. (1983), Ninja Gaiden (1988), and any number of other franchises that successfully made the leap from 2D games on arcade cabinets to 3D games on home consoles.

But Popeye won’t make it on that list.

On paper, Popeye should be a good 3D game. But it’s not. In fact, it’s probably the worst Nintendo Switch game of 2021.

What Makes Popeye So Bad

Here’s the easy one: The graphics suck. Okay, let’s move on.

Unlike the arcade version of the game, there’s no introduction sequence that lets you know why you’re trying to catch Olive’s hearts. Unless you’re steeped in Popeye lore — and let’s be honest, how many of us are? — you have no way of knowing why Bluto is trying to catch Popeye or why Olive is throwing things for you to collect. The developers must have: A) assumed you already knew the source material, B) figured it didn’t really matter much, or C) didn’t care.

After playing this version of Popeye, I have to assume that it didn’t make much of a difference to them.

But that’s such a small gripe compared to the other game’s other issues.

Popeye is extremely bare-bones, but the controls still manage to be awkward and unreliable. You eat spinach with the A button, punch with the Y button, move with the left stick, and control the camera with the right stick. There’s a sizable amount of time between you pressing the punch button and seeing Popeye actually throw the punch. And when you’re in combat, that timing matters.

At the beginning of each level, there’s a short explainer on what you’re supposed to do. All of these explainers basically boil down to collecting whatever Olive throws down and avoiding “Brutus.”

(If you’re a little confused about “Bluto” and “Brutus,” just know that they’re basically the same character. I’ve been playing fast and loose with “Bluto” and “Brutus,” but I’m talking about the same character.)

As Popeye, you run around the level, avoiding Brutus and grabbing a certain amount of whatever Olive’s throwing to the ground. Once you hit the magic number of hearts, music notes, or letters, the level’s over. There’s very little challenge here — you’re just running around the level, and when you see them coming, the enemies are really easy to avoid.

That said, though, I learned the hard way that Brutus can spawn anywhere and at any time. You’ll run past him, and then as soon as you turn a corner, he’s right there waiting for you. If you’re not ready for it, you can accidentally run into him and lose your lives pretty quickly. When you run into Bluto — I mean, Brutus — see, I did it again — you have no way to defend yourself.

You can throw as many punches as you want, but they don’t even stun Brutus. The only way to get rid of Brutus — temporarily — is to find a can of spinach and hit him with a spinach-powered punch. You only get one, so you have to use it sparingly. The game would play better if your normal punch slowed Brutus down for a few seconds, but you’re totally defenseless.

Imagining a Great 3D Popeye Game

Just for a second, let’s imagine what a really good 3D Popeye game could be on the Switch.

You control Popeye, and you have basic controls. The left stick moves Popeye around, the right stick controls the camera, the B button jumps, and the A button punches and lets you interact with the environment. Each level has its own theme, and they could even take inspiration from some of the classic Popeye cartoons — maybe a circus level or something pre-historic or even a Sindbad-themed level with huge beasts you have to fight.

Inside the level, you have to find a certain number of collectibles — hearts, music notes, whatever — to unlock a door that leads you to Olive… and inevitably a boss fight. The map has a few hidden cans of spinach hanging around that give you an extra life and maybe they make you move faster or punch harder.

There are lots of low-level enemies (and maybe a few mini-bosses) scattered around the map to keep you on your toes and keep things interesting. When you finally get to Olive and beat the level’s boss, the bad guys get away with her, so you have to complete this game loop for several more levels until you get to the final level, defeat Bluto, and save her.

The Bottom Line

Popeye isn’t the game I just imagined it could be. It’s not even close. And that sucks.

I love the character Popeye.

I wanted this game to be good.

But it’s not.

I don’t regret buying it, but thinking about what it could be bums me out.

But even if it was great, it wouldn’t matter. It wouldn’t sell. Popeye is a game — and, frankly, an IP, that’s out of time. Kids don’t know who Popeye is. And most of the adults who do know who he is don’t care about a new Popeye game.

The most charitable thing I can say about Popeye is that it’s a game out of time.

Popeye: A game out of time.

Justin McGee
Justin McGee
Lifelong Nintendo fan. Follow me on Twitter @PuffyRedShirt

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