Let’s talk about Popeye’s contribution to video-game historyPosted on April 17th, 2013 3 comments
Here’s the first Popeye video game ever made — the Game & Watch one, which Nintendo officially released in August of 1981. This was five months after the arcade release of Donkey Kong and about half a year before Donkey Kong Jr.
It’s fairly well known at this point that Donkey Kong got its start because Shigeru Miyamoto and Gunpei Yokoi had to come up with a new game to replace the slow-selling Radar Scope. What’s lesser-known is that this replacement game was originally meant to star characters from the Popeye cartoons, a license that Nintendo had retained for a number of years by that point. What’s even lesser-known than that is that the Popeye world — in particular, the 1934 short “A Dream Walking” — was the direct inspiration for the entire game.
Here’s Yokoi talking about it, as quoted in the book Game no chichi – Yokoi Gunpei Den, a biography published in 2007:
“There was this Popeye cartoon where Olive was sleepwalking or something, and she was walking through a construction site. Whenever it looked like she was just about to step off her foothold, there’d be this other platform that would show up just in time. That scene really impressed me. I figured we could do a lot with a construction site, so that’s where we took Popeye. Once we decided to have a construction site be the game background, Miyamoto suggested that we have the player dodge barrels rolling down from up above. At that point in time, the ladders were there to just allow you to dodge the rolling barrels; once they passed by, you’d climb back down and then the platform you were on would start climbing again. It was a pretty simple idea at first.
You had Popeye on the bottom left, then Bluto and Olive up top. The question was how to get players to realize that they were supposed to get Popeye climbing upward. We first figured that if it looked like Olive was kidnapped, the player would naturally bring Popeye closer to her. Still, Miyamoto gave a lot of thought to players who still wouldn’t quite realize this what to do. Ultimately he decided that while you were jumping over barrels coming at you from above, you’d also have fire coming at you from behind, chasing you. You’d be forced to climb upward no matter what. Thus, the screen setup itself provided a sort of how-to-play description for the player.”
That book says Nintendo had to scrap Popeye — and Miyamoto then had to invent Jumpman, Pauline and DK — because they couldn’t get clearance in time from King Features Syndicate. I could have sworn I read somewhere that Nintendo themselves made the decision because the arcade board didn’t have high enough resolution to realistically portray Popeye’s likeness in sprite form. This is backed up by the fact that the 1982 Popeye arcade game features very high-res sprites for the time. I have no way of backing up this statement, though, since I probably read it 15 years ago and it was in some doujin publication that I can’t remember the name of any longer. Oh well. Sounds plausible, at least.
(Miyamoto himself talks about this a little in the Iwata Asks for New Super Mario Bros. Wii, too.)
It’s obvious when you’ve already pointed out the connection, but the “sleep walker at a construction site” trope seems like it might have had further-reaching influence, maybe inspiring the moving-platform-heavy levels in other games, the way the girders and things always move into place just in time to catch you when you make a precarious (but well-timed) jump.
The moment Bluto throws that switch in the cartoon and all lifts spring to life was a very “video gamey” moment!
‘There was this Popeye cartoon where Olive was sleepwalking or something, and she was walking through a construction site.’
This also brings to mind Gyromite, apart from what the other commenter wrings up.
So why was Popeye a big deal around then? The Robin Williams movie? An aggressive marketing push by King Features?
kind of off-topic, but http://youtu.be/gJun2r9FsmU?t=1h26m16s is the time Popeye saved Bruce Lee from a pack of mummies in hell
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