So one big item of news today, at least for me, is that the copyright to Popeye has expired. Or at least, it has in Europe; in the US, it still has a ways to go before the character becomes public domain.

I’ve always been something of a fan of Popeye, and that affinity has only grown since I’ve gotten into video games. “But why would that be?” you might ask. Funny thing, that, as in a way, the video game industry owes a lot to Popeye, or at least his influence.

As I see it, in much the same way that Mega Man owes his existence to Astro Boy, so too does Mario owe his to Popeye. In fact, when Shigeru Miyamoto had originally set out to create a game that would replace the failed Radarscope in the American arcade market, Nintendo tried to acquire the rights to the Popeye license. It wouldn’t be Nintendo’s first time working with a licensed property, as they had created Hanafuda cards years earlier adorned with Disney characters.

Unfortunately, King Features declined Nintendo the opportunity. So switch out Bluto with a giant ape, Olive Oyl with something a little more Fay Wray, and everyman Popeye with a short carpenter in red overalls and a cap (check out the original design), and next thing you know, it’s on like Donkey Kong… because it was Donkey Kong.

Ironically, the overnight success of the monkey named Donkey was not lost on King Features, who then allowed Nintendo to create a Popeye video game. But since the initial concept was used and modified for the big ape, Nintendo R&D1 came up with something a bit different:

Frankly, I think the graphics were quite good for the time– perhaps even perfect, given the technology– and it has a catchy little rhythm to it, plus that oldschool Nintendo feel. And interestingly enough, the game didn’t just fade into obscurity after its NES release:

In 2008, Namco Networks released an enhanced remake for mobile phones. The game plays largely the same, though it features an Enhanced mode in addition to the arcade original, which includes a bonus stage and an extra level where Popeye must save an sleepwalking Olive, as well as some trivia segments. In the game it is possible to earn tokens, which can be used to buy some of the character’s old comic strips. — Wikipedia

MCV believes that as a result of the expired copyright, new games might be able to be made– in the UK, at least– featuring the adventures of the Sailor Man, without having to jump through legal loopholes for rights and royalties. Myself, I’m wondering if this, should it be true, would allow Nintendo to put the original (or at least the NES port) on the Virtual Console, consequence-free.

At the same time, I’m unsure about how I feel about such things as Popeye and Mickey Mouse entering the public domain. I guess there’s more to it, but just the thought that someday, Mario could join them and there could be other people making Mario games and things after Miyamoto has passed away just seems a little wrong. But then again, with the nature of homebrew games and rom hacks, and the fact that Miyamoto himself isn’t quite as closely involved in the games’ production as he once was… I guess it’s not all that different from the way things are now. That, and I’ll likely be long dead by then, too, so no sense dwelling on it.

Also, for your viewing pleasure (and so you can see how badass Popeye can be), here are some comic strip scans procured from Scans Daily:

Sometimes, it’s still fun when watching the cartoons to draw comparisons where applicable. I’ve little doubt that Eugene the Jeep might have inspired Kibidango from the anime The Great Mission to Save Princess Peach, while Piantas may have very well borrowed some influence from the likes of Alice the Goon.

One might also believe that Mario’s myriad of power-ups, such as Super Mushrooms and Starmen, came from Popeye’s gulping down of spinach, but then again, Pac-man was getting stronger from munching Power Pellets just the year prior. Nonetheless, perhaps Mario’s Invincible Hammer in Donkey Kong could be viewed as a hybrid of the two predecessors.

With the nature of Mario and Donkey Kong’s relationship changing somewhat, one might suppose that Wario better fits the role of Bluto these days, though he and Mario rarely clash outside of some sort of sporting event. And Mario himself seems almost more reminiscient, through both look and demeanor, of another cartoon character than Popeye– Mickey Mouse (which isn’t so bad if you’re into the old Disney comics). In that regard, Bowser reminds me a little of Pete, though perhaps with grander ambition.

And of course, there’s the matter of Pauline, which conveniently rhymes with “rarely seen.”

Nonetheless, influences and parallels aside, I believe Mario, Donkey Kong, and the others have carved out their own unique niche in popular culture. At the same time, it would be unjust to forget where it all began– and one can only wonder how things might be different now had King Feature just granted Nintendo the license in the first place.

As for the present, if this new turn of events is indeed a blank check for developers and publishers, we can only hope that they are able to live up to the simple but quality standard set by Nintendo all those years ago.

–LBD “Nytetrayn”

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  • jeep

    JEEP! JEEP!