The favourite tidbit of every dinner-party bore about Popeye is how one of the central effects of the show – to cause kids to eat more greens, spinach in particular – was sullied when it transpired that spinach wasn't nearly as good for you as was originally thought.
It's the sort of thing they love to trot out, ruining your rhythm just as you were eloquently extolling the virtues of the ancient cartoon to a handful of rapt listeners, damaging your cosy little retro nostalgia bubble beyond repair. They're usually the type that works in 'the city' though, so at least we can take some petty pleasure in watching the credit crunch bite away holes in the elbows of their increasingly-shabby suits as gaming ploughs on through the financial meltdown with ease.
This Popeye game gains its retro wings on two fronts. Not only is its source material well into retirement age, but it's also a port of a 1982 arcade game. It may not be the most famous game to grace a cabinet, but its gameplay places it firmly amongst its arcade contemporaries. You play as Popeye, collecting hearts or notes thrown from the top of the screen by love interest Olive while dodging the attacks of brutish Bluto.
Each level features a number of different ladders, joining up various vertically ascending platforms. Avoiding Bluto is generally a case of just weaving up and down these ladders. There are five different environments, ranging from a residential street to a ship, but these are repeated in sequence after you've been through a round, with the difficulty getting progressively more advanced as other nasty elements are introduced, such as birds that fly through the air and other enemies that chuck stuff at you. You can take care of these with a quick punch from one of Popeye's oversized arms (using '5').
As is the case with many of these retro remakes, you can play the game with the original arcade graphics, complete with limited colour palette and generously-sized pixels, or a new 'enhanced' version. This spruced-up mode retains the general look of the game, but re-draws each of the backdrops with a little more detail and a lot more colour. The difference is largely superficial, but the two modes justify their separate existence because the progression structure is also a little different, too.
In Arcade, progress is saved each time you complete a level, however, in Enhanced you need to complete a whole run-through of the game's environments to make it to the next 'act', whereupon the game is saved. There are also bonus levels in the enhanced edition, although they take place in the standard levels, just asking you to pick up power-ups rather than Olive's falling love hearts.
Perhaps suprisingly, it's the Arcade mode that is more accessible as you begin the game, because it's really quite hard. Getting through an entire 'act' of the Enhanced alternative is no easy task, while completing a single level in Arcade is understandably a lot easier. It's no secret that games have softened over the years. Where back in the good old (exceptionally frustrating) days, losing all your lives at the last gasp of a game would often mean you'd have to start the whole thing again, today that would be met with a horrified gasp and demand for a refund. We should probably be grateful Namco has added a progression-saving feature at all.
Plus, once you've got over the initial difficulty hillock that comes with acclimatising to the old-skool controls, Popeye is compelling. It remains tricky throughout as more enemy elements are added, but you feel you can master it by knowing when and where to move.
Popeye is a game that may not quite sit that easily among the big boys of the genre – Tetris, Pac-Man, Space Invaders – but it's a thoroughly well-made title whose gameplay has made the transition to mobile gracefully. Real casual players may not get on with the difficulty, but for those accustomed to the way games used to be, Popeye comes recommended as part of your pocket gaming diet.