Popeye Saves The Earth was a pretty mediocre 1994 pinball game designed by Python Anghelo, the famous game designer behind Joust, one of the leading early 80s video games about bludgeoning people with ostriches. Recently I acquired a document purporting to be Anghelo’s proposed theme for this pinball through the elaborate process of looking up the game on the Pinball database. It’s a mere nine-page document and yet it’s the most wonderfully deranged Popeye-related thing I’ve seen in weeks. I recommend you read the whole thing, so let me share the good parts, so you can go on to be disappointed.
Anghelo observes that based on King Features’ strips it “became very obvious to me that Popeye The Sailor has not kept up with the times”. This is true. After a long and successful run, Popeye left pop culture after 1985, when creation of the Fox Network meant there weren’t independent TV stations running two-hour cartoon blocks of his work anymore, and he hasn’t been let back in since. How does Anghelo set up a new adventure for the sailor man?
He sets Popeye as 50, comfortable and bored, watching “the Simpsons, reruns of the Flintstones”, even Mickey Mouse, as we all did in the early 90s, but “consuming too much spinach brew”. Olive Oyl is his “still faithful wife”, tending one of the world’s largest seashell collections, and Swee’Pea is in his early 30s, having retired as a Navy pilot and facing the tough job market by considering a degree in astrophysics, which has always been a license to print money. Bluto’s now an oil tycoon, despite a recent oil spill, and “The Sea Hag runs and owns a Japanese/Norwegian fishing fleet that kills whales [and] porpoises”. I kind of appreciate a multinational just being open about it. I imagine its Chief Financial Officer appearing on CNBC — no Indiegogo for an outfit this organized — to say, “Hi. I’m Jeanene Evil. Give us money and we will kill whales.”
Anyway, Popeye goes fishing and finds nothing but plastic bags, tires, styrofoam cups and all that. Olive, seashell-hunting, gets gobs of tar from Bluto’s oil spill all over her feet, tangled in a drift net, and “stung by a discarded syringe that washed up on the beach”, because if you’re playing pinball, it’s because you want to see a tarballed, net-stuck Olive Oyl jabbed by a discarded syringe. Popeye heads to the United States for some answers, and finds pollution in New York harbor, a devastated shrimping industry in New Orleans, and depleted tuna stocks in Los Angeles, and sees Jacques Cousteau, Diane Fosse, Carl Sagan, Peter Moyers, and Greenpeace calling for a stop to the insanity, so, he calls in some favors from Vice-President Al Gore, sells the rights to show Popeye cartoons in 1994 for enough scratch to buy Howard Hughes’s Glomar Explorer (“the biggest ship on Earth”), and mounts it atop eight shuttle boosters as Popeye’s Ark 2000. I should warn you, from here the proposed backstory for this pinball game gets a little nutty.
So Popeye goes to all the continents, gathering, for example, from North America two buffalos, two bald eagles, two chipmunks, two manatees, “and the last 2 condors in existence”, which makes him sound like kind of a jerk, because we might need those chipmunks. Somehow, Popeye’s plan to launch chipmunks into outer space on the Glomar Explorer is “heavily ridiculed”, but Popeye answers everyone’s doubts “in an extraordinary two-hour telecast underwritten by Texas billionaire Ross Perot”, because the one thing that absolutely shuts down widespread ridicule of an insane plan is the timely intervention of any billionaire Texan. Also they blast off right away.
Popeye “heads for Saturn — the biggest planet in the solar system, and enters its orbit to use as a sling out of the solar system”, which suggests that despite his game-design prowess Anghelo had only a layman’s understanding of orbital dynamics and couldn’t develop it into something realistic. That or maybe Jupiter was stolen by a space chipmunk? I don’t know.
As the good Professor Holkus-Polkus warned Popeye “over Spinach Schnopps”, out past Pluto the Ark enters a “terrible river of space storms … a spatial gulfstream of whitewater rivers that flow between solar systems and galaxies”, so soon, Popeye’s Ark “travels in one week to places that comets and pulsars travel in 100 billion light years”, which is pretty good for the Glomar Explorer weighted down by manatees and chipmunks.
On the 99th planet they set down, in one of the ten seas, to discover the planet stinks. The leader has “three eyes, a huge mouth, and no nose. Popeye notices no one has noses, or a sense of smell! The planet is Odorsphera”, and as people who have noses and visit Odorsphera suffer and die “from unknown causes”, the inhabitants helpfully kill them first. Rather than have his nose chopped off Popeye relaunches into space, with a pair of three-eyed tarantulas as a gift.
From here Anghelo’s proposal gets a little sketchy, suggesting the exact play of this pinball game hadn’t quite been worked out. On the next planet, the King is spotted on the front, striped on the back, and everyone is either spotted or striped, while Popeye and his crew are neither and so feel the eye of striped/spotted-on-plain prejudice. “Next planet — red planet — everything red”, which tries to bridge the gap between innovative pinball design and haiku.
Next, at the top of page eight, comes a paragraph I must quote in its entirety:
Alternative planet — unisex — gay — do not want pairs of heterosexuals. Jeremy, explore this one.
I do not know what Jeremy discovered. I imagine that if I were Jeremy, my report on exploring this one would have been, “We’re trying to design a pinball game based on Popeye”, with maybe a mention that Popeye’s traditional strengths have been more in the fields of “sailing” and “eating spinach” and “punching things” and less in “chipmunk-bearing spaceflights to Unisex Gay World”.
Other planets include Canibalia, where animals are extinct and higher mental beings use lower mental beings as servants and protein; one with a “high society of animals — eagles” that don’t allow people; “no water planet, 3 moon planet, female planet, planet with 2 suns — never nighttime” and the admonition, “Jeremy, go crazy with these”. Were I Jeremy, my response would be: “Go?”
Anghelo’s proposed pinball narrative goes on to note Popeye’s been travelling too long, the animals are multiplying, the ship needs repair and, oh, yes, “Somehow incorporate Bluto and Sea Hag in the ship’s adventures”.
So, the game would have Popeye “leave the cosmic river and return on a cosmic shortcut through the Pavronian system of interstellar gaseous storms” back to Earth, a polluted, oily, cloudy Odorsphera-like planet with no animals and widespread death, disease, and cannibalism among surviving humanity, which really captures the heart of both Popeye and pinball. The animals are released back into their natural habitats, where they had been taken from before all their species were extinct in the wild, “and there is great joy!”, naturally.
I admit this is staggering, and I can even kind of see where elements of this might have made it into the final produced machine, which folks managed to play nearly two-thirds of a game on before finding it was too dull to continue. But it’s also impressively wild, and I have to wonder what the backstory is like for his other games, specifically, Bugs Bunny’s Birthday Ball.
Also, somewhere in the multiverse, someone — I’m thinking maybe even Jeff Wayne — has turned this outline into a prog-rock opera, and I’d like to see the album art Roger Dean made for it.