The Game: As a yellow sailor man consisting of a head and nothing else (jaundice was really bad in those days), you maneuver around a relatively simple maze, gobbling small dots and evading four colorful monsters who can eat you on contact. In four corners of the screen, large flashing dots enable you to turn the tables and eat the monsters for a brief period for an escalating score. The monsters, once eaten, return to their home base in ghost form and return to chase you anew. If cleared of dots, the maze refills and the game starts again, but just a little bit faster… (unknown bootleg manufacturer, 1980)
Memories: When Pac-Man took off into the stratosphere, there were two ways that everyone who happened to not be licensed to distribute Pac-Man coped: they made games that played, if not looked, very similar (Lock ‘n’ Chase, Thief, Mouse Trap), or they just flat out copied Pac-Man, making ridiculously insignificant cosmetic changes (Hangly Man, Piranha, and this game). The bootleggers of the latter category, in skipping that pesky development and R&D process involved in creating something original, cashed in by getting their games on the street first.
One of the strangest exponents of the bootleg category, however, was the “Popeye” variant of Pac-Man. Literally nothing was changed about the game except for Pac-Man himself, turned into a jaundiced, very basic caricature of the classic cartoon (whose copyright was and is still upheld by King Features Syndicate – way to go, stepping into the gunsights of multiple infringement lawsuits at once, guys.)
In a way, though, the Pac-Man-to-Popeye thought process actually manages to not be completely daft: both characters consume an edible item that gives them a (temporary) advantage over their adversaries. “Popeye” Pac-Man might have actually distinguished itself (well, only so much, since it was still an illegal knock-off) had its distributors made more changes to the game – turning the power pellets into cans of spinach, maybe – but the game is such an obvious quick cash-in, they obviously didn’t put that much time, thought or effort into it.
The only “Popeye” Pac-Man game I ever recall seeing was in an arcade called Fun City at Central Mall in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Not to be too critical of the place – after all, I spent plenty of time and plenty of quarters there – but “Popeye” Pac-Man fit in nicely with this Fun City’s other offerings, which included Crazy Kong (a Donkey Kong knockoff whose sweeping graphics changes altered little more than the title screen) and Jungle King machines whose chips and boards hadn’t been updated to reflect the mandatory change to Jungle Hunt. In other words: it was within the realm of possibility that maybe the place wasn’t operating completely above board, with the abundance of obvious “unauthorized” clone games…a perfect hide-out for a game like “Popeye” Pac-Man.