By the early 1980s, thanks to hits like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, video arcade games were starting to take on a playful, cartoon-like appearance. Sensing a trend, some bright executive at Nintendo decided to take the next logical step: create a video game based on an actual cartoon. The result was Popeye, starring the famous squinty-eyed, spinach-loving sailor man.
The game’s object was to win Olive Oyl’s affection, which wasn’t nearly as easy as it sounds.
In the first level, the skinny lass literally threw her love away, blowing heart-shaped kisses down from her perch above the action.
Popeye moved around the four platforms below, trying to catch the hearts as they sauntered toward the sea at the bottom of the screen. If the hearts sank too far, Olive would scold her sailor suitor, and one life would be lost.
The would-be romance ran into further obstacles in the shape of sea lout Brutus. The burly brute chased Popeye around the levels, trying either to grab him or nut him with a hurled beer bottle.
There were only two ways to stop him: First, by striking a punching bag on the top platform, Popeye could try to knock a barrel down on Brutus’ head, stalling him for a bit. Second, Popeye could fall back on his not-so-secret weapon, a can of spinach.
With one bite of that leafy vegetable, Popeye turned temporarily red (an angry, fighting red) and could knock Brutus off the screen for a spell.
Once Popeye caught enough hearts to fill Olive’s quota, the action moved to a street scene. This time, Olive tossed musical notes down to her lover while baby Swee’pea kept track of the tune in the skies above.
On the third level, the gang boarded a ship, where Popeye tried to catch the letters H-E-L-P from his scrawny dame. Once the lady was finally rescued, the levels began again with increased difficulty.
All the major Popeye characters appeared in the game, some to help the tattooed hero, others to harm him.
Wimpy showed up on the second stage, standing on a seesaw to offer Popeye a springboard up to the level above. The crusty old Sea Hag was a menace on every stage, appearing out of nowhere to chuck glass bottles at Popeye. Even the Sea Hag’s vulture had a guest spot, prowling the ship stage to harass the sailor man.
Popeye’s gameplay lived up to the adventure and fun of the original cartoons, and Nintendo added another hit to its growing resume.
The game was converted to nearly every home system available at the time, and before long, other cartoon stars had arcade games of their own.