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You play Popeye, trying to collect hearts, musical notes, or letters of the word "HELP" from Olive Oyl, who walks back and forth at the top of the screen and sends them floating down. Each of the three levels has four platforms, broken in places and connected by stairs or ladders. If a heart/note/letter reaches the bottom of the screen, it lands in water, and you have a limited time to get it before you lose a life. Collect them all and you advance to the next level. Unusually for a platform game, Popeye cannot jump, except in one corner of level 2, where Wimpy is standing on a seesaw.
Standing in your way are Bluto/Brutus (called Brutus here), the Sea Hag, and on level 3, a vulture. Brutus chases you around, trying to kill you with Collision Damage, and throws bottles at you. He can jump both up and down through platforms. The Sea Hag appears on the sides of the screen when you pick up something from Olive, and throws bottles at you. On level 2, and level 1 once the game starts repeating, she also stands at the top of the screen throwing skulls. The vulture on level 3 has carried Olive to the top of a pirate ship's mast; hence the "HELP" letters. It flies across the screen swooping up and down. You can punch the bottles and the vulture.
Spinach is available once per level on the side of the screen, but it keeps teleporting to different platforms. This is the only way to deal with Brutus.
There is some interesting history here, in that a Popeye game is what Nintendo wanted to make when they made Donkey Kong. They couldn't get the license, so Miyamoto came up with a love triangle that mirrored the Popeye universe. The three characters became Mario, Donkey Kong, and Pauline. After Donkey Kong, they got the license, and did this. Popeye was designed by Miyamoto, and his style is easy to recognize here.
Popeye provides examples of:
- Airborne Mook: The vulture.
- Ambidextrous Sprite: Popeye. Not really noticeable, until you start wondering which side of his mouth is holding his pipe...
- Attract Mode
- Collision Damage
- Cutscene: A character introduction when the game starts, and one at the start of level 3 that shows Olive being carried in by a vulture.
- Endless Game
- Every Ten Thousand Points: Or rather, 40,000 points, an extra Popeye.
- Excuse Plot
- Floating Platforms: One in level 3.
- Game Levels: Three.
- Game Over
- The Golden Age of Video Games
- Instant 180 Degree Turn
- Invincibility Power-Up: Spinach.
- Level Goal: Collect everything Olive Oyl throws.
- Musical Gameplay: The music changes when something from Olive is sitting in the water, and Popeye's theme plays when you eat the spinach.
- One-Hit-Point Wonder
- Painfully-Slow Projectile: Bottles.
- Platform Game
- Power-Up Motif
- Ring Out: What you do to Brutus when you have the spinach and touch him.
- Scoring Points
- Side View
- Spring Jump: A seesaw on level 2 with Wimpy standing on it.
- Video Game Lives
- Wrap Around: One platform each on levels 1 and 2 allow this.