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Adventure Time puts a cartoon spin on a weird classic (review)

Adventure Time game
Image Credit: WayForward Technologies/D3 Publisher

Adventure Time game

Adventure Time is a love letter to video games, so it’s no surprise that it’s become one of them. The hit Cartoon Network show follows a boy hero named Finn and his canine best friend Jake, who fight ice wizards and pal around with candy people in a vast land. It’s a fantasy world every gamer would love to explore. What is unexpected, though, is the classic title it uses as inspiration.

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link is a strange game, loved by few. Loyal fans who appreciate its side-scrolling action, atypical to the role-playing series’ later installments, have re-created the 8-bit release in Minecraft and as a first-person shooter. But developer WayForward Technologies’ new effort, Adventure Time: Hey Ice King! Why’d You Steal Our Garbage?!! (available on Nintendo 3DS, the version pertaining to this review, and DS), refines the action-role-playing game for new audiences. It shows a little love for an old favorite without neglecting the fans playing for Finn and Jake.

What you’ll like

Faithful to the show
Adventure Time: Hey Ice King! is mathematical, as the characters like to say — in other words, it’s awesome and true to the weirdness of the show. Meeting familiar characters means you hope for your favorites to appear, and many of them do, such as Marceline, Peppermint Butler, and Lumpy Space Princess. Like they behave on television in the Candy Kingdom, they’re mostly hanging around, causing mischief, or partying. But your interactions with them are just as ridiculous and funny as you would expect — like when someone steals Princess Bubblegum’s pantyhose, and the high-strung Earl of Lemongrab arrests a princess, a candy person, and innocent baby for the crime.

The start screen greets you with a vocal remix of the TV show’s main theme, and the opening scene features Jake the Dog talking about how stinky Cosmic Owl’s butt is. From those moments on, you know the game is going to stay true to the cartoon’s comedy and appreciation of lighthearted, made-up songs. But the soundtrack isn’t a forced reference. The music is moody in dungeons and lively in the field, and any notes taken from the show are subtle in the game. You’ll hear some original songs, too, which serve as a fun homage. In the battle with the vampire Marceline, she rocks out with her guitar and sings just like she does in the show.

Adventure Time Lumpy Space Princess

Zelda II who?
Make no mistake: Hey Ice King! is a throwback to Zelda II. But the similarities aren’t excessive to the point that it becomes a mere clone. You’ll probably be glad to know that WayForward’s game isn’t nearly as challenging; in fact, it’s set at a casual and enjoyable difficulty level. It’s not so easy that you won’t die, but you also get health items frequently and can record your progress virtually every five minutes.

The water nymphs’ fountains act as save points, and you will find these all throughout the Land of Ooo. They even recover your health. You could hypothetically choose to ignore them and heighten the difficulty for yourself, but they’re awfully convenient compared to Zelda II’s approach. In that game, you only saved when you died, and you respawned at the central palace — way at the beginning.

Hey Ice King! resembles Zelda II most in how it’s presented: with a top-down overworld map, where the sprites of monsters materialize and lure you into random encounters, which take place as a side-scroller. But the ones here are slower moving and not as overwhelming. Hey Ice King! also adds more platforming elements than its spiritual predecessor did. You’ll time jumps onto moving platforms and hop across tiny clouds in the sky. Abilities like Finn’s Down Thrust and Jake’s Fist Smash are also reminiscent of Zelda II, where the hero Link leaps onto enemies with his sword and breaks rocks with the Hammer, comparatively — only here, it’s with Finn’s sword and Jake’s giant fist. Other techniques, such as the Jake Roll (where Finn and Jake flatten enemies as a wheel) and Umbrella (which allows you to glide across gaps), are new — and tons of fun.

Adventure Time Jake bridge
Versatile controls and a smart menu
Finn is a flexible boy. He can uppercut, butt stomp/bounce, punch high, and kick low. Even lazy Jake helps out as he rides in your backpack. The attack where he stretches out his gummy arms is key to defeating some of the trickier enemies unscathed, like the jumping rocks. (The enemies are pretty weird.)

These controls make the side-scrolling and platforming parts easier, too. Many frustrating retro games force the player to jump onto a platform where an enemy stands waiting and refusing to budge, guaranteeing that you’ll take a hit. In Hey Ice King!, you can easily combat this problem with one of your many moves, which aim in almost any direction. While the game doesn’t document every attack you have in the controls list, it makes note of the major ones for you, in case you forget.

The menu is easy to navigate, and you can either use the stylus or hold the left shoulder button to rummage through your inventory with the directional pad. As you travel through Ooo, you collect food items and condiments, like hamburgers and ketchup. Combining these successfully boosts the health reward you get from ingesting them, which can be a lifesaver when enemies are getting the best of you.

Other helpful features are the world map, with colored dots to represent locations (like save fountains and towns), and in-menu descriptions of each item. You can find offensive and defensive power-ups (like ninja stars or shoes that make you run faster) in addition to food, and reading what they do is a good way to predict the best times to use them. The descriptions that accompany story items can remind you of your next objective — where you need to go or who you need to see — which cuts down on all the wandering you’ll do.

Adventure Time menu

What you won’t like

Weird design decisions
While Hey Ice King! makes smart design decisions that improve on Zelda II’s gameplay (like more lenient random encounters and a better save/restart system), it has a few flaws of its own.

The most notable example is how ducking down (to punch or slide) conflicts with the ability to drop through thin floors. You need to crouch to attack low-lying enemies, but if you’re not quick about it, you’ll accidentally fall to your death. The developers could have easily adhered to more traditional, foolproof controls for passing through raised platforms: the jump and down buttons pressed together.

Sliding, which kicks nearby enemies, is also problematic. Finn has a tendency to jump in the air instead of keeping close to the ground, and when you’re in hostile territory, you can accidentally bump up into foes and take damage rather than destroy them. Fair? No. Can you adapt to it with practice? Yes.

Adventure Time ice

Leveling up with … treasure chests?
Hey Ice King! divides your experience into stats you can upgrade: Hearts, Attack, and Speed, similar to Zelda II. The problem is, fighting enemies has nothing to do with gaining levels — exploration does. Level-ups are found in select treasure chests, and they could be anywhere.

You might not find them all, and it’s a mechanic that doesn’t make much sense considering the game’s point of reference — later Zelda games, maybe, but not Zelda II, where you have to grind to get stronger. Since the game gives you plenty of enemies to fight, offering experience points for kills would be a better incentive to get players to bother with them.

Adventure Time enemies

Backtracking on foot
You’ll memorize the map well over the course of the game. Much of your time goes to backtracking and determining your next objective, which involves revisiting old side-scrolling segments.

This is particularly tedious before you find Finn’s sword and the first level-up chest since you’re weak and unprotected. And no, your sword isn’t just lying ashore on a beach somewhere or hidden in the heart of a forest like in the Zelda games. That would be too easy. The real location is even more embarrassing.

Later on, you do gain abilities that provide shortcuts (like Boat Jake, who takes you across water), but you’ll still be taking the long way around most of the time, especially when you’re not sure where to go. The game is largely a fetch quest. You might take Raggedy Princess’s sock to another character, Treetrunks, or turn in evidence to upstanding citizens.

Adventure Time Finn

A short run and bizarre ending
Hey Ice King! is short; you can finish it in about six to seven hours. A new-game-plus option opens up after you do, offering greater challenge, but it’s not nearly enough content as fans might like.

That’s another issue worth noting. WayForward made the game for viewers of the show, and as authentic as it is, I can’t imagine unfamiliar players jumping into this and understanding its lingo and characters, no matter how charming.

It’s also an easy experience — at least, apart from the ending, which crams in a surprisingly intense boss battle compared to what you’ve faced up until that point. As a last hurrah, it also tosses in a weird space-shooter sequence that doesn’t fit with anything else, all before ending on a mushy, sentimental note.

Conclusion

Adventure Time: Hey Ice King! is fun and endearing, and it advances a game long lost to thoughtless rereleases and troubled mechanics. But it doesn’t quite know how to solve all of Zelda II’s problems, and where it succeeds, it also struggles. A smaller-than-expected world map and a rushed ending hint that WayForward wanted to do more but didn’t know how — or couldn’t.

Score: 70/100

Adventure Time: Hey Ice King! Why’d You Steal Our Garbage?!! released for the Nintendo 3DS and DS on Nov. 20. The publisher provided GamesBeat with a 3DS copy for the purpose of this review.