Needless to say, I love Adventure Time dearly. So, when I first heard about WayForward's Adventure Time: Hey Ice King! Why'd You Steal Our Garbage?! for the DS and 3DS, my initial reaction was one of both joy and concern. I want there to be a game for my favorite cartoon, of course, but "portable game based on a Cartoon Network property" isn't usually a phrase that inspires confidence.
Well, be confident. Hey Ice King isn't going to win any awards for innovative design, but the soul of the show is present in gratuitous quantities.
Adventure Time: Hey Ice King! Why'd You Steal Our Garbage?! (10/18/12)
Rather than recounting past events from the show, Hey Ice King sends heroes Finn the Human and Jake the Dog on a new adventure, in which Ice King has stolen piles of garbage from various locations around The Land of Ooo. Innocuous, sure, but as Ice King's plans generally lead to the greater annoyance of several kingdoms, Finn and Jake set out to stop him.
You traverse the Land of Ooo via a Zelda-esque top-down Overworld and are thrown into a sidescrolling environment once a location of interest is entered, be it a Tree Dungeon or Princess Bubblegum's castle. Once sidescrolling, Finn's abilities are limited to forward slashes with Scarlet, his Golden Sword of Battle, whereas Jake (occupying Finn's backpack, Banjo Kazooie-style) accrues various shape-shifting abilities as the game progresses.
While there's only one additional attack for Finn to gain, his overall attributes are leveled up by finding special treasure chests located in dungeons and elsewhere around the Land of Ooo. The pacing of these discoveries is handled well, and Finn never feels under-powered for the task at hand, nor are the challenges facing him ever exceptionally easy.
Various items and temporary enhancements are also found in dungeons and earned after random encounters in the overworld, all of which are playful nods to events in the show's history: The "Stars of Frozen Rain" from The Chamber of Frozen Blades, for instance, or the "Vorpal Hand," "Tiger Claw" and "Beauteous Wings" spells from Wizard.
These items scratch that fandom itch in a magnificent way, but none of them ever felt entirely necessary. Finn and Jake's default stable of attacks is always perfectly adequate in combat, and eventually I found myself using combat buffs in order to save inventory space for health items, rather than to gain an advantage over the environment. The only caveat to this universal rule comes in during a couple of Hey Ice King's excellent boss battles, which can get pretty difficult.
In order to reach those bosses, however, there's generally quite a bit of back-tracking involved. The dungeons the bosses are usually contained within are well designed and filled with delightful monsters and fairly challenging platforming, but gaining access to a kingdom's dungeon requires questing. And, structurally speaking, Hey Ice King's quests are inelegant.
Quest objectives aren't always clear and completing an objective often requires traveling back to previous kingdoms or areas, rather than exploring somewhere new. This is mostly due to the fact that, despite covering a respectable amount of land, Ooo doesn't have an abundance of usable living space, as it were, and therefore previous zones are re-tasked for new quests. There are items designed to make moving through the overworld more efficient, by making you immune to random encounters or letting you walk quicker, but their effects are removed upon changing zones and/or screens, and therefore only last for less than a minute at a time.
Despite all this, I can't think of a single quest that wasn't a complete joy to stumble through, because no matter where I was or who I was talking to the exchange was consistently hilarious and worth every second of my time.
In Adventure Time, a character's personality and the rhythm of how they speak is as unique to them as their visual design, and Hey Ice King does an impeccable job of preserving every character's, well, character. Every line of dialogue written for Princess Bubblegum felt like something she would say, delivered in a way she would say it. The same goes for Lemongrab, Peppermint Butler, Cinnamon Bun and even the more incidental characters like Hot Dog Princess. Even the game's system text is replete in the show's slightly off-kilter vernacular.
Composer Jake Kaufman's fantastic score is also effective in translating an essential part of the show's charm into virtual form. Adventure Time is known for its catchy, goofy songs and chiptune sensibilities, and even though Kaufman isn't one of the show's composers, his grasp of what makes the subject matter special is blatantly apparent. His work may not be as experimental or progressive as most of the incidental music scored for the show, but it is infectious and wholly inspired.
As far as how the game actually looks, still images can't really do justice to how gracefully animated and fluid Hey Ice King's sprites are. It's the little things that are the most impressive, really; how Jake rummages around in Finn's backpack during inventory management, or how the candy zombies crumble and decompose as they die. Adventure Time's visual aesthetic translates into pixel-art exceptionally well, and the amount of detail put into the sprite animation makes the game's chibi stylings feel familiar, rather than some weird bastardization of the source material.
If you look at it purely from a gameplay perspective, Adventure Time: Hey Ice King! Why'd You Steal Our Garbage?! is an adequate, albeit cookie-cutter Zelda 2 clone. It'd still be worth playing through even without the Adventure Time motif, but the game's tight controls and fantastic boss fights would be forgettable in any other setting.
But, to look at it that way would be to ignore what makes it truly special: This game is as heartwarming and gut-busting as the show, which is to say that it's a magical journey of friendship and punching jerks for fun. Hey Ice King is a potent distillation of everything that makes the cartoon such an uncommon, endearing powerhouse, and out of all the things I assumed this game would be, that was never, ever one of them.