My parents didn’t let us watch The Simpsons for its first few seasons. Overbites, yellow skin, and unseemly hairstyles offended their primetime sensibilities, and network news anchors harped about the demoralization of a generation that had Bart Simpson as a role model. Mom and Dad didn’t have the same concerns about video games, for some reason, so I played the Simpsons arcade game and Bart Vs. The Space Mutants on our NES. The games essentially had nothing to do with the day-to-day adventures in Springfield. There was a shared style and sense of humor, but the games were not affected if you didn’t know about Smithers’ mancrush on Mr. Burns or that Ralph Wiggums had a cat whose breath smells like cat food. Luckily for me, the games and the show could be enjoyed completely independently of each other.
Adventure Time: Hey Ice King! Why’d You Steal Our Garbage?! is not like that. Based on the popular Cartoon Network animated series, Adventure Time tells the story of 14-year-old boy Finn and his magical dog, Jake, as they rescue princesses, battle wizards, explore dungeons, and generally engage in wish-fulfillment fantasies for anyone who grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons. Plus there are fart jokes because, you know, kids love that stuff. Hey Ice King! is the first retail video game based on the series, and while the largely unchallenging affair clearly targets younger players who are more likely to be watching Cartoon Network than Game Of Thrones, enjoyment of the game largely relies on familiarity with the personalities of the Adventure Time cast.
You play as Finn—with Jake riding in your backpack Banjo & Kazooie-style—traveling around the five kingdoms of Ooo, going on fetch quests for the colorful villagers, smiting foes, and gathering new skills, all as you hunt down that nefarious Ice King. If any of this sounds a bit like The Legend Of Zelda, that’s because it is, intentionally so. The developers explicitly reference the Nintendo classic: There’s an “It’s dangerous to go alone” joke when Finn needs to find his sword, and the game’s save points are water fountains where nymphs hang out, a take on the rejuvenating pools of Zelda lore. Winks and nods like this give Adventure Time the multi-generational appeal of Willy Wonka or Animaniacs, where the big jokes land for the kids and smaller, subtler references call out to more mature audiences.
The problem is that the game doesn’t seem confident in who its audience is. It walks players through the basic B-to-jump, Y-to-attack, but expects them to either already know or simply figure out that pressing up enters doors, a much more abstract concept to untrained players. Conversations between Finn and the Ice King paint the villain as aloof and non-threatening, seemingly unworthy of pursuit for the majority of the game. Fans of the show will recognize that the Ice King is more lonely than villainous—he goads the heroes into playing with him rather than actually committing evil—but there’s nothing in the game that makes this clear to anyone who doesn’t follow the TV series.
Without the pretense that the Earl Of Lemongrab lacks even basic social skills or that Marceline The Vampire Queen is more interested in her own fun than discerning between good and evil, these characters come off as nonspecific jerks standing in Finn’s way. If The Legend Of Zelda’s Hyrule were full of characters like this, Link would just as likely stay home and let them be doomed. It becomes clear pretty quickly that, in order to properly enjoy the game, players must have seen more than a couple episodes of the show and have a general familiarity with adventure games.
None of this is inherently bad; it’s just insular. For fans of the animated series, Adventure Time: Hey Ice King! Why’d You Steal Our Garbage?! could be a pleasant bit of fan service. To wit: There are appearances by Tree Trunks, Cinnamon Bun, Choose Goose, and many other characters (including my favorites, Snow Gollum and his pet Fire Wolf Pup). The game is stuffed with personality, scripted in part by the show’s creator Pendleton Ward. Finn shouts “Word to your mother!” upon defeating a bear with a chainsaw duct-taped to its back. Collecting Wizard Stars to increase Finn’s strength cues ’80s rock guitars and a chorus singing “You just leveled up…like the Manticore!” I couldn’t help grinning at these charming asides.
The world map is small but diverse, and the variety of locations are rendered in the show’s characteristic style, which makes them memorable enough that backtracking feels less like a chore and more like exploring a neighborhood. From the bubbly heights of the Cloud Kingdom to the cavernous valleys of the Fire Kingdom, the countryside is jovial and inviting. One exception: the Candy Kingdom, which looks and feels more like a desert wasteland. With nothing on the map that says “I’m made of candy!” this whole quarter of the landscape feels unresolved.
There are plenty of players out there for whom this game will be their first contact with the Adventure Time mythos, but Hey Ice King! Why’d You Steal Our Garbage?! presumes otherwise. The game positions itself as an accessory to the TV show rather than an Adventure Time work unto itself. As a result, Hey Ice King! just doesn’t explain itself properly for that hypothetical first-timer, and that’s a missed opportunity.