Cartoon Network is nailing TV-to-game adaptations

Cartoon Network has led a renaissance in TV animation over the past decade, with hits like Adventure Time and Steven Universe being the biggest names on a stellar programming roster. It’s only fitting that the cable channel has begun to lend some of that creative vision elsewhere, now that it’s figured out the sweet spot between inspired, kid-appropriate stories and mature, emotionally resonant themes: video games.

Over the last several months, Cartoon Network has published two console games based on its cartoons. While they’re both satisfying for fans, they’re successful on a more important level: They’re just high-quality video games. Both last fall’s Steven Universe: Save the Light and the more recent OK K.O.! Let’s Play Heroes are the rare licensed games that are more than tossed-off fan service. Despite varying amounts of familiarity with the cartoons — I love Steven Universe, but I haven’t watched OK K.O.! — I’ve found both games to be accessible, rewarding and beautifully designed.

We reviewed Steven Universe: Save the Light, and it unfortunately came with several problems. Our reviewer found the game glitchy to the point where it was nearly unplayable. It’s unfortunate that first-time console developer Grumpyface Studios struggled with the initial release, but it later patched the game to make it a much smoother experience.

That’s great news, because Save the Light is a gorgeous role-playing game in the vein of Paper Mario. The story makes more sense if you’re steeped in Steven Universe lore, but there’s no need to understand any of that to enjoy it. The gameplay is where it shines most: Players can cycle out various favorite characters, like Steven and the Crystal Gems who join him as he protects Earth from extraterrestrial danger, to fight three-on-three turn-based battles. Combat is satisfying, with extra damage awarded to well-timed hits; abilities are upgraded and unlocked through a points-based skill tree for added depth.

Mmm. Skill trees. Grumpyface Studios/Cartoon Network Games

As an RPG fan with a crippling addiction to skill trees, I had a blast playing around with the game’s Steven Universe-ified take on these systems. Save the Light’s versions of other genre conventions, like side quests and relationship building, are also fun. They add up to make Save the Light the rare cartoon adaptation that I’ve been able — even willing — to commit to based on more than my love for its inspiration. It’s a testament to Grumpyface understanding the fanbase: Steven Universe fans are intensely committed to the show, and many of us bond over our shared love for its influences too. Drawing from diverse sources like manga, anime and, yes, video games, Steven Universe is a natural fit for a video game. Thankfully, Grumpyface picked up on that too.

OK K.O.! Let’s Play Heroes, meanwhile, works in spite of my unfamiliarity with the cartoon it’s based on. With Capy Games at the helm, Let’s Play Heroes is a refreshing brawler with an amazing visual style unlike that of any other game I can think of. The whole thing looks like a cartoon in motion, with K.O. running around a strip mall where the perspective changes rapidly, moving toward or away from him as he turns every corner.

The strip mall plays home to a number of missions that involve K.O. becoming a stronger fighter in the hopes of being immortalized on a trading card, which holds a lot of power in this battle-obsessed world. It … doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, admittedly, but I’m easy to please when it comes to button-mashing my way through 2D fights against a diverse array of robots. The trading card part of the story also adds a nice collectible aspect to the game, with K.O. using cards based on the people he meets to unlock special attacks in battle.

Let’s Play Heroes is essentially one of those games where it’s better to wave away explanations of the story while praising everything the story is packaged in: Every conversation looks cinematic, and every single area of the game has a unique look to it. This is one of the best-looking games I’ve ever played; it may even look better than the show it’s based on, from what I’ve seen of the cartoon’s art. It’s fun to just weave in and out of the alleys that make up this little world and watch the perspective change so seamlessly, even if I don’t totally understand who or what everything is.

This is one of the most interestingly directed games I’ve seen in a long time. Capy Games/Cartoon Network

But the good news for Cartoon Network is that I’m now a little bit more invested in it than I would have been otherwise, had I not been introduced through a solid game that stands on its own. I will probably watch OK K.O. at least once now — if only to get some more context for the robots I keep beating up.

Next up is an open-world Adventure Time game, which also sounds like the right direction for a cartoon that the network has yet to properly translate into gaming. Side-scrollers and action games based on the surreal show haven’t reviewed well in the past; they fail to capture the Land of Ooo’s charm, instead dumping characters we recognize onto a console we own and leaving it at that.

Cartoon Network is now figuring out that, for shows as good as the ones in its roster, it’s only natural to make sure every part of the property is up to snuff. And after some trial and error, games like Steven Universe’s and OK K.O.’s console debuts are encouraging signs that at least one TV channel has figured out how to make its games as good as their shows.

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