With all the hype surrounding Kingdom Hearts as of late, I figured it’s time to take another trip down memory lane.
Note: Although officially mini-essays, these “memories” posts are me just ranting about my past and assumes the audience has basic knowledge of what I’m talking about. You don’t have to know all of Kingdom Hearts lore to follow my thoughts, but you might not understand a few details if you haven’t kept up with the games, and I don’t know how this rambling will look to someone who’s never interacted with them at all. If you haven’t, I recommend Antdude’s and SomeCallMeJohnny’s retrospectives since I don’t have the space here to actually summarize what I’d laughably call the plot of Kingdom Hearts. That would at least double the word length of the current post. At “least”.
Similar to Shonen Jump, I do rag on this uneasy marriage between the animation giants of the East and West quite a bit these days. But back when I was a kid, my friends and I were absolutely obsessed with Kingdom Hearts. We all liked anime to a degree, although I’m one of the few who kept with it as a hobby as I grew older, and we loved Disney animation growing up. So when we saw the below commercial whilst watching local television, we knew this was going to be the best thing ever before we even got to playing it.
I mean what kid who plays video games (which was all of them, including the females) couldn’t love that commercial? Now I didn’t know what Final Fantasy (or really anime at all as I was in middle school at the time where the only exposure to the stuff was Digimon and whatnot) was at the time beyond the player’s guide I read for VII and what I’ve seen of someone playing VIII, nor did I realize that the game was Final Fantasy-related at all. But you know what I did see? All the Disney characters I loved from Simba to Bambi coming together in what seemed like an epic journey whilst that catchy Utadu Hikaru song played in the background. Yeah Sephiroth is there too, but I somehow always missed him.
I remember reading in a gaming magazine before seeing said commercial that this crossover was going to be a thing, but I also recall never actually following up on it. It was for the Playstation 2 and I was a Nintendo kid, so it’s not like I could have played it. Seeing that commercial though made me want to get a PS2, but of course my strict Asian parents were against the idea. As such, my first exposure to the initial game was when I visited a friend’s house a few weeks after it came out and he had played Kingdom Hearts 1 right up to when you meet Peter Pan. Obviously, I became excited upon seeing him get in a boss battle with Captain Hook, and what I read of the plot from the manual he let me read intrigued my immature teenage mind. Now keep in mind, this was when I didn’t know what fanfiction or edgy or even “anime” was, so I thought all that Heartless nonsense was a positive step for Disney stories to take if they ever wanted to be taken more seriously.
Over time, my friends who came to visit more frequently came to acquire the game, as well as the guide, and I experienced the first Kingdom Hearts through them playing it or letting me play it. And back then, it really lived up to the hype. The real-time combat was fun, especially to a guy like me who was getting sick of the turn-based stuff at the time. The graphics were good, although the camera is really dated as of now. The story was intriguing to my young mind with its battle of light and darkness centered around hearts. And of course, you get to hang out with Winnie the Pooh, summon Dumbo to help you in a battle with Maleficent, and even see Cloud from Final Fantasy VII team up with Hades from Hercules to try and take you down. I may not have ever played a Final Fantasy game in my life until two years ago, but I knew who all the FFVII and VIII characters were (X I only knew through proxy), and I found their inclusion to be great counterpoints to Donald’s yakking.
Basically, the game was pure big-budget fanfiction and I loved being pandered to as a kid. Hell, I even played Digimon World 2 and 3 to completion growing up simply because I loved that franchise at the time, and those games were awful. But there were some other things I enjoyed about Kingdom Hearts besides watching Goofy be badass. I liked how the game didn’t strictly follow the plots of the movies and reworked them to fit within the overarching story. I liked how Ariel had more agency in the game compared to her portrayal in the original Little Mermaid. I liked beating up Jafar because I’ve always wanted to beat up Jafar myself ever since I saw Aladdin for the first time. All these similar yet different takes on these movies I enjoyed whilst having the badass Final Fantasy characters show up too was what sold Kingdom Hearts’ tale of light and darkness for me, and I was eager to play more after finishing it.
The lore and logic behind the main weapon, the Keyblade, was pretty cool too. You had an impractically designed sword that can also open doors, close supernatural locks, and teleport to your hand whenever you wanted it too. It was like an even cooler lightsaber, and of course it didn’t hurt that multiple portions of Kingdom Hearts’ tale felt directly reminiscent of Star Wars. Did I mention that I love Star Wars? Because I do. I really love Star Wars. It’s actually kind of fitting in retrospect that the property would be acquired by Disney and milked so much it actually made me miss George Lucas’s CG Clone Wars movie.
Kingdom Hearts II reached my ears pretty quickly after finishing the first game of course, but I was also informed through a quick search on the Internet that there was going to be a Kingdom Hearts game for the Gameboy Advance – a system I actually owned. My parents ended up getting Chain of Memories for me as a Christmas present and I was excited to see that it was a direct continuation of the first game a short ways in. Now I didn’t like the card combat nearly as much as the first game’s combat, and I didn’t even get a good handle on it until way late in the game; but even though it was mostly going through the same Disney settings as the first game, whenever it introduced new elements like the mysterious black-hooded organization and Sora losing his memories, it got my attention. Who exactly were these mysterious humans that wanted the Keyblade? And what was Namine, the mysterious girl who could rewrite memories?
Yeah, I was suckered into that godawful “if we make the player/viewer think something is going to happen in the future, they’ll sludge through anything” mentality when I was young too. And to be fair, although I didn’t realize it at the time, playing Chain of Memories was vital to understanding certain elements Kingdom Hearts II because it showed how one of the characters escaped from his fate that was shown in the ending of Kingdom Hearts 1, as well as why the “second game” begins like it does and why some of the thirteen members of the evil organization are missing. Those are pretty important plot details in my opinion, which actually gave me a bit of a superiority complex over my friends who started playing II and never played the preceding GBA game. As such, I enjoyed Chain of Memories just for that.
Kingdom Hearts II soon came into our lives after a year of reading hype news online about the gameplay and how it’d have Mulan in it (my favorite Disney movie growing up), and by that time, my brother and I were borrowing a PS2 from our cousins for a year (it’s a family thing). So we bought the game and got even more addicted to II than we did I. Now even as a teenager, I could tell that the story was pretty retarded. The plots of the Disney worlds followed the movies way too closely with their connection to the overarching story feeling token, I didn’t like how little attention they gave to the plot elements that were introduced in Chain of Memories, the lines were hokey as hell, and there were a bunch of things regarding the villains and such that were never explained. Not to mention the sheer amount of stupid that occurred when they give the Disney villains supernatural powers. I hated how Scar could now shoot lightning and surround himself with fire, particularly because beating up that asshole was as much of a personal fantasy of mine as beating up Jafar.
However, the Disney fanservice was too strong for me to ignore, and it didn’t hurt that I had gotten more exposure to Final Fantasy around that time through Advent Children and such, so I had a nice attachment to Tifa and such showing up despite still not playing the main games. But really, it was going back to the Steamboat Willie era that made me smile. It was singing Under the Sea along with Ariel that my female friends swooned over. And who doesn’t love the first Pirates of the Caribbean? Like I said, I was a pretty shallow kid back in the day. I still am to a degree. Lots of people think all those flips in the Star Wars prequel trilogy look dumb, but I think they look cool.
The gameplay was also miles better than the first game’s with all the acrobatics and Drive forms you could use. My brother and I went so far as to 100% complete the game before we returned the PS2 to our cousins and we couldn’t have been happier. And just to put the cherry on top, despite them being underdeveloped in the plot, the Organization members were so cool and so memetic to our young selves. We loved fighting/quoting them and my female friends loved swooning over them. Hell, my bro even had Organization XIII as his computer background for a time.
At the end of the day, we were hyped for Kingdom Hearts III to come out next, particularly after getting suckered into another cliffhanger hinting that the story wasn’t over yet. However, I entered college shortly after and mostly fell out with the video game scene during that time in my life because I had become addicted to Persona and the Shin Megami Tensei franchise in general at the expense of other games – which I’ll probably detail in the future. I did my best to keep up with Kingdom Hearts on the side, but all that was coming out were handheld side story games from Re: Coded to Birth By Sleep – and for handheld systems I didn’t own no less. The only one I ended up playing was Kingdom Hearts 358/2, which I only bought because I blew a job interview my father had set up for me and wanted to cheer myself up with any video game that looked interesting at Frys. Wasn’t really a fun game due to the repetitive combat and tasks, along with how you had to use some grid-based equipment system to get stronger; but I did manage to complete it and I liked the Xion character they introduced, even though the way they retconned her existence was kind of dumb.
Years passed since then and I started seeing Kingdom Hearts as the pretentiously written piece of garbage that it was. The marriage of Disney animation icons with Japanese animation tropes was just not appealing to me now that the honeymoon was over and I could see how they don’t exactly complement each other. The constant milking of the games was just ridiculous as well. First you have to buy eight different systems to play all of the games. Now these handheld games are getting released on consoles except with the gameplay cut out? Seriously, what is up with Tetsuya Nomura? I know he’s a “style over substance” kind of director, but he doesn’t have to milk his fanbase’s wallet in the process.
The next time I would play a Kingdom Hearts game would be about a little more than a year ago when I heard that Kingdom Hearts 2.8 would be released five years after the last game as a money-making sneak preview for Kingdom Hearts III. Figured I’d better catch up to the series and see what I missed, so I bought the 1.5 and 2.5 Remix editions and revisited the first three games (and some 358/2 cutscenes) before playing the prequel game I never interacted with before, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep.
Now that was a more fun game than the previous portable entries I played. I could have done without the switching between the multiple protagonists, you didn’t get to stay in the Disney worlds long enough to form much of a personal connection compared to the original worlds, the implementation of anime characters into Cinderella’s narrative was incredibly forced (you literally just beat up monsters that show up while she’s walking down a hallway, and otherwise it plays out like the movie except with no people around because Kingdom Hearts is allergic to creating background people), and don’t even get me started on how obviously evil the main bad guy was. It was also pretty stupid that they introduced some ultimate weapon called the χ-blade, because it sounds exactly like “Keyblade” and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference without the subtitles. But the gameplay was back to being fun and fluid, and I liked the three new characters and their Star Wars-like origin even though the narrative didn’t quite handle them correctly. Well okay, I mainly liked Aqua. Terra is a nice idea, but in addition to his horrible voice-acting (it’s better in future games, but he can’t emote at all in Birth By Sleep), his repetitive dialogue made me miss Hayden Christensen. And Ventus was just kind of there to me.
Additionally, the setpieces were back to being fun as well. I didn’t really like walking around the worlds due to how minimal they were, but I liked fighting Captain Hook with Final Fantasy magic, I liked teaming up with Prince Phillip to battle Dragon Maleficent, and the final clash between Terra and Aqua was pretty cool too. It’s the kind of thing I can only enjoy because I’m playing the game, so no I don’t think it’s hypocritical of me to say I didn’t care too much for the big picture in Birth By Sleep. Although I will say there is no shame in using a guide to figure out how to achieve certain moves.
After Birth By Sleep was Kingdom Hearts Re:Coded. I didn’t actually play that one because I saw a Youtube video of the gameplay and let’s just say I wasn’t planning to pay money for another throwaway handheld game. The narrative and cutscenes that were included in the 2.5 Remix were snore-inducing as well. It does set up some things that will be used in later games so you can’t just dismiss it, and I’m not sure if I resent Re:Coded for that or not, since what would be the point of its existence otherwise? Oh, and just so you know, I never interacted with that cell phone game that only existed in Japan either. The one that took place in the distant past and all? I heard Gaston from Beauty in the Beast was in it, but you don’t get to fight him, so what’s the point?
After playing through those Remix games, I got to purchasing Kingdom Hearts 2.8 on the day it came out; but before I could play the truly new stuff, I had to play the last handheld game I missed out on: Dream Drop Distance. And this game was just plain mediocre with the only bright spot being that it got me to finally play The World Ends With You, which went on to become one of my favorite video games of all-time.
DDD had this mechanic where you had to raise monsters and keep them equipped in order to use special moves, and I’ve never been much of a monster-raising simulator fan. The fact that you lose the moves after you end up trading them for stronger monsters was just plain dumb as well. While the game did have new Disney worlds to explore, you only get to fight one Disney villain (Pete doesn’t count), and Rinzler from Tron Legacy isn’t exactly Frollo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame if you get what I mean. The time limit that forces you to switch between Sora and Riku was more annoying than inventive (it works better on the 3DS, but on console, it’s just plain annoying), particularly when you’re about to finish a major battle and suddenly your progress gets reset. As for what it added to the story, mostly jack and shit. Fan-favorite Axel came back as his cocky Lea self, but otherwise it was just a bunch of pieces moving without much actual plot progression.
I did finish this game, but mostly through sheer determination, as I just wanted to play the actual new 2.8 addition as fast as possible. This led me to being under leveled for the final bosses, which nearly made me ragequit at times, but I pushed through and finally got to playing the mid-quel game focused on Aqua and her time trapped in the Dark Realm or whatever it’s called. And once again the gameplay was fun, incorporating many of the additions brought in by the post-Kingdom Hearts II games in a way that felt natural whilst removing the limitations imposed by the handheld format. The story was okay for what it was too, focusing on Aqua’s mental deterioration before getting saved by Mickey and tying in to the first Kingdom Hearts’ ending. At the very least, it didn’t outstay its welcome like most of the other games did. And the improved graphics caused by the Unreal Engine looked great, although the Disney characters now look a little too plastic-y in HD for my taste.
It might have only been three hours long and not worth the sixty bucks, but I had a good time with 2.8 A Fragmentary Passage to the point where I’d at least buy Kingdom Hearts III when it comes out. Do I think it’s going to be good? According to the interviews I’ve read, not really. The main gist of what I got from the creators is that they’re favoring gameplay over story like the other games, and while I’m sure that’s fine for a lot of normal gamers, I prefer them to go hand-in-hand. When you’re raised on games like Majora’s Mask and Tales of Symphonia, you don’t settle for the awfulness that was Fire Emblem: Fates is what I’m getting at.
But hey, I can tolerate most of Kingdom Hearts’ bullshit if the gameplay is good (which it looks to be from the trailers), and it’ll be nice to see Rapunzel, Woody, and motherfucking Mike Wazowski in a big-budget video game, so it’s highly unlikely I won’t finish it at the very least. Plus who knows? Tetsuya Nomura may surprise me. Either way, I’m absolutely playing this long-delayed official third entry whenever it shows up, although whether I’ll write about it or not is up in the air. Tried once with Danganronpa V3 and it didn’t take after all.
Anyways, that’s my entire history with Kingdom Hearts, the unlikely marriage of Disney and anime that became one of the biggest video game franchises of this generation. Yeah there’s that Back Cover thing that was also included with 2.8, but I honestly have no opinion on it due to being unfamiliar with the cell phone game and whatnot. Hope you guys enjoyed me reminiscing down another trip through memory lane, and hopefully Kingdom Hearts III will actually release this year, although I seriously doubt it won’t suffer another delay.