What happens when you mix Disney and Final Fantasy? Kingdom Hearts of course.
At first, the mix sounds strange, but the incredible success the series has achieved since it debuted in 2002 has seen those naysayers disappear.
In 2002 I was a child of ten and I was aware of “the game with Aladin in it”, but never got the chance to play it. Like so many things, it passed me by, and I quickly forgot about its existence.
As an adult, though, it seemed I could not go very far without running into the Kingdom Hearts series; everyone appeared to talk about it. I am not sure whether I noticed it more when I started to look for it, but it is certainly a series I heard more and more about as I delved deeper into the video game world. And I couldn’t understand why. How could a child’s game be so beloved and have such a following?
But, that question shows my ignorance. As I would come to discover, Kingdom Hearts was not a children’s game, aimed at the age demographics that the Disney characters it contained were designed for. It was a game for everyone, regardless of age.
The desire to discover the reason why Kingdom Hearts was so beloved sparked something inside me; my writer’s curiosity could not be contained.
Recently, Twitter has been awash with excitement about Kingdom Hearts 3. Trailers, screenshots, music–all have been looked over with a fine toothcomb, and people were desperate to discover when, or indeed if, this game would ever release. I had to understand the love for this series, it started to gnaw at me.
So, when Kingdom Hearts 1.5 and 2.5 Remix was released on PS4, I decided to take the plunge and discover what all the fuss was about.
At this point, I should note that I tried to distance the controls away from my perceptions, considering KH1 is 15 years old and KH2 is 11 years old. Instead, I tried to go in with an open mind, knowing that controls probably played no part in the reason this series is so beloved. My interest was piqued by the emotional responses these games seem to elicit, rather than the quality of some of the mechanics. I should also state that I have played none of the spin-offs, but am aware of the convoluted story. (thanks, YouTube)
Booting up KH 1, what quickly became apparent was the nostalgia factor. For a young person in 2002 or a 20-something in 2017, being able to converse or fight with and against some of the Disney characters you grew up watching is a huge part of the Kingdom Hearts cult.
From the second I saw Hades (my favourite Disney antagonist from my favourite Disney film, Hercules) I was as giddy as a child. Here was a character that I loved and hated. I loved him because he was so entertaining and I hated him because that is how I was trained to think. I wanted to take him down, and I enjoyed myself doing it. But, simply, I enjoyed being in his presence in a new setting away from the original film.
Even though with many of the worlds, you pretty much played a part in the movies the characters were born out of, your presence as Sora, with Donald and Goofy, was enough to make it feel fresh. Clearly, a fine balancing act had to be weaved between Disney and Square, and for the most part, it was done with aplomb. Even the notorious Atlantica world, while ridiculously annoying, was engaging simply because the characters Disney created are so amazing.
That nostalgia factor continued, and pretty much pulled me through the first game. The gameplay was sound, considering the period, and you could go as deep as you wanted, but I forever got the feeling, gameplay was second to story. And that story, certainly in the first game, was good. The simple story of a boy looking to reunite with his friends was the sound basis for the first Kingdom Hearts game, and it worked. If Kingdom Hearts had been a standalone game, obviously with a tweaked finish, I would not have been disappointed. I dare say no one else would have been either.
Upon completion of the first game, I understood the love for Kingdom Hearts…to a point. I couldn’t help feeling that it was the Disney characters that pulled me through, and it left me wondering how that could be continued through Kingdom Hearts 2.
When I had more time to dwell on the game, though, I discovered that I did really enjoy it. But there is a difference between enjoyment and love.
Next up was Kingdom Hearts 2, and this time, the nostalgia factor didn’t drag me through. Yes, the new worlds added to the nostalgia effect–I am a big Mulan fan–but it wasn’t enough. The game had to do something different. And it did.
Square Enix switched up the gameplay, adding new dimensions to the game in the form of, well, drive forms. The best thing about this addition, and to the KH gameplay overall, was that it was a good balancing act between simplicity and complexity. You could play the game as simple or a complex as you wanted, and on the whole, not be punished for it. Magic, for example, played little part in my playthrough, initially, but as I ventured further, I discovered an alternate play style that I could, if I wanted, adhere to. One that revolved around magic. Looking back, I also barely scratched the surface of the possibilities of the summons, or the various drive forms. The point is that opportunity to play differently was there, and it was a nice change of pace and a believable upgrade, making KH2 a far better game from a gameplay perspective.
For all the good gameplay did, the story went a bit, to quote a Michael Jackson album name, off the wall. Even upon completion, I didn’t really know what was going on. New characters muddied the waters rather than adding new dimensions, and, come to think of it, old characters muddied the waters too–how many Ansems does one game need? The fact I had to resort to YouTube to further my knowledge of the story was a problem, particularly if this was supposed to be Kingdom Hearts 2, a direct sequel.
Still, I completed the game, but rather than the nostalgia pulling me through, it was the gameplay, and the wish to see a resolution to a story that both captivated and infuriated me, that got me over the line.
It was at this point, mulling over the complexities of the story, that I truly fell in love with Kingdom Hearts. When I boiled it down (using the simple trick of explaining the story in a sentence) the story of three friends trying to reconnect in the most chaotic of circumstances was charming. When I stripped away the excess–the Disney worlds, Organisation XIII, even Kingdom Hearts itself–the story became so much more beautiful. The symmetry between Sora, having two friends on an island, losing them and discovering two more to help him find them again was incredibly well created. I found myself comparing Donald and Goofy to Riku and Kairi as similarities rather than differences. Even Riku’s story, mainly done off screen, was just as adventurous as Sora’s and equally touching.
When Sora was finally reunited with his friends, the natural conclusion of the two games, in isolation, away from the spin-offs and the greater world that had been built, was especially satisfying.
Coupled with the beautiful score, the final cutscene of the game really pulled me from appreciation to love.
By the time I finished KH 2, I understood the love for this series. The story was almost unfathomable, but the gameplay and the characters, away from Disney, were almost perfect. lthough I understand the issues some people have with Kairi, but that’s for another time. Add that to the nostalgia and Disney factor, and I can fully understand the love for this series.
Choosing to dive in and play Kingdom Hearts was the best thing I have done all year with regards to games.