BY KIT MORRIS: Disney and Square, two very different yet incredibly successful companies, teamed up in an elevator during the early 2000s to create what would eventually become one of the most convoluted franchises of all time. Kingdom Hearts.
Back then, nobody would expect Cloud and Zack to interact with the cast of Hercules, nor for Mickey Mouse to know Squall. Yet, for many fans, this doesn’t seem odd at all these days. Kingdom Hearts, despite its many retcons and confusing plot elements, has a magical charm that’s rare to come by.
Out of all the games in the Kingdom Hearts series, my favorite is the original. From its “simple and clean” story to the gameplay being a mix of an RPG and a platformer, I always find myself returning to Kingdom Hearts and feeling the same way that I did the first time I enjoyed it.
When I was in elementary school, my older cousin introduced me to the series. As a huge Disney fan who had only recently been introduced to video games, I was amazed to see Peter Pan and Goofy team up with a character I had never seen before to fight strange shadow creatures. My mother brought me to GameStop and after seeing that there were other titles in the franchise, I picked up the correct game.
It wasn’t until fourth grade, however, that I became a fan. On my first playthrough, I was confused about what to do upon being at Destiny Islands and didn’t have the skills to beat Riku, which I had assumed was mandatory in order to progress in the game. As a result, I was disappointed and considered returning it back to GameStop for a few pennies. I’m thrilled to this day that I decided to give it a second chance. With a firmer grasp on gaming in general, I found myself defeating Guard Armor by the end of the night. In one day, this game went from being a disappointment to my favorite franchise from my childhood. The rest was history.
The Story: A Recap
Kingdom Hearts tells the story of three young teenagers in a small world called Destiny Islands. Sora, the playable character, is a positive and adventurous kid that many children can relate to. Kairi is a mysterious girl who showed up at their world one day, which is how the characters learned that other places exist. Riku, a bit older than the other two, is the leader of the group and puts in the most work for their voyage.
The game begins in Sora’s dream. There, players encounter and battle the heartless, the main enemies of the franchise. When Sora wakes up, he and his friends are planning their escape from Destiny Islands. Meanwhile, cutscenes show Donald Duck as a mage and Goofy as a knight on another world, Disney Castle. After Donald finds a letter that their king left behind, the two team up with Jiminy Cricket, Pluto, Chip, and Dale to go to Traverse Town and find the keyblade wielder.
As the heartless invade Destiny Islands, Sora loses his friends and his world but ends up with a strange sword that can unlock any keyhole, known as the keyblade. He wakes up at Traverse Town to find a dog, Pluto, jump on him and run away. Pluto ran off from the other Disney characters shortly after getting to Traverse Town. There, Donald and Goofy meet Aerith while Sora meets Cid, Squall (who goes by the name Leon in this series), and Yuffie from Final Fantasy. The heartless attack them which leads to Donald and Goofy finding Sora in the middle of a battle. Leon tells them that they should help each other find their friends and one of the most iconic trios in all of gaming was born.
Sora, Donald, and Goofy go to different worlds, most of which are inspired by Disney films, where they take down the heartless and unlock each world’s keyhole, which prevents that world from being taken by darkness. Some of Disney’s most popular villains are being led by Maleficent and serve as the main antagonists of the game. One of the most popular worlds in the game, Olympus Coliseum, introduced Hercules and Hades, alongside Cloud and Sephiroth. Sora, Donald, and Goofy enter a tournament where they face Cloud, who is working for Hades, and the heartless. Hades manipulated Cloud in order to kill Hercules but decided to betray him in an attempt to beat Sora. He brought Cerberus into the tournament and players got to fight him, bringing an end to the tournament. Phil and Hercules had to clean things up before anyone could enter another tournament, which there are several of throughout the game. These tournaments are great for players looking to level up and get new weapons for the party. Players can eventually fight Hades, two of his titans, and Sephiroth, making this world one that players can spend the most time in if they choose to go beyond the main story.
After the first visit to Olympus Coliseum, as well as going to Wonderland and Deep Jungle, the gang returns to Traverse Town where Sora reunites with Riku. Donald says that he can’t join them, which leads to an argument, and Riku leaves. It turns out that he ended up going to a world called Hollow Bastion where he met Maleficent. The witch manipulated him into believing that Sora cared more about his new friends than of him and Kairi, who is in a coma. Maleficent promises to help Riku get Kairi back if he joins her cause.
Throughout the story, Riku is seen a few more times. The reason why Jiminy Cricket joined the others is that his world was taken by the darkness. Pinocchio and Geppetto escaped inside the belly of Monstro the whale, who has been flying in space since. On their way to either Atlantica or Halloween Town, Monstro swallows the party. Jiminy and Pinocchio reunite for a bit until Riku kidnaps the puppet, hoping that his heart can provide answers to saving Kairi. Players get to travel through Monstro’s insides to retrieve Pinocchio and stop Riku. After doing so, Pinocchio and Geppetto build a store in Traverse Town. Riku can also be found on Captain Hook’s ship, where Kairi and Wendy are prisoners aboard the pirates’ vessel. Sora finally sees Kairi for the first time in person since their departure. He has had hallucinations of her throughout the game, believing that he found her several times up until this point. Captain Hook, believing that he was going to win a fight against Sora, tells him about Hollow Bastion.
Players end up learning that the Final Fantasy characters that live in Traverse Town, as well as Kairi, all lived in Hollow Bastion. There was a man named Ansem who was researching the heart and created the emblem heartless. There are two types of heartless: emblem and pureblood. Maleficent used the heartless to take control of Hollow Bastion. The residents of the world escaped and Kairi found her way to Sora and Riku. Ever since, Maleficent has used the castle at Hollow Bastion as her own base.
Upon arriving at Hollow Bastion, Riku takes the keyblade from Sora and his friendship with Donald and Goofy is tested. Sora learns that his true power was never the keyblade, but the friends he made on his journey. Now, finally ready to save all the worlds, Sora is prepared to defeat Maleficent and the true darkness that lies beyond. Riku realizes that he was wrong and that Sora never stopped caring about him, causing him to regret his actions. He helps Sora close the Door to Darkness, where the pureblood heartless come from. Riku is on one side pulling the door as Sora is on the other side pushing it. Donald and Goofy see that King Mickey is on the other side and he thanks them for all of their hard work. King Mickey is also a keyblade wielder and joins Sora in locking the door, saying goodbye for now. When the door closes, all the worlds that fell to darkness, including Destiny Islands, return to the light. Kairi, who has woken up, is taken back to Destiny Islands and Sora promises to return to her.
The party ends up in the middle of a field where they finally find Pluto, who leads them to their next journey. This was the beginning of the epic story Tetsuya Nomura, the writer of the story, would end up telling.
A Joy to Play
As for the gameplay, Square was inspired by Super Mario 64 to create a 3D platformer but with the RPG elements of the Final Fantasy franchise. To compete with Mario, they joined Disney to use the company’s popular characters. Besides party members such as Donald, Goofy, Peter Pan, and Aladdin, other characters such as Simba, Dumbo, and Bambi can enter the battle as a summon, a mechanic from the Final Fantasy games.
Summons can be used to fight off a lot of enemies and give players HP and MP. Sora learns how to use magic throughout the game, unlocking a different element in each world. After joining with Donald and Goofy, he learns to control fire. During his time at Olympus Coliseum, he gains thunder. Besides elemental magic, he and Donald can also use their MP to cure themselves, while the rest of the party members use MP for special abilities. As players level up and progress through the game, they gain access to abilities for all party members. These abilities give players an advantage by having more combat options, gaining more items by defeating enemies, and more.
There are also a lot of minigames and things to collect for those that want more out of the game. Most of these side quests are centered around Traverse Town. Leon is concerned about the puppies from 101 Dalmatians. They were scattered across the worlds and players can look for them inside of chests. After collecting enough dalmatians, players can visit them and get items. As the story progresses, players will also get access to a shop in which they can keep synthesizing items until they get the most powerful keychain in the game, Ultima Weapon. Keychains change how strong the keyblade’s power and magic are. After getting a couple of items across the first few Disney worlds, Sora delivers a book to Merlin. The book turns out to be a Winnie the Pooh story, where players can help the residents of the 100 Acre Wood by playing minigames. There is much to do for players that want to go beyond the main story.
You Owe It to Yourself to Play Kingdom Hearts
Kingdom Hearts was an amazing experience that would go on to become a huge series and have multiple adaptations. From the charm that Disney provides to the compelling story that Tetsuya Nomura wrote and the Final Fantasy inspired gameplay, this is a title that anyone can enjoy. It brought beloved franchises from different parts of the world together and has sold millions of copies to its large fanbase. Despite some criticizing future installments of being too convoluted, this first game will always be a charming gem that fans hold dearly in their hearts. You need to play it.