Retrospective Monday: Kingdom Hearts

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Title: Kingdom Hearts
Platform: PS2
Year: 2002
Publisher: Square
Developer: Square

I had never played the original Kingdom Hearts when it first came out in 2002, which is weird considering I bought the second one and played that when it was released and enjoyed it quite a bit. That was almost a decade ago. I recently picked up the original Kingdom Hearts, and after having it sit there amidst my ever growing pile of unfinished games, I popped it in my PS2 and started playing.

Everyone I talked to told me how they have all these fond memories of exploring the vibrant Disney environments, befriending charming Disney characters, even fighting Sephiroth (!) in the Hercules-themed tournament. I also recall those flashy, hyper emotional commercials blaring Utada’s “urgent” “Simple and Clean” and tugging at gamer’s hearts every twenty minutes. Disney and Square? It was like Super Mario RPG on the SNES, this kind of dream concoction, but even better looking and with more hype and J-Pop. Who knows why I never picked it up originally (probably too busy playing Arc the Lad Collection in my basement…?).

Kingdom Hearts starts off on this island where some inane Final Fantasy IX/X characters linger around the beach and players are introduced to Sora, Riku, and Kairi, the central characters of the Kingdom Hearts universe. There is some nice character interaction here between the three characters and none of the dialogue is bad or anything.

From the onset, Sora seems like a good dude. People complain about young, male protagonists in Japanese media all the time, citing either how whiny or annoying or indifferent they are, but Sora is charming and warm. I actually thought he was voiced by Barbara Goodson, of FLCL fame, which made me like Sora more, but it turns out he is voiced by the also excellent Haley Joel Osment. Still, Sora’s optimism and power of friendship never wanes, and his final moments in the game are real gold.

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Riku, Sora’s frenemy, is a jerk, and their rivalry seems a little unnecessarily exaggerated, and we never hear much from Kairi, the girl, at all. Later, Riku’s character development as Sora’s rival is intensified nonsensically and unrealistically, but the opening scenes are nice. There are lots of great, early teenage nuances in the island sequence and it’s all pretty sound.

But once we get into the actual game, the Disney segments, the fighting segments, the game really starts to show its oversights. Playing through the first game blind as an adult (sort of) and with no nostalgia for the series let me (possibly unfortunately) critique the game harshly and without rose-tinted Ray-Bans.

One of my biggest issues with the game is that players cannot skip cutscenes. They can pause them, thank god, but they can’t skip them, which becomes problematic when it comes to bosses. The bosses are not difficult, but some are agonizingly tedious, and at any moment, some stray attack or something can knock Sora out, ending the game. After a game over, players start a few rooms back from the boss chamber, but are forced to watch the handful of minutes cutscene again. And again. And again. I will give the game the benefit of the doubt here, as it was made in the early 2000s, but come on. Any game with cutscenes should give the option to both pause and skip them, something that games still have trouble with (can’t pause cutscenes in Dragon’s Dogma, for instance, only skip them, without warning). This is not only detrimental to the flow of the game, but it also made me start being annoyed with the characters. And that sucks, because I love these characters. What player wants to be mad at Winnie the Pooh because he can’t beat a mini-game with poor controls? That’s awful.

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There is also the camera controls, which are, unfortunately, controlled with L2 and R2, instead of the right stick, which would have been great. This was updated in the second game, but here it really gets annoying, and, like in Super Mario 64 (which was very old by the time this game came out), the camera gets stuck on every wall and corner players walk by. This is exemplified in one particular room in the Neverland area, on Captain Hook’s pirate ship. There is a tight cabin room with a ladder in the middle of it, which the player must climb. But the camera is stuck in the back of the room, behind the ladder. Players can try to move the camera around the ladder to climb up, but the camera will get stuck on the wall. Players then have to play an awkward game of pressing up and down on the control pad and hope they ascend the ladder. It’s not game breaking, even when the camera gets stuck during battle, but it is absolutely annoying.

The party AI is not terrible, especially considering the year the game came out. Donald heals when Sora needs it, Goofy bumbles around and attacks, and the guest characters for each world usually do their job. Compared to the AI controlled party in the excellent Secret of Mana, the party in Kingdom Hearts feels generally fresh, although the “gambit” system of Final Fantasy XII is sorely missed. Donald sometimes casts Stop on enemies, which stops them in their tracks, but gives them a few moments of invulnerability. This is never useful in normal battles because there is never an enemy that would not be dead by the time the spell is even half over, and thus ruins the flow of the battle.

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But what takes the cake as far as bad AI goes is during the fight I had with Jafar at the end of the Aladdin level. Jafar annoyingly floats around this huge arena, far above where players can jump and hit him, so they must wait until he hovers over a platform that can be climbed to attack him. Sometimes this takes a long time. Genie is also in the center of the arena, casting this huge spell which pretty much kills a party member in one hit.

So here I am, lucky enough to be near Jafar, only I can’t get on top of the platform because of the awful camera movement. Players can target enemies, which makes the camera sporadically try to give players the best view to fight the enemy. Only that very rarely happens. So I am desperately trying to see where I am behind this platform, hurrying because I know Jafar is going to fly away soon, but the camera is stuck in front of the platform because I am targeting Jafar so I do not lose him. I can’t see myself, but I, finally, get a good look at what the rest of my party is doing. Absolutely nothing! Both Donald and Aladdin are standing right where the Genie is casting his spell, not moving at all. They aren’t even walking in place or swinging their weapons at nothing. They’re just standing there, waiting to die. This was the lowest point of the game for me and made the next ten hours or so pretty sour. Exploration and combat was maddeningly obtuse in The Little Mermaid’s Atlantica and every area I had been to looked nice, but was boring to run around in. Each area was cramped and featureless, or when it had features (like in the Tarzan jungle), they were unspectacular and tedious.

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Another thing about the combat that was poorly designed was that most enemies have the ability to phase out of existence for a period of time, either warping around the area or moving into the ground, completely invulnerable for a moment. It doesn’t add challenge to the game, it’s not like the enemies are dodging my attacks, they’re just being jerks and wasting my time.

There’s also the matter of the Gummi Ship segments, a Star Fox-styled 3D space shooter that occurs when moving from one world to the next. This was one of my favorite aspects of Kingdom Hearts 2, but here, these segments are tedious and offer nothing interesting. There is a fairly in-depth customization offered to players who want more lasers and bigger engines on their ships, but the garage is plagued by absolutely unintuitive controls and each space level is so short and easy to get through, that it’s all completely unnecessary. And half of the chests you open in-game are full of these Gummi Ship parts, which are essentially useless. Definitely a missed opportunity. Very rarely does one stumble upon a chest and find with glee a useful item in it, like a new piece of armor or a shining new weapon.

When speaking to friends, I went so far as to say I hated the game, that it was terribly flawed, that the controls were awful and the combat boring. But everyone told me to keep playing and that I would eventually grow to love the game. At which I gasped, exhausted, “How much do I have left?”

It was around I explored Oogie Boogie’s manor in Halloween Town that I came around to enjoying Kingdom Hearts. The single area, which is as large as any Super Mario 64 stage, features this huge ramp that spirals up toward the peak of Oogie Boogie’s mountainous tree (I think it was a tree), with this barren wasteland underneath full of mummies and gargoyles. It was the first time where an area was breathtaking, and I stood there for a few moments using the limited first-person mode to take a better look around. I was impressed, not just with Square’s ability to translate a Disney movie into a nice looking game area, but that they went beyond my expectations at crafting a large, interesting environment that transcended being just a linear video game level. The areas that followed, Neverland and the Hollow Bastion, were similarly huge and satisfying, with the latter feeling akin to a 3D Zelda dungeon.

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By the end of the game, I had softened up to Kingdom Hearts and its vibrant world and its colorful cast. Donald and Goofy steal the show, with their expressive animation and great voice actors, and it’s always a joy when they bicker and act goofy. Surprisingly, Sora, who oozes Tetsuya Nomura Final Fantasy charm, fits right in with them, and they make an interesting, believable trio of heroes. The rest of the Disney characters are underutilized, save Beast, who has a strong presence, and the cast of Winnie the Pooh, which exists in this innocuous storybook world. Many of the Disney and Final Fantasy characters remain flat throughout the game, and most never come back. There is one point where Squall from Final Fantasy VIII, named Leon here, mentions that when Sora fixes the universe, they can never meet again, but players barely know this guy and probably do not care.

I went through most of the game not really caring much for the plot or sub-characters, mostly only interested in my unlikely trio and their unlikely adventure. The end of the game is very unsubtly intense, sort of like a teenage poem, and yet I felt a deep sadness during the closing scenes, which are sort of great, in a childish, honest, over the top sort of way. Despite never knowing Kairi, I felt attached to her just because Sora seemed to care so much about her. And then those strangely organized credits…

It is the charm of Kingdom Hearts that drew players in in 2002 and it’s that same charm that will continue to strike a chord with players in the future. It’s such a bright, moral game, one of those Japanese narratives that’s all about the power of friendship. The music, while mostly pulled from the associated films and repeated ad nauseam, is similarly bright and epic, with “March Caprice for Piano and Orchestra” making a million kids on Youtube cry. Kingdom Hearts captures what it feels like to be twelve and wanting to leave home and explore and the intense yearning for friendship and justice. There is a single scene in the beginning of the game where Sora’s mother calls him down for dinner the night before he leaves on his journey and then after that his parents are never mentioned again. This ideal of friendship and idea of leaving home feeds into the feelings of being a kid and feeling stuck. Most kids have imagined at one point in their young lives that their favorite cartoon or game character has come to life to be their friend, something that Kingdom Hearts embodies.

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Like Super Smash Bros., the Kingdom Hearts series is one of intense love and nostalgia for its respective series’. While Kingdom Hearts does not exactly take everything that is good from Disney and add it to what is good about Final Fantasy, it makes a worthy and ultimately tearjerking attempt, and for all its gameplay flaws, it more than makes up for anything with its smile inducing, misty-eyed charms.

-Nilson Carroll

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1 comment
  1. There are aspects of Kingdom Hearts that I loved, don’t get me wrong, but the thousands of mini quests that needed to be completed in sequence pissed me off.

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