The Kingdom Hearts games touched the lives of many gamers around the world and became an immensely popular franchise. To date the series has collectively sold more than 25 million units across all platforms that have included a game in the franchise. The recurring themes of friendship and self-discovery are what made the alliance between Disney and Square Enix into a successful collaboration.
Join me as I open the door to each game in the Kingdom Hearts series and explore why many gamers have so much for love them. This is my definitive retrospective of the Kingdom Hearts series…
Let’s go right to the beginning. Most hardcore fans know how the story goes, but here’s a refresher for those that might not. Kingdom Hearts was a game conceptualized by chance when series director Tetsuya Nomura had a fateful encounter with a Disney executive in a building elevator. At the time, both Square and Disney employees worked in the same building located in Japan. This helped bridge a working relationship between Disney and Square that started initial development for the first Kingdom Hearts game in February 2000.
Kingdom Hearts would be developed over a two year period before finally being released in Japan on March 23, 2002. North America would see the game later that year on September 16th, and would include additional in-game content not found in the initial Japanese release.
I still vividly remember the promotional material for the release of Kingdom Hearts. The commercials that played on television featured the trademark song of the game, “Simple and Clean” by Utada Hikaru. A lot of interest for the game was sparked by that song. The sounds behind Utada’s words alongside images of Disney characters grasped everyone’s attention. There was something special about this game, and everyone at the time could feel it.
Playing through Kingdom Hearts on PlayStation 2 for the first time was a life altering experience for me. Some skeptics of the game were quick dismiss it because of the inclusion of Disney characters, which at the time was believed to be a clear signal for a game made for children. But immediately from start to finish, the game showed that it was developed with the same passion found in classic Final Fantasy titles. Disney characters that were included influenced the story by giving everything more emotion and soul, without making the experience feel juvenile.
The gameplay of Kingdom Hearts was special in its own right. Square’s signature cinematic storytelling and graphical detail was accompanied by combat and exploration all done in real time. The action-based combat was fluid and allowed for a different ebb & flow not found in previous Square titles.
I felt the controls for exploring what was around me were incredibly solid and responsive. Instant feedback while attacking and reacting to enemies on screen felt very good. While the camera did have a few issues back then, it still had the same level of fluidity similar to other hit games of that time period, such as Super Mario 64 on the Nintendo 64.
While this was a game that co-starred Disney characters, it was far from being way too easy in difficulty. Progressing through the main story was not tough, but there was always a sense of vulnerability to the character you controlled. By the end you can feel powerful enough to take on all challenges and yet still be humbled if you were not careful against some enemies. This level of challenge was expanded upon for the North American release with the inclusion of extra boss fights and hidden content that could be found late in the game.
More importantly however was the various aspects of the game’s design that came together when telling the main story. The original main characters that carried the story along were fleshed out and relatable in many ways. As they grew and felt a wide range of emotions through events in the game, we too as players experienced and felt similar things along the way.
The delivery of the game’s story was so well done that I would find myself deeply immersed into playing for whole afternoons late into the evening. I wanted to keep going and find out what happens next to these characters, as well as what was the next big Disney or Final Fantasy cameo.
Speaking of cameos, the first Kingdom Hearts game had cameos in all of the right places. As a long-time Donald Duck fan, I was overjoyed to have Donald and Goofy fighting at my side against waves of enemies while exploring the game’s many worlds. Like many other players, I grew attached to having both of them in my party. No matter what challenges came my way, Donald and Goofy were always there guarding my back.
The Disney cameo touch extended to the game’s worlds, all of which were based off various Disney animated films like Tarzan, Aladdin, and many more. It was much like wandering a Disney theme park and interacting with the different characters you come across on your journey.
Final Fantasy characters would also make various appearances throughout the adventure. Popular faces like Cloud and Yuffie from Final Fantasy VII would give plenty of fan service, as well as help or hinder you in different ways. For Square fans the big deal wasn’t that Square characters were in the game, it was that you can fight with or against them at various points of the story.
For me, the most memorable cameos while playing were Squall (Leon) from Final Fantasy VIII and Sephiroth from Final Fantasy VII. Seeing both characters for the first time left me in a state of awe, as well as intimidated. This would only result in me taking my lumps with pride with how strong they both were in a fight. Eventually I would overcome both battles through leveling and careful strategy, but I would never forget the visceral moments I stared down both Squall (Leon) and Sephiroth in the game.
Playing Kingdom Hearts on PlayStation 2 enhanced my love for role-playing games and began my passion for a series that I would follow for a very long time. When the game’s story came to an end, I felt a bitter-sweet satisfaction. Of course like many others, I would constantly replay areas to discover all of the game’s many secrets and hidden bonus content.
And when I finally reached the point of 100% completion in my saved data, I found myself sitting in front of my television wanting to see more. There would be many times I would return to Kingdom Hearts over and over again to re-explore all of the worlds that Disney and Square had created. It would be a long wait until I saw where the series would go in the years that followed. But even back then, it was a long wait I was proud to endure and see where this series would take me next.
Are you a fan of the Kingdom Hearts series? Like remembering the good times you spent playing the games back in the day? Leave us a comment below and let your voice be heard!!!