In 2001, I was working a boring summer job and one of my favorite ways to pass the time once a month was with a new issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly. The summer issues were particularly juicy because that’s when all of the E3 news would drop and you would find out about all of the newly announced games. 2001 was the year was when Square-Enix – Squaresoft at the time – unveiled their new IP exclusive to the PlayStation 2: Kingdom Hearts. From the brief write-up and few screenshots about this first impression, I thought this new venture was a brilliant idea as I envisioned it as a game meant to introduce younger players into JRPG’s: mix Final Fantasy with Disney, hook them young and graduate them to more complicated games. Because of this, Kingdom Hearts stayed off my radar for the better part of a year, that is, until the reviews started coming out for the game towards the fall of 2002.
The reviews that came out about the original Kingdom Hearts told a story of a game that was far from a kids game despite its vibrant, colorful visuals, exaggerated characters and a cast including Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse and Goofy travelling around the worlds of familiar Disney films like Aladdin, Peter Pan and The Little Mermaid. Critics were very positive on the launch; praising the story that had just as much weight as Square’s flagship series that made up half of Kingdom Hearts. Kingdom Hearts suddenly went from a game I respected but had no real desire to play, to one I desperately wanted. As a poor university student, I didn’t really have any money to buy new video games, until one fortunate day when I got a call from my parents telling me they were putting money into my bank account that was not to be spent on anything I needed. One day after class, I immediately went to the closest EB Games and brought home a copy of Kingdom Hearts.
In the months that followed, I would look forward to every spare moment I could find to continue Sora’s quest to find his friends and return to his quiet home on Destiny Islands, all the while joined by my roommate and friends who were equally absorbed into the world and characters on screen. As I would bash waves of Heartless with my Keyblade, we would reminisce about our favorite Disney films, searching for our favorite songs on whatever download service was popular at the time. It took me until Christmas break that year to see the true conclusion to Kingdom Hearts, a brief teaser with flashes of what was to come and I couldn’t wait to find out what was next.
Released in early 2006 after a brief diversion on the Game Boy Advance with the spin-off Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, Kingdom Hearts II was a game I pre-ordered and counted down the days until it was released, absorbing everything I could about it from episodes of The 1UP Show and an EGM cover story with a cover that came in multiple flavors – I chose the Tron themed cover. Kingdom Hearts II has an odd opening where the series protagonist from the first game and the lead up title, Sora, was nowhere to be found, instead replaced by a newcomer named Roxas who you play as in what can only be described as an opening tutorial that lasts for several hours. Who is this guy? Why should I care about him? Where’s Sora, Donald, and Goofy?!! I would finish Kingdom Hearts II and enjoyed it well enough, but it didn’t capture me quite like the original did despite being what that game was only more: more worlds including Mulan and The Lion King, more moves, more spells, more, well, everything, except the one thing that really mattered: heart.
In the thirteen years between the second and third numbered entries in the series, the Kingdom Hearts franchise would continue in spin-off after spin-off on various handhelds, and it was with the DS remake of a mobile game, Kingdom Hearts RE: Coded that I finally checked out. I was tired of beating on the same few enemy types with my key shaped club, tired of trudging through the same worlds over and over just waiting for anything new and frankly exhausted over the story, and this was before they started introducing time travel into the series canon. What made Kingdom Hearts such a magical game and one that I will cherish playing forever is how simple everything was. Sure, there was the melodrama inherent with these types of games, but the story can more or less be summed up as: Disney villains are teaming up and kidnapping princesses all the while inky, black enemies are devouring worlds and you as series protagonist Sora are caught in the middle as you search for your missing friends Riku and Kairi.
What made Sora’s journey so relatable to me in 2002 was because like Sora, I too was venturing out into the world for the first time trying to discover myself in a new chapter of my life. Sora was leaving his small world for the first time in his life, travelling to new places just as I was leaving my small town to start my university education, leaving the comfort of my parents’ home in my small town to live in a building with complete strangers and learn in an unfamiliar environment. It was scary, but also exciting, and as things become overwhelming, I got to take comfort in a video game that essentially distilled childlike wonder and pressed it on disc.
Fast forward years later, and I have no idea what Kingdom Hearts is about. Over the years I’ve tried to replay the series when new entries were coming out to re-familiarize myself with the series’ lore, but I always stop at the end of the first game after I shed a few tears at its bittersweet conclusion. I don’t really care about Roxas or thirteen enemies in Matrix coats who more or less look the same and have an “X” in their names whose convoluted plans continue to eclipse the Disney half of the series. The first game had a few notable cameos from characters that appeared in the PlayStation era Final Fantasy games, but save the items, menus and spells, Kingdom Hearts was all about visiting Disney themed worlds which isn’t how the series feels anymore. If anything, it feels like the creators would rather do away with the Disney part altogether to focus on multiple characters who are either named Ansem or Xehanort.
In a lot of ways, I’m envious of those who are excited to play through Kingdom Hearts III and see the conclusion of story lines that were started almost two decades ago. For years I had shelves adorned with Play Arts figures of Sora, Kairi and King Mickey while I wore my expensive Organization XIII hoodie and cradling my DS playing a game with a fraction for a sub-title. Now those figures have found new homes, the hoodie has been donated to goodwill, and all that remains of my time with the franchise are my two glossy PS2 versions of the first and second games. I know that in order to continue as a series, Kingdom Hearts had to grow bigger, but that growth came at the sacrifice of the brilliant simplicity of the first game. The series is still about the strength of friendship and finding the light in the face of overwhelming darkness, but all of this somehow became buried under a plot that is now overwhelmed with the tropes of bad comic books like clones and time travel.
Kingdom Hearts’ best qualities were reflected by its first theme, “Simple and Clean”, but now the series is anything but.