The pairing of different Final Fantasy games and Disney movies into a new, cohesive universe was just as strange of an idea in 2002 as it is today.
Somehow, against all the odds, Kingdom Hearts was wildly successful upon its release — not despite its strange premise, but partly because of it. While Disney may be notoriously stingy with how it handles and manage its own properties, the Japanese gaming giant Squaresoft proved up to the task and created a franchise that has withstood the test of time.
Parsing out what’s real and fake in the game’s origin story is difficult to do. A story about a chance meeting in an elevator has both one foot in and out of reality.
As the story goes, Shinji Hashimoto, executive officer at Square Enix and co-creator of the Kingdom Hearts series, was inspired to create an open-ended 3D adventure game after seeing the success of Super Mario 64. He and long-time Final Fantasy producer Hironobu Sakaguchi had assumed the only brand that could compete with the likes of Nintendo’s Mario was Disney’s very own House of Mouse. By sheer luck (or some weird twist of fate), Hashimoto ended up in the same elevator as a couple of unknown Disney executives. One thing led to another and after enlisting the lead character designer of Final Fantasy VII as a director, Kingdom Hearts was born.
Coming from a 2004 Q&A interview with Tetsuya Nomura, the story gained credence, yet its validity has been argued over the years. Whether it’s true or not, the near-mythic nature of the story has helped justify a game that by most respects shouldn’t exist. How is it that a game where Sephiroth and Goofy can appear side-by-side can not only exist, but be as successful as it is? It’s easy to try and complicate the answer, especially since the series has garnered its own respectful amount of detractors over the years. In reality, the answer is simple: it’s just a damn good game.
I first played Kingdom Hearts when I was ten years old. I can remember the original marketing campaign clearly. The unique visual identity of the game helped merge the two wildly different properties into a more cohesive world that felt wholly of the time. It may seem dated now with the game’s main theme, Simple and Clean, sounding as cheesy as any early 00s nightclub banger, but there’s a charm to how serious the game presents these elements.
I must have seen the original commercial hundreds of times as a kid with how much television I watched. It feels seared into my memory. Cuts of the game’s opening CG cutscene with various Disney characters throughout and a deep voice of some mysterious man quoting the game’s marketing tagline: “you’ll never know who you’ll run into next”. I was already interested in the game thanks to the grapevine of elementary school chatter, but this commercial reaffirmed my excitement. I hadn’t yet become as familiar with the Final Fantasy series as I would in later years, the series still holding an air of maturity in the eyes of my younger self, but its combination of well known Disney elements helped make it feel more approachable. Like when my older brother would introduce me to one of his favorite punk-rock bands, I felt like I was being introduced to something cooler than me. Although for the record, ‘cool’ isn’t the first word I’d use when describing this game.
Replaying the original game in the Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5+2.5 ReMIX package means that Kingdom Hearts comes with some welcome quality of life changes, but remains mostly the same. The original remains surprisingly focused when compared to its many sequels. A game about a trio of kids who dream of exploring the world beyond their small island home, it’s a relatable premise for anyone who called a similar small town their home. After a swarm of monsters attacked their island, the main character Sora finds himself at Traverse Town – a crossroads of sorts for the unlucky souls who have lost the worlds they called home. There, he runs into Donald and Goofy who are on a mission to find their good friend and king, Mickey Mouse himself.
The restraint of the first game’s plot is surprising especially when you know how wild things will eventually become. A young boy in search of his lost friends, there’s a heartwarming nature to the story that you don’t often find in Square’s other games. It’s that theme of friendship that holds the first game together, no matter where you are in the narrative. Even after reaching the game’s climactic third act where you are forced to fight one of the friends you had set out to find, Sora’s determination is endearing. As an adult, it reminds me of the many friendships I let slip away throughout my life, making me wonder how I could have changed things and why I chose not to.
The original Kingdom Hearts is a game for kids, but it doesn’t become insufferable because of it. Simple, approachable and rarely unforgiving, it’s easy enough for a ten-year-old to play. Yet it’s also packed with a story that’s odd, dorky, and delightfully charming that I can still enjoy as an adult. Even better is that the optional end-game content is still hard as hell, so there’s still a good challenge included if you’re so inclined. But most importantly, it reminds me of what it’s like to be a kid. Besides the constant reminders of Disney movies that can sometimes make it feel grossly commercialised, Kingdom Hearts is a game about what friends are willing to do for one another. Sure, they end up saving the universe at the end of the day, but that was never the point. The relationships of its main characters are what propelled us through its thirty-hour long playtime. It’s those same relationships that keep us invested, even after all these years.
While Kingdom Hearts III may be concluding one of the most convoluted storylines in gaming history, it will also be a moment of cathartic realisation. Over the past 16 years, I’ve watched Sora and his pals grow as the story has become more and more complicated. Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited to finally see the final showdown between the heroes and series’ antagonist Xehanort, but what’s most important to me is seeing these friends together once again. Even after all these years, the original Kingdom Hearts is a reminder that there’s something beautiful in the connections we all have with each other.