As the story goes, Kingdom Hearts literally began as an elevator pitch: a chance encounter between a Disney executive and a Square game producer in an elevator led to the creation of one of gaming’s more interesting inventions. A cross-pollination of the Disney empire and Square Enix (then known as SquareSoft), Kingdom Hearts began as a desire to create a 3D adventure title like Super Mario 64 using the most iconic characters possible and after 15 years has grown into its own juggernaut franchise, despite the last main-line game being released in 2005.
My first experience with Kingdom Hearts was a trailer attached to a CD ROM game set in the world of Treasure Planet; something I’m fairly certain was included in a Happy Meal. The whole endeavor was clearly a byproduct of the coldhearted marketing machine, but at the time I couldn’t help but be intrigued. Oh boy, that trailer. It’s not a bad trailer, but game trailers at that time weren’t nearly as big as they are today. What’s most notable about this one is the 45 seconds at the beginning dedicated to text on the screen, attempting to set up the narrative core of Kingdom Hearts. Ironically, these words wouldn’t even appear until the end of the game’s sequel. Still, as the now unforgettable overture begins, I was drawn in by the idea that these were words to myself.
I imagine that for a lot of people, that was the case. From a conceptual sense, Kingdom Hearts almost sounds like a David Blaine stunt they don’t actually let David Blaine do. The premise is pretty nuts after all-apply the scope and scale of JRPGs to Disney characters and their respective worlds and package it in a live combat system with 3D movement-and there wasn’t a great reputation for licensed games thanks to lazy cash-ins being dropped left and right. As a result, just like those stunts you really don’t think are going to turn out, you also can’t pull your face away. But dammit if it doesn’t end up working.
There is an absolute charm to being able to roam around a colorful world of familiar faces (and voices) and fighting just as colorful enemies with a giant key in frantic combat. While there are serious themes, they are covered in goofy wrapping paper-as it should be for game that features Goofy prominently. In Kingdom Hearts, there is the caked on feeling of what pretty much everyone perceives as the Disney brand of joy. That might come off as coldly manufactured, because of course a production Disney was this involved with had to meet a certain criteria. Except it gets balanced out by the self-seriousness of the Final Fantasy series that informs a lot of the original creations; not to mention several of the characters guest appearing. It really was a magical balancing act to try to get this exactly right; and I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that if the balance was off, this would have been written off immediately.
A lot of that can be attributed to some of the specific choices made in the game’s design. Originally, it was Mickey Mouse himself set to be the game’s protagonist, for one. However, when the story continued to be fleshed out and it became clear things would work better with an original character, that changed. Moving Mickey into a more Gandalf-like mystery role was smart, given that we could actually have the mascot and a character with some personality. Seriously, by the time Kingdom Hearts was released, Mickey had basically taken his place as the Disney mascot-only and King Mickey was the closest to an actual characterization for the mouse. Also, King Mickey is awesome. This also gave sidekicks Donald and Goofy a proper mission of their own, one that fits their own known characterizations. And there was the original character, Sora. Because he did replace good old Mickey, Sora actually picked up a lot of what Mickey is normally associated with. Sora is kind, helpful, determined, loyal, and full of joy. Clearly Mickey also has these, but in Sora, they present themselves as actual traits we discover. What makes this design of Sora so interesting is that while he is an original character, clearly living and breathing the design of director Tetsuya Nomura, he is basically the most blatant Disney-like character in a game full of Disney characters. That particularly important because Sora is pretty much a counter-idea to the actual story of Kingdom Hearts. While the overall narrative is convoluted as all hell, the first game is pretty straight forward: end-of-the world, inner darkness, the usual stuff a lot of “serious” games of that period of time had going on. Again, the key to making this work was balancing the serious Square stuff with Disney happiness.
See, the way the game actually plays out is that with the exceptions of original creations, all the worlds visited are Disney-created environments, sectioned off like slices of their movies. The game’s threat, the Heartless, invade and corrupt those worlds. Sora, Donald, and Goofy then arrive and more or less clean up the mess. But that ends up clicking because Sora is pretty much even more Disney than the Disney characters themselves. The very idea of hitting bad guys with a gigantic key is pretty ridiculous right out of the gate, and it very rarely lets Sora ever get properly down. Instead, he’s laughing, encouraging, always persistent, and really is just that much Disney. Seeing as pretty much all the other original characters don’t follow this, it makes Sora stand out and help maintain the balance between the game worlds and the game’s story. Also, the actual choices of worlds here are pretty diverse. While the game easily could have gone for just all the 90’s Disney renaissance films, since those would be the easiest to market. Some of those (Aladdin and Little Mermaid particularly) are in there, but we also see older and newer films. Not every single one is a perfect choice, I for one still maintain the choice to include Tarzan instead of The Jungle Book was a giant mistake, but the game’s narrative does feel like a crash course through the various pieces of the Disney canon.
The gameplay itself was fairly revolutionary for its time as well, and let to a lot of Square’s future choices. In addition to green-lighting multiple sequels, the company also began to hand more power to Nomura. Before Kingdom Hearts, Nomura had mostly been known for contributing character designs to titles-most notably Final Fantasy VII and X. He worked on various Final Fantasy games and spin offs in addition to this franchise, eventually becoming the director of Final Fantasy versus XIII, which to us is known as Final Fantasy XV. While Nomura actually left the project to spear head the long await third main Kingdom Hearts, his influence can be felt in XV‘s combat, which two relies on frantic live battles, with AI companions running support. While that is the biggest impact, Nomura’s post Kingdom Hearts work can be felt in most character designs and and their implementations across Square Enix’s library.
It’s important to remember just how good this all turned out here on the 15th anniversary of the franchise, especially since the games have been all over the place in quality in that time. To put it in perspective, the bulk of the series has been remastered twice (the second time was just released this week), and both times some of the games are represented just by cutscenes. Things have become so convoluted over the years that some games aren’t even close to mandatory. Most of the games are still pretty fantastic and while the actual sequel is pretty better in story, mechanics, and graphics, none of it would be possible without the original Kingdom Hearts managing to pull off a tightrope walk that had no reason to be as good as it was.