A Friday afternoon At the end of 2002, I returned home from my local GameStop with two of the most exciting video games of the year in my hand. These games were 1) an epic adventure with a gripping story based on one of the most beloved franchises of all time, and 2) Kingdom Hearts.
The result of an unprecedented collaboration between Square Enix and Disney, Kingdom Hearts took the most valuable library of fictional characters on Earth and imbued it with the Japanese studio’s approach to video game storytelling. Kingdom Hearts is a game where a spiky-haired kid with a giant “Keyblade” hangs out with Mickey Mouse, Pinnochio, and Alladin. It’s also a game where Donald Duck is a powerful wizard and “Xehanort is everyone” is a sentence that makes sense.
If you were expecting the type of straightforward adventure these characters usually experience, you were in for a rude awakening.
The plot of Kingdom Hearts is actually relatively simple, at least compared to the various sequels that followed. It follows Sora, who lives on an island with his two friends and plans to explore the world – until a group of shadowy creatures called the Heartless attack. Meanwhile, a world full of Disney characters becomes infested with evil, so King Mickey (the Mouse) sets off with Donald Duck and Goofy to find help. This iconic Disney trio soon cross paths with Sora and agree to help him find his lost friends.
Together, the group embarks on an adventure through different Disney worlds before defeating Maleficent (the apparent source of this evil) and saving Sora’s friends (sort of). However, the real villain turns out to be Ansem (Seeker of Darkness), and our heroes chase him to the end of the world to defeat him.
It’s an extremely simplified version of the story, and I’m already lost. From there, the Kingdom Hearts series only got more confusing, with future games doubling down on the weirder parts of the franchise’s lore.
To be clear, Kingdom Hearts is a very fun game, and the sequels are also quite entertaining. It’s fun to fight your way through various Disney worlds, gaining allies and enemies along the way. But over the decades, the show has earned a reputation for having some of the most complex and convoluted stories in an industry known for it. (Have you ever looked at the plot of Mortal Kombat games?)
The man to blame is likely series creator Tetsuya Nomura, one in several character designers. Final Fantasy entries that somehow convinced both Square Enix and Disney to let him make his own game – that might explain why all of the original Kingdom Hearts characters feel like FF heroes pushed to 11.
Ultimately, Kingdom Hearts bills itself as a one-of-a-kind video game that established one of the weirdest franchises in gaming history. There may never be another game like this, and that may be – be a good thing.
Oh, and if you were wondering, the other game I bought that day in 2002 was The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.