The moment I heard that I was going to fight Disney villains from movies like Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid while armed with a giant key, I never imagined that I would going to take this game seriously. My only motivating factor for playing Kingdom Hearts when it first came out on PlayStation 2 was that it featured key Final Fantasy characters like Cloud and Leon, and the real-time gameplay looked promising.
But despite my low expectations, once the game started I was instantly captivated. Right from the get-go the main character, Sora is a perfect blend of Disney and Square, East-meets-West – sporting huge anime hair and ridiculous yellow clown shoes. Then, to meet iconic Final Fantasy characters turned into children makes things more interesting, and I swiftly fell in love as I spent dozens of hours leaping about familiar environments and interacting with familiar characters, but with a whole new twist.
After a few minutes of playful beach races and stick battles, Kingdom Hearts takes an unexpected turn. An ominous figure draws you into a dark cave, eventually leading to a battle against a dark giant known as Darkside. For a young child that could make for a terrifying experience, especially if you were expecting to be fighting colorful Disney characters.
From then on I expected to be playing a game of horrifying dark entities perverting the once-peaceful world of child cartoon fantasies. It didn’t ever become as extreme as I feared, but it created a quite potent balance that I grew to appreciate. This world, or mash-up of worlds, had its fun and harmless Disney experiences, but were each infested with creatures that didn’t belong. I would relive memorable Disney moments only to be interrupted confronted by strange new creatures and moments of surprising darkness. I knew it was my duty, as the chosen wielder of the all-powerful Keyblade, to purge these worlds of the Heartless so that the fairy tales I remembered from years of watching Disney films as a kid ended the way they were supposed to.
Over time, what started out as a seemingly harmless giant key was eventually able to shoot fireballs and bash giant monsters into dust. Before experiencing its power firsthand, I would’ve never considered a giant key as a formidable weapon (well, except if I was confronted by a giant lock) – but my opinion quickly changed. I certainly would’ve never expected to play a game by Square which saw me fighting alongside iconic Disney characters. From then on I would never see Goofy or Donald Duck the same again. My final question was where the King of Disney himself, Mickey Mouse, was – and that question created an air of satisfying suspense until the very end.
The more I immersed myself into the game’s world, the more it began to take its own form – Neither Final Fantasy or Disney, but a completely new universe created by combining the two. Each character I met had their own history in this new place: Final Fantasy VII’s Cloud Strife wasn’t Kingdom Hearts’ Cloud and Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent wasn’t Kingdom Hearts’ Maleficent; they still resemble their traditional counterparts, but their journeys and motivations in Kingdom Hearts are completely different.
This perfect balance between the fresh and the familiar allowed me to have an intimate connection with the characters without needing to know their history outside of the game. this world became my own personal world I could be a part enough having no pre-existing history to call upon that I wasn’t a part enough. The game’s universe literally molds itself as you’re playing it, transforming from a curious blend that initially feels like little more than a novelty into something with an entirely distinct personality and feel.
While the story starts out as a clear cut tale of good versus evil, the conflict’s lines begin to blur when you discover that Sora’s best friend Riku’s trip to the cosmos didn’t end in quite as happy an ending. He didn’t conveniently run into the right people the way Sora did, and thus his story transpired differently, ultimately discovering that calamity had struck their home and left his friend, Kairi, in a dreamless state with her heart removed from her body. What starts as an exciting adventure for Sora, starts as a desperate rescue mission for Riku and a misunderstanding that spirals into pitting the two friends against each other.
Kingdom Heart‘s plot twist leaves you to question who your enemies and allies are; a question I previously didn’t have to answer in a game where the villain was always the one with green skin, big horns, and an army of minions. It deals with morality in shades of grey rather than the bold primary colors and pantomime villains typically associated with Disney, but despite being little more than a child when I first played it, I found it instantly relatable.
Kingdom Hearts changed the way I viewed role-playing in games. We’re so used to playing as an older and more mature warrior that to suddenly be thrust into the shoes of a child should feel jarring. In lesser hands, it would. But Kingdom Hearts pulls it off incredibly well. By the story’s end, I was still a child, but I no longer felt like I was indulging in child-like things. Even a young boy with a giant key and cartoon characters for best friends can save the world from the forces of darkness.
By the end of Kingdom Hearts, I felt a little older and a little wiser. I hadn’t just taken Sora and Riku on a journey.
They’d taken me on one, too.