Kingdom Hearts: A History of One of The Most Beloved But Unlikely Franchises Of All Time

Square Enix just released the 'Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix', so let's take a look at the history of the franchise...

Kingdom Hearts is one of the most beloved, best-selling, confusing and unlikely video game franchises of all time.

The franchise, first released in 2002 on the Playstation 2, has gone on to release a total of 10 games in the last 11 years, including numerous spin offs, side stories and remakes. Going into this week’s release of Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix, the franchise has sold more than 19 million copies across all titles.

The unique mix of Final Fantasy and Disney characters resonates with children and adults alike. Today’s kids are just happy to be able to run around with Donald and Goofy, but their parents are often hit with waves of nostalgia as they reencounter all of their favorite characters from their own childhood.

Perhaps the most convincing proof of the franchise’s success today is that seeing Square Enix characters like Cloud and Aerith show up in the same game as Winnie the Pooh and The Little Mermaid doesn’t feel weird at all.

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That wasn’t the case when the game was in development at the turn of the century. Disney is a company that historically has been quite finicky about the way its intellectual property is portrayed. When it was announced that the company had entered a partnership with a Japanese RPG developer known for creating games with dark and mysterious plot lines, the concept raised more than a few eyebrows across the industry.

Going Up

Have you ever heard the old adage about having an “elevator speech” to explain your big book or movie idea? The concept is, if you randomly bumped into a high-ranking executive in an elevator who could turn your dream into a reality, would you be able to effectively communicate your idea in the time it takes to go from the ground floor to the top of the building? Looking back, it appears that at least one Square executive had the concept down pat.

Shinji Hashimoto, a Square game producer, had been discussing the possibility of creating an open world game like Super Mario 64, with Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of Final Fantasy. The company decided to get started on its own project but the two lamented the fact that one of the reasons the Mario game had been so successful is that the Italian plumber was already a well-established character. One or both of the men remarked that perhaps only Disney had a stable of intellectual property that was as well-known worldwide as Nintendo’s.

As fate would have it, one day Hashimoto found himself standing in an elevator next to a top executive from Disney. Square and Disney had at one time worked in the same office building in Japan. The random meeting gave Hashimoto the opportunity he needed to present Square’s idea directly to Disney. Development began in February 2000 with Hashimoto serving as producer and Tetsuya Nomura, the lead character designer from Final Fantasy VII as director.

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At first, the game was designed to have a simple story aimed at Disney’s target audience: young children. But then the Godfather of Final Fantasy stepped in. Sakaguchi told Nomura that he felt the game would be a failure if the story did not aspire to be just as great as one of Square’s Final Fantasy titles. Nomura then set out to further develop the story. The name Kingdom Hearts was originally inspired by Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park, which back then had just recently opened in Florida. As Nomura further developed the story around the theme of the characters’ hearts, the developer decided to merge the two names together to create Kingdom Hearts.

Square was given unprecedented access to the Disney vault and while the company wasn’t given too many restrictions, the developer still tried to ensure that everything in each of the Disney worlds felt like it fit with the already established guidelines for those worlds created by the House of Mouse.

No one was sure what the initial reception to the game would be, so Nomura put in a hidden video at the end of the first game that hinted at a possible sequel just to see what the reaction would be. This is now a tradition that has been used multiple times throughout the history of the franchise to tease fans about upcoming games.

Final Fantasy + Disney = Victory Fanfare

The game was an immediate and overwhelming success. There were some who said that the game was a better RPG than Square’s own Final Fantasy X. The Disney characters attracted young children, which was the initial goal of the game, but Sakaguchi’s idea to create an epic story on the level of an adult Japanese RPG ended up hooking older generations on the game as well.

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Square decided to play further lip service to its fans by creating cartoon versions of some of the most popular Final Fantasy characters of all time and inserting them throughout the game. This is another tradition that has continued across the other games throughout the franchise’s history. Part of the excitement of anticipating a new Kingdom Hearts game is wondering just what combination of Disney worlds and Final Fantasy characters Square Enix will come up with next.

In the last 11 years, a total of 10 games have been released (and re-released): Kingdom HeartsChain of MemoriesKingdom Hearts IIRe: Chain of Memoriescoded358/2 DaysBirth by SleepRe:codedDream Drop Distance and HD 1.5 Remix. The success of the franchise has led to these releases being spaced out across multiple consoles and handhelds. Go to any Kingdom Hearts fan forum and you’ll see people claiming that the only reason they purchased a Nintendo 3DS or Sony PSP was for the new Kingdom Hearts game released on that platform. Disney and Square Enix both have passionate fans who wear their love for the companies on their sleeve. Infusing both of these fan bases together in one franchise has been nothing less than a stroke of pure marketing genius that has helped sell games, consoles, handhelds and other merchandise for more than a decade now.

Perhaps the most powerful testament to the passion fans still have for the franchise is the fact that people are still deeply in love with Kingdom Hearts even though the story across the seven original titles gets more convoluted and confusing with every new release.

Sora and Roxas and Heartless and Nobodies and Time Travel and….

Ask any fan of the old ABC TV series Lost what the show is about and they’ll probably say something like, “it’s about people who crash land on a mysterious island and have to unlock its secrets.” But ask the same fan to explain the plot of each of that show’s six seasons in intricate detail and how all of the different plot points connect with each other and you’ll get quite a different story. Most likely, you’ll probably see all but the most die-hard fans start foaming at the mouth as their brain shuts down to prevent an aneurysm.

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We kid the Lost fans, (this author is one of those die-hards), but no story on Kingdom Hearts would be complete without mentioning the fact that even some of the game’s biggest fans will tell you that the franchise’s story line across all titles has been suffering from a case of Lost syndrome for a while now.

To the best of this writer’s abilities, here is the plot of Kingdom Hearts across all original titles. (Please, pray for me.)

Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep

This action role-playing game is a prequel to the original game of the franchise. It takes place 10 years prior to the Heartless invasion of Destiny Islands. It tells the story of how Sora came to wield the Keyblade as well as the origins of the series villain, Xehanort.

Xehanort was a young man who lived on an island and like Sora, had dreams of doing something much bigger one day. Xehanort spent his time researching ancient history and learned of something called Kingdom Hearts and the Keyblade War.

People long ago believed that all light in the world was provided by Kingdom Hearts. Kingdom Hearts and therefore the “Light” was protected by a magical device called the Keyblade that could strike down darkness. Many people fought for control of this light and power, which was called the Keyblade War. The war resulted in the Keyblade being broken into many parts. Specifically, 13 of darkness and seven of light. The true Kingdom Hearts was swallowed by darkness, gone presumably forever. The only thing that rebuilt the world was the light in the hearts of children.

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Xehanort was a student of all of this history and trained to become a Keyblade Master with his friend Eraqus. Xehanort’s plan was to recreate the true Keyblade and start another Keyblade War. He thought this would allow the universe to be recreated again and be a better place. Eraqus was against the idea and Xehanort grew old. Xehanort attempted to use a young boy by the name of Ventas to train in the ways of darkness so that he could continue Xehanort’s plans. When Ventas refused to give into darkness, Xehanort extracted all of the darkness within him to create a being of pure darkness called Vanitas, leaving Ventas very weak.

Xehanort never did manage to recreate the ultimate Keyblade called the X-Blade, thanks to the efforts of Ventas, and two other students named Aqua and Terra, During their journey to stop Xehanort, the three travel to Disney worlds and meet Mickey Mouse, who is a young apprentice of the sorcerer Yen Sid. Mickey also aids the students in the battle against Xehanort. While Xehanort’s main plan is thwarted, he does manage to kill his old friend Eraqus and also merge with the body of Terra, eventually allowing him to transform into a much younger version of himself. This younger Xehanort is discovered by Ansem the Wise, a scholar who does experiments regarding the effects of light and darkness on hearts and is taken on as an apprentice. Xehanort’s research is thus allowed to continue. Ventas’s heart manages to survive and returns to Ventas’s original home of Destiny Islands where it merges with a young boy named Sora who Ventas felt a connection to while visiting the islands earlier in the game.

Kingdom Hearts

Sora, Riku and Kairi are three teens who live on the Destiny Islands. Sora is separated from his friends when the Islands are invaded by creatures known as The Heartless. A magical weapon called the Keyblade appears during the invasion, and Sora later finds out from a Final Fantasy character that the Keyblade has chosen him as the one who can fix the world and turn back the Heartless. After the invasion, Sora ends up in a new world called Traverse Town where he runs into Donald Duck and Goofy.

Apparently, King Mickey Mouse, the First of His Name (sorry, Game of Thrones fan here), is also aware of the Heartless invasion and leaves his castle to try and stop it. Donald and Goofy set out to find the Chosen One (Sora) and their King after finding a letter from the royal rodent, which leads to the meeting in Traverse Town.

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Sora, Donald and Goofy then travel to many different Disney-themed worlds, using the Keyblade to lock the world’s keyholes in order to prevent the world from being taken over by Heartless. It turns out that a cast of Disney villains led by Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty are using the Heartless to capture Disney princesses. These “Princesses of Heart” can be exploited to open the door to a magical place called “Kingdom Hearts” which will allow the evil villains to rule over all of the worlds. The trio beat Maleficent only to find –in the first of many plot twists – that the Disney villain was actually being controlled by a guy named Ansem. (who is actually Xehanort but we won’t discuss that yet because OW MY HEAD). Ansem plans to open Kingdom Hearts himself and use it to rain eternal darkness down on everything, because his mommy didn’t hug him enough as a kid, I guess. Along the way, Sora finds Riku and very briefly, Kairi but things aren’t the same as before because PLOT DEVELOPMENT. Sora temporarily uses the power of his own heart to save Kairi and the princesses of heart and is temporarily turned into a Heartless himself until Kairi’s love brings him back.

Just as Ansem is about to complete his master plan, Sora, Donald and Goofy defeat him and manage to seal the door to Kingdom Hearts. But uh oh, Sora and Kairi are on opposite sides of the door as it gets sealed and WHY AM I CRYING?

Chain of Memories

This game, originally released for the Game Boy Advance, takes place directly after the ending to the first game. Sora, Donald and Goofy set out on the Kingdom Hearts side of the door to find Riku and King Mickey who are locked in there with them. They find a massive place called Castle Oblivion and end up inside. The trio then meets the members of a group called Organization XIII. These members are called Nobodies. Nobodies are created when a strong person gets turned into a Heartless. The Nobody is essentially what is left behind and the Nobody has no recollection of his or her previous life before their heart was taken. As the trio fight through the castle, their memories are manipulated by a girl named Namine who is being controlled by one of the XIII. They once again have to progress through the same Disney worlds from the first game. After reaching the top of the castle, Namine puts the three to sleep for a year to allow them to regain their true memories.

It is then revealed that Riku and the King are in the basement of the castle and need to fight their way to the first floor. Riku was corrupted by the darkness in his heart during the first game and so he does battle with Organization members as well as the darkness within him. Riku also runs into a man named DiZ who assists him with his journey.

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358/2 Days

The next game in the chronological timeline is the Nintendo DS title 358/2 Days. The title refers to the year that Sora and his friends were asleep and events that took place during that year but there are also events that are concurrent with Chain of Memories. The game tells the story of Roxas, who is Sora’s Nobody. Confused yet? Remember that Nobodies are formed when a strong person is turned into a Heartless. When Sora turned into a Heartless to save Kairi in KH 1, Roxas was the result.

Roxas is a member of Organization XIII and has no recollection of his previous life as Sora. Roxas engages In his own self-contained story, using his own Keyblade to defeat Heartless across many worlds. The Nobodies of Organization XIII want to use the collected hearts from battles to become whole human beings again. Along the way, Roxas runs into Xion, who is the organization’s 14th member. It turns out that the leader of the Organization created Xion as a fail-safe for Roxas. Xion is essentially a Nobody version of Kairi, created from Sora’s memories. If Sora is ever going to wake up, Xion has to merge back with Sora, but that would mean she would no longer exist.

Xion is manipulated by Xemnas, the Organization’s leader, and Roxas has to fight her. After her defeat, Xion does merge with Sora, causing everyone’s memories of Xion to disappear. Finally, Riku manages to capture Roxas, on advice from DiZ. Riku captures Roxas by releasing the darkness within him, which causes Riku to take the physical form of Ansem, one of the things that he fears most. DiZ places Roxas in Twilight Town with no recollection of what happened in 358/2 Days so that he can eventually merge again with Sora, causing Sora to wake up in Kingdom Hearts II.

Kingdom Hearts II

Sora and his friends wake up and learn about Organization XIII all over again. The trio again travel to many Disney world solving new problems created by the Heartless and the Nobodies. Eventually, they manage to find King Mickey and together they encounter Xemnas, the leader of Organization XIII. Xemnas is actually the Nobody of Xehanort and we’ll get to him again in a minute. Xemnas plans to use Kingdom Hearts to restore all of the Nobodies. It is revealed that DiZ is actually a disguise for Ansem the Wise. If your brain is still in one piece and you can understand this next plot point, things will seem much clearer:

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The original Ansem the Wise used to do experiments on hearts with his apprentice, Xehanort. Ansem the Wise was a good guy but he was betrayed by Xehanort, who had ulterior motives that we learned about during Birth By Sleep. Xehanort then took on the identity of Ansem and banished the real Ansem the Wise to the realm of Darkness. So that Ansem that you defeated in KH 1 was actually the evil Xehanort in disguise as a Heartless. The good Ansem the Wise sets out for revenge against Xehanort and has been using Riku and the other characters to help him obtain his goal. After Ansem the Wise saw the lengths Riku was willing to go to save Sora, (by giving in to the darkness within him), he became regretful and abandons his plans. Ansem the Wise begins an attempt to seal Xehanort’s Kingdom Hearts within a machine but something goes awry and the machine consumes Ansem and disrupts Kingdom Hearts after Ansem sacrifices himself to defeat the Organization.

Meanwhile Sora and his friends manage to defeat Xemnas and are returned to their world and reunite with Kairi and WHERE DO THESE TEARS KEEP COMING FROM?

Kingdom Hearts coded and Dream Drop Distance

A year after the events of KH II, Sora, Riku and Kairi receive a letter from Mickey. The letter informs the three of the events of Birth By Sleep and tells how they are all connected to Ventas, Aqua and Terra. Mickey found out this information during the events of KH: coded. The three now know that Terra was converted into Master Xehanort’s new, younger body, Ventus’s heart was merged with Sora and Aqua was locked in the Realm of Darkness, just like DiZ/Ansem the Wise once was.

The destruction of Ansem ( young Xehanort’s heartless) and Xemnas ( young Xe-Han-ort’s Nobody) have now allowed the true Master Xehanort from Birth by Sleep to resurrect himself. Sora and Riku decide to take a test to become true Keyblade Masters themselves, trained in the old arts, in order to defeat Master Xehanort once and for all.

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During this test, the two enter the Realm of Sleep. They encounter the young Xehanort who has the ability to travel through time. It is here they learn of Xehanort’s true goal of creating 13 replicas of himself to battle the Seven Guardians of the Light in order to create another final Keyblade War. Riku has to save Sora from Xehanort during the test. While inside Sora’s body, Riku learns from a digital copy of Ansem the Wise that there might be a way to save those who are lost and those who have ceased to be, such as Roxas, Ventus and Xion.

Riku passes the test, he saved Sora, after all, but Sora has to continue training to become a Keyblade Master. Yen Sid now knows from what young Xehanort told Riku and Sora that the resurrected Master Xehanort now intends to form the true Organization XIII, the Thirteen Seekers of Darknesses. Xehanort also knows the identity of the Princesses that are pure of heart, the same ones he/Ansem went after in KH 1.

Yen Sid says that it is the light of these princesses that is the only thing that is keeping darkness from enveloping the world. He resolves to use any available Keyblade user to form the Seven Guardians of Light to oppose Xehanort’s evil 13 darkness wielders in the upcoming Keyblade War Including… drum roll please… Kairi. (Aka, Kairi better be a playable character in Kingdom Hearts 3 or there WILL BE BLOOD.)

The Future

Square Enix announced Kingdom Hearts 3 at E3 this year but don’t expect it any time soon. A lot of the team that is working the game is also working on Final Fantasy XV, formerly Final Fantasy Versus XIII.

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In the meantime, the developer has gone on record as saying developing a 2.5 HD Remix with perhaps Kingdom Hearts II and a couple other hand-held games would seem likely.

Yes, the story is confusing and filled with enough plot twists to make your head spin right off but that hasn’t stopped countless gamers from becoming life-long fans of the series. This week, do your inner child a favor and pick up Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix. The final Keyblade War is coming. Better start practicing.

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