Looking back at the Kingdom Hearts series

In 2002, Square Enix joined forces with Disney to create Kingdom Hearts. Mark looks back at the classic action RPG series, and ahead to what comes next…

In retrospect, the merging of the Final Fantasy and Disney universes seems almost predestined. Seeing characters interact together from separate worlds as diverse as Cloud Strife and Tinkerbell, Tidus and Pinocchio, feels so ‘right’ that it’s now strange to think back to those days before 2002, when the news of the development of the first Kingdom Hearts title was reported. Some journalists dubbed the conjunction of Square and Disney as ‘ridiculous’, which makes you wonder whether they’re eating their words 12 million copies later.

The first game allegedly came into being when Shinji Hashimoto, the executive producer of the series, met a Disney executive in a lift. They knew each other from the days when the two companies shared a Tokyo office building, and soon got round to discussing a collaboration between their respective companies.

The first few months of development skewed the game towards a younger age range, more traditionally where Disney had aimed its products. Soon, however, Hashimoto and the director of the game, Tetsuya Nomura, decided that the title should feature more Final Fantasy elements, and target itself at a more mature audience, and the game as we now know it began to take shape.

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The first Kingdom Hearts was released back in 2002 on the PlayStation 2, with mixed critical reception. Most who reviewed it saw it as something special, but with some minor gripes with its camera control and frustrating difficulty level. In a way, the original Kingdom Hearts is perhaps one of those games that is appreciated more in hindsight, remembering the almost magical locations and boss encounters and filtering out some of the more annoying moments of the game.

It is certainly one of the titles I have played over the last ten years that I look back on with genuine fondness, and a desire to play through again – a sentiment that has no doubt led to fans’ continual clamour for sequels.

Kingdom Hearts, being the first RPG set in the Disney universe, had its pick of Disney worlds to feature. The original game had players controlling Sora, the hero of the series, and wielder of the mystical Keyblade, and his constant companions Goofy and Donald Duck (among others), as they travelled through worlds based on films including Peter Pan, Tarzan and Aladdin.

An RPG lite, with shades of Zelda or Secret Of Mana, the game offered much more arcade action than the traditional turn-based RPG Square was more famous for. One particular highlight of the game was finding scraps of a book from One Hundred Acre wood, which then allowed you to visit the home of Winnie the Pooh and take part in mini adventures and games inside the book itself.

If you’ve never played the game, this may well sound like the worst concept in a videogame for grown-ups since Wii Dare, but believe me, as a 23-year-old playing the original game, it makes you feel six again, but in a good way, like watching Saturday morning cartoons in your pyjamas. Oh, wait – I still do that now.

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It’s fair to say the game developed a groundswell of interest, partly through word of mouth and Internet chatter. The review in Official Playstation Magazine was barely a page, and yet sales continued to be strong in all countries, and the title won many best of year awards. If one element garnered almost unanimously bad press however, it was the Gummi ship levels that players traversed to get to new places.

Imagine playing Star Fox with no thumbs, in a shoot-em-up populated by killer Stickle bricks, and you won’t be far from the mark. Regardless of that hiccup, however, Kingdom Hearts was generally well received and popular, which meant a sequel was on the cards after a rather open-ended final scene. Hurray, the fans shouted, surely that will mean that the rather complex story will get fully explained? Oh.

Before the big budget sequel, a handheld spin-off was released in 2004, interestingly, on the only handheld console available at the time, the Game Boy Advance. Kingdom Hearts: Chain Of Memories plugged the gap between the major games in the franchise, and used an unusual card game fighting system.

Incidentally, this was also tarted up into 3D (meaning like the original game, not glasses-on Avatar style 3D, obviously) as Re:Chain Of Memories on the PS2, but annoyingly, this wasn’t released in Europe.

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The sequel the world was waiting for eventually hit in 2006, and was a blockbuster in every sense. Longer than the original, with a much better camera and best of all, much better Gummi ship levels, the game was a hit, and tied with Resident Evil 4 for Famitsu magazine’s game of the year award. New worlds to explore included lands based on Pirates Of The Caribbean, Tron, and the first ever Mickey Mouse cartoon, Steamboat Willie.

The level of invention on display here is wondrous, and the game loses nothing of the magical feel of its predecessor. Regretfully, there are two things that were left out: a level of challenge (it’s far too easy to complete, particularly with all the spells and special moves on offer), and an incomprehensible storyline.

It may seem strange that I have described a lot of the details of each game but skirted around the plot of the series, but there is a good reason for that. I don’t understand it. I know it’s all about the Heartless and the Nobodies, with a sub-plot about friends and the responsibilities of growing up, which is all marvellous I’m sure, but if anything, each subsequent game explains very little, and adds to the general level of confusion instead. I’m certain it’s all there on Wikipedia if you need the storyline explaining, suffice to say that, for me, the plot isn’t what the enjoyment of the series is about.

Next in the series came another three handheld titles, again meant to bridge the gap before the eagerly awaited Kingdom Hearts III. Kingdom Hearts Coded was originally designed for Japanese mobile phones, then later ported to the DS earlier this year. It stars a digital version of Sora attempting to fill holes in Jiminy Cricket’s diary.

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Then we had Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days on the DS, which was more combat and mission based, featuring Organisation XIII rather than Sora, and finally Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep on the PSP, which was extremely well received and acts as a prequel to the main series. I’d love to give you my opinions on the latter but I haven’t played it yet, for shame. Maybe it will be re-released on the PS3, like some other PSP games announced recently?

That brings us bang up to date, and into the future of the Kingdom Hearts franchise. The third game is notoriously difficult to pin down, and could perhaps become the new Duke Nukem Forever, bearing in mind that the old DNF has now finally been released and is crap.

Rumoured to be a PS3 exclusive, then multi-format, then Wii exclusive, Nomura has said he will finish his work on other products before Kingdom Hearts III, so it may be a while before we see it, perhaps on the Wii U, or even another next-gen console further down the line.

What is a reality, however, and hopefully due for release next year, is Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance on the 3DS. (three Ds, get it?) This is being hyped as the most ambitious handheld KH title yet, and should act as an almost console quality lead-in to the real sequel whenever that should arrive.

At this stage, very little is known about the game; it was announced quietly at last year’s E3 with a limited playable demo, but strangely, there was nothing on display regarding the game in Los Angeles this year.

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What we do know is that the storyline is supposed to feature both Riku and Sora in training to become masters of the Keyblade, and also that all the Disney worlds to be featured in the game will be brand new. Surely this time there must be a Jungle Book world? My inner child would also absolutely love to see a location based on the classic 80s dark animation The Black Cauldron, but that’s about as likely as one based on the 1978 Disney film The Cat From Outer Space, so I’ll let it lie.

What also seems to be the case is that the areas like Traverse Town from the first game are being revisited, but whether that’s in flashback form or a Steven Moffat-ish timey-wimey twist is yet to be seen.

What with the series’ biggest title since 2006 on its way soon, and its tenth anniversary approaching, time might be right at next year’s E3 or Tokyo Game Show for the first real look or hints about Kingdom Hearts III.

With the majority of HD games this generation featuring gritty real-world or sci-fi environments, I cant be the only one salivating at the prospect of Tinkerbell or Princess Jasmine in 1080p.