No, that is not the title for a new Kingdom Hearts game surprisingly.
But in any case that it may become a title, you read it here first. Anyways, Kingdom Hearts is a best-selling, dearly beloved (heh) video game franchise. Gamers and fans alike love, analyze, and celebrate Kingdom Hearts. It’s a fascinating saga that brings together the expertise of Square Enix and the charm of Disney, and all of it started with the first game’s launch 15 years ago on March 28, 2002.
The Elevator Pitch
Game Producer Shinji Hashimoto and Hironobu Sakaguchi, the father of the Final Fantasy series, were in the talks of creating an open-world game similar to Super Mario 64. The idea was cemented, but the two concluded that the game will only be as successful if it had a well-known figure, like how Mario is the established character for Super Mario 64. Both concluded that Disney’s line of iconic characters were enough to draw attention. Tetsuya Nomura volunteered to lead the project, to which Hashimoto and Sakaguchi agreed.
Funny enough, there was a time Disney and Square worked in the same building in Japan. One day, Hashimoto found himself in an elevator with one of Disney’s top executives and pitched their idea of a game with Disney characters. Development on the new IP began in February 2000 with Nomura as director on the project. Initially, the game was designed to have a simple story targeted for a younger audience, but Sakaguchi told Nomura to aim for the same level of the Final Fantasy series, which lead to further development on the story.
Kingdom Hearts is quite an unusual name. It’s short and kind of cliche, but accurate considering the thematic elements of the game. In fact, creation of the name “Kingdom Hearts” is more simple than you think. In 2013, Nomura stated that the name of the series came from the inspiration of Disney theme parks, specifically Animal Kingdom. Since the name “Kingdom” could not be obtained as an IP, Nomura and his team thought of the core theme of the game, which are hearts, then combined the two to make Kingdom Hearts.
With such a peculiar concept, the development team had no idea what reception they would receive. Nomura was not sure if fans would want a sequel either, so he left a short teaser for the upcoming game to gauge reaction. Least to say, it worked. Since then, Nomura’s cinematic teasers are now a tradition in every game.
Wonderland, Halloween Town, Atlantica – Oh my!
In the Kingdom Hearts, Sora, Donald, and Goofy travel to Disney worlds to protect the worlds from darkness using the ancient Keyblade weapon. One of the most exciting qualities of the KH franchise is visiting these Disney worlds and what sort of adventures await us. In the past 15 years and over 10 games, fans have battled against the evil Sorceress Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty), help Jack Skellington save Christmas (Nightmare Before Christmas), rescue Disney princesses, and other memorable set pieces throughout. In a way, it was like going to a Disney theme park from the comfort of your own couch, adding in some violence, complex symbolism and friendship.
There’s a synergy that just works here, which is the story Kingdom Hearts tries to tell and the parallels to the Disney movies that shape the story along the way. In short, there’s something for Disney fans and something else for action RPG enthusiasts meshed into one game. The idea on paper itself sounds like it would never work, but we couldn’t be anymore wrong. Regardless of where the story goes, the main topic of discussion in any Kingdom Hearts debate is, “Which Disney world where we’ll go next?”
The series is also known for the inclusion of Final Fantasy characters, to which Nomura was initially hesitant on doing. If it wasn’t for the pressure from fans and his staff, we probably wouldn’t have gotten the epic showdown between Cloud and Sephiroth in Kingdom Hearts II or have the main protagonist Sora square off with Squall Leonhart in Kingdom Hearts. Not only that, but Final Fantasy characters in the Kingdom Hearts series play a significant role in the story as well.
Blings, Bloos and Simba
At this point, the first Kingdom Hearts‘ combat can be seen as more slower-paced compared to the rest of the series, but it was a standout feature when the game released in 2002. Each game includes their own twist on the original formula since then, and it all started with the very first with real-time action gameplay. The command menu was simple, easily-accessible, and fun to manipulate with shortcut commands. It’s a turn-based battle system layout used in an action game, and it’s fantastically executed. Even the bling and bloo sounds you make as you go through the command menu are pleasantly identifiable.
Can we just talk about the awesome summons in this game too? I couldn’t have been the only one to get goosebumps when Sora throws a chain onto his keyblade, swing it around, and summon a fearsome (or cute) Disney character to the battlefield. My favorite summon would have to be Simba from The Lion King, and his ability to decimate my heartless foes with spine-shivering roars.
On top of summons, magic spells were simple and effective. They were by no means absolutely necessary, but to say they weren’t fun to use or didn’t help with annoying flying heartless would be a lie! Big shout out to the Aero and Gravity spells. They put in the WORK!
That Odd-looking Weapon
In normal(ish) fantasy worlds, we have swords bigger than the hero or gunblades with infinite ammo, but not in KH. Instead we get a giant key Sora flails around. Ah, yes. The Keyblade. A naturally identifiable weapon wielded by Sora, Kingdom Hearts’ protagonist. The keyblade has become an icon of the saga because it’s so out-of-norm publicly and means so much to the story of the series.
In Kingdom Hearts, the keyblade isn’t just a fancy weapon, but an ancient force of nature. It’s a sword with its own unsaid rules, choosing only those with a strong heart to be worthy of wielding its great power. Sora, a once simple boy with a simple lifestyle, was chosen by the keyblade. Because of this, Sora’s life changes in ways he could have never imagined.
What’s cool about the keyblade is that it can be equipped with different chains, and these chains affect the outward appearance and stats of the keyblade. In the process, we have some badass-looking keyblades like Oathkeeper, Oblivion, Ultima, and more.
“A meaningless effort. One who knows nothing can understand nothing.”
That quote draws some parallels between the story and players who try to understand the story. Let’s be clear, you will be lost if your first KH game is Kingdom Hearts 3. The franchise has been going on for 15 years with over 10 canonical games, so doing your homework (playing the games) would need to be done to understand the narrative. Personally, I love complex stories with lore, rules to its universe and deep symbolism, so Kingdom Hearts is my jam. Same with A Game of Thrones (books and TV show) and even the MCU.
I’m not saying it doesn’t stretch its own boundaries at times, but the story is not as confusing as people make it out to be. Core themes of KH tie around friendship, courage, and strength. Kingdom Hearts is full of feel-good moments, climatic triumphs, and interesting twists from the moment Sora, Donald, and Goofy visit their first world. Anything else (lore, symbolism, etc.) is there for those who look for it.
Shimomura-san, the soul of Kingdom Hearts
Readers, meet Yoko Shimomura, the genius behind the music you hear in the Kingdom Hearts franchise. Some may recognize her work from other games such as Street Fighter II: The World Warrior, Parasite Eve, and more recently Final Fantasy XV. There’s a certain Shimomura-san style that emphasizes emotions and moments. Songs that keep you in an unconscious trance, then rejuvenate your core to stir your imagination. Melodies that can completely envelope you to where only two things matter: you and the game.
In Kingdom Hearts, these moments are layered with every world you explore and every boss you fight. You think it can’t get any better, but then you get to Hollow Bastion and OH MY GOD CAN IT BE ANYMORE PERFECT?!?!
As a Disney fan, I heartily appreciate how the Disney world theme songs align with the identity of the movies. It shows how Shimomura-san and the KH team do their homework on the films. Let’s just say, if the Disney movies could add a few songs to their soundtracks, Shimomura-san’s work from the KH franchise would definitely be included.
Of course, we can’t talk about the music of Kingdom Hearts and NOT include the J-Pop songs “Simple and Clean” and “Sanctuary“, sung by Utada Hikaru. Both songs were, and still are, hits that many love because it was so unexpected. As soon as you start a new game, you are swept into the world of Kingdom Hearts with a philosophical quote followed by an intense and beautiful cinematic intro orchestrated by the lyrical songs.
I can go on and on and on about the music in Kingdom Hearts, but maybe that’s a topic for another day. To end it off, may I recommend a few of my favorite tracks?: “Hikari – Orchestra“, “Blast Away! ~Gummi Ship 3~,” and “Hallow Bastion.”
As a bonus, here is one of the best songs ever made that is simply the TITLE SCREEN music!
With the inclusion of Disney characters, action gameplay, and an epic, complex story, the game took off to be a critical and commercial success. As of 2014, the series has sold over 20 million copies worldwide!
And, here we are. 15 years later, Kingdom Hearts 1.5 + 2.5 Remix will be making its way to PS4, which means all of the games are finally accessible on one console. Now that everything is where it should be for the franchise, fans eagerly await the one game to complete the story: Kingdom Hearts III. There’s a lot of excitement for the next main-titled entry, and I’m sure it won’t disappoint. It’s been four years since its development announcement at E3 2013, so fingers crossed we don’t have to wait much longer.
For myself, I was 8-years old when I played Kingdom Hearts as it released in 2002. Kingdom Hearts is the series that made me think about video games in a serious and emotional way, and also gave me my first set of characters I truly cared about. Going on these adventures with Sora, Riku and Kairi felt personal. Sora was a naive, optimistic, kind and strong character I instantly connected to. For years, I aspired to be like him because of the values he cherished: friendship/family, strength, kindness and bravery. All are fundamentals of life, something I try to incorporate in my own everyday because of Sora.
I played iconic games before, such as Donkey Kong Country and Crash Bandicoot, but none of them made the impact that KH did. You see, four-year-old me has always dreamed of going on adventures with Disney icons. Disney movies like Hercules, Tarzan, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, etc. were the bedrock of my childhood, so having a way to interact with the characters from those movies was a dream come true. Ultimately, I can look over the series’ shortcomings because they granted my childhood wish, something I will forever be thankful for.