Kingdom Hearts: We still like it

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It’s been quite an eventful year for me. So many new video game announcements! I should really have no lack of material for this blog here. That’s why since January I’ve made a total of … five posts.

Well then.

Quick, what games have I been playing lately? Eh, just going through the HD remake of Kingdom Hearts II. Wow, the older games make so much more sense once you’ve played the ones that came out afterward …

Wait. Kingdom Hearts. That’s it! How is it that such a ridiculous concept has managed to keep its fans invested for 13 long years? And why am I still one of them?

Yes, there’s no other video game series quite like Kingdom Hearts. This is not necessarily a good thing. I’m still debating on that myself.

But let’s start at the beginning here. Kingdom Hearts is essentially a giant crossover series between two franchises. The first of these is Square Enix, that behemoth of JRPGs. I’ve written about them a number of times in my Final Fantasy posts.

The second franchise is Disney.

Yes, that Disney.


Yes, you can play as Mickey Mouse at one point. He’s one of the series’ key characters.

And yeah, no one thought it was going to work. Disney and Final Fantasy characters in the same game? Ridiculous. No one thought it would turn into one of Square Enix’s biggest cash cows. No one thought it would catapult former character designer Tetsuya Nomura into, uh … well, let’s just go with fame.

I’ve talked a bit about Nomura before; he’s the guy directing the Final Fantasy VII remake, and a very big name in Square Enix. It’s rare for a video game director to have such a presence over their work, but Tetsuya Nomura absolutely does it. And Kingdom Hearts is Nomura at its pure Nomura-est.

So here’s what happened when Nomura decided to make Kingdom Hearts. (Warning: the following scenario may not really be true.)

Square Enix Employee: “All right, so we got the go-ahead from Disney. We’re gonna make a nice, kid-friendly game, light against darkness, good guys win and all that. Got any ideas?”

Tetsuya Nomura: “Hmm … needs visual symbolism. Like, cram in as much visual symbolism and callbacks as possible. And lots of convoluted metaphors about hearts and keys.”

Square Enix Employee: “Well OK, but –”

"Say, fellas, did someone mention the Door To Darkness?" --actual quote from Mickey Mouse, Kingdom Hearts II
“Say, fellas, did someone mention the Door To Darkness?” –actual quote from Mickey Mouse, Kingdom Hearts II (Youtube)

Nomura: “Also moral ambiguity. Lots and lots of it. Make the hero inadvertently help out the bad guys and get into all sorts of trouble because he thinks he’s doing the right thing. And there should be a whole bunch of characters who come out of nowhere and start killing each other for reasons that won’t be revealed until like three games later. And Mickey Mouse wears a black cloak and fights the morally ambiguous villains with his antihero friend who learns how to use darkness for good through a complex personal struggle. Oh, and the main villain is like three different people. At the same time. So is the hero.”

Square Enix Employee: “Sir, I don’t think you can –”

Nomura: “Too late, the games are already selling. OK, so for my next game I want it to be from the villains’ point of view, and it should end with a teenage girl forcing her best friend to kill her. And the next game is a tragic prequel where one character gets possessed, one winds up comatose and one is forced to wander through hell for 10 years.”

Square Enix Employee: “But –”

Nomura: “And the latest game should add time travel. Time travel’s cool. And everyone is the villain. Except for the people who are actually the hero.”

Square Enix Employee: “Sir, we can’t …”

Nomura: “Oh right, there’s this ice cream that I really like. Try to put it into as many scenes as you can, OK? It should be everyone’s favorite food.”

Square Enix Employee: “I …”

Nomura: “And everyone has ridiculous hair … right, perfect! This is a masterpiece! Disney’s gonna love it.”

Disney doesn’t promote Kingdom Hearts all that much in the West. I wonder why?

Now. Bonkers plots are not a new thing in JRPGs. Take Chrono Cross, where you switch bodies with your alternate dimension cat monster father and end up getting your body back by giving birth to yourself using a magic dragon crystal. The problem with Kingdom Hearts is not that the plot is insane; it’s that it’s insane, incredibly complex, missing key bits of information, and spread across 13 years and seven* different games. On five different systems.

Not counting the remakes, rereleases, remastered versions... (Wikipedia)
*Not counting the remakes, rereleases, remastered versions… (Wikipedia)

Kingdom Hearts II came out four years after the release of the first game. What more casual fans didn’t know at the time was that another game had come out in between them. It was just a little side game for a handheld system, which in these kinds of long-running series are usually nothing more than some cheap gameplay slapped together for the devs to grab some extra cash.

So what did you miss by not playing that little side game? Oh, not much … just the entire setup for everything that happens in Kingdom Hearts II. No big deal.

To top that off, the prologue for Kingdom Hearts II was deliberately designed to be confusing and alienating. Add not knowing how the whole story started to begin with, and you ended up with a lot of very confused players.

Now imagine the same thing happening with the release of Kingdom Hearts III next year. Only instead of a four-year gap and one side game that you had to play to understand the plot, it’s going to be a 10-year gap and four side games that you had to play to understand the plot.

Basically, if you’ve only played Kingdom Hearts I and II, you will have absolutely no idea what’s going on in III whatsoever. And I’m not just talking like, “Hey, why’s that one villain alive and a good guy now?” I’m talking about the entire central mythology and overarching plot of the series. But this video explains the problem here way better than I can.

Some detractors say that Kingdom Hearts’s plot does things that should never be in a video game. That the gameplay is completely irrelevant, just serving as a springboard for the insanity. That Nomura is just throwing in whatever he thinks is cool and coming up with justifications and retcons later.

(Gaia Online)
That the character designs look like a Hot Topic crashed into an anime convention. (Gaia Online)

This is all stuff that I agree with. And yet, every time I try to give up in disgust, Kingdom Hearts manages to drag me back.

Because there is payoff. It’s the building complexity between light and dark, good and evil. It’s the slow-but-sure character development. It’s the triumph of figuring out some tangles in the timeline, and the joy and sadness of going back to older games with an entirely different impression of what’s going on. You have to dive real deep to get it, but it’s there, and it’s fantastic.

It’s just, well, people don’t always have the time and energy to get invested into something so gigantic. And that is Kingdom Hearts’ greatest weakness.

To their credit, Square Enix has actually realized that newcomers are going to need some help, which is why they recently re-released most of the series in several HD collections. But I feel it’s too little, too late for that.

We fans are going to be very happy for Kingdom Hearts III next year. But for those of you just getting into the madness, all I have to say is, “Good luck.”

And have fun getting to beat up all the Disney villains that made your childhood miserable. I’m talking to you, Scar.