**POSSIBLE SPOILERS WITHIN**
This weekend Sarah was struck with a sudden urge to replay Kingdom Hearts, and as I generally monopolize the television with gaming, I had to oblige. Her main reason for wanting to revisit the game was being able to watch her favorite Disney characters interact in new ways with the modern characters unique to Kingdom Hearts. We were chatting and having some drinks while she played — classic weekend time killing.
It didn’t take long before she remembered that you need to work your way up to watching Donald and Goofy fall off of something to a canned “boing” sound effect. No, that is a privilege that must be earned. Thus I became the gopher, assigned with the annoying tasks in between the fun bits. I groaned as I set out to gather mushrooms and other sundries Kairi demanded for our impending journey aboard a shoddy raft.
I swore through the cumbersome race against Riku, and worst of all, I didn’t even get to name our
Gummi Ship raft. I was annoyed, and yet I began to remember the depth of things to do on the island. Beating the snot out of Wakka was always one of my favorite activities. I remember first learning that I could maximize EXP by deflecting his Blitzballs but not actually defeating him. Yea, this island used to be a beloved starting point, now it was feeling like a chore thrust onto me by a Disney starved lunatic.
Then I got to Traverse Town. I heard the town’s theme song and was swept away in a nostalgia undertow. The game’s iconic menus and sounds helped as well. Soon I was facing off against Leon. With my heart racing and my fingers recalling the game’s button layout I narrowly defeated him. I still had it! This was where Kingdom Hearts‘s appeal was for me. It wasn’t in the cameo appearance of antiquated characters penned before I was born. It wasn’t in the cliched antics of Donald and Goofy. No, it was in the game’s exhilarating and simple action-based battle system, it’s charming design, and unique cast of original characters.
This battle system, like nearly all aspects of Kingdom Hearts, contains hidden depth for those who seek it. Casual players wanting only to gape at the credits will do fine to mash through most battles. But those wanting more can rack up tech points by parrying Sephiroth’s Masamune in the colosseum.
The game’s designers clearly understood their audience would no doubt span a range of gaming talents, and appealed to them all quite well. I could say the same leading right into the game’s sequel, Kingdom Hearts 2. The story may have been extremely obtuse and surreal, but as long as the basics were all there, I was on board for the ride. The franchise’s most recent installments on the other hand… may have broken the mold and with it any faith I had in the series. I forced my way through half of Kingdom Hearts 365/2 Days, a game whose ridiculous title easily betrays an equally ridiculous story. By Kingdom Hearts Birth By Sleep, I had learned my lesson. If the title is nonsense and I can’t recognize a single character then the game isn’t for me. Thus Square Enix alienated what could have been a huge fan of the series.
It’s clear that Square Enix saw great potential in the franchise after the first title. I did as well. I imagine they saw big dollar signs on the horizon in putting as many titles between players and the ultimate conclusion of the series. That meant distancing us from the game’s main cast shortly after falling in love with them. I daresay my connection to Sora and the gang helped in Kingdom Hearts 2 when I formed a genuine attachment to some of the parallel characters such as Roxas. But then the series gave us another set of parallels, and another, until the characters we loved were a distant, yet fond memory.
This is Namine, AKA Kairi’s Nobody created when she became a Heartless. Got that?
Perhaps this bizarre treatment of the franchise stems from the already schizophrenic treatment of the Final Fantasy series. Despite all the games being under the same IP-roof, their setting and characters change each time (spin-offs aside). Several years ago, one could easily explain what makes a Final Fantasy a Final Fantasy. Now, well, that would be a bit more challenging — and the same could be said for Kingdom Hearts. An even bigger challenge still, would be to begin to grasp just what the heck is going on in the Kingdom Hearts series and what other gimmicks Square Enix plans to force into an ever shrinking package.
Kingdom Hearts will be 10 years old next March. I don’t know if I will ever play another game in the series again, or attempt to wrap my mind around the multi-lateral and longitudinal mess that has become the over-arching story. All I know is, this weekend I played the first Kingdom Hearts, and it made me remember what I loved about a series I’ve more or less given up on. I hope that someday, someone picks the franchise up, dusts if off, and trims away the fat, because I know deep down, it’s got a lot of heart.