The following is part of Now Loading, a series that renders verdicts on whether or not your favorite video games deserve a place in the canon of works that have contributed to video-game storytelling in landmark ways. Read the series’ full mission statement here.


(Spoiler warning in effect for the entire Kingdom Hearts series.)

Dear Reader, this is a perfectly ordinary exchange that I have had when trying to explain the long and winding plot of the Kingdom Hearts series as it exists today:

“Okay, sure, Dan, you’re saying that Xehanort is collecting the thirteen darknesses to combat the seven lights so that he can re-enact the ancient Keyblade War in its entirety, thus opening the real door to the one true Kingdom Hearts thus allowing him to, like, I dunno, be the master of the Hundred-Acre Wood or something—but I cordially ask you, Dan, to which Xehanort are you so frustratingly referring? Are you talking about the old man, one of the two younger versions of himself that happened to be the villains of the first few games, or any of the, like…empty-void vessels filled with a piece of his heart that he’s been nurturing and turning into more versions of himself?”

“I was actually talking about the time-traveling anime boy version of him.”

“WHAT DO YOU MEAN, ‘TIME TRAVEL’?”

And so on and so forth, until the sun explodes and the world is called back to its inky black home.

When it comes to discussing the Kingdom Hearts franchise, there are more than a few barriers to entry. It is, after all, a series stretching across multiple game consoles, nearly a dozen games, and over fifteen years, and that’s not even taking into account all the crazy plot-twisting and possible story retconning that has people picking up the latest copy of Kingdom Hearts: Chapter 89.4, Still not the Third Game and Even if it Was You Wouldn’t Even Want to Get Back Into This Mess Now, Dude, Trust Me and summarily putting it back onto the shelf, walking away, and vowing never again to think about this weird Final Fantasy/Disney hodge-podge that is somehow crazier than the sum of its parts.

I get that, Dear Reader, I really do. But here’s the thing:

We’re talking about Kingdom Hearts today. It’s just going to have to happen, and while I understand your reticence to engage with critical discussion about this long-running fever dream, I hope that I can extend an olive branch by letting you know that this article discusses the very first Kingdom Hearts game, and nothing more.

Oh, sure, somewhere down this long, long road we all walk, I may endeavor to explain the convoluted timelines and even more convoluted character motivations that the later entries in the series have to offer, but for the time being, we’re going to go back to where it all began: back to a simpler age in video-gaming, when one crazy Square Enix developer actually had the gravitas and gall to not only pitch a crossover between Final Fantasy and Disney, but also to make it work in a way that convinced fans to stick by it through thick and thin for the better part of sixteen years.

Today, we’re going to look at a game that merged two very disparate intellectual properties, making a strikingly poignant commentary on the nature of nostalgia itself, and on how things from our childhood—especially things which we cling to and love dearly—must inevitably change.

So prepare yourself for a deep dive into the heart of your memory, Dear Reader, because today we will be taking a look at Square Enix and Disney Interactive’s Kingdom Hearts.

Artwork of a vertical rectangular box. Five people with weapons stand and sit atop a building ledge. A night sky with a heart-shaped moon is in the background. The words "PlayStation 2" and "Kingdom Hearts" are in the top left corner.

Travel back in time with me to the far-gone year of 1999, when the video gaming landscape was untarnished by enhanced 4K visuals and the term “loot box” was but a whisper in the dark heart of some EA executive sleeping under a rock somewhere. This was the start of something like an Industrial Revolution for video-gaming, where hardware capabilities were rapidly improving and developers were racing to meet them.

This a time when radical chances could still be taken on new games, and developers who had made their bones working for the bigger companies were let off the leash a bit to see just what they were capable of making. One such Bone-Made Radical was Hironobu Sakaguchi, the father of the Final Fantasy franchise, and he was lamenting the success of Super Mario 64 with his colleague Shinji Hashimoto.

In their eyes, the sky-breaking success that Nintendo had achieved with their venture into the third-dimension was due to two very important things:

  1. They had made a flawless 3-D platformer that people would actually have fun playing.
  2. Mario was a mascot so brilliant that only Mickey Mouse could rival his selling power.

Overhearing this conversation, young upstart and Final Fantasy character designer, Tetsuya Nomura, suggested that the obvious solution was to just use Disney characters in some way to create a new, innovative RPG that would set the game world ablaze. Sakaguchi and Hashimoto saw the logic in this, and so they agreed that, should ever the opportunity arise, they would hand over the development reins to Nomura. Fitting, they must have thought, that a conversation about Super Mario had ended with such a pipe dream.

But destiny had other plans, Dear Reader.

As luck would have it, Square Enix shared an office building with the Japanese branch of Disney, and mere months after the Mario discussion, Hashimoto happened to run into a Disney executive and was able to give him a literal elevator pitch for their video game idea. The executive happened to like the idea very much, and so, in early 2000, development began on what would eventually become Kingdom Hearts.

Sakaguchi and Hashimoto made good on their word and let Nomura take creative control over the project, and he hit the ground running. Disney would often make suggestions or push him in certain creative directions, but Nomura held fast to his convictions and turned them down at every turn. It was his idea to mix Disney characters with Final Fantasy characters, setting the story around a group of original characters that would travel throughout various Disney-themed levels.

Nomura’s original plan was to have a fairly simple story that would easily resonate with Disney’s core audience, but Hironobu Sakaguchi urged him to take the story in a deeper direction. Without the depth that people expected from Square Enix, he claimed, the game would undoubtedly fail right out the gate.

And so it was that Kingdom Hearts was released for the PlayStation 2 console in early 2002. The initial response was as skeptical as one would expect when playing a game in which Donald Duck converses with Cloud Strife, but as time went on and the game sold more and more, it became clear that Nomura had taken the childhood fantasy of Disney and synthesized it with the more mature philosophy of Final Fantasy, creating a story that would not only cement itself in gaming’s collective consciousness, but that also commentated on the nature of nostalgia itself.

But we’ll come to that later.

The anticipation is murder.

Story and Characters: Sky, Earth, and Sea

Although Kingdom Hearts has become synonymous with “convoluted,” the first game in the franchise told a story that was as simple and clean as could be.

While there are many different characters from Final Fantasy and Disney sprinkled throughout the narrative, the actual story of Kingdom Hearts follows the adventures of the three main characters: Sora, Kairi, and Riku. It is a long and sprawling story that I find necessary to explore in full, though I will do my best to truncate it when appropriate. But for now, there is no better place to start when examining Kingdom Hearts’ story and characters than to look at the first hour or so of the game: Destiny Islands.

OUR MAIN CAST

After a brilliant bit of foreshadowing (literally, at points) in the opening cinematic and tutorial section, we open on a lovely tropical beach where our avatar, Sora, is knocked on the head by Kairi. He wakes up from his dream with a start, getting to his knees and seeing Kairi’s smiling face looking back at him. She calls him a lazy bum and scolds him for slacking on the job, claiming that while he was snoozing down on the shore, she and Riku were hard at work building their raft.

And yet, no sooner does she claim this than Riku himself strolls into frame, carrying a bit of wood that is no doubt meant for the raft. Riku chides Kairi in much the same way she did Sora, saying that, since he’s been the one doing all the work, she doesn’t really have a leg to stand on. She laughs this off, and so does Sora; after a good bout of chuckling, they all agree to get back to work together.

Before that, though, Sora and Riku challenge each other to a race, with Kairi as referee. They get in their positions, and before she can start the race proper, she runs out ahead of them, laughing as she goes. The boys run after her, and we pan up into the sky to see the game’s title appear as the waves calmly wash over the shore.

These few minutes provide such a perfect example of not only each character’s individual personality, but also how the trio’s dynamic functions.

  • Sora is the well-meaning slouch of the group, always dreaming and walking through life going with the flow.
  • Kairi, though a bit more responsible than Sora, is just as carefree, and has no problem engaging in some light-hearted antics.
  • Riku is the determined one of the group, ever-competitive and willing to chide his friends for dragging their feet.

And while they are all friends, we get the feeling from this opening scene that Sora and Kairi have something of a stronger connection with each other than they do with Riku. It’s important to note here that Riku was the only one of the three who entered the scene when he was introduced, implying that he’s at least different from Sora and Kairi and at most something of an outsider to them. These dynamics between the three of them are only further reinforced as we continue to play our way through Destiny Islands.

Sora, Kairi, and Riku are in the middle of building a raft, and so the first hour or so of Kingdom Hearts is devoted to building the raft and gathering supplies for a long journey. Kairi sends Sora on errands to pick up various materials, and in between errands we get scenes that give us more insight into the kind of world these three have inhabited for most of their lives.

Sora and Riku, we discover, were born and raised on the island together. As they grew and explored their little corner of creation, they developed a friendly rivalry that persists to this day. Riku was always the more explorative of the two, wanting to expand his horizons and truly see everything the world had to offer.

Sora, on the other hand, was much more of a light-hearted naif whose main goal was simply to keep having good times with his best friend Riku. Sure, he engaged in pretend sword fights and foot races, and he was naturally jealous whenever his friend best him; for the most part, though, Sora was just happy to be doing things with his friend.

Though Sora and Riku had their differences, they were both content with exploring Destiny Islands and having a good time together. This would change, however, when Kairi came to the islands from a different world entirely.

Always take a “last known photo”!

Sora, Kairi, and Riku became fast friends, but Kairi’s arrival on the island planted a few seeds that would blossom into a number of problems for the trio as time went by. Naturally, with the arrival of a fun, outgoing girl, the once-friendly rivalry between Sora and Riku took a turn towards romantic rivalry vying for Kairi’s affections.

It’s clear that Riku, at least, is aware of this, and so he teases Sora on a number of occasions about how much he must like Kairi. Sora, ever-childlike, denies that he has anything but friendly feelings for Kairi, but it’s clear through his reaction to the teasing that there’s something more between them.

The second, and perhaps more impactful, effect that Kairi’s arrival on Destiny Islands had was that it turned Riku’s interest in exploring into an obsession to get off the island and see what else is out there. Kairi, he claims, came from a different world, and so it stands to reason that there might be a whole slew of other places to see apart from the tiny little island they called home.

As the raft is nearing completion, it becomes clear to the player that, while the three of them claim they’re excited to set sail in the raft, it’s really Riku who has the drive and ambition to really go out there and explore. He is so obsessed, in fact, that he will do anything to make it off his little rock and learn about everything that’s out there. Sora and Kairi, however, are less interested in the exploration and more interested in doing things with their friends.

While we are learning of Riku’s desire to visit other worlds and Sora and Kairi’s desire to stay with their friends, we keep cutting back to Disney Castle, where Donald Duck and Goofy are desperately searching for King Mickey. In a letter that Mickey has left his friends, he explains that “the stars are blinking out across the sky,” which means that all the various worlds of which Riku has been dreaming are slowly but surely disappearing.

Worried about this, Mickey has set out on a mission to discover whatever is plaguing the worlds. He instructs Donald and Goofy not to go after him, but to instead find “the key,” and stick by whoever has it. So, resolute in their orders, Donald and Goofy hop aboard a spacecraft called “The Gummi Ship” and set sail across the cosmos to find this key.

I know this is a lot to digest—particularly because we are quite literally only an hour into the game at this point and I’m not throwing the Mickey Mouse gang into things—but I assure you the minute dissections will stop in just a few paragraphs. Let’s just take a quick breather here.

Good? Okay.

THE JOURNEY BEGINS

We cut back to Destiny Islands, where the sunny skies and calm seas have been replaced by a horrific maelstrom. Sora wakes up from likely his eighth snooze that day and realizes that the raft he and his friends have put so much effort into is in danger of being destroyed in the storm. He hops into his own boat and rows to the island where the raft is moored, but he finds that the raft is no longer there.

Sora looks around, and from the dark of the night a shadowy creature with beady yellow eyes emerges from the very darkness surrounding him. Without thinking, Sora whips out his wooden sword, but he finds that it has no effect against the creature. Dozens more start popping up from the ground, and he makes his way to higher ground, where he finds Riku standing beneath a pulsating portal suspended in the sky.

Terrified, Sora reaches out to his friend.

“Where’s Kairi?” Sora says, another tell that some things are just more important than others. “I thought she was with you?”

Riku slowly turns to face Sora, claiming that the door to the outside world has finally been opened. Finally, he says, they can get off this tiny island and see what’s out there.

“What are you talking about?” Sora replies. “We’ve gotta find Kairi!” Again, we see that Sora’s priorities lie with Kairi, whereas Riku is focused solely on getting off the island and seeing what’s out there. Riku dismisses Sora’s worry, claiming that Kairi is already coming with them.

Reaching a hand towards his friend, Riku proclaims that he isn’t afraid of the darkness that has begun to consume him, and as the tendrils of shadow envelop him, Sora struggles to release himself from the dark grip that has already taken Riku.

Luckily, just as he is about to be overcome, a light shines in the darkness, and a voice tells him that the key-shaped weapon he is now holding in his hand is the Keyblade, and that it will protect him from the shadows out to consume him. With Riku all but disappeared, Sora takes hold of this new weapon and runs to a cave where he hopes to find Kairi.

Blunt force trauma: the game.

The cave, known to the trio as “the secret place,” is emerged in darkness as well, and a dead-eyed Kairi is standing in front of a now open door to darkness. Sora calls out to her, and before Kairi can respond, she is blown by the force of darkness emanating from the door into Sora’s body, and he is knocked out of the cave entirely.

What he sees when he emerges is a completely decimated Destiny Islands. Bits and pieces of it are breaking off, as if the world itself were being eaten by the dark portal in the sky. As he rushes towards the little land that’s left, a massive shadow emerges from behind him, and Sora has no chance but to fight this behemoth with his newfound weapon.

The fight ends, and the gigantic shadow floats away into the dark portal above. Trying desperately to grip onto the remains of the world, Sora eventually falters and is thrown into the portal like his friends, the monster, and the last vestiges of his home.

And so begins the story of Kingdom Hearts.

So, before we go into the plot overview here, let’s recap what this first hour and change have taught us about not only the main characters, but also about the kind of story that we’ll be embarking upon here.

First and foremost, we are introduced to our three main characters, Sora, Kairi, and Riku. We learn all that we need to about their individual characters and how they interact with one another, with an important emphasis being placed on the fact that Sora cares deeply about his friends and is more concerned with their well-being than Riku, who is ostensibly willing to do anything to get what he wants.

We learn that there are two main forces at work in this universe, namely Light and Dark, and that there is a plague of darkness spreading across the different worlds, causing them all to get sucked up into some hellish nightmare void. We see this happen to Destiny Islands firsthand, and can extrapolate that when a star “blinks out,” a whole world is being destroyed by darkness.

We see that Sora is chosen by this weapon called the “Keyblade,” which has the power to vanquish darkness and, unsurprisingly, open doors. Mickey has also told Donald and Goofy that this key is more important to find and stick with than anything he’s off doing—so, when they find whoever has the Keyblade, they need to stick to them like white on rice.

All that being said, how do we better understand the themes of Kingdom Hearts through this opening sequence? Well, in the first instance, it’s as simple as realizing that the connections we make with friends are the most important thing. Riku succumbed to darkness and was taken off to another world, but at a dire cost we will learn about later. Sora, on the other hand, was literally given the means to defend himself by expressing his concern for his loved ones.

Our strapping young hero, ladies and gentlemen!

But that’s an easy theme, isn’t it? And we don’t typically do easy on With a Terrible Fate, so let me offer the first of many instances in which we see Kingdom Hearts posit a truth, and then question that truth:

Things change.

But can you go back?

Sora and Riku have both made their respective beds based on their choices during the destruction of Destiny Islands: Sora chose friendship, and Riku chose blind ambition. They both wanted to see what the wider world had to offer, but, as our good friend Thomas Wolfe tells us, you can’t go home again.

Now then, I think we can go through the plot with less of a fine-toothed comb and see how both of these themes present themselves over time.

Ready? LET’S DO IT.

THINGS BEGIN TO CHANGE

Sora wakes up alone on a world called “Traverse Town,” and after a few run-ins with various Final Fantasy characters, he learns that the monsters that attacked him on Destiny Islands are known as the Heartless.

We all have hearts, don’t you know, and, in true Disney fashion, the “heart” in this case can be more accurately described as a “soul” or “being.” When someone loses their heart, they are transformed into a being of pure dark instinct called a Heartless, which then goes forth into the world and tries to reap as many hearts from people as possible. The more hearts they take, the more Heartless there are, and the more darkness creeps into the world. This massive influx of Heartless, we realize, is the reason why all the stars are blinking out of existence.

And yet all is not lost, because it turns out that the Keyblade Sora has is the key to destroying the Heartless and setting things right. He is its chosen wielder, and so only he can go from world to world setting things right. As it happens, Sora is the only one who can wield the Keyblade, and anyone else who tries will be unable to do so. And, as King Arthur would be able to tell you, it chose Sora because his is the strongest heart in all the land.

Sora meets up with Donald and Goofy, who, upon seeing the Keyblade, realize that this must be the “key” that Mickey had charged them to find. Sora is reticent to go with them at first because he is more interested in finding Riku and Kairi than he is in helping these two clowns on their vague quest. When Donald and Goofy tell Sora that they have the means to travel to different worlds, Sora agrees, and our quest to find Riku and Kairi begins in earnest.

We then visit three Disney-themed worlds based on Alice in Wonderland, Tarzan, and Hercules, as we begin to put together the mystery of the Keyblade and the Heartless piece by piece. In each world, the themes of friendship are reinforced as Sora goes out of his way to help different characters put things right and defeat the evil villains using the Heartless for their own ends. We also discover on these excursions that, once the main threat of a world has been taken care of, a mystical keyhole appears that the Keyblade automatically locks.

Strange things are afoot, but for now it is vitally important to realize that, in each of these three cases, the people doing good are working together and trusting each other; and, inversely, the people doing evil are not only deeply misguided in their ambitions, but are also working completely alone.

After these few worlds, we head back to Traverse Town to learn about the keyholes and just what in the world we’re doing when we lock them. It is explained to us that, just like with a person, each world has its own heart. The keyholes are the entrance to that heart, and the reason why so many worlds are disappearing is that the Heartless are creeping and crawling into those keyholes and corrupting the worlds with darkness.

Why all this is happening is still a mystery, but Sora and crew decide it’s a good idea to lock up the keyholes just in case. And, on that note, why not find Traverse Town’s before they head out?

Off they go looking for Traverse Town’s keyhole, and, during their urgent quest, whom do they run into but Riku. Riku is alone and equipped with a sword that can only be described as a bat wing that got angry. He claims that he has been looking everywhere for Sora and Kairi since they got separated on the islands, and that he’s so happy to see that Sora is okay. Just when the reunion couldn’t be going any better, a couple of Heartless show up. Riku, ever-competitive and thinking he can protect Sora, whips out his blade and tells Sora to relax. However, Sora has already gotten rid of the Heartless, showing off the Keyblade in the process.

“Just leave everything to me.” “…Leave it to who?

What happens next is familiar to anyone who had a competitive friend when they were fourteen or fifteen. Riku pouts, sees that Sora is capable of defending himself, and realizes that while he has all over the place searching for Kairi, it looks like Sora has been off fooling around with his new friends and special weapon. This is an important moment for Riku: not only does he take Sora’s self-reliance as a slight to his abilities, but he also takes offense to the fact that it seems like Sora wasn’t even trying to look for him, finding new friends instead.

Before Sora can ask Riku to come with him on his quest, Riku has disappeared into the shadows, leaving Sora and company to go find the keyhole and protect Traverse Town. Donald and Goofy are upset that Riku just ditched them, but Sora is so happy that his friend is okay that he doesn’t even mind that he left without saying goodbye.

We then see Riku being fed lies by the queen of evil and leader of the villains in this game, Maleficent. She stokes his jealousy, telling him that a true friend would have moved heaven and earth to find him. After all, she says, isn’t that what Riku did from the start? Well, to hell with that Sora and his Keyblade: she has other plans for Riku and his power.

“Thing is, I know you’re playing me. But you’re right.”

The keyhole is closed and Traverse Town is safe, but there is a looming feeling that things have irrevocably changed between Sora and Riku, even if Sora doesn’t realize it. What Sora sees as a fun romp through different worlds, Riku sees as a betrayal of the friendship they had back on Destiny Islands:

Things have changed.

Can we go back?

What follows is more traveling throughout different Disney-themed worlds. While each level’s story varies in who you meet and what you’re meant to do, they all show us that friendship and working with others is good, and that all the villains doing evil things are resolute in working alone. One by one, the cabal of Disney villains fall to their own rage and solitude, and the darkness inevitably consumes them before they shuffle off this mortal coil.

THE DARKNESS AFFECTS US

So, what of Riku? What of the boy who used darkness to escape into the bigger world around him? The boy who refused help from his friend Sora, and who is convinced he can do everything on his own?

Well, the game has shown us what happens to people on their own, and it doesn’t look good.

Eventually, all roads converge on the world known as “Hollow Bastion,” where Maleficent and Riku have set up shop. In all our traveling throughout the worlds, we see that different princesses are being kidnapped away from their own world, and it turns out that they have been brought to Hollow Bastion—likely by Riku himself. Chief among these girls is Kairi, who has been comatose since the events of Destiny Islands. Thinking he can reverse this with the Keyblade in his hands, Riku goes out to confront Sora.

Riku—hurt by what he sees as a betrayal by his friend, desperate to be the strongest so that he can do everything himself, and warped by Maleficent’s dark whisperings—confronts Sora with all the anger and rage he has been harboring since this journey began. He claims that Sora is weak and frail, and that, without accepting the darkness into one’s heart, one can never truly be the strongest.

In a moment of true betrayal, Riku wills the Keyblade to answer to him, and, in this moment of weakness, it escapes from Sora’s hand, leaving him defenseless. What’s more, now that Riku wields the Keyblade, Donald and Goofy feel honor-bound by Mickey to follow the key at all costs, which leaves Sora bereft of his weapon—and, more important, without any friends on whom he can rely. Riku tosses Sora one of the wooden swords they would play pretend with on Destiny Islands.

“Here,” Riku says, tossing it at Sora’s feet. “Go play hero with this.”

But all is not lost, as Sora teams up with The Beast from Beauty and the Beast, who has also come to this wretched dark world to save someone he loves. The two of them make their way through many of the castle’s mechanized puzzles, fending off some of the strongest Heartless in the game with nothing but stick and claw. Eventually, they manage to open the main entrance to the castle and enter to confront Riku once again. Just before Riku emerges, the Beast is distracted by a trick of the dark, leaving Sora to fight his former friend alone.

What follows is an endless taunt-fest from Riku as he gloats about being the true Keyblade wielder. His power and strength of heart are much greater than Sora’s, and so how could Sora even begin to think that he would be capable of saving Kairi? Riku calls upon the power of darkness, transforming his clothes into something of an evil body-skirt, and shoots out a pulsating ball of darkness that would surely kill Sora should it hit him.

Just before it makes impact, Goofy leaps to Sora’s aid, blocking the attack with his trademark shield. Riku chides Goofy for betraying his king’s orders, but Goofy retorts by saying he would never let one of his friends be hurt just so that he could follow an order. Donald comes to his senses, too, and it is this act of kindness and friendship that gives Sora the courage to win back the Keyblade, claiming that his friends are what makes him strong.

Riku, aghast and appalled, attacks Sora and crew and gets trounced by their teamwork. He stumbles away, claiming that he just needed more power, and how could he have lost the Keyblade once it answered to him? It is at this moment that a foreboding dark voice tells him that he could have more power than even he could imagine, if he would just give into the darkness. He does: he gets possessed by the actual villain of the game, Ansem, and then proceeds to wreak absolute havoc on Hollow Bastion.

Sora fights the possessed Riku once again and defeats him. He sees Kairi, and he realizes that the reason she is comatose is due to her having stored her heart in his own body back on Destiny Islands. So, he takes a Keyblade fashioned from darkness with the power to unlock people’s potential and effectively kills himself to release Kairi’s heart. Kairi wakes up, Riku manages to get the upper hand on the dark entity controlling his body, and the gang has enough time to escape the crumbling castle.

I know this is a lot, trust me, but it’s for our benefit that we speed through here and get to the deeper analysis.

Sora, having lost his heart, has turned into a Heartless. However, because the connection to those he loves made his heart so strong, he was able to retain some semblance of his mind and make his way back to Kairi. She realizes this little Heartless is Sora, hugs him, and voila, Sora’s heart has returned, thanks to his connection to the person he loves most.

With the princesses saved and the keyhole in Hollow Bastion closed, there is only one thing left to do: find and defeat Ansem, who is using Riku’s body to effectively destroy all of creation.

Sora and crew make their way to a level called “End of the World,” where they see the fragmented remains of all the worlds that succumbed to the darkness. Finally, they go through a door that leads them to the beach at Destiny Islands, where Riku stands waiting for them. At this point, the darkness is so strong in Riku that Ansem fully manifests himself, and the gang fights back against him until, finally, they defeat him and Riku is released from his dark grip.

Ansem’s plan was essentially to use all of Kingdom Hearts to cover everything in darkness, so the gang has to make sure that the door to Kingdom Hearts is well and truly locked. To this end, Mickey makes his appearance, showing that he has his own Keyblade; he tells Sora that they have to lock the door from both sides, with Mickey staying on the dark side and Sora locking it from the light side. Sora agrees, and who should appear but Riku, who resigns himself to help Sora and Mickey close the door from the dark side. Sora doesn’t want him to do this, but Riku says that it’s fine, and that it’ll help everyone if he does. About to lock himself behind a closed door in darkness forever, Riku looks at Sora one last time. And then he says something that shows he has truly changed:

“Take care of her.”

Sora nods to his friend, closes the door, and locks him away in the darkness in which he has stewed since they left the islands.

Sora, Donald, and Goofy stand on a little island of light as darkness envelops them, and they see that Kairi has appeared on a smaller patch of land that is slowly drifting away from the gang. Sora rushes over to her, tells her that everything is going to be all right, and reminds her of a promise they made to each other after the events of Hollow Bastion. He grabs her hand, he tells her that she’s always with him no matter what, and that he promises that he’ll come back to her. As their hands fall away from each other, Kairi reaffirms their promise.

“I know you will.”

And with that, the trio is well and fully separated. Kairi marvels as thousands of motes of light fall from the sky, and her home of Destiny Islands recreates itself around her. She may be home, but without Sora and Riku, it’s not the same place she left that fateful night.

Things changed.

We don’t go back.

As far as the first game knows, this is the last time these two will ever see each other.

Dear lord, you have to explain a lot with this game. It’s enough for a full plate on its own, and then in come the sequels with time travel and other assorted existential nightmares. And, long and winding though it may be, it all comes down to a very simple character study that ends up being a hero’s story in which the hero has no choice to return home at the end.

What diehard fans of Kingdom Hearts have come to realize is that, while we play as Sora and follow his adventures, this series—and, in particular, this first game—is all about Riku’s character growth. Sora is a lot like Marty McFly in that he embarks on a life-changing journey and comes away from it unchanged. If anything, Sora is even more upbeat and happy at the end of this game, despite being separated from his friends.

Remember when, after Riku first ditches him and the gang, he says that it doesn’t matter where Riku went, because now he knows he’s okay? That’s all that drives Sora, and all that ever drives him; knowing that his friends are happy and healthy. To borrow a perfect character descriptor from later installment in the series, Sora is always “willing to see the good before the bad.” He starts and ends as a good, incorruptible young man.

Riku, on the other hand, has an entire arc that we witness throughout this first game. We are introduced to him as an ambitious, competitive young man who is dead-set on doing what he wants to do. He will leave the island by any means possible, and it just so happens that he jumps at the chance to accept the darkness to get what he wants. In this way, the game primes us to see him like the rest of the villains we encounter: a selfish, driven person who is willing to utilize the darkness to get what he wants. And yet, as we see, darkness does nothing but envelop the person who wields it.

No matter how strong they may see themselves, the darkness—that ambition—will always consume them.

We see Riku reject the values of friendship, trust, and togetherness that have gotten Sora to where he is, and he pays the price for it. In fact, he pays a hefty price: Ansem—a character that, in this game, I believe solely exists as a representation of how dark influences affect people—completely overtakes his body and uses it for ill purposes. If Riku ever cared for his friends like Sora did, that affection was twisted and perverted by the very forces he believed were making him stronger.

However, after he fully succumbs to the darkness, we see that he regrets his actions and comes to realize that he is doing more harm than good. As such, his penultimate action in the game is to hold the darkness back so that he can truly protect his friends as they escape.

And finally, after a long battle with a character who represents Riku’s misgivings and failures, Riku reemerges to save not only his friends, but the entire world. We see that finally, after everything he has done, Riku’s motivation for doing something is to protect those he cares about. With his last words, “Take care of her,” we see that his selfish ambitions have left him, and he is willing to hand the reins of protection over to the young man of whom he was so jealous the entire time.

Riku changes.

But he can’t go back.

That final scene in which Kairi returns home to the islands alone what makes Kingdom Hearts such an impactful commentary on nostalgia. We all undergo intense change as we move through our lives, and we often fall victim to the vain hope that indulging in nostalgia may put things back to how they were in our memory. But times change, and so do people, and no amount of looking back can ever truly prepare us for the changes that move us forward.

While Sora undergoes no real character growth in the first game, his world has irrevocably changed, just as Riku’s has. His initial goal of finding his friends and going back to Destiny Islands remains unfulfilled, and whatever lies before him is nothing at all like what lies behind him.

Remember, at the time of this game’s initial release, it was intended as a stand-alone game. Only months later after its gangbuster success did Square Enix greenlight a number of sequels; therefore, the ending to Kingdom Hearts, as originally intended, shows our main characters never being physically able to return to their home. Instead, through Sora and Kairi’s promise, we are meant to understand that the time we spent with these people will always remain with us in some way, even if we never truly see them again.

But then, places change. People change. Most cruel of all, memories change. And we can only hope and pray that we take those changes in stride, and try to remember what was important. Fitting, I think, that this message of warped nostalgia and our inability to return to our memories is presented by a game comprised of Disney worlds and Final Fantasy characters—all of which have changed to fit the narrative of the story Kingdom Hearts wanted to tell.

We change.

We can’t go back.

Gameplay, Music, and Visuals: Is Any of This for Real? Or Not?

Hey, did you remember that these articles have other sections? I’ve made my main point in the above section, so this section will be thankfully brief. What’s more, I think that, at least in this first Kingdom Hearts game, the bulk of the story is in the plot and characters, so there’s not too much to discuss when it comes to how we play the game.

Kingdom Hearts is a role-playing game, but unlike many of Square’s previous titles, it is not in any way turn-based. You are instead given a number of abilities and attacks, and are then let loose into the environment to wage battle however you wish in a free-flowing, easy-to-pick-up, hack-and-slash style. For those of you familiar with Final Fantasy XV, that game’s combat system comes from the early days of Kingdom Hearts.

As mentioned above, your weapon is a key-shaped blade, aptly called the Keyblade. As you progress through the game, you unlock different keychains that you can equip that give you bigger and better Keyblades with a host of stat boosts and secondary effects. Each Keyblade is typically modeled after the world in which you acquire it, so they all have a touch of Disney charm imbued into them. You are also given different pieces of armor and knick-knacks that provide you with different stat-boosting effects, so the game is by-and-large your standard RPG game.

Had to get Sephiroth in there somewhere.

As you travel through the worlds, you can party up with other Disney characters like Tarzan, Jack Skellington, and Ariel, all of whom have their own specific roles that help you in your quest through their home worlds. And while it’s fun to switch out Donald for Jack Skellington, there’s no real difference in how you play except for a few world-specific attacks that are kind of neat.

You also have a number of summons available to you as you progress through the game, all of which deal a fun kind of attack, or boost your health, or what have you. If you’ve ever played a Final Fantasy game, the Kingdom Hearts summons are about as useful as those, depending on how you go about playing the game. And, naturally, some are better than others—like when you summon Tinkerbell and are healed over and over.

Good stuff, in my opinion.

What all this amounts to is a fun, free-roaming kind of game in which you can take down Heartless and other baddies in any number of ways you can think up. You can play like I do, and just rely on your trusty Keyblade to thwack enemies over and over again, or you can mix it up with different damaging spells and summoned attacks that add to the overall Disney aesthetic.

Speaking of which!

While Kingdom Hearts is the lovechild of Disney and Square Enix, it’s pretty obvious who held the purse strings when it came to designing the game. All the worlds—except for original worlds like Destiny Islands, Traverse Town, Hollow Bastion, and End of the World—are Disney-themed with Disney characters. You will on occasion run into a Cloud Strife or Tidus, but, for the most part, they are relegated to the background, whereas Disney characters are the ones with whom you primarily interact.

Where the Final Fantasy elements rear their spiky heads are primarily in the fighting system and original characters. For example, one look at Riku and you could assume he was out of some Final Fantasy game. Same goes for Ansem, while we’re at it. Nomura has a thing for silver-haired villains; we know this.

The game is appropriately cartoony, and the 3D models for Disney characters that had only ever before been rendered in 2D mesh into the world perfectly well. You get the feeling playing the game that it truly is a product of its time—not just because such an odd crossover was able to exist back then, but also because the cartoon-style feels right at home on the PlayStation 2. There are occasional animation hiccups—primarily when you’re not in an actual cutscene—but, on the whole, the game feels as if you’re entering into a Disney World. TM!

Be Kind, O Mouse King

Lastly, and most importantly, Yoko Shimomura, the genius behind the Kingdom Hearts soundtrack can do absolutely no wrong, and I am willing to fight people on the street to defend her and her beautiful work. Not only does she compose beautiful, heart-thumping tracks like Destati or Night of Fate, but she also tugs at your heartstrings with songs like Dearly Beloved, which is a song so beautiful it tells a story all on its own. I am a huge fan of her work, and while I would agree that some of her best work comes from later games in the series, it cannot be overlooked that a number of the series’ staples debuted in this game.

What’s more, it should never be lost on anyone how much work she put into taking existing Disney songs and making them into background tracks for all the different worlds. Each world has a walking-around theme and a battle theme that take elements from famous Disney songs and make you feel like you’re exploring a world based on a Disney classic. My favorite example of this is the version of This is Halloween that plays when exploring The Nightmare Before Christmas’ world.

To adapt so many famous melodies and transform them in such a way that they both pay homage to the originals and feel wholly at home within this newly created piece of media is incredible, and Yoko Shimomura should be lauded until the end of time for her brilliant composing. I do her work a disservice by trying to explain her work, but if you want to have a good time, head to YouTube and look for a Kingdom Hearts playlist. You won’t be disappointed.

Impact on Video Gaming and Culture: The Good Before the Bad, Please

I’ve already mentioned the wide swath of games in the Kingdom Hearts series, and the fact that the series has been going great guns for the past sixteen years. However, I’d like to take the time in this section to discuss how much of an effect these games have had on how games present new installments to their stories. Because, as I’m sure anyone cursorily familiar with this series knows, there’s a whole lot of Kingdom Hearts out there.

This first game did so well that there was immediate clamor for a sequel. The story ended on what seemed like a cliffhanger (even though I think it was always meant to end that way in order to elicit maximum nostalgia-questioning) and so, naturally, people assumed that there was a second one in the works. And while we did inevitably get a Kingdom Hearts II, it wasn’t the second game in the series.

The second game we got was Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, released on the Game Boy Advance to the lukest of warm receptions. Most took issue with the fact that it was largely a retelling of the first game with an annoying card-based battle system, but many people praised it for taking the series in what they perceived to be a more serious direction.

Chain of Memories was a recap of the first game’s events in preparation for Kingdom Hearts II, but it also served as an “in-between game” that prepared gamers for a number of changes that would come to fruition in II. I don’t want to get too into it here—because I will no doubt be looking at it for another article—but Chain of Memories set up who the villains of II would be, what the conflict was shaping up to be, and how the actions of the characters in the first game affected the world writ large. It was a little game that changed a lot, and Nomura clearly felt that was the way to do things.

Kingdom Hearts II came out and did amazingly well, but, unlike in the first game, Nomura was pretty confident that there would be more in the Kingdom Hearts pipeline, so he left a cliffhanger at the end and added a secret ending that asked a million questions that wouldn’t be answered until years later when Birth By Sleep, a prequel to the first game, was released. That game ultimately was the setup for the much-anticipated Kingdom Hearts III, which I am convinced will be released the day after I am dead.

YOU SIT ON A GLASS THRONE, KINGDOM HEARTS III

What this all amounts to is a beloved series that has gotten more complex and strange in its storytelling ever since the first game was a huge hit. There’s plenty of jokes to be had about all the weird stuff in this series, and whole decades’ worth of YouTube content exist that try to explain the timeline and all the excruciating minutiae that make up the narrative.

Nomura and his team at Square Enix tapped into something magical, and ol’ Sakaguchi may have hit the nail smack-dab on the head when he said that the key to a successful property was something as big as Disney. Well, Nomura proved him right there, and he has been teasing us with new installments in this franchise a full six years before Marvel kept us guessing with after-credits scenes and expanded universes.

And, all laughs aside, with the notable exception of one game in the series, all of these Kingdom Hearts games have been met with critical success, and it all started with the little mash-up that could, stealing our hearts since 2002.

BONUS LEVEL: The Unbearable Darkness of Being

Years ago, when I started this article, I mentioned that Hironobu Sakaguchi steered Tetsuya Nomura away from a light and fluffy Disney game that he felt would appeal to a broader audience. Sakaguchi knew from working on Final Fantasy that depth and difficult-to-grapple-with philosophy did not need to be absent from games for people to enjoy them. In fact, it was quite the opposite: sure, games are ultimately meant to be fun, but the ones to which we keep coming back are the ones that really say something to us and get us thinking about our place in the world.

I’ve spoken a great deal about nostalgia in this piece, and how Kingdom Hearts suggests that it’s not always a good thing. By its very definition, looking back on something with fondness is every bit as painful as it is enjoyable because we know in our hearts we cannot return to that time. Things change, and we can’t go back.

Kingdom Hearts is my favorite series, and it’s inextricably linked to who I was when I first played the first game. I was an RPG punk, and for some reason had it in my head that by getting Disney into my Final Fantasy, Square Enix would somehow tarnish a series that I really loved and respected. So, for about a year after Kingdom Hearts was released, I would go back and forth on how much I liked it or hated it, and I drove my younger brother crazy with my flip-flopping.

It’s hard, I imagine, for a younger brother to one day hear how awesome this thing he loved was and the next day hear how stupid he was for loving it. But I was twelve and he was eight, so I didn’t think it really mattered to him. But it did. I know it did.

My younger brother and I had a contentious relationship when we were growing up, and Kingdom Hearts was often at the center of things. I was a lot like Riku, thinking I had to be tough and strong for my little brother by telling him to stay away from baby Disney games, and he was a lot like Sora, always seeing the good in my intentions before the bad. But I know it still hurt him to make fun of something he really liked.

I love my brother, but between my schooling and his, we have drifted apart in a way that no brother ever truly wants. People change, after all, and we can’t go back to sitting on our video rockers laughing at the scene in which Sora learns to fly. We talk less now—not just about video games, but about everything. I get updates about his life in little bursts from my mother, and I’m sure that’s how he hears about me. What’s more, I’m moving to a new state, starting a totally new job, and his response to when my mother told him that broke my heart a little. He just asked, “What?” in a way that, in my mind, carries with it a sadness for not being directly in the loop.

I know that I will reconnect with him when our lives are slightly more stable, because I know that I will put forth the effort to be as big a part of his life as I was back when we were playing Kingdom Hearts together. I hope that, unlike that time when we were kids, he’ll know exactly how much spending time with him, even when playing a stupid baby game, truly means to me.

So when I look back on this game, it’s with a mixture of affection and sadness, of childlike glee and adolescent disregard. Because, just like Sora and Riku, I know deep down that my brother and I will never truly go back to Destiny Islands.

People change.

We can’t go back.

VERDICT: This’ll Shock You

Clearly, I am a huge fan of this game, and am willing to talk about each and every scene, character moment, line of dialogue, and music choice until every single cow has gone home. Yet, I am not admitting Kingdom Hearts I into the Video Game Canon.

Kingdom Hearts is an excellent game, and it has had a great impact on how we view sequels, RPGs, crossovers, you name it, but it just isn’t saying anything that other games don’t say better. It offers so much to whoever plays it, but I think this is a case in which, at least for me, my personal attachment to the game raises its value above that of the objective sum of its parts.

The sequels? Well, like with many games I’ve discussed, those are a different story entirely. But that’s another article for another day, and the sun is setting on this one.

We talk so often about the personal investment we put into the interactive medium of video games, and I think that, for me, there is no better example of doing that to the point of rose-blinding myself with memories of nicer times than this particular game. By all means it offers the player a simple but effective story, but consider the sources: Disney and Square Enix. The game couches the story in these properties from companies that solely profit off nostalgia and the idea of there being a better yesterday, and only through years and years of thinking about it and mulling over my own personal experience did I come up with this interpretation that actually questions nostalgia. I stand by it, but I can’t in good conscience say that this game is something that everyone needs to play.

So thank you, Kingdom Hearts, for all that you’ve done for me. You’ll get your day in the light, but I’m afraid it’s just not today.


Dan Hughes

Dan Hughes - Video Game Analyst

Dan Hughes has dabbled in everything from playwriting to religious studies to YouTube personas. He is the seriesrunner for With a Terrible Fate's "Now Loading... The Video Game Canon!"  Learn more here.

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