Once upon a time — long before its spin offs, sequels, remasters, re-releases, collections, mobile games or movies — there was only one game, and it was called Kingdom Hearts.
Kingdom Hearts began as a literal elevator pitch: the life of the Disney/Square crossover began when Shinji Hashimoto had a sporadic, chance meeting with a Disney executive that shared their building in Japan. Kingdom Hearts was the ultimate “What If” scenario of the early aughts — what if the biggest characters from the East and the biggest characters from the West shared the same world in a video game?
For those of us who played Kingdom Hearts when it was brand new (I was 14 years old in 2002), this concept of Final Fantasy and Disney characters sharing a game didn’t seem far fetched at all. I spent my childhood watching Disney animated films and I was more than a little acquainted with the characters. My teen years were spent with Cloud, Squall and Tidus. As I watched the commercials and advertisements roll out for this new title, I had only one thought on my mind: I desperately needed a PlayStation 2.
My pining must have worked, because one weekend that year my father gifted my siblings and I a PS2 and a single copy of the game (sans memory card, which made for an interesting few days of playing up to Wonderland over and over again). Up until that point I’d played a handful of RPGs and action games, but there was nothing like Kingdom Hearts.
The story. The characters. The music. There is an undeniable, powerful charm in the original Kingdom Hearts that has gone fully unmatched in any of its sequels. At the time we had no expectation for what else might exist afterward; Kingdom Hearts was video game Disneyland in every way. The combination of Disney and Final Fantasy was more than a kooky accident — it felt like something that had always existed and we had only just now been granted the lenses with which to see it.
Sora the optimistic hero, Kairi the adorable love interest, and Riku the goading best friend were so immediately loved that they fit into the pantheon of Square Enix characters as if they’d always belonged. The simple adventure borne of Sora losing his home to the Heartless and being tasked with searching the worlds for Riku and Kairi with his new pals Donald and Goofy was so obvious, so fantastic, so genius — so fun. At the core of Kingdom Hearts beat its own heart, one that wasn’t interested in anything more than presenting this grand unification of Square and Disney, and it was an unbelievably good time.
Yes, the gameplay and graphics (in some respects) have become better in the intervening years and sequels. Yes, we’ve been introduced to more characters that have added layers of depth and lovability to the grandeur of the Darkseeker Saga. What the original Kingdom Hearts did so well was provide a coherent, interesting unification of wacky ideas and present it in the best way it could. Upon subsequent playthroughs of the original game in recent years, Kingdom Hearts has aged so much better than its sequels in many ways (mainly in its storytelling).
My lifelong love affair with Kingdom Hearts has taken a few beatings over the years. Without the rose-tinted lenses of fandom, the series is an unmitigated pandering cash grab that has divorced itself almost completely from both the Final Fantasy brand and the original concepts presented in the first game. Layers upon layers of nonsense have turned even series fans to bickering in online spaces, while new players have become increasingly apprehensive with how to approach these games (the All-in-One package contains a whopping 7 games and 3 movies).
Between the release of Kingdom Hearts and Chain of Memories, I pored over new details. In the years before the release of Kingdom Hearts II, my mind naturally adhered to the wild fan theories generated in places like KH Insider, where our wild ruminations on who the mysterious “blond boy” could flourish. Kingdom Hearts immediately transformed itself from simple Disney and Square property to a Nomura-verse of grandiose, half-baked ideas. Since the original title was such a gamble, the Secret Video added in at the end of Kingdom Hearts was only there to gauge fan reaction to the possibility of a sequel. In proceeding years, scenario tidbits and open-ended lore have allowed Nomura to twist Kingdom Hearts in every conceivable way.
Once upon a time there was only one game — without Nobodies, Organization XIII, the Dream Worlds, the Fictional Worlds, the Datascape, Recompletion, Time Travel, or a spin off title that has hijacked the main series lore. The original adventure of Sora, Donald and Goofy bashing Heartless through creative Disney worlds alongside Final Fantasy mainstays was almost too good to be true, and come to look upon things now, maybe it was.
Kingdom Hearts is a fantastic game. It’s wonderful, heartfelt and (still) unique among its RPG predecessors. It’s a title that I’m endlessly thankful for, because by all rights something so wild shouldn’t exist at all. After almost twenty years of playing through series titles, however, I’ve increasingly reached the conclusion that not only is the first title the best, it may have been the only game in the series that had any idea of what it was.
Sign in or become a SUPERJUMP member to join the conversation.