Welcome to part two of Kingdom Hearts in Review! Every Wednesday for the next several weeks, I’ll be publishing a series of comprehensive articles looking back on each individual Kingdom Hearts game, examining a variety of topics ranging from the historical contexts surrounding each game’s release to their gameplay mechanics, and (most often) their narrative arcs. Last week, I penned a brief introduction to the concept of this series. This week, we formally kick it off with the game that started it all - 2002's Kingdom Hearts.
It’s almost laughable how simple the elevator pitch for Kingdom Hearts had to be, as outlandish as it was – an original game featuring characters from two of the most iconic IP repositories the world has ever seen: Disney and Final Fantasy.
It can be difficult to divorce oneself from modern perceptions of the corporate behemoth that Disney’s evolved into over the course of the past decade and a half. However, the Disney that agreed to partner with SquareSoft on Kingdom Hearts existed in a very different form than it does today – this was a Disney that didn’t own Pixar yet, let alone Marvel or Star Wars. This was a Disney that might have had a figurative monopoly on the imaginations of young children, but certainly not, as some might insist today, a literal one. At the time in which Kingdom Hearts was put into development, some of today’s most iconic Disney IP were merely a few years old – The Lion King was eight years old. Hercules was five. Mulan was four.
Nowadays, these films are whispered about with reverence – Disney’s recently pushed live-action adaptations of The Lion King and Mulan into active development, among other films. But back then, they were fresh commodities, products of what was the second (and to date, the last) renaissance of Disney’s investment in 2D animation. It’s almost impressive that Simba, Hercules, and other stalwarts of the 1990’s ended up in the original Kingdom Hearts, especially when you consider how many games that the franchise has spent recycling the same worlds over and over, and how long it’s taken for the sixteen-year-old series to integrate characters from the majority of Disney’s most iconic 2000’s IP.
This context in regard to Disney is important due to the fact that, despite the franchise’s origins as a crossover between Disney characters and Final Fantasy characters, the original Kingdom Hearts, more than any other game in the series since, was molded by Disney. Before it was a vague macguffin that Sora, Donald and Goofy would spend the next eight games trying to save, Kingdom Hearts was a title that came into existence entirely by accident – franchise director Tetsuya Nomura had wanted to name the game Kingdom, in tribute to Disney’s many theme parks. However, there were rights issues with the name, so, once the notion of “hearts” as a driving force in the game’s narrative emerged, the two words were combined – and thus Kingdom Hearts was born.
A fun fact that many might not be aware of is that Disney owns the Kingdom Hearts franchise outright – meaning that, yes, Sora, Riku, Kairi, Ansem, and every other original character created specifically for the series are, by technicality, Disney characters. The idea for the series, however, was originally conceived by SquareSoft – a 3D masterpiece designed to rival Mario 64 integrating characters from one of the few IP repositories that could rival Nintendo’s. The original game came from a team comprised of developers from both SquareSoft and the now-defunct Disney Interactive. Development began in 2000, and the game was released in 2002 – such a short development time is now awe-inspiring when compared with the gap between KH and KHII, and especially the gap between KHII and KHIII.
All of this context surrounding Disney and its relationship to the first game in the series is important because, in the grand scheme of Kingdom Hearts, the first game’s writing would trend the most “Disney-esque” of any game in the series. Famously, the original plan was for the series’ overarching plot to be simplistic enough for a young child to understand – a Disney movie with a Square Enix touch. However, one of the series’ executive producers felt that Kingdom Hearts had a responsibility to balance Disney IP with Square Enix’s narrative strengths cultivated through over a decade of making Final Fantasy – so Nomura and his team chose to aim for something slightly more complex that would appeal to both audiences.
And, to be fair, the plot of the original Kingdom Hearts, is, on paper, incredibly easy to follow: a boy named Sora, entrusted with a special power, teams up with Donald and Goofy to search the galaxy for his two best friends while preventing said galaxy’s destruction at the hands of Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty. It’s the quintessential hero’s journey, made manifest in the series’ simplest story. Most of the game’s main narrative through-line revolves around Disney tourism disguised as a search for lost friends: maybe Tarzan knows where Riku and Kairi are! Oh, not him? Maybe Peter Pan? Huh. How about Jack Skellington? Oh, sweet, we’re wearing Halloween costumes now!
However, while the plot of the Kingdom Hearts series would never be this simple again, the themes introduced in the original game have persisted throughout the series – and are Disney through-and-through. Kingdom Hearts, is, at its core, a story about friendship – one of my best friends once described it as the anime equivalent to the Fast and Furious franchise: Sora’s friends are his family, and he’d die for them. Much of the series at large has revolved around the notion that Sora’s strength is derived from the connections his heart has made with other people. Sora’s entire narrative arc in the original Kingdom Hearts revolves around coming to terms with the power he has been granted, and understanding that he has earned said power by virtue of his love for his friends – as well as the lengths to which he would go to protect them.
This arc comes to a head when Sora, Donald and Goofy arrive at one of the original Kingdom Hearts’ all-time great worlds, Hollow Bastion.
Within minutes of arriving at Hollow Bastion in Kingdom Hearts, Sora loses the Keyblade – it is revealed that Riku is the blade’s true chosen wielder, but that it defaulted to Sora as Riku gave into the darkness at the beginning of the game. Having regained what he perceives to be his rightful control of the Keyblade, Riku leaves Sora broken – and alone, as Donald and Goofy, interpreting Mickey’s instructions to “follow the key” quite literally, abandon him in favor of Riku.
However, Sora persists, and with the help of the Beast (of Beauty and the Beast fame), pushes through the castle to face Riku again. This time, he leaves himself fully at Riku’s mercy, declaring that he’ll push onward no matter what it takes in order to rescue Kairi – a move that inspires Donald and Goofy to leave Riku’s side and stand by the friend that they’ve made over the past several days. Following Sora’s first use of a phrase that would come to define his character over the course of Kingdom Hearts – “My friends are my power” – the Keyblade once again chooses him over Riku, and he resumes his quest to ascend the castle and save Kairi.
When it comes to the series’ narrative arc, the number of things that Disney has allowed Square Enix to get away with over the years boggles the mind – but very few moments in Kingdom Hearts history resonate as powerfully as the moment in which, faced with only one option left to save Kairi, Sora impales himself with the Keyblade of Heart, sacrificing himself in order to free Kairi’s heart from bondage. During my replay of the game, which I hadn’t touched in a number of years, this was the moment that hit me the hardest emotionally – among other milestones, it marks the series’ first usage of the orchestral version of “Simple and Clean”, the game’s theme song. This particular version would come to serve as the backing track for multiple of the series’ most emotionally resonant moments (including the Kingdom Hearts III announcement trailer dropped back in 2013).
Sora’s sacrifice marks the culmination of two narrative arcs – firstly, it marks the conclusion of his game-long quest to rescue Kairi from Maleficent’s clutches and restore her to life. But it also marks his ascension into the role of the franchise’s true hero. Any doubts raised by Riku’s earlier seizure of the Keyblade melt away in this moment, as it becomes evidently clear why the blade chose Sora over him.
What always strikes me the most about this particular moment, though, isn’t the music, or the aftermath, in which you play as a Heartless for the only time in the series as you attempt to reach Kairi, Donald and Goofy. No, rather – it’s the look on Sora’s face right before he makes the call to sacrifice himself. There’s no moment in which we’re given the indication that he knows what he has to do, or one in which he informs Donald and Goofy of his plans. There’s no moment of conflict in Sora’s heart. Rather, he looks at the facts in front of him – that Kairi’s heart is locked within his own, and that there’s only one way to restore her and the other six Princesses of Heart to life – and he takes the Keyblade.
And then he looks at Donald and Goofy – the two friends who have just risked everything for him – gives them a genuine, full-hearted smile, and drives the Keyblade of Heart into his own chest.
It’s the smile that sticks with me. This is a pre-teen boy who’s just left home for the first time – he’s spent his trip making new friends, discovering new facets of himself, and trudging ever-onward towards a goal. And then, at the exact moment he reaches that goal, he unhesitatingly chooses to die rather than have his friends suffer another minute. That smile – an implicit goodbye to Donald and Goofy – comes with no regrets.
That smile is the exact reason that I defend Sora as a protagonist with every chance that I get: many of my friends have made the argument to me that Sora is flatly written, and that later playable characters such as Riku and Roxas are far more deserving of praise. I won’t contest that those characters’ narrative arcs are phenomenally written and well-crafted – Roxas’, especially. But I will fight to death for Sora’s rightful place as protagonist of the Kingdom Hearts series. He might not be the smartest of Kingdom Hearts’ many heroes, or the most naturally talented – but he serves as the fundamental encapsulation of the series’ central message:
Hope, and the bonds of friendship, in the face of darkness, can light the way.
In this sense, he’s the most Disney-esque character that Kingdom Hearts has ever conceived. Sora is unbending, unwilling to break in the face of impossible odds. He has an unwavering sense of right and wrong, and will never cease to follow his heart (pardon the pun) in the name of protecting the people he loves. In Sora’s eyes, there’s no challenge too great, no failure too horrific to come back from.
Say what you want about future games in the series, but from the original Kingdom Hearts onwards, this series has never forgotten its driving force: that sense of optimism and hope. Those tenets have driven the entire franchise forward since its inception. No matter how complicated it’s become, at the end of the day, Kingdom Hearts is Disney at its very core – and it owes much of that to the original creative team that, eighteen years ago, was willing to go out on a limb and take a risk that never should have worked.