The Kingdom Hearts games tend to be a bit divisive when it comes to video game fans. Some people hate the games with a passion, complaining the games are too convoluted in story, too simple in game play, and just a stupid mixture to combine Disney magic with Final Fantasy nostalgia. Others hail the games as fun, goofy with lovable original characters, the ability to explore our favorite Disney worlds and try to figure out the history and conspiracy of the Key Blade and the Heart of All Worlds. But even the most hardcore Kingdom Hearts fan has to admit that the games tend to be uneven in quality, with some games being clearly superior, and others...not. So in the spirit of Ishmael’s ranking of Tales of games, and Final Fantasy listing, I’m doing my own ranking of the Kingdom Hearts games and their various iterations.
RE:Coded original started out its life as Kingdom Hearts: Coded, a cell phone game released episodically exclusively in Japan. After fans learned that the story in the game relates canonically to the franchise’s lore, they demanded a better release worldwide so everyone could enjoy the story. And Squeenix complied, rereleasing the game for the DS as RE:Coded. And boy was this game a lesson in ‘be careful what you wish for.’ While the story focuses more on the Disney characters this time around rather than just the Kingdom Hearts ones (a complaint I had for some of the spinoff games), the story isn’t as essential as everyone was lead to believe. It retreads everything from the original Kingdom Hearts game, including the same bosses. The game’s biggest issue is the controls. Kingdom Hearts games are notorious for camera issues, but it’s a whole different animal when you can’t turn the camera right. Because the right trigger button is used for scrolling through the command menu, only the left trigger button controls the camera. Theoretically, the stylus can be used to adjust the camera, but because of the action of the game, that requires growing a third hand. The game does some interesting experimentation through levels that alternate railgun shooting, sidescrolling and a nostalgic turn-based level with Cloud on your team and the Final Fantasy victory music played at the end of each battle, but God save you if something strikes you from your right side. You’re toast.
Chain of Memories was the first portable title in the series, as well as the first Kingdom Hearts game for a Nintendo system. Taking place between Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2, the game was also the first to introduce the antagonists, Organization XIII. For a GBA game it is absolutely stunning, with some of the nicest pixel art to come out of the generation, and even included rendered cut scenes for the beginning and end of the game. But like RE:Coded, the game’s biggest deficiencies came from wonky, limited controls. Attacks are done via cards where in a War-esque move, high ranking cards beat weaker ones, allowing you to limit your opponents actions. But once again, this was done via the shoulder trigger buttons, and the powerful attacks, known as sleights, could be unleashed by releasing the buttons simultaneously. It can be done, but with the harder, faster bosses it became very difficult. Plus the vital dodging function, which was programmed under the jump function, barely worked at all. And, like RE:Coded, it retread most of the original Kingdom Heart’s worlds and stories, and it isn’t until the second half of the game and the Game+ that the interesting stuff happens. Also the game had some weird translations, which had Axel saying ‘hell.’ Not sure how that one got passed Disney...
Man, Nintendo KH games can’t seem to catch a break. Once again, a weak portable title, albeit one with one of the most heartbreaking stories in the franchise. Like Chain of Memories, the game took place between Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2, and focused on the nobody Roxas’ time in Organization XIII, explaining the first half of Kingdom Hearts 2 and the many mysteries of the Organization. The problem is all that wonderful emotional story is bogged down with lots of boring, repetitive missions in Disney worlds that eliminated the Disney characters. Also, the characters we knew the least about in Chain of Memories and 2 are still not well characterized. (To this day we still know next to nothing about Luxord, Marlxy and Larxene, or even fan favorite Demyx.) Camera problems also make some of the tail end bosses next to impossible and unbelievably frustrating. Pretty much the only reason to play this game is to get to the ending, which is still probably the most emotionally painful moment in the series. For extra crispy, cajun-style emotional pain, play the ending before the Nobody Corridor in Kingdom Hearts 2. It’ll make it feel like your heart was ripped out of your chest, stomped on, and then shoved back in.
The first remake of the series, it was originally released in Japan in a set with Kingdom Hearts 2: Final Mix. The game is a high res, 3D remake of the GBA game with all the bells and whistles. Improved controls, better graphics, voice acting and a 3D environment. It’s a perfectly competent game, and while not terrible, it isn’t amazing either.
This PSP game was the prequel to Kingdom Hearts 1 and is often referred to by fans as Kingdom Hearts 0, because unlike the other spinoff games, it has a fully fleshed out, essential story with its own set of worlds and characters without retreading on either KH1 or 2. Good graphics, great characters and an important story that explains the downfall of Xenahort, Ansem and the events of Kingdom Hearts 1. While lots of people would probably rank the game much higher, I found the gameplay style this game’s greatest weakness. Lots of people who hate the franchise complain that the battle system is too simple, that one could play through the entire game just pushing the X button. In all the other games I have never found this to be remotely true, but Birth by Sleep is the exception. Attacks are determined by an attack deck, and even the special attacks are simply pressing the X button with specific timing. The worlds are largely very stark and bare, with only cutscenes showing other character models, and you are only in control of one character at any time. This is probably the only game besides RE:Coded I never bothered to finish.
I often waffle between which of the original PS2 games I think is better. Kingdom Hearts 2 had a great story, a much improved battle system and much bigger worlds. But after years of playing and replaying both games, I have to concede that KH2 is much weaker than KH1. The partner attacks are amazing to watch and fun to play, but many of them are so unbelievably overpowered, that it makes most of the first half of the game far too easy, the Pirates of the Caribbean world was Uncanny Valley central, and reducing the return to Atlantica to a series of rhythm games was not in the series’ best interest. That being said, the introduction of Organization XIII and Axel’s story arc makes this one of my favorite games of all time.
The original PS2 game was the peanut butter and chocolate of JRPGs. The harebrained idea of combining Final Fantasy with Disney resulted in a fun, breezy game with lots of fun sidequests, the ability to explore Disney worlds, a surprisingly emotional story and introduced us to the adorable cinnamon roll that is Sora. While the sequels expanded the world and lore of Kingdom Hearts to a tale of light and darkness and a quest to save the worlds from a madman who wants to use the ultimate light, and his various incarnations to achieve that end, the game was originally supposed to be self contained and largely works on its own. If you just play one KH game, play the original. That being said, the original controls are a bit weird, the camera is a mess and the AI is useless. Get ready to have your best items wasted when you’re barely scuffed only to have Donald stand around like a moron when you’re on the verge of dying.
This game gets the award for the most stupid title in the franchise, but is also one of the best games. After the gold star ‘you tried, punkin’ attempts from the DS, this 3DS game gets everything just right in terms of both controls and story, as well as really stretching the things the 3DS can actually do. Taking place after Kingdom Hearts 2, we’re reunited with older, wiser and less angsty versions of Sora and Riku. The dives between worlds look glorious in 3D and are tons of fun, and the Dream Eater party system lets you customize your partners, making them out of pieces of the enemies you destroy. You get to explore new Disney worlds that nicely blend between fun and silly, and serious and emotional. And like Pokemon Amie, you have to play with and take care of your Dream Eaters to improve their powers. The camera works like a dream, the special attacks give you a few seconds of time to use your stylus to activate your power, and you get cameos from the under appreciated game, The World Ends With You. Word of warning, if you plan on beating the game, set aside a couple of hours, because the last lap of the game is a stretch of 3 very time consuming bosses with no opportunity to save between them, as Square Enix likes to do in portable games for some inexplicable reason.
The way Kingdom Hearts was meant to be played. The souped up Final Mix version never available outside of Japan gets rereleased in glorious HD, packaged with Chain of Memories and a movie version of 358/2 that cuts out the bland missions. The camera is still wonky, you can’t move diagonally, and Chain of Memories is still pretty ‘meh’, but the improved controls and additional content are a godsend.
Remember most of the complaints I had about the original version of 2? Most of them get fixed in the Final Mix version, plus more story that explains more of the events between Axel and Roxas, plus packaged with a better version of Birth by Sleep. This makes this the best version of any of the Kingdom Heart games. Yes, there is also a movie version of RE:Coded, which can’t be saved no matter what you do to it, but that is literally the only issue I have with this game.