Welcome back to GOONHAMMER ’02, our week-long look back at 2002 and the games and media that defined the year. Today we’re looking back at Kingdom Hearts, one of the more interesting franchise-spawning titles that year.
The Chirurgeon: Let me start off by saying I’m not a big Disney guy. I find adult Disney fans – the type of people who visit Disney World every year without kids – to be mildly embarrassing. Sure, have fun however you want, but going to the same amusement park every year seems pretty lame to me. I am however a big animation guy – the history and mechanics have always been fascinating to me artistically – and Disney has always been a part of that. Also, I was a child in America in the 80s and 90s so I lived through the Disney Renaissance in theaters. So I was well-versed in Disney stuff by the time Kingdom Hearts came out when I was in college. And at that point I was more of a Final Fantasy fan, having played every one of the English-translated games to release up to that point and loving all of them.
RagnarokAngel: I’m a few years younger than Rob (Rob: How dare you) so the original Kingdom Hearts hit when I was 14 which was about the right age to be obsessed with Final Fantasy for a then-dorky, weeaboo Alice. I was, of course far too old for kids stuff like Disney but like most teenagers at the time who played I was willing to stomach the Disney parts to see Cloud and Squall in full 3D, voice acted glory.
The Chirurgeon: So oddly two things hooked me about Kingdom Hearts when I first saw the game’s TV commercial: The Squaresoft name and Utada Hikaru’s “Simple and Clean,” the game’s main theme.
(That one’s still a banger 20 years later, though I also think “Sanctuary,” the opening song to KH2 is pretty great as well).
RagnarokAngel: God that still goes hard.
The Chirurgeon: Kingdom Hearts released on the PlayStation 2 in March of 2002. The game is an 3d action platforming RPG where players take the role of Sora, a pre-teen protagonist who spends his days on an island near his hometown (this is really poorly explained in the game) with his friends, Riku and Kairi, plus child versions of the cast of Final Fantasy X. Then an army of shadows called the Heartless attack the island and Sora escapes to an interdimensional town of misfits with the help of Donald Duck, Goofy, and a magic weapon called the keyblade.
If you’re not familiar with the concept of Kingdom Hearts, that last paragraph will sound like the ravings of a crazy person. The game itself was a collaboration between RPG developer Squaresoft (now Square Enix) and Disney, creating a shared world that used both characters from the most popular Disney animated movies and Squaresoft’s hit Final Fantasy series.
The net result of this work – which was reportedly heavily editorially constrained by Disney – is an action RPG that has the player travel to nine different worlds inspired heavily by Disney movies (plus another 3-4 originals), where the players meet various Disney characters and loosely help them through the plot of their films, albeit modified by the intervention of the game’s Heartless enemies. Working against the players is a coalition of Disney villains from those same films, led by Maleficient from Sleeping Beauty. This is easily the coolest part of the game.
RagnarokAngel: We’ll probably never know the exact details of the editorializing, I had heard something about being really down on “Crossing over” worlds, even though that does happen a few times. It likely was very heavily constrained, party members join from each world but they never get to leave. The plots remain mostly contained to their own world which gives the game a very sporadic, episodic feel until it decides it’s going to pick back up with the overarching plot with Rikku again.
This can mean hours apart before you see anything about them which if you don’t play the game for a long stretch, can be really jarring, awkward and lead to a lot of “who the fuck is this?”
TheChirurgeon: Still, the game has some great villains for the first 3/4 of its run time, and most of the original actors are here reprising their roles. They don’t quite collaborate and spar with each other as much as I’d like – that introductory scene is the bulk of what you’ll get – but it still gives off some great “official fanfiction” vibes.
The Chirurgeon: Throughout the game, the RPG party of Sora, Donald, and Goofy travel to each world, locking it against further incursion, and learning the power of friendship. Then you get to Hollow Bastion, the game’s penultimate world, and everything goes off the rails in real JRPG fashion. Sora’s childhood friend turns on him, the real anime villain is revealed, the power of love is used to revive the protagonist, and the plot convolutes to a point where you won’t want to hear the word “heart” for at least a week.
As a game, Kingdom Hearts is… well, it’s pretty mediocre if I’m being honest. It’s painfully frustrating in the early stages, where the game’s engine isn’t up to the platforming challenges it asks of you, and the game never quite settles into where it wants to be on the puzzle-vs-action spectrum, something later games would solve (to their detriment) by leaning heavily into the action elements. And the action and combat, while solid, could have used a bit more polish, particularly when you’re dealing with enemies like the big fat heartless who can only be hit from behind.
RagnarokAngel: If you haven’t gone back and played it, it’s shocking how damn floaty everything feels. The series never hits some Devil May Cry or Bayonetta level fluidity of combat or anything, but later entries do tighten things up. Like Rob said the game couldn’t really nail whether it was an action game or a platformer, and hits this weird middle ground where it doesn’t do any of it particularly well.
The jumping is very floaty, like you’re in water. You’re up in the air for a few seconds too long and then when you land there’s about a half second of delay before you can move again. Which might not sound so much but it is perceptively awkward. The combat lacks a lot of feedback, enemies don’t always react to your blows as much as they should, which feels like you’re hitting a sack of hit points and waiting for the bar to drop down. Your AI party members are also terminally stupid, dying constantly and burning through their MP if you let them (turn that shit off ASAP).
The game has a really wonky difficult curve. The game is mostly pretty easy, except on the highest difficult, but has a few exceedingly difficult boss fights that put your skills to the test. An unfair number of deaths will come down to the games controls just not responding as rapidly as they should. One of the boss fights later in the game, you know the one if you’ve played, had me replaying it probably no less than 20 times as a kid. You couldn’t skip cutscenes in the original so almost every line is burned into my brain 20 years later.
The Chirurgeon: …but it is also an incredibly charming game despite all that.
There really is something cool about taking on classic Disney villains, and the worlds themselves are good at hitting the nostalgia centers of your brain in the right ways. There are also a ton of neat little touches in the game that it’s possible to just miss entirely, like how you can use the gravity spell to bring floating platforms down to you, or use the ice magic to freeze water bubbles to make platforms. Neither of these is something you have to do in your game, but figuring them out lets you get extra treasures and shortcuts.
RagnarokAngel: It’s impossible to talk about Kingdom Hearts without a deeper dive into the Disney properties being explored in each title. The Disney worlds featured in the original are a solid mix of classics. Wonderland from Alice In Wonderland, The Colosseum from Hercules, Deep Jungle from Tarzan, Agrabah from Aladdin, Atlantica from The Little Mermaid, Halloweentown from The Nightmare before Christmas, Monstro from Pinocchio and Neverland from Peter Pan. The Hundred Acre Wood from Winnie the Pooh also appears as an optional world filled with mini-games.
Tarzan feels like an odd one, but it was a new movie at the time and the devs were ready to retheme it into a The Jungle Book world if licensing with the Burroughs estate couldn’t be worked out. Nightmare Before Christmas wasn’t technically a Disney movie but was owned by one of their subsidiaries. Close enough.
A few other movies make cameos. Bambi, Simba, and Dumbo are summons, Merlin teaches Sora new spells and acts as a guide through some parts of the game, and you can collect the 101 dalmations throughout the game for rewards.
TheChirurgeon: The Tarzan level works out OK. It’s got a fair amount of backtracking but the “surfing on the branches” minigame isn’t too bad. Of course, the Tarzan level is also one of two with the most platforming, and that vine swinging segment just sucks.
RagnarokAngel: Most of the world are platforming areas, with lots of fighting in between. In 2002 it was pretty exciting to see these familiar places rendered in full 3d. In 2022 it…doesn’t hold up so great. A product of being such an early Playstation 2 game, the worlds feel both claustrophobic and barren. There are almost no NPCs in the game that aren’t trying to kill you, and so each world is basically just a series of arenas connected by loading screens. For an RPG this feels really weird, but Final Fantasy X released around the same time also had the same issue with lack of towns that felt “lived in”. CPU cycles were at a premium after all and you couldn’t fit too much stuff on screen at once. The sequel would rectify this, with more “social areas” to break up the action, as the devs became more comfortable with the hardware.
A few worlds break up the action with different design. Atlantica has Sora and friends transform into aquatic animals and swim through the world instead. If you thought the controls were bad before, this only made it worse. Widely hated at the time, it has aged even more poorly. You basically were required to use the target lock in to swim in the direction of the thing you were trying to get to. Neverland uses a flying mechanic with similar controls, it still sucks but it’s at least relegated to a smaller part of the world, rather than the whole thing.
The Colosseum switches things up in a positive way with some excellent enemy gauntlets capped off with boss battles. The games fickle controls still work against it but it’s one of the most fun parts of the game, and houses some extremely difficult optional bosses, including the legendary Sephiroth. You were king of the schoolyard if you managed to beat this guy. The arena was largely optional, you only had to do a small gauntlet to proceed with the game and if you didn’t care for it, you could just never come back.
TheChirurgeon: The game bookends things with its best worlds – Traverse Town and Hollow Bastion – and things tend to get better as you go. Wonderland is definitely one of the weaker spots, though I appreciate it has many more puzzle elements that make it more fun to puzzle over. The problem is that they combine awkwardly with the platforming and it’s not always clear what you “should” be able to reach or jump to, so you end up trying a few dozen times before giving up. Otherwise, Halloween Town is probably the best of the Disney worlds from a play/design standpoint.
RagnarokAngel: In 2022 we take fully voice acted games for granted. Around the game’s original release, voice acting wasn’t yet an expectation. With the space granted by the DVD medium, that became more of a reality. The challenge was still getting good voice acting, still an extremely rare find for the medium.
With the backing of those Disney bucks, Kingdom Hearts bucked the trend of the time. A huge amount of the cast are either the original voice actors or their TV version replacements such as James Woods as Hades, Jim Cummings as Pooh and Tigger and Dan Castellaneta as Genie. Alice is even voiced by her original voice actress from 1951!
The new characters are also given some star treatment Haley Joel Osment was a pretty big child star after The Sixth Sense and voiced (and continues to voice) Sora, Aerith is voiced for the first time by Mandy Moore and Billy Zane as the ultimate big bad Ansem.
Most of the actors give it their all, with very few notable poor stand outs that contrast wildly. There are a few characters who jarringly did not get any voice acting treatment, which becomes abundantly clear when all cutscenes with them are just text bubbles. This doesn’t really ruin the overall presentation, what voice acting there is is just superb and draws you into the world. The interplay between the villains is often the best part, and the heroes can sell a really hackneyed script filled with “Darkness, light, friendship” ad nauseum.
TheChirurgeon: The voice cast in this game is incredible, and getting Haley Joel Osment for Sora was pretty smart casting. Regardless of of your take on hiring him after the sixth sense, he does a great job and the quality of the game’s voice cast really helps anchor the whole thing and keep it from feeling too ridiculous. Zane is also great as Ansem. Mandy Moore does not quite deliver here (and also doesn’t return to play Repunzel in 3) and is likely the weakest of the bunch.
Rob: It’s kind of insane how popular Kingdom Hearts was, in retrospect. Despite just kind of being an OK game, the release was a critical and commercial success, and spawned an entire franchise of increasingly unhinged sequels which created one of the most convoluted anime plots of all time, a writing feat that manages to put the likes of Xenogears and Chrono Cross to shame. A big part of this is likely the appeal with not just older Disney fans but kids: While the game isn’t particularly kid-friendly, the controls are easy enough to get when you aren’t being asked to do platforming that my four year-old could play the game and have fun with it. That’s not a particularly common factor in games and it was fun seeing him figure out very quickly how to navigate menus just using the PlayStation shape buttons.
And look, despite what I’ve said, I love this game. It occupies a huge space in my heart for reasons I struggle to articulate, as one of those odd experiments that was just good enough to capture my imagination in the same way that say, SaGa Frontier or Fable did. While I think KH2 is probably a better game overall, the original is still my favorite, in part because I think the heavier puzzle and RPG element focus made for a stronger game than the action-heavy sequel. I’d have loved to see an evolution of KH that went harder on those elements with more modern technology.
RagnarokAngel: Most of this review has been me being down on the game, and I do think it’s tough to go back to now. The HD remakes make the game easier on the eyes, but the gameplay is basically intact as it originally was, save some quality of life fixes like being able to skip cutscenes. You basically should only play it if you’re one of two kinds of people:
1.You’re a Square-Enix or Disney fan and somehow never played this, and want to explore their back catalog. As a historical piece, it’s fascinating to explore, to see the roots of a series that would become huge. For Disney fans, it’s fun to meet and fight along side some of your favorite heroes to take down your favorite villains. That’s really the draw of this game in the end, right?
2.You’ve played some of the new ones and want to know what the hell is going on. The game does have a lot of interesting plot points that are explored in later series, so it may be worth giving this a shot. I’d only play until you get frustrated and watch the rest of the cutscenes on Youtube though, because it’s not going to improve.
Overall it’s a flawed gem that has not aged well but became a cornerstone in the RPG market, leading to a frankly insane franchise that has gone on for almost 20 years. Although no sequel has been formally announced, it’s unlikely this is the end of it. It’s filled with charm and while the sequels sanded off some of the rough edges, the original has an almost experimental charm to it that those games lacked.
TheChirurgeon: The plot flies off the rails so quickly after the first game. You can still play the original as a standalone and it’s fine. As soon as you start on Chain of Memories or KH2 though, shit goes insane like, immediately. The first hour or so of KH2 is fantastic, but the places it goes after that… oof.
Anyways, the game is still rough but great. If you’re gonna play it, play the Final Mix 1.5 HD remaster from the I+II HD remaster collection. Do not ask me about the numbering or the spin-off titles.
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