written by Alastrom
I was thirteen years old when I first heard about “Kingdom Hearts.” Clearly, someone was having a laugh with me. No one could honestly believe that a marriage between Disney and Final Fantasy would be taken seriously. Even fewer thought it would be an enjoyable experience. Apparently that didn’t deter Tetsuya Nomura, the creative mastermind behind the series. Sixteen years later and twenty-eight million copies sold would suggest that if you bet against the franchise, you’re probably out of your money. There’s something magical that happened with this partnership. No one expected it to do as well as it has. It was the game that people said would be too dark for children and too childish for adults. Just how is it that this unlikely alliance has managed to succeed when the proverbial odds are stacked against it? In short, what makes Kingdom Hearts so damned good?
Ask any fan about the story of Kingdom Hearts and you’ll be met with an expression that can only be described as fear matched with confusion and a sprinkling of the truest example of melancholy. The plot is beyond complex, including memory loss, time travel, digital copies of entire worlds and people. People who aren’t really people, but only because they used to be people and would like to give it another shot… or something like that. Wrapped up in this convoluted story arc that has more twists than an M. Night Shyamalan version of “Lost”, is an emotional journey that you probably couldn’t fully appreciate as a child. You may come to realize the truth in your adult years however. This sort of roller-coaster that you’d find in a more daring section of Disneyland doesn’t have many directions that it won’t attempt to go. That being said, at its core, the first two Kingdom Hearts games were simply about a kid on an adventure to find his friends. That message can speak to just about everyone. It’s part of the reason, I feel, the series has been so successful.
In its earliest rendition, Kingdom Hearts was meant to be a game aimed at Disney’s target audience, namely younger children. If you’re familiar with Disney, you know they can be a bit protective of their intellectual property and by this point people had already taken note that the two companies were collaborating on a project. Nomura, the director, eventually decided to invest further in the story and began to theme it around the idea of character’s hearts. Not the cholesterol packed thing you’re carrying around in your chest, but hearts in the sense that you could change the word with “soul.” Inspired by the recently opened “Animal Kingdom” in Florida, Nomura merged the ideas to create the working title “Kingdom Hearts.” He rightly felt that the game would fail if the story didn’t aspire to be more than just a children’s play thing. Incorporating the dark and broody nature of Final Fantasy games alongside the light and playful Disney set pieces gave the game a unique feel. Children could appreciate it for the familiarity of characters and adults could resonate with the trials of loss and inner demons. It was an all-around risky proposal but it paid off with over five million copies shipped just shortly after release.
Four years later we’d eventually get Kingdom Hearts two. The young teens like myself who had played the first game were entering adulthood and the second main installment in the series helped us explore a new set of challenges. Sora, the main character had grown a bit. He had some new emotions that maybe we were unfamiliar with the first time we played the game. Pixar, owned by Disney by this point, has always managed to create a children’s story that adults can appreciate. It would appear that Kingdom Hearts went this same direction by presenting the still younger audience with some pretty mature topics. The idea that everyone has darkness inside of them is the proper realm of philosophers and religious scholars and yet here we were, confronting that very same darkness first hand. This is where the magic truly happened. Early objections to the idea that Disney and Final Fantasy could come together on a project revolved around the idea that Disney was for kids and Final Fantasy for adults. Fans of the latter believed that Disney would forcefully water down the very sobering setting of Final Fantasy games. Quite the opposite. Kingdom Hearts took a very dark setting and made it revolve around children. Riku, Sora’s best friend, deals with what many of us would compare to depression and falls in with a bad crowd. Kairi, the female companion, is trapped in the middle of her two friends who she knows are vying for her attention (even if they don’t realize it yet.) And Sora, the protagonist, is the typical hero. The common every-man thrust into a world he barely understands and given a task larger than life.
The setting managed to surprise everyone and kept us coming back for more. At the time of writing, Kingdom Hearts III is currently preparing to ship to a very patient audience. It’ll have been sixteen long years since fans were first introduced to the series. It’s safe to say that we’re no longer the kids we once were the first time around. The story has taken twists and turns that none of us could have expected and kept us wondering what came next. For those of us that grew up with the series, we’ve reached the long journey to adulthood. By now we’ve made new friends, started a job, maybe got married or moved far away from places once familiar to us. The things that perplexed us as children are now background noise in a busy world. Kingdom Hearts, at least for us, is a call back to halcyon days. It’s the story you enjoyed Saturday morning when you didn’t have a care in the world. Sitting down, maybe after school to get just a little bit further in a quest that you didn’t fully understand, but enjoyed none the less. We’re all expecting the third game (read also the thirteenth) to tug on our heart strings a little more and maybe give us back some of the good times we had as kids.