Remembering the Classics: Kingdom Hearts

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It has been over a month now since E3 2013 caused gamers across the world to start salivating at the mere thought of what the future holds. Over that month, more and more details have been released regarding the many titles that were unveiled over that brief period of time. It was a given that any news about these newly announced titles, regardless of how small, would catch the eyes of many who are searching. This is why I got particularly excited on Monday when it was announced that Kingdom Hearts III won’t be the conclusion of that franchise. Granted I never once thought it would stop there, but it’s still reassuring to know that the developers have no plans of quitting. Kingdom Hearts III was one of the hottest reveals of E3 and fans of that title especially have been waiting on the edge of their seats for any news. It has been eight years since the last new, main console installment came out after all, and even though the handheld titles were great there’s no denying the console ones are that much better. While this update gives little information on the actual game itself, the fact that it’s not the end is very exciting. Why is that though? What about Kingdom Hearts gets people so excited to the point where even the mere mention that more is coming makes news?

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If you were to tell someone pre-2001 that media titan Disney and video game superstar Square Enix (back then they were simply Square) would make a game together that combined their most popular franchises, they’d probably laugh it off as some fever dream. The two companies are so diverse that little more than video game publishing actually connected the two. With one company, you have a series of cartoon characters and princesses that have enraptured millions for decades with their stories. Calling Disney a media titan is actually an understatement. With the other company, you have magic wielding heroes who are trying to save their planet from a power hungry force of Evil. You even have entire civilizations wiped off maps in mass genocide. The two companies are ripe with contrast and everyone knew that from the start. However, people also were very confident that Disney and Square could deliver, especially after Square decimated the market with Final Fantasy VII, VIII, and IX on the PlayStation. Disney really had nothing to prove. So people knew that if any two companies could deliver on a seemingly impossible crossover, it was Disney and Square.

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Fast forward to 2013 and eight unique game releases later (ignoring the many re-releases), the Disney and Square lovechild Kingdom Hearts has a generation and genre spanning fan-base unlike any other. Kingdom Hearts first came out on March 28th, 2002 in Japan on the PlayStation 2 and features a perfect blend of characteristics from both Disney and Square. Since Square exclusively made video games, it had a significant say on the actual gameplay of Kingdom Hearts. The game featured an action-based hack and slash system that also had role-playing elements like leveling up based on experience points, gaining new abilities, and even selecting which of three categories you’d rather focus on: strength, defense, or magic. You also select how your party members level up and which abilities they can use. Along the way you collect new items which you can equip, such as stronger armor and weapons. Every proceeding title had increasingly similar elements with the real exception being Chain of Memories, which made the game a card battler to very mixed reviews, and Kingdom Hearts II which introduced reaction commands and a Drive Gauge to enter a special form and access new abilities.

Disney’s influence is clearly evident in the setting, characters, and overall mood of the game. Every single game brings the player character to a wide array of locales based on legendary Disney franchises. The first title brought the main character Sora (unique to the franchise) to worlds based on The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Tarzan, and Hercules among many others with his companions Donald and Goofy. Each world contained the same legendary characters everyone is familiar with, which meant you could pal around with Ariel, Aladdin, and Tarzan. You’d even encounter characters like Genie, Pinocchio, and the 101 Dalmatians. Future titles would expand on this concept by introducing characters and locales from The Nightmare Before Christmas, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Cinderella, to name a few. Classic Disney characters were frequently bosses as well including Maleficent, Hades, and Ursula. Square even brought in some of their own characters with Cloud (FFVII), Tifa (FFVII) and Leon (Squall in FFVIII) being regular supporting characters and Sephiroth (FFVII) as a regular optional boss.

Then we get to the completely unique characters to the series, which makes Kingdom Hearts a rare title that has a MASSIVE cast of characters that don’t go to waste. The main character of the series so far is Sora, a young boy who becomes a keyblade wielder and sets out to save the world under the careful guidance of King Mickey. He has two close friends named Rikku, who was a villain in the entire first game, and Kairi who play major roles in the story. Later titles introduced a powerful group named Organization XIII and the true antagonist for the entire series named Xehanort/Xemnas. The handheld titles 358/2 Days and Birth by Sleep changed up the series a bit by changing who you played and how the stories fit into the entire series as a whole.

The biggest grab that the Kingdom Hearts franchise had for people was how much star power it boasted. Yes, saying your game features a badass Mickey Mouse and let’s you play with your favorite Disney and Final Fantasy characters in a way you’ve never seen them before is a huge reputation boost. I can’t remember ever saying that I wanted to see popular Final Fantasy X hero Auron fighting Hades alongside Hercules, but I’m certainly not complaining that I got the chance. Image can only go so far though, and thankfully the game itself is carried with some of the best gameplay on any system. They are genuinely fun role-playing games that are at times amazingly difficult. This is really where the cross generation cross genre feature comes in. It simply appeals to all ages! Are you young and love Disney films, or just Disney films in general? It’s for you. Do you love Final Fantasy games? It’s for you. Are you older and love role-playing games with fun and *ahem* heart? It’s for you! It’s rare that a game can do this and every Kingdom Hearts title has done this in spades.

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If you can’t tell already, I’m a huge fan of this franchise. If I have the system for it, I have the games. Kingdom Hearts absolutely blew me away when it came out and I have been addicted to the titles since. Kingdom Hearts II is easily one of my favorite games of all time with its significantly improved gameplay, expanded setting, and darker scope compared to its predecessor. I have re-played that game so many times and am seriously considering going at it again. Admittedly I was one of the doubters who had no idea how an ambitious title like this could be pulled off and I can’t believe I ever thought otherwise. With Disney’s recent purchases of Star Wars, Marvel, and Pixar, the options are endless for future titles, especially Kingdom Heats III. Say what you will, I’d absolutely lose it in a good way if there is a New York world and Sora teamed up with the Avengers, or a Death Star world and you fight with Luke Skywalker. Maybe even a Monsters Inc. or Toy Story based world! There are simply so many possibilities.

The announcement that Kingdom Hearts III was in production was one of my favorite moments from E3 and I seriously cannot wait for this game to come out. The fact that it’s not the end either is even better. With an endlessly growing source for material and a whole library of characters to choose from, there is so much that this series can do. It can even take cues from Final Fantasy and create future titles with no actual connection to each other. Regardless of what happens I have full intention to stick around for the ride, and hopefully you will too.