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May 4, 2012

The Final Mix: A Kingdom Hearts Retrospective

As you may know, Birth by Sleep left me hollow and miserable.  The perceived taint of the original’s whimsy and charm.  The waning influence and importance of the Disney universes in favor of the typical Squeenix fare -- angst and convolution.  Everything related to Terra.  I’m still holding out on Aqua’s story being the best of the three, but I’m seriously worried; I’m afraid that my hopes will be dashed mere minutes into the first video.

I’m willing to accept that KH3D (sorry, but I’m never calling it Dream Drop Distance) might be the game that restores my faith, but I have a niggling voice that says that those days are over.  I had my fun with Kingdom Hearts, but the franchise as I knew it has changed.  Whether or not Tetsuya Nomura and his cohorts had a plan for the series to transform into its current, monstrous incarnation or not doesn’t matter; Kingdom Hearts was destined to change independent of whatever preferences or opinions fans might have had.  In the eyes of some, it’s a change for the better -- a chance to see Disney worlds go into the realm of over-the-top action, and go up against villains that aren’t quite so colorful and cartoony.  To others, it’s just a slide into mediocrity, taking gamers to places they’ve already seen before rather than dwell in the flawed, yet still-satisfying world created at the franchise’s outset. 

The adult in me is willing to nod and accept that, and learn to appreciate the series’ changes as they come as well as latch onto the games that suit me.

The child in me, however, says “Fuck your Roxas!  Gimme some KH1!”  So I popped my copy of the game into my PS2, started a playthrough, and let it rip.

And it was good.

KH1 is about ten years old now.  That’s a pretty significant amount of time -- enough time for one console to rise and fall, and another console to soldier on until its twilight years.  Enough time for a middle schooler to become a college graduate, for a TV series to run through ten full seasons, and even for entire wars to come and go.  I’ll admit that I thought about playing through the original game once or twice before, but never could.  “The game’s five years old now; it hasn’t aged well!” I told myself.  “I’ve got KH2 now; why bother going back to that crappy camera and Sora in tiny red shorts?” I scoffed.  I should probably stress how much of an idiot Younger Me could be; a cut above Really Younger Me, but I still marvel over the fact that Younger Me could put on a shirt without starting a fire. 

KH1 has aged horribly in some respects, and yet I find myself consistently -- consistently, good sirs and madams -- entertained.  I can see depth.  Symbolism.  Consistent threats and plotlines, hidden beneath a veil of sparkles and 3D cartoons.  I’m enjoying the story and characters more than I did in my first playthrough, even though you’d think those things might be repulsive to our 2012 sensiblities.  And the gameplay?  More exciting than I remember it; maybe it’s because I bumped the difficulty up to Expert (a choice that I both regret and adore), but it seems like there’s a lot more depth and danger than I’d ever perceived before.  You would think that a series so heavily dependent on mashing the X button wouldn’t offer anything in the way of strategy, but here I am spreading the good word.

I’m convinced that KH1 wasn’t a fluke.  It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s still really damn amazing; it’s worthy of being the foundation of a franchise.  Granted that may have something to do with KH1 being a product of SquareSOFT and not Square-ENIX, but I’ll set that musing aside for now.

I’ve got work to do.  And I intend to do this right.

Part 1: Characters


Our hero, made famous for his knife-edged hair, poofy red shorts, and size twenty-six shoes.  At story’s outset, he’s just a regular dumb kid with some flighty dreams of going on adventures with his friends (with all the short-sightedness on travel preparations you’d expect from fourteen-year-olds).  Little does he know, he’s about to get his wish granted in a way he’d have never imagined.

What’s important to note about Sora is that…well, he kind of sucks.  Compare his opening scenes to, say, Cloud or Squall.

Cloud is an ex-SOLDIER now allied with a resistance group, who carves up goons with a giant sword, takes on a massive scorpion robot, and blows up a planet-killing energy reactor.

Squall is a cadet in a military academy who -- ignoring a cinematic where he slashes his rival and is slashed in return -- has his field test include heading into a cavern to tame and control a living embodiment of hellfire.

Sora is a kid in red shorts whose tutorial level ends with him getting fearfully consumed by darkness.  Following that nightmare, he gets shown up by his rival, gets one step farther from winning the heart of the resident new girl, and can potentially get his ass bruised by Tidus, Wakka, and Selphie.  It’s as if the game wants you to feel embarrassed for him.


The resident badass of Destiny Islands, who I suspect cheats at every game he plays.   He’s the anti-Sora in every sense of the phrase; cooler than you, faster than you, stronger than you, braver than you.  While he’s decisively Sora’s best friend and rival, even in the game’s opening hours you start to suspect that he sees Sora differently than the way Sora sees Riku.

No, not THAT way.  (Well, maybe a little bit.)  For now, I’ll just say this: given that the story’s loser gets approved to wield the series’ equivalent of Excalibur and travel throughout the galaxy unimpeded, wouldn’t YOU be a little sore if you got left behind after your home gets wrecked?  (It’s at this moment where I start to realize that everyone on Destiny Islands is effectively dead, not just the main trio; apparently, nobody cares if their parents have been sucked into the abyss.  I mean, they are teenagers, but still…)

Anyway, as these things go, the hero ends up becoming a pure-hearted hero, while the less-naïve guy who has no shortage of ambition and pragmatism gets tainted by malicious energies.  Let that be a lesson for you, kids: never want anything out of life.


You can’t have a Disney-style world without a Disney-style princess to save.  Given that Squaresoft -- or JRPGs in general -- has never had any qualms about regulating heroines to roles as healers or helpless damsels, you’d think that the first thing that came up in meetings to create the story revolved around how to get a princess captured and built the game around that.

At any rate, Kairi -- for the hour or so you know her at game’s start, and the hour or so at game’s end -- is probably one of the few JRPG heroines whose manual description actually mirrors her in-game depiction.  She’s fourteen years old, and has the requisite spunkiness and energy for someone her age.  She cares about her friends, shows her fair share of emotion, and while she does have the expected plot-relevant mysteries surrounding her, they neither define her character nor bog down the story.  Arguably, it’s her spirit that saves her from the devastating fate of being Token Evil Villain’s Superweapon Energy Generator #2643.

 It’s kind of a shame, then, that she spends ninety percent of the game missing and/or in a coma.  I suppose we can’t have a girl being TOO proactive…


Still as incomprehensible as ever.

 The Disney Kingdom’s high magician, acting in direct service of King Mickey.  (I wonder if that would make him Lord Donald, or Duke Duck…?)  Donald’s among the first to notice that the King has gone missing, leaving behind only a letter and instructions for him to follow.  “Find the Keyblade,” the letter suggests.  Not having anything else better to do, and saying goodbye to the apparently-regal Daisy, Donald moves out for the sake of accomplishing his mission.

I’m not an expert on the Disney lore, but weren’t Donald and Mickey rivals at one point in their relationship?  I could have sworn they were…anyway, the gist of Donald’s character is “loyalty to the mission” -- while he has plenty of moments where he freaks out or gets wrecked by other Disney characters and events, he’s stills surprisingly dedicated to getting the job done in the manner prescribed to him.  He’s the one who gets adamant about the Prime Directive, prefers not to meddle in others’ affairs or get distracted, and even goes so far as to make sure the team blends in with the worlds they visit.  (Sometimes, at least; if he was really dedicated, he’d make it so that there wasn’t a talking duck and a talking dog strutting around across the universe.)

You would think that in light of Donald’s service in the navy and berserker tendencies, he’d be an unstoppable zweihander-swinging tank.  However, Squaresoft decided to make him a black mage -- typically the softest, easily-battered, magic-focused and scholarly of the classes.  Logic!

I guess the assumption was that the player -- forced to use the character wielding the closest equivalent to a sword -- would build a knight-type, meaning that someone had to fill in the role of magi-slinger.  To be fair, Donald does do his job pretty well…late in the game, when he’s not getting hit and can actually build/rebuild his MP just by getting hit.  Talk about taking one for the team. 


Let’s be honest here: Goofy is THE character everyone knows for being a complete and utter screw-up.  You wouldn’t have anything less from someone who was once named “Dippy Dog.”  He’s dull-witted and easy-going to an insane degree.  Just listening to his voice makes you think he’s a few IQ points short of functional.

And yet, somehow, Goofy ended up becoming my favorite part of KH1

If Donald’s all about “loyalty to the mission,” Goofy’s all about “loyalty to his comrades.”  He’s aware of the rules, but moves in opposition of them if he thinks the new route’s more beneficial.  As it turns out, Goofy -- Goofy, someone you’d think is incapable of rational thought -- is the group’s voice of reason.  He’s the one that cements the idea of friendship amongst the group, and with even a few lines reveals that he’s much more aware of things than his voice lets on.  Granted his wisdom is in relation to a manic water fowl and an untested kid from the boondocks of the universe, but he still holds up.  He’s a voice of solidarity, and is largely responsible for injecting the spirit that KH is famous for -- from his colorful animations to his enthusiasm in his voice clips, I found myself regretting taking him out of the party several times.

But then I remembered that he flushes all my items in a five-minute span, so I put him in time-out. 

The Heartless

The rank-and file enemies you meet throughout the game.  Supposedly, these denizens of darkness are attracted to people who routinely express negative emotions -- greed, anger, ambition (sorry Riku) -- and seek to consume their hearts.  They’re supposedly animalistic; they’re shambling, twitching creatures that care only about their next meal.  Often they work in packs, but they never show any semblance of cooperation (though that just may be a quirk of the AI).    Whatever the case, they blend in fairly well with the rest of the game’s aesthetic, and capture that Disney spirit.  At outset, they’re just some silly-looking shadow creatures -- playful and cuddly at worst.  By game’s end, they’re the stuff of nightmares (like the Darkball pictured here).  In the same sense that Disney can both invoke marvel and menace, so too can the Heartless.  And with the sizable variety, you’ll have to test your wits against their attack patterns.

The Disney Villains

The main baddies of the game.  Acting in strict violation of the Prime Directive, these guys (one way or another) gather before a round table to discuss their plans to control the darkness, capture the seven Princesses of Heart, and unlock the final door that will make all their dark desires come true.    Granted the crux of their desires are “take over the world” or “kill all my enemies” but at the very least, they’re working together.  You know that these guys, even if they aren’t THE threat, are still A threat.  And an immediate one, at that; leave them alone, and they’ll turn the worlds to crap.  And even though they’re all selfish twats working for their own ends, they’re still in it together; if one of them succeeds, doubtless the group as a whole will be one step closer to Disney domination.

On an unrelated note, James Woods has an awesome voice.

The Disney Heroes

You learn a lot about a person when you’re faced with adversity.  It’s pretty much a given that all the Disney heroes aren’t about to tuck away in hidey-holes, but would you have ever guessed that Ariel could tear apart whales with lots of spinning?  Or that Aladdin could do a Shoryuken with his sword?  Or that Peter Pan could stop time?  Only in KH1 would one of these singing-prone sketches be given superhuman fighting prowess. 

What’s surprising is that the stories in KH1, when it comes to the Disney characters, isn’t just a rehash of old content (i.e. the movies they hail from).  It’s remixed content; Aladdin has the lamp, but he uses his wishes to get out of jams he and Sora come across.  When you visit Wonderland, Alice is already on trial and you have to prove her innocence by gathering and presenting evidence.  Christmas doesn’t even figure into Halloween Town (not until the sequel, at least).  What you get, therefore, is less of those Disney movies with Sora retconned in and more of original stories that offer something new and keep elements of what made the movies so notable.  Couple that with an array of diverse personalities, challenges to face, and the ability to slay evil with the goddamned Beast, rest assured you never had to put Hope or Vaan in your party.

The Final Fantasy Crew

Oh, right.  These guys.

You know, maybe the whole Disney/Final Fantasy crossover idea is a bit of a misnomer.  What exactly do the FF characters do in this game?  Tidus, Wakka, and Selphie are there to whoop you if you haven’t learned the game mechanics yet (and grind for early levels), and they vanish after the game’s first hours.  Squall -- or Leon, but he’s not fooling anyone -- bashes your brains in, then brings you to his hideout to throw some exposition at you.  Yuffie’s there too to offer the same.  Cid (in spite of learning quickly that you’re the only one that can save the worlds) charges you for items that could make your journey easier.  Aerith is there to add another girl to the cast.  Cloud tries to kill you, as does Sephiroth.  And…that’s about it, outside of a few optional tournament battles and some scenes here and there.  What’s baffling is that even though these characters have less than an hour of screentime, Disney and Squaresoft thought it’d be a good idea to get David Boreanaz, Christy Carlson Romano, Mandy More, and Lance Bass of N’Sync to voice these people.  Brilliant move.

But I sppose it’s a good thing that the Spiky Hair Brigade takes a back seat this time around.  They’ve all had their games, and their adventures.  At least in the minds of gamers; KH takes place in a different canon, so the Squall from the FF games is different from Leon (especially since the former would be 17, and the latter’s supposedly 26 -- assuming they’re sticking to the FF ages).  Whatever the case, they can’t be going on adventures without having the plot focus heavily on them and their character development.  It’s nice to see them, but it’s not their story.  They’re cameos at best, as they should be. 


Let’s get one thing out of the way: I think that KH1 should have been the only KH game.  Nowhere is this more evident than what they did with the true villain, Ansem.  It would have been far too simple and rational to just have him be a villain, kill him off at game’s end, and then -- if you ABSOLUTELY HAD TO have a sequel -- make a new villain with a new backstory.  Instead, it’s revealed that this ansem is just a really powerful Heartless.  There also about six different versions of the same guy running around: Heartless Ansem (otherwise known as Xehanort’s Heartless), Ansem the Wise (in name only, IIRC), Young Xehanort, Master Xehanort, “Terranort,” and Xemnas, who’s the Nobody of…well, one of the Xehanorts.  Just had to make things difficult, didn’t you…?

Anyway, Ansem.  He has an extremely laissez-faire approach to the whole matter; he’s content with letting Maleficent and the Legion of Disney Doom do all the work for him (presumably because he doesn’t have a body until late in the game).  Since he’s supposed to be some sort of hyper-competent researcher who got a little bit too carried away in his studies, I’ll buy him being a manipulator.  While I wish he had a more marked influence on the plot beyond “Ha ha!  Now I am the true villain!  Now come to my lair and try and kill me -- ah!  Alas, I am dead!” I can’t hate him for being MIA for so long.  This is a game that puts Disney on the forefront.  Maleficent and the rest would never have gotten their time to shine if another original character hogged the spotlight.  (Note that Square-Enix would promptly forget this lesson a few years later.) 

That said, is Ansem a good villain?  Well…that’s subjective.  On the one hand, he has an air of mystery and threat to him, and comes off as particularly lethal when he comes at you on his monster-faced battleship.  He’s like an even darker version of Riku -- ambitious without any of the teen’s kind-hearted tendencies -- and serves as a contrast to Sora.  While Sora’s a weak little kid who’s way out of his depth and doesn’t know anything, Ansem is fueled by dark power, and knows enough about the structure of the universe to both examine and manipulate it to his liking.  “One who knows nothing can understand nothing,” he declares early in the game.  And while Sora has no rebuttal at that moment, rest assured he throws that line right back at Ansem in the game’s final hours.

In spite of that, I still think he’s a bit under-utilized.  For someone who’s been pulling all the strings, why does he disappear for all but the first and last few hours of the game?  If the developers could tease a connection between Sora and Kairi, couldn’t they have done the same for Riku and Ansem?  Similarly, the FF characters mention that Ansem came from their world, so couldn’t they have contributed a bit more in the way of foreshadowing or fleshing out?  Ansem just feels so inconsequential in the end; it makes me wonder why he had to be the villain.  How much oomph would there have been if the last enemy was another kid from Destiny Islands?  Someone we’d known intimately, but in a twist of fate fell even further than Riku?  Or barring that, Riku himself?
Well, whatever.  For what it’s worth, Ansem does his job fairly well.  It’s just that I wish I got to see more of him.  When you compare him to Maleficent, who spent the entire game scheming and having her cohorts and lackeys do the legwork, having someone suddenly be above her is both a smart and stupid move.  Still, he brings a certain characteristic charm to the proceedings; he LOOKS like a Final Fantasy villain, but he ACTS like a Disney villain.  He’s not out to capitalize on his nihilistic outlook or take revenge because somebody messed with his now-dead lover; he’s just a selfish douche that wants more power and knowledge, hamming it up when given the chance.  And for that, I can’t say I hate him for it.

Well, that’ll do for now.  Tune in next time when I talk at length about what really matters to Kingdom Hearts: the unmistakable bromance element the levels.           

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