When you tell most stories surrounding an attraction, usually they contain many of the similar tropes; one of which is the unexpectedness of the feeling. When I look back on many of my fondest gaming memories, I can see why I fell in love with those specific games. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was the first time I experienced a deep narrative experience in gaming, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is the first time I truly felt that the gaming medium had matched the presentation level of big budget cinema coupled with great gameplay, and the Halo series was the first time I was truly able to attach fierce competitiveness in gaming. Yet, there’s one series that somehow sticks out, that even after all these years, I can’t truly put my finger on why it has stayed so endearing to me: Kingdom Hearts.
Maybe it’s because my early years of gaming rooted me into Nintendo’s ecosystem of games. When I first received my Nintendo 64 at the age of 5 in 1998, Final Fantasy had started to become a relic of years past on Nintendo’s hardware. With the success of Final Fantasy VII (and VIII to follow in the upcoming year), the Sony PlayStation had all but cemented itself as the new home of the series, and while I did go onto own multiple PlayStation systems, the series always appeared to me as a grittier and grown up version of what The Legend of Zelda had to offer (see, the marketing campaigns for the PlayStation did work on feeble minds like mine). Seeing that cover of Final Fantasy VII, with Cloud Strife standing heroically showing off his large Buster Sword to fans, made me think “Woah, this guy is cool. I want to play as him”. Yet, I never had the chance to play Final Fantasy VII until years later, due largely because of the Teen rating (yes, my parents were those kind of parents up until I was about 10), so when the next generation of gaming rolled around, I HAD to make sure I got a PlayStation 2. “I can’t miss out on Final Fantasy” I remember thinking constantly (clearly oblivious to the fact that the series was multi-platform due to me being an unknowing 8 or 9 year old kid). Final Fantasy was always the series that was the untouchable for me. Everything I saw about it attracted me to it, but it was always on the system I didn’t have growing up or it was rated too mature for my age. That was, until I saw the trailer for Kingdom Hearts.
Remember how popular Disney Stores used to be? In the late 1990s and early 2000s, it seemed as though they were in a staple in every mall across America. Clear as day, I remember going into our local mall with my mother and sister, who was around the age of three at the time, so the Disney Store was always a given stop when we’d venture to the mall. Remembering they had sections of Disney-based games, I hurried to the back where the wall of TVs were found to scope out the selection (if it had something to do with gaming, I’d always be up for it). While digging through the piles of Donald Duck: Goin’ Quackers and Extremely Goofy Skateboarding, something caught my eye; it was Cloud Strife on one of the TVs on the store display. ‘What’s he doing in the Disney Store? This must be a mixup’ I thought. Then, I saw Goofy and Donald in the background, in what looked to be a level surrounding Hercules. Eyes glued to the glass screen, I began to get lost in this complex idea of meshing the vibe and characters of Final Fantasy with so many beloved characters of my childhood from Disney. To be honest, I’m still not sure if I truly understood what I was watching. So many thoughts went through my head. Confusion? Sure. Unique? Definitely. Interested? Absolutely. Kingdom Hearts flashed across the screen. Instantly, the name was ingrained in my brain, and I began plotting on how to get the game. Christmas was too far off, so I did every chore under the sun that a 9 year old kid could think off. Doing the dishes, cleaning the house, taking the dog for a walk around the block, helping my dad cut some fire wood; anything to help stuff my piggy bank with my weekly $5 allowance. After weeks of saving (and a lucky price drop), I strolled into EB Games (yes, they were still a things in the US in 2002), and picked up the game. I’ll never forget that holographic cover. The way the shades of deep blue made the florescent heart shaped moon pop on the cover was unfathomable at the time. It still holds a special place in my heart in terms of video game covers. Popping that disc in my PS2’s disc tray for the first time was quite magical. From the first time I stepped onto Destiny Islands, I was hooked. Back when memory cards were still a thing, I remember needing to leave my PS2 running because I didn’t have one yet to save my game. This resulted in one long weekend of getting little outdoor exercise, and playing through the adventure without turning my system off over the span of three days. Surprisingly, my PS2 is still working to this day.
Maybe it was the idea of including such a known property in Disney to Final Fantasy‘s fantastical world that attracted me. Disney has never been one to shy away from the gaming industry, releasing video games with various characters of theirs dating back to 1981; yet, the company has always remained quite guarded when allowing outside entities handle their own intellectual property. With the success of the Kingdom Hearts series being so well known, it seems hard to imagine that the now storied chance meeting between series creator and Square Enix employee Tetsuya Nomura and a Disney executive in their shared office complex elevator was a major key (get it?) to making this series a reality, but it was quite different during the sixth console generation. While other developers had handled Disney IP in the past, Kingdom Hearts was the first time I truly remembered seeing Disney characters sharing the stage with other entities in gaming.
Maybe it was the way the series grew with me, as it moved into its sequels. Square Enix and Disney Interactive’s first entry in the collaborative series was very much designed to be warm and welcome, using its art direction and simplistic (comparative to later entries, that is) storyline to target a younger demographic. While I loved my time with the original entry, I saw myself leaning towards a new experiences in gaming. Halo and Xbox Live became a pillar in time spent gaming, and my Xbox began to take more precedence over my PlayStation 2. Yet, when Kingdom Hearts II was first revealed at E3 2004 I found myself intrinsically drawn back into the zany yet loving mashup. Retrospectively looking at the footage shown in 2004, much more of the game’s JRPG innards were on display, showing a much more engaging, deep, and even mature narrative this time around. Death was real. The idea of actuality was real. Themes that took a deep approach to the once simplistic storyline were largely present in the sequel; much of which I found myself attracted to as I began to grow. As the series began to transpire and grow, so did I. Sure, as the series has continued to produce side entry after side entry the more convoluted the narrative became, but it balanced the perfect balance of tropes its original entry was known for and the integrated JRPG elements.
Maybe I’ll never know exactly what draws me to Kingdom Hearts. Hell, I still find it hard to believe that Kingdom Hearts III is actually releasing today. Since the credits rolled on the second mainline entry in 2006, many fans have been waiting patiently to see the conclusion of this storyline in the overarching Kingdom Hearts universe, including myself. Since we’re delving into the past, it’s fascinating to see how often this series has been attached to larger moments in my life, to an extent. Getting through those awkward preteen years, to junior high heartbreaks, to playing through the original entries leading into my college graduation, to my fiancée preordering the game as a gift for me when I graduated from grad school in 2016; somehow this unique, and quite frankly odd, offshoot of a gaming series has somehow remained close to me. Life is a funny thing.
Cheers to everyone who, like this author, have waited almost 13 years to see the release of Kingdom Hearts III. Hopefully, the wait is worth it to you.
It’s weird how some of the best memories and moments happen accidentally.