I first became aware of Squaresoft's Kingdom Hearts concept and video game (a merging of Final Fantasy and Disney characters in an action-role playing game setup) when I sat in on their E3 presentation in May 2001. I remember commenting in my coverage of the con that year that this looked to be the beginning of Square's eventual downfall.
I thought the notion was ridiculous. Having Donald Duck and Goofy traveling around with an anime-looking kid, bouncing from Disney world to Disney world as they battled big Disney villains with assistance from Cloud Strife, Squall Leonhart, and Yuffie the ninja girl just made me laugh. The part of the E3 trailer that killed me was when the video BLASTED Goofy's "HYUCK, GORSH!" at the end, right into the audience's eardrums with the help of the headphones (that were cranked to 11) we all had to wear.
That concept does sound pretty stupid. You were right to hate it!
I was so wrong with my initial assessment. In fact, it may have been the most wrong I've ever been in my whole life. Including that time when I thought that a spider monkey would make a great pet.
What? No! But that sounds so dumb!
It does, and by all reasonable expectations it should have been the worst mixture of things since someone blended a mint chocolate chip milkshake with raw pork (my college roommate was very drunk/high/fucked-up that night). But the original Kingdom Hearts game works, and it just works SO GODDAMN WELL. It is honestly one of my top five fun games of all time.
Is it perfect? Hell no. But is it the perfect game for Final Fantasy and Disney fans? Yes. Without a doubt.
How many games are there now? Are they all this good?
There are over a dozen Kingdom Hearts games and spin-offs and remakes now, and unfortunately other than the first one, THEY ALL SUCK.
What? All of them?
Yes. Overall the suckiness of each subsequent game totally outweighs any of their good parts.
I was so excited for the release of Kingdom Hearts 2! I had originally waited a few years after KH1 was released before playing it, but I was right there when the sequel launched. I don't believe I have ever been more let down with a sequel in my entire life. This includes my experiences with Highlander 2 and Caddyshack 2.
Caddyshack 2 was the one with Dan Aykroyd and Jackie Mason, right?... Oh dear god!
Okay, so what are the games about?
I'm glad you asked.
Kingdom Hearts 1 is a Playstation 2 video game about a young islander boy named Sora who gets caught up in an "ancient" war to save the multiverses from darkness. To do so he has to team up with wizard Donald Duck and tank Goofy and jump from one world to the next in order to stop the Heartless (dark, shadow-like beings who lost their hearts, duh) from devouring the hearts of each realm they visit. Sora is able to fight the Heartless and seal these worlds' hearts with the help of his magical "keyblade" that he somehow finds himself magically in possession of. (Never before in life or in fiction have I heard or read the world "heart" more than while playing this game.)
It's a simple and clean plot with a lot of frenetic gameplay wherein you (as Sora, Donald, and Goofy) meet up with Disney characters in their own worlds (like Tarzan in the Jungle, Aladdin and Jasmin in Agrabah, and Alice in Wonderland), find out that they are having Heartless trouble, and assist them in kicking the creepy, cartoony, demony things' asses out of their realities, and then sealing their world's "heart" so that the Heartless can never destroy them (like the little beasts did with Sora's home world of Destiny Islands).
When you get to a new Disney movie land, it's on purpose and with purpose; you know that the world is in danger and is on a timer, and you're there to stop that threat from killing everything that lives in that realm.
All the bad things seem to be caused by Maleficent and her co-Disney-bad-guy crew consisting of Jafar, Ursula, Oogie Boogie, Captain Hook, and Hades as these villains search for the "Seven Princesses of Heart." These princesses, who if captured and have their hearts opened or something, will allow the baddies to unlock and open Kingdom Hearts, which is like the library of wisdom or feelings of the universe or somesuch nonsense.
My point is that everything that happens in KH1 feels urgent and important, and the worlds each have their own discernible goals that have to be accomplished in order to save all of existence. (Remember this when I talk about KH2 and KH3.)
By the end of KH1 we find out that Maleficent and her co-conspirators were actually being manipulated by a Final Fantasy-like villain who calls himself Ansem. There's also some body-possession going on with Sora's old friend Riku, but in the end our heroes are triumphant (and the player gets to kick that giant demon from "Night on Bald Mountain's" ass in the process!), and with the help of King Mickey, they seal the gate to Kingdom Hearts and Ansem is destroyed/banished/something.
That sounds like your typical Japanesey RPG plot.
Yup, and not in a bad way. But then came Kingdom Hearts 2!... Well, actually, next came some Game Boy Advance game Chain of Memories. I myself, as well as MOST of the entirety of Kingdom Hearts 1 fanbase, skipped this game. The review sites stated that instead of an action-RPG game, Chain of Memories was a "card battle" game. Like fucking Yugioh. On top of that they said that the plot just had Sora, Donald, and Goofy revisiting the Disney worlds of the original title and doing nothing new whatsoever, so fuck that.
As it turns out, in order to understand even the most basic plot elements of Kingdom Hearts 2 one needed to play Chain of Memories on the fucking Game Boy...
What? That's insane! How many PS2 owners even owned Game Boy Advances at that time?
I know. I, along with the rest of the gaming world, assumed that a game titled Kingdom Hearts 2 would be the next successive chapter in the story following directly behind Kingdom Hearts 1. Shame on us for not knowing that the dinky spin-off game on an entirely different gaming device, with an unfamiliar and peculiar battle system and an entirely different play mechanic would be necessary to comprehend anything that is going on plot-wise in the literally-named direct sequel to the first game.
I never played Chain of Memories, but after playing KH2 I did go back and read its synopsis online. But I'll get to that in a bit. For now, I'll try and explain to you what I initially thought of Kingdom Hearts 2. It's been a while since I played it (I only played it the once, in 2006), but I did write about it extensively in another article back then. And so I will be pulling a lot from my younger self's fresh take on KH2 in order to cover my very negative thoughts on the title.
Kingdom Hearts 2 is a masterpiece of lazy, perplexing, and shitty storytelling, wrapped up in gameplay that doesn't do anything to fix the glitchy camera angles and the rest of the small bugs that hindered the original title. The non-fixed gameplay elements are not that big a deal for me though. Yes, the camera angles often sucked and caused a lot of confusion on the battlefield, but it wasn't a game-killer. The plot of KH2 though... Jesus fucking Christ on a pogo-stick.
How did they fuck up this simple tale? KH1 sounded like it had the perfect plot for a video game.
They fucked it up by trying to change it from a "The Hobbit" kind of narrative to a "Silmarilion" historical epic, but they forgot to add any sort of cohesion or likable characters or interesting situations. And on top of that, the new main baddies of KH2 are a bunch of black-hooded figures with even pokier anime-like hair than Sora who call themselves "Organization XIII"... But there are only 7 or so of them in this game due to the fact that Sora killed or banished (or something) the other members "off screen" in the pretty much unplayed Chain of Memories... Oh yeah, and Sora doesn't even remember anything that happened in that Game Boy Advance game, because reasons.
Maleficent was a perfect choice for the big bag in the first game! She fit with the theme and was scary and imposing... The second game inexplicably (I'll be using this word a lot) brought back to life all the bad guys who were killed in the first game with no real explanation as to how or why, and then it went even further in the "fuck you!" salute to its fans by making Pete (Micky's mentally handicapped old nemesis in the old b/w shorts like Steamboat Willy) the face of the big bads. Oh, and Organization XIII and their back-story made things convoluted, stupid, and lame.
Org XIII is like what a non-functioning autistic 12 year-old would imagine an imposing Final Fantasy-like big bad to look and act like. "So you know they're bad because they wear identical black leather jackets... And they're mean... And full of themselves... And they talk in confusing riddles... And they never make sense... And they can like time travel, but never do anything with this all-powerful ability... But they also lose and give up at the drop of a hat 'cause they have no convictions or drive.... Just like my daddy. That's why mommy divorced him."
Oh, and things in KH2 started off insanely annoying by making the player begin the game by controlling some tool named Roxas that we'd never seen before. No reason for Roxas being our first avatar in the game is even given, and yet the creators think we give a shit about him and the narrative for some reason.
The first two to three hours of this sequel had most players scratching their heads in disbelief that not only were they not controlling Sora or Donald or Goofy, but no characters in the opening world of Twilight Town even knew who those famous Keyblade Gang members were.
Soon though we find Sora, and the posse (including Donald and Goofy) is reunited... But then they have nothing to do. Apparently all the worlds whose hearts were in danger in the first game are still fine, and no other worlds are having heart trouble. So now, when the Keyblade Gang gets to a new world (or a terribly retread world) it's NOT on purpose (like in the first game). The player just wanders there accidentally or on a whim. Then Sora stumbles around, bumping into the remaining Organization XIII baddies (whom he didn't even know existed until meeting them because his memory of his time in Chain of Memories had been erased), and then Sora falls ass-first into the next world, randomly bumbling into his next adventure.
Not the tightest plot, and on top of that they revisit way too many Disney realms from KH1, only this time the worlds suck.
How can they revisit the previous worlds and have them suck this time? Is it like when I found that pizzeria that served amazing thick crust pies, but when I went back they changed the recipe to save a few bucks and now the pizza sucks?
It is almost exactly like that! Great fucking analogy! As an example, you go back to Agrabah in KH2, but since you already helped Aladdin and Jasmine beat Jafar during events that mimicked the original Aladdin movie in KH1, in KH2 you find yourself reenacting the events of the terrible straight-to-video movie Return of Jafar... Yeah.
The original Atlantica world in KH1 was amazing and great fun! Swimming with Aeriel and defeating Ursula was one of the highlights of the game! But in KH2 you go back to Ariel's realm and Ursula is somehow resurrected, and this time you don't swim around in an action-adventure kind of game, but instead you have to play this crappy rhythm game. It's nothing but "Listen to the music, watch the screen, and when the green triangle appears you must press the triangle button on your controller... Get ready..... NOW Press it NOW! Now press the red circle! Again! Again! Now press the blue X!"
I'm not making this up. The Atlantica world in KH2 is a fucking chore to slog through, but the worst offender of replayed worlds is absolutely the Nightmare Before Christmas one.
Nightmare world in the first Kingdom Hearts was my absolute favorite environment. I didn't even know that it was included as a setting in the game prior to visiting it during my quest, so it was a beautiful surprise as well. It matched the look and feel of the movie perfectly, and I was sad to have to leave it once my mission was complete.
Nightmare world in KH2 was like they took all the leftover elements and ideas that SUCKED and were cut out of the first game, and just shoved them into this one. Instead of hanging out in the fully-realized Halloween Town like you did in KH1, the player is stuck in the lame Christmas Town with no other characters (other than Jack Skellington) populating it in KH2, which grew old very, very fast.
There were a few new realms that I enjoyed in KH2 though. It wasn't all ass. I loved the Lion King world (it was fun going full-lion), and Tron world was another surprising addition. But some new worlds like the Pirates of the Caribbean realm just felt off and empty. I couldn't get out of that Pirates world fast enough.
So, you said all the bad guys you killed in the first game somehow came back to life and began to terrorize their respective princesses again? Are they the main baddies again in this game?
Nope. The previously mentioned Organization XIII (minus the ones already beaten in the shitty Game Boy Advance card-battle game) and their Nobodies (weird, white, drunk-dancing faceless minions which are supposedly what's left over after a person becomes a Heartless, which contradicts everything we knew about the Heartless in KH1) are the dominant evil-doers in this game. I forget the names of the chief Org XIII members and I do not care enough to even try to remember any of them other than the fact that they all have "X"s or "Z"s in their monikers.
This organization is ironically not very well organized, and their history is so fucking stupid too. Org XIII is filled with betrayals, lusts for power, greed, doppelgängers, people who time traveled and just fucked up the narrative even more than it already was, and people naming themselves with other already established characters' names for the sole purpose of confusing the player. Even after I read about the "plot" in Chain of Memories I still couldn't make heads or tails of KH2's story. The game as a whole was a complete letdown, but I was still interested in the hinted at Kingdom Hearts 3 that was promised as a teaser after the credits of KH2. I must be a masochist.
Kingdom Hearts 3 just came out, right? And KH2 came out in 2006, right? So what were the other games that came out between 2006 and 2019 and how do they play into the timeline?
Ugh... Let's see, there's the cell phone game KH: Coded, the Nintendo DS game KH: 358/2 Days, the Playstation PSP game Birth By Sleep, the Nintendo 3DS game KH: Dream Drop Distance, the other mobile game KH: X, not to mention about 6 or so remakes of all the older games with additional plot lines and cinematics tossed in just to add more confusing back story to the entire tale prior to KH3. I am convinced that the sole purpose of all this new material (that was added to already established story lines) was simply to frustrate people. I don't think that ANYONE could be this incompetent when it comes to writing a fictional story. It MUST be intentional.
Wait... So Squaresoft put out over a half a dozen games that were necessary to the overall storyline of Kingdom Hearts, but each one was on a different hand-held or mobile devices, and Squaresoft made them just seem like a bunch of unnecessary side stories or rehashes of the first two games?
...And they expected everyone to play them all? Who the fuck would buy a Gameboy Advance, a DS, a PSP, a 3DS, a PS2, and now a PS4 in order to understand what the hell is going on?
Nobody that I know. Granted, Squaresoft eventually put the entire collection of Kingdom Hearts games on the PS4, but as I already said, they also added plot lines and character motivations that weren't in the original incarnations. So even if somebody did buy all those gaming devices and played all those games when they originally came out they STILL wouldn't have the complete or correct version of the story that director/writer Tetsuya Nomura finally settled on. The KH universe is a tangled sack of gummi worms that had been semi-melted in the sun, and that was BEFORE Kingdom Hearts 3 even hit the scene.
And once again, I have read all the synopses of all the games that came out in-between KH2 and KH3, I learned who Aqua, Terra, Ventus, and Eraqus were, and supposedly how they all worked together into the history of this supremely convoluted tale... And I STILL had no goddamn clue what was going on during the hours-long "story" cinematics of Kingdom Hearts 3.
Good god, Lemon...
I know, right?
Anyway, despite all this overly-complicated storytelling and shit, I was still eager for Kingdom Hearts 3. I had hoped that Nomura had learned his lesson from the overabundance of complaints leveled at KH2 and its lame story and horribly retread worlds, and that he would do a 180 in order to get the franchise back to its roots. That didn't happen. Instead, Nomura doubled down on his series' failings and tried to tell gamers that this was indeed what they really wanted. It was not.
Not only does KH3 take us back to certain worlds that we traveled to in KH2, but they were lame worlds that were the suckiest of the previous game: the Hercules and Pirates of the Caribbean realms. On top of that, instead of doing an Avengers world or a fucking Star Wars world we got a Big Hero 6 world. Ugh. It was like Nomura was deliberately aiming for our nads as he kicked us. Seriously, what person (adult or child) would prefer a Big Hero 6 play-scape over The Avengers?
But didn't they put Toy Story and Frozen and Tangled in this new game?
They did, but they kind of fucked them all up. Surprise!
You see, in the Toy Story world we meet up with Buzz Lightyear and Sheriff Woody in Andy's bedroom... And it is AMAZING! The designers did a fantastic job there! But within five minutes of showing up in that realm we leave Andy's bedroom and go to a giant, modern-looking toy store instead. And we spend the rest of our time in "The Toy Box" realm in that empty and cold toy store (which isn't even Al's Toy Barn) getting attacked by hordes of bland and uninteresting toy robots. There's nothing Toy Story-esque about those robots or the toy store. They so insipid and dull.
They COULD HAVE had Sora and company join Woody and Buzz as they went through the plot of the first movie, traveling to Pizza Planet, and then teaming up to save all the toys in the asshole kid's bedroom in the house next door to Andy's. That would have made me love this game unconditionally... Instead, we trip our way through a barren toy store fighting lame robots that have nothing to do with the franchise.
As for Frozen and Tangled, their translation to Kingdom Hearts fared much better, but there were a ton of cinematics that just played out moments from their respective movies without pulling in Sora, Donald, or Goofy for even a cameo. And even with these cut-scenes they left out so much plot that if somebody (somehow) never watched the original Disney movies ahead of time they'd have no idea how the characters got from point A to point B in the game universe. It just felt like KH3 was rushed and pushed to store shelves before it was ready, even though they had THIRTEEN YEARS to make it.
What the fuck, Squaresoft?
Really! It's unforgivable.
Any other failings of Kingdom Hearts 3?
Oh hell yes. Many.
Back in Kingdom Hearts 1 there were a few cut-scenes peppered throughout where the player got to meet new characters in the worlds they were exploring. And then, there'd be another short cinematic when the Keyblade Crew got ready to depart from the world they just saved. This of course mutated into 2-hour movies in KH3 where the player could not really skip (or else miss the reasons for certain actions and new character introductions), but which were so poorly written, constructed, and acted that after watching said unplayable movies, the player still had no goddamn clue what was going on. Seriously, go to Youtube and click on any of the cut-scenes featuring Mickey and Riku in KH3. It's like somebody just took the "lorum ipsum" filler text and based the dialogue on it.
And just like in KH2, KH3 has no reason at all for Sora, Donald, and Goofy to go from world to world. They just find new worlds on their cosmic map and decide to go there. There's never a goal or purpose to visiting any of them outside of the first world, Olympus (and even the justification for that is "iffy" at best).
It's as if Nomura said, "Hmmm, is there any possible way to cleverly write a reason for our protagonists to visit these Disney worlds in this game?... Maybe. But that would take effort. You know what would be really easy? Just having him go to San Fransokyo because it's there. And while he's there he might as well fight Riku's younger evil self even though there's no possible way young evil Riku could be there. It's like poetry. Like it rhymes."
Then there's the Amusement Park Ride attacks in this game, which actually look pretty cool... the first 50 times you see them. They are triggered so often and so easily though that they are trivialized and get boring really quickly. And they pile up... So if you have two amusement rides ready to launch, but you want to see a specific world's special attack (say using Woody and Buzz to obliterate a group of your enemies in one fell swoop), you have to go through the amusement rides first... No way to skip past them as far as I could see. And in implementing the first two special attacks you usually end up killing all the Heartless on the screen. And oh yeah, we're done with the Nobodies as the faceless minions as the Heartless are inexplicably back in force... But then come the Nobodies again, for no reason... And then comes a THIRD kind of enemy whose name I forgot because it's stupid as fuck. Fuck this game.
But goddamn, the biggest issue is the goddamn plot. I just can't get over how little they appeared to care about making a cohesive and fun narrative! It's so senseless and baffling that even when the characters are trying to explain it amongst themselves you're left at the end of the cut-scene with even more questions than if they never said a word.
The KH3 team also dug their own grave by doubling down on their ludicrous Organization XIII garbage... The same problem with KH2 happens here: bad guys are killed in the previous games and you think the plot will move past them. But then they're inexplicably resurrected and brought back into play, or have massive changes of personality and we're just told to deal with it. They literally had ALL of the Disney and Final Fantasy catalogs at their disposal, not to mention that they could have just used their imaginations to create a NEW bad guy... But they chose the dumbest alternatives of all their limitless options.
To give you an idea about just how stupid the idea of Org XIII is, as well as how overly complicated the plot of Kingdom Hearts is, and how ridiculous the whole Heartless and Nobody phenomenon has become, let me just post what the Kingdom Hearts wiki has to say about one of the sub-characters in this story who has a little to do with all those things. Keep in mind that this character barely even makes any appearances in all the games:
Naminé is the Nobody of Kairi. Naminé is a special Nobody, born when Kairi's heart left Sora's body. Naminé was born when Sora stabbed himself with Ansem's artificial Keyblade in order to return Kairi's heart to her body. This made Naminé a very odd Nobody, born from Kairi's heart and Sora's body and soul. Kairi's own body never became a Nobody because her heart lacked darkness (since she was one of the Princesses of Heart), so her body and soul were never able to leave the Realm of Light and thus Kairi was in a comatose state until she regained her heart. As a result, Naminé was born without Kairi's memories, only furthering her status as an unusual entity. Due to the fact that Naminé is formed from Sora's body, she has the power to manipulate his memories as well as the memories of those who are connected to him, prompting several people, even herself, to refer to her as a "witch." Ansem the Wise stated that Naminé is a highly unusual Nobody, due to possessing neither the body nor the memories that a Nobody is usually made from.
What the goddamn fuck did I just read?
You just read the wordy-embodiment of "confusion for the sake of confusion." Welcome to Kingdom Hearts.
Oh! And that reminds me of another complaint! They completely left out all the Final Fantasy characters and worlds in KH3... Not that this was anything tragic (since director/writer Tetsuya Nomura only ever used FF characters that he personally designed in the first two Kingdom Hearts games, and so we never got anyone from FF1 through FF6), but it was a noticeable omission. Even if all we did was go back to Traverse Town or Hollow Bastion (which were always much more interesting than Twilight Town) and bump into Cloud, Aerith, and Cid and chat for a bit I would have been happy. I mean, that's pretty much all we do with Merlin and the annoying kids from the beginning of KH2 that show back up in KH3. It wouldn't have been that odd.
Another thing that bummed me out was the lack of Disney worlds in general in KH3. There are a lot fewer realms to visit this time around. So when we just get yet another Hercules or Pirates of the Caribbean retread it hurts that much more knowing that those worlds could have been something different and new if Squaresoft had simply tried a little harder. Or even tried AT ALL. It took me around 34-35 hours to get through KH1 and 33-34 hours to complete KH2. But KH3 only took me 25 hours. That is pathetic. Squaresoft, once again you had 13 years to develop this eagerly anticipated sequel, and you failed at practically every single choice you made.
So tell me about the Gummi Ships.
Oh Christ... Do I have to? Fine.
So, in order to get from one Disney realm to the next, Omura and his team had to figure out a fun way to jump from world to world and still keep the entertainment value of the game intact. They failed. Completely.
Instead of either just instantly transporting The Keyblade Gang from one world to the next — or doing ANYTHING ELSE AT ALL — they settled on forcing the player to complete a 3D shooting mini-game using block-like ships constructed by Chip and Dale (who are somehow a pair of super-scientists in this game). These Gummi Ship segments are tedious, but also easy as fuck to get through, to the point where there is no reason at all to play them. These portions of all three Kingdom Hearts games were the weakest interactive element, bar none. I hated them and never looked forward to being forced to partake in their insipid gameplay. I piss on their graves.
Anything else to add?
Yes. I am still annoyed that after all these Kingdom Hearts games there is still no Duck Tales world, no Atlantis - The Lost Empire world, no Gargoyles world, and no Home on the Range world! Blasphemy!
I usually dislike everything that the Rossman recommends and love everything that he hates, so I tried playing the first two games over a decade ago when I first heard him talking about them.
Surprise, surprise, I actually adored the original Kingdom Hearts, and I though that Kingdom Hearts 2 was indeed one of the worst sequels of anything ever made. It's so rare that we are in such agreement over things. But I am not a pussy like the Rossman, and so, after I heard Kingdom Hearts 3 was just as bad as 2, I started a letter-writing campaign to Squaresoft Japan to complain about how awful those sequels are... And when that didn't work I broke into director/writer Tetsuya Nomura's residence and murdered him, and wrote a suicide note claiming that the reason he killed himself was because of the shame he felt for defiling Disney and Final Fantasy with his own stupid stories that butchered each company's beloved trademarks because he had no idea how to write a proper narrative.
Wait... Oh shit... That Nomura guy probably lives in Japan, doesn't he?... Oh shit. No wonder his suicide-by-autoerotic asphyxiation and this note never made international news. My heart goes out to the Nomura family living in Sunnydale, CA. I am so sorry.
Hi! I'm Sora! Star of the Kingdom Hearts games, except when the part of Sora is played by my evil, heartless doppelgänger that looks and sounds nothing like me.
I just wanted to say that the Rossman is going way too hard on Nomura-sensei and his story that he created for Kingdom Hearts. Nomura-sensei gave me life, and he gave gamers the world over the chance to play video games with Disney characters in interactive ways that we never thought possible! His only problem is in thinking that he's a world-class storyteller... That and his kilogram-a-day cocaine habit. But one step at a time.
We need to come together and get him to see just how lame, pathetic, shitty, awful, terrible, ill-conceived, and just plain poopy his Kingdom Hearts story is. So please, everyone, clap your hands together and say, "I DO believe that Nomura can write well! I do! I do!" Maybe that will help.