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‘Kingdom Hearts’ Remains A Strange Yet Timeless Treasure

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 29, 2017.

With a topsy-turvy timeline, spellbinding soundtrack, and wide array of unlikely companions, Kingdom Hearts has become one of the most unusual, yet beloved, franchises of all time. 

On September 17th, 2002, the original Kingdom Hearts was released in North America. Over a decade in and still going strong, the series has been lauded for everything from its whimsical storyline to its multifaceted gameplay. Though many critics have cited its highly abstract narrative and occasionally shaky mechanics, one thing is certain: there’s nothing else quite like it.

Early concept art for Sora featured a weapon resembling a chainsaw. This was quickly shot down by Disney.

The intersection of Final Fantasy and Disney characters is so absurd that it’s hard not to wonder where it all came from. Many years ago, Shinji Hashimoto and Hironobu Sakaguchi of Square (now Square Enix) aspired to make an open-world game with free, three-dimensional movement in the style of Super Mario 64, but lacked a character with the widespread appeal of Mario. That’s where Disney entered the conversation – the company had an extremely varied collection of recognizable characters and themes. As luck would have it, Square and Disney’s Japanese branch had offices in the same building at the time, allowing Hashimoto to pitch the idea directly to a Disney executive (in an elevator, of all places).

Thus, an unlikely collaboration was born. Square character designer Tetsuya Nomura was given his first role as a director, leading a team of over one hundred members from Square and Disney Interactive. In a 2013 interview, Nomura explained that the game’s title was inspired by the existence of Disney Theme Parks, specifically Disney’s Animal Kingdom. He was unable to claim intellectual property with just the term “Kingdom,” so the development team began to brainstorm the core or “heart” of the story – hence the combination Kingdom Hearts. Despite being pestered by Disney to include a protagonist from their collection, Nomura fought to retain his own character concept at the center of the story: the young, bright-eyed Sora.

Later Sora concept art with his signature weapon, the Keyblade.

The Kingdom Hearts series is filled to the brim with bold creative choices – for better or for worse. The notion of an original protagonist traveling through distinct yet familiar Disney worlds has a striking originality intertwined with a nostalgia factor – a feat that not many games can accomplish. The series also features a well-selected voice cast that includes several original Disney voices: Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense) as Sora, Wayne Allwine as Mickey Mouse (also the voice of Mickey in Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Fantasia 2000), Pat Carroll (The Little Mermaid) as Ursula, and even Lance Bass of *NSYNC as Sephiroth. 

To further add to the immersion, the soundtrack contains arrangements of many original Disney theme songs. While the music of Kingdom Hearts is very clearly meant to echo the Disney worlds it incorporates, the several original tracks make the overall score stand on its own. Yoko Shimomura, composer for the original Kingdom Hearts and all the series’ subsequent releases, recalled in an interview that the collaboration of Disney and Square made the game’s music quite hard to conceptualize: “At first I was like ‘Oh, please don’t make me do it’…I could not imagine what kind of world ‘Kingdom Hearts’ would end up being…therefore, I had no idea what type of music I should write!” She later mentioned that the hardware restrictions of the PlayStation 2 presented additional obstacles.

The original orchestral version of The Nightmare Before Christmas’s main theme (This Is Halloween”), for instance, was impossible to reproduce on the console’s sound engine. Keeping the original melody intact required a generous amount of trial and error. Still, her efforts more than paid off – the fact that each Disney world’s soundtrack is reminiscent of its original film yet still unique to the game is nothing short of impressive. However, the continuous integration of several distinct worlds and character trajectories leaves an overarching story that’s incredibly tangled. Although the first few games were relatively linear, the addition of several more titles intended for different points in the timeline – Birth By Sleep, Dream Drop Distance and Coded, for instance – makes the series’ universe increasingly convoluted, often leaving more casual players unable to tell the sequels from prequels.

A complete flowchart of the Kingdom Hearts series, originally by u/HollowRiku via the Kingdom Hearts subreddit

Kingdom Hearts‘ abstract and, at times, excessively complex timeline epitomizes the age-old maxim “too much of a good thing.” Still, there’s a certain charm in examining a game world with plenty of room for interpretation. Nomura himself actually commented on the vague nature of the main storyline in a 2006 interview soon after Kingdom Hearts 2’s release: “Whether it’s game, anime or manga, there should be a place where you can speculate things. I have that feeling so I wanted to make a game that gives space for your imagination. That’s why I don’t like revealing everything and say ‘This is the answer’…I want to make something that can allow people to let loose their imagination with.”        

So, what’s next? The next major installment in the franchise will be Kingdom Hearts III (though technically, it will be the twelfth in the series). Due for release in 2019, the game will take place following the events of Dream Drop Distance. Even though concepts for Kingdom Hearts III began in 2006, the game was not formally announced until E3 2013. Many worlds featured in previous games will return – including Olympus and Twilight Town – but perhaps the most anticipated aspects of the game are worlds from more recent Disney releases. The Kingdom of Corona from Tangled, the Toy Story universe, and Big Hero 6’s San Fransokyo are just some of the new worlds confirmed to be included in Kingdom Hearts III.

Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm led fans to speculate whether a Star Wars world would be included, but Nomura explained that it was unlikely – his reasoning being that Disney has an existing exclusivity deal with Electronic Arts for Star Wars games. But the main question players want an answer to is much simpler: what’s taking so long? And, simply put, it’s complicated. Nomura attributes the delays to internal decisions as opposed to development obstacles, such as converting the game to Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 4 after a full year of development, among others. Since it’s clear good things are in store for Kingdom Hearts fans, all one can do for now is wait.

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1 comment

Kyle Rogacion October 1, 2017 at 1:29 pm

Fascinating read into a game that was an essential part of many childhoods. I’d always found the premise and execution a little strange, but never gave it much thought. It’s such a bizarre intersection of pop culture and Japanese video game design. I love how that strangeness comes from the developers’ own wariness and experimentation.

Still not sure how I feel about the excessive entries and spinoffs though. I’ve only played 1, 2, and Chain of Memories, so I’m not sure what to make of Nomura’s defense on how much the series has grown.

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