When we first caught wind of the crossover game Kingdom Hearts. We all thought it wouldn’t work: Square Enix’s Final Fantasy series, full of emotional and (relatively) mature protagonists clashing with Disney’s historically kid-friendly characters didn’t make a lick of sense at first – honestly, we feared that both companies involved had lost their minds. But once Kingdom Hearts released in 2002, this concept proved to be remarkably fruitful for fans of both parties. The pairing turned out to be absolutely wonderful and – dare we say – magical.
But it had its issues. The combat was a little bit sloppy, the story wasn’t up to Square’s high standards, and the means of traveling between the different Disney worlds, called the “Gummi Ship,” was a flawed game mechanic that took away more than it added. These problems and more were completely solved when Kingdom Hearts II came out, just four years later, fixing all of the our gripes while expanding Kingdom Hearts from an adorable mash-up into its own, remarkable series.
Kingdom Hearts’ greatness comes through not just its witty inclusion of Disney characters or its perfect selection of Final Fantasy tropes (though they certainly helped), but in its boldness. Square and Disney could’ve just said “yeah, so, more cartoons,” but that didn’t happen. Instead, they expanded on the story of the original, pulling in new Disney and Final Fantasy characters, and adding some of their own, too.
One of the most controversial, and important, introductions was Sora’s Nobody, Roxas. Square, who had spent the first game letting us fall in love with the main protagonist Sora, outright replaced him for Kingdom Hearts II’s first act, making a lot of fans extremely upset. Although there was a purpose to swapping out the hero for a blonde newcomer – he was part of the longer play to evolve Kingdom Hearts, a theme that permeated the entire story.
It wasn’t merely a small, fun journey through Disney settings – it was a massive, epic story that was complex enough to spawn five handheld spin-offs without breaking a sweat. Though it was hard to wrap our heads around at first, the introduction to the new enemies and organizations of Kingdom Hearts are part of what made Kingdom Hearts and it’s sequels so good, and helped it become more than the sum of its (already significant) parts.
That’s not to say it didn’t benefit from the tie-ins, though. Kingdom Hearts II was every bit the love letter to Disney films that the first one was, allowing gamers to explore the Pride Land, the world of Tron, and even the Timeless River – a level built to elicit nostalgic feelings of Mickey Mouse’s origins as Steamboat Willy. These, by themselves, would have been enough to force our easily-stimulated brains into overdrive, but the masterful inclusion of Final Fantasy characters provided an exponentially better experience.
The combination of the two completely disconnected licenses was handled perfectly, creating fanboy-pleasing team-ups we’d never even dreamed of. Every conversation had us smiling from ear-to-ear. Hades summoning Auron to fight Hercules is still one of our favorite moments in gaming history, with both original voice actors returning to create one of the most surreal gaming scenes in history. It somehow managed to have a comedic devil-figure meet a stoic Final Fantasy character without betraying either figure’s personalities. We still laugh thinking about that scene, and how amazed we were when it all came together.
The interactions with King Mickey were handled flawlessly. He was likely the character altered the most by the Kingdom Hearts series – turned from a smiling mascot of the Walt Disney company into a Yoda-like master of the Keyblade who bounced around in a mysterious hooded trenchcoat – but the transformation was so wonderful that we couldn’t even pretend to be disappointed when we found out the cloaked warrior darting around the shadows was one of the most memorable icons of all time.
Square also found time, while expanding Kingdom Hearts into its own brand and including some of the best fan service in entertainment history, to improve the gameplay as well. The Gummi Ship segments in Kingdom Hearts 2 were completely revamped to the point that we actually fell in love with them, and the combat had been improved dramatically, going from “serviceable” to “impeccable.”
Dual-wielding Keyblades and wiping out hundreds of enemies at a time made Sora feel super powerful, and created some of the more entertaining action segments in all of the RPG genre, and being able to summon classic Disney characters to help in battle was a perfect marriage of Disney’s charm and Square’s gameplay style. You could summon Genie from Aladdin to fight against Final Fantasy VII’s Sephiroth – do you need more of an excuse to smile today? No. You don’t. Don’t even pretend that you do.
Kingdom Hearts games are remarkably fun to play, with all the depth and intricacies expected from a Square title, but more importantly it was a fearless genre in an industry that, all too often, plays things super by-the-books. Instead of throwing out a cameo of two, Square-Enix created one of the best mash-ups of all time.