On a Friday afternoon in late 2002, I raced home from my local GameStop with two of the year’s most exciting video games clutched in my hand. Those games were 1) an epic adventure with a thrilling story based on one of the most beloved franchises of all times, and 2) Kingdom Hearts.
The result of a groundbreaking collaboration between Square Enix and Disney, Kingdom Hearts took the most valuable library of fictional characters on Earth and infused it with the Japanese studio’s approach to video game storytelling. Kingdom Hearts is a game where a spiky-haired kid with a giant “Keyblade” hangs out with Mickey Mouse, Pinnochio, and Alladin. It’s also a game where Donald Duck is a powerful wizard and “Xehanort is everyone” is a sentence that makes sense.
If you were expecting the type of simple adventure those characters usually go on, you were in for a rude awakening.
The plot of Kingdom Hearts is actually relatively simple, at least compared to the various sequels that came afterward. It follows Sora, who is living on an island with his two friends and plans to explore the world — until a group of shadowy creatures called the Heartless attack. Meanwhile, a world full of Disney characters is becoming infested with evil, so King Mickey (Mouse) sets off with Donald Duck and Goofy to find help. This iconic Disney trio soon crosses paths with Sora and agrees to help him find his lost friends.
Together, the group sets out on an adventure through various Disney worlds before defeating Maleficent (the apparent source of this evil) and saving Sora’s friends (sort of). However, it turns out the real villain is Ansem (Seeker of Darkness), and our heroes pursue him to the End of the World to defeat him.
This is an extremely simplified version of the story, and I’m already lost. From there, the Kingdom Hearts series only got more confusing, with future games doubling down on the weirdest parts of franchise lore.
To be clear, Kingdom Hearts is a very fun game, and the sequels are also pretty entertaining. It’s fun to fight your way through various Disney worlds, gaining allies and enemies along the way. But over the decades, the series has gained a reputation for having some of the most complex and convoluted stories in an industry known for just that. (Have you ever actually looked into the plot of the Mortal Kombat games?)
The man to blame is likely series creator Tetsuya Nomura, a character designer on several Final Fantasy entries who somehow convinced both Square Enix and Disney to let him make a game of his own — this might explain why all of Kingdom Hearts’ original characters feel like FF heroes cranked up to 11.
Ultimately, Kingdom Hearts stands as a unique video game that set up one of the weirdest franchises in gaming history. There may never be another game like this one, and maybe that’s a good thing.
Oh, and if you were wondering, the other game I bought that day in 2002 was The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.