Well I’m finally doing it. I have written articles about Disney, I have written articles about Final Fantasy, and now I’m writing an article about Square Enix’s epic Disney-Final Fantasy crossover video game Kingdom Hearts. As a huge fan of this action-RPG I have been looking forward to this moment for a long time while simultaneously dreading it, because Kingdom Hearts is a game with a deeply complex plot that is impossible to explain in any coherent way. Although thankfully for now, I mainly want to focus on the basics. Starting with where the first Kingdom Hearts originated and who created it.
In 1996, Nintendo had just entered the third dimension in a major way with their 64-bit console the Nintendo 64, and their game Super Mario 64, in which the Italian plumber Mario explores different worlds by jumping into the paintings hanging on the walls of Princess Peach’s castle, amazed not only gamers but developers across the video game industry. After Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi and Square Enix producer Shinji Hashimoto saw Super Mario 64, they discussed their desire to make a similar game that, unlike Final Fantasy games at the time, would include real-time action in a 3D world. Although they had trouble coming up with compelling ideas for worlds to explore that could rival the colorful worlds of Super Mario 64′s Mushroom Kingdom. In fact, Sakaguchi and Hashimoto figured the only thing that could compete with Nintendo characters were Disney characters.
While the idea of Square making a game with Disney characters seemed like the most unlikely idea at first (and even more unlikely that Disney would let them make it), it just so happened that Disney’s Japanese branch shared a building with Square at the time, and a chance encounter with a Disney executive led to Hashimoto pitching his idea for the game to Disney directly. Disney saw potential in the idea of a new RPG featuring Disney characters and the studio, which is notoriously strict with the use of its intellectual properties, had several proposals for what they wanted. But all of Disney’s ideas were turned down by Tetsuya Nomura, the man who Sakaguchi and Hashimoto chose to lead the development of the game.
Tetsuya Nomura was a highly talented and creative artist and designer who had previously worked on the Final Fantasy series, designing the monsters in two of their most popular entries Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy VII, and co-writing the story of Final Fantasy VII with Sakaguchi. Nomura came up with the idea to make the main character in Kingdom Hearts an original character, rather than a Disney character, and while the original story of the game was going to be simple to appeal to a young audience, Sakaguchi suggested that Nomura treat the game the same way he would treat a Final Fantasy game, which led to Nomura developing the game’s story further into something more deep and dramatic.
Nomura originally planned to call the game Kingdom, a name inspired by the Disney theme parks which often used that word (such as in Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom), but he could not secure the name as an IP. The name of the game was eventually changed to Kingdom Hearts when the development team started emphasizing hearts as a key element of the game’s plot.
And now it’s time to get into the game’s story! The Kingdom Hearts universe is mysterious and not everything that happens is made clear, but I’ll try my best to explain it.
The basic plot involves a teenage boy named Sora who lives on an island known as the Destiny Islands with his friends, a boy named Riku and a girl named Kairi. The trio intends to explore new worlds by building a raft and setting out to sea, but the night before their voyage, their home island is invaded by strange shadowy creatures called the Heartless.
The Heartless are born from the darkness in someone’s heart, and when they roam free, they seek out more hearts to consume. When a Heartless consumes a person’s heart, that person becomes a Heartless as well. The Heartless have somehow managed to invade many different worlds, and they are the most common foes you will fight in the Kingdom Hearts series.
When the Heartless show up on Destiny Islands, Sora initially fights them with his homemade wooden sword, but this does very little against the Heartless. Only after Sora mysteriously obtains a weapon called the Keyblade does he have the ability to actually defeat them.
The Keyblade is a weapon that can be wielded like a sword but is shaped like a key, and when you use it to defeat a Heartless, you free the heart that it consumed. The reason why the Heartless have invaded countless worlds is because someone unlocked the door to those worlds. The Keyblade has the ability to lock the door again and prevent the Heartless from returning. This is another common plot element of the Kingdom Hearts series as you will be visiting many worlds that are being invaded by Heartless. Not just anyone can wield a Keyblade so there is something special about Sora.
While fighting the Heartless off with his Keyblade, the Destiny Islands gets consumed by darkness and Sora drifts off to another world, ending up in a place called Traverse Town, where many people whose worlds were taken over by darkness wind up.
Meanwhile at Disney Castle, Donald Duck the court wizard and Captain Goofy of the royal guard realize King Mickey Mouse has disappeared and has left Donald and Goofy instructions to find the “key.” In his letter, Mickey says the stars in the sky are blinking out and he has to investigate because he senses disaster, and that Donald and Goofy must go to Traverse Town and find someone with a key. With their orders, Donald and Goofy set out in their Gummi Ship, a special ship that allows for space travel between worlds, and fly to Traverse Town. The Gummi Ship in this game is made of Gummi blocks, and you can add, paint and rearrange blocks (with help from the ship’s mechanics Chip and Dale) so that you can customize it to your liking. Plus the Gummi Ship has fire power so as you fly between worlds, you will often have to fight off cosmic enemies in a Star Fox-like rail-shooter section of the game.
When Donald and Goofy reach Traverse Town, they eventually encounter Sora and discover his Keyblade, thinking he must be the one who Mickey wrote about. Sora, who is looking for his friends Riku and Kairi, and Donald and Goofy, who are looking for Mickey, decide to help each other find each other’s friends. It is here that the game truly begins as Sora, Donald and Goofy set off in their ship to travel across space visiting different worlds, fighting Heartless and restoring the world order.
The Disney worlds you visit in the first game include Wonderland (Alice in Wonderland), Neverland (Peter Pan), Atlantica (The Little Mermaid), Agrabah (Aladdin), Halloween Town (The Nightmare Before Christmas), Olympus Coliseum (Hercules) and the Deep Jungle (Tarzan), and you even get swallowed by Monstro the whale at one point and encounter Pinocchio and Geppetto. And in addition to Donald who can use magic and Goofy who has strong defense, many Disney characters will team up with you in battle, including Tarzan, Aladdin, Ariel, Jack Skellington, Peter Pan and the Beast from Beauty and the Beast, while other characters like Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty) are plotting to use the Heartless for their own gain.
“Kingdom Hearts” itself is referenced in the game as the “heart of all worlds” and a great source of power and wisdom. Maleficent sought Kingdom Hearts herself, at one point even kidnapping the Disney princesses (including Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Belle and Jasmine) and wielding the purity of their hearts to open the way to that realm, but someone else pulling the strings behind the scenes is using Maleficent to gain access to Kingdom Hearts, and by the time the game ends, you might meet that person.
In addition to Disney characters, Final Fantasy fans will encounter many familiar faces as well. On Destiny Islands, Sora is friends with young versions of the characters Tidus and Wakka from Final Fantasy X and Selphie from Final Fantasy VIII, in Traverse Town, Sora meets Squall Leonheart aka Leon from Final Fantasy VIII and Aerith, Cid and Yuffie from Final Fantasy VII, and Sora can encounter and fight Cloud and Sephiroth from Final Fantasy VII at the Olympus Coliseum. Plus you can talk to many Moogles throughout the game who will sell you goods.
The game in general shares a lot of DNA with Final Fantasy. While most of those games had turn-based enemy encounters, Kingdom Hearts features real-time battles, although they are both RPGs so in both series you are gaining experience points and slowly leveling up after defeating enemies, and they even share some items and magic spells, including the ability to summon allies to assist you in battle, only instead of summoning gods, you summon Disney characters, including Dumbo, Bambi, Tinker Bell, Genie, Simba and Mushu.
The game also features memorable music from composer Yoko Shimomura who wrote most of the background songs (with a few Disney songs mixed in) and orchestrations from anime composer Kaoru Wada (Inuyasha, Princess Tutu) as well as a song called “Hikari” from singer-songwriter Hikaru Utada’s 2002 album Deep River, which Utada re-recorded in English as “Simple & Clean” for the video game’s international release. The song was a huge hit breaking records as the best-selling video game single in Japan, and it played during all the commercials for the game (I’ll never forget the first time I saw the commercial for this game with Utada’s beautiful voice playing over the images of a boy visiting various Disney worlds) so it is synonymous with the series now. Utada would be a series mainstay writing songs for the game’s sequels as well, including a collaboration with Skrillex.
Kingdom Hearts games always have impressive voice casts with many people reprising their roles from Disney movies for the games. While the Japanese actor who played Sora was Miyu Irino (Haku from Spirited Away), the English actor was Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense). The English voice actor for Riku is David Gallagher (7th Heaven) and the English voice actor for Kairi is Hayden Panettiere. The English cast also includes Billy Zane, David Boreanaz, Mandy Moore, Christy Carlson Romano and Lance Bass while Wayne Allwine, Tony Anselmo and Bill Farmer voiced Mickey, Donald and Goofy as usual. Other Disney voices include Russi Taylor as Minnie Mouse and Tress MacNeille as Daisy Duck in addition to actors reprising their roles like Kathryn Beaumont (Alice, Wendy), Jodi Benson (Ariel), Robby Benson (Beast), Pat Carroll (Ursula), Dan Castellaneta (Genie), Jonathan Freeman (Jafar), Tony Goldwyn (Tarzan), Gilbert Gottfried (Iago), Linda Larkin (Jasmine), Ken Page (Oogie Boogie), Chris Sarandon (Jack Skellington), Scott Weinger (Aladdin) and James Woods (Hades).
The game was first released on PlayStation 2 in 2002 and it was critically acclaimed and commercially successful. There was some criticism aimed at its convoluted plot and its tedious combat, but overall many people called it a fun game with a heartfelt story, and the concept of combining Disney with Final Fantasy worked surprisingly well.
The game’s success led to many sequels which expanded on the first game’s mythology and made the plot even more layered in complexity by revealing the origin of the Keyblade, shedding light on the backstories of some of its characters, telling us where the Heartless came from and revealing who is responsible for setting off the chain of events that led to the spread of darkness that has overtaken so many worlds. The sequels also introduce new Keyblade wielders who fight with and alongside Sora, plus all new story elements such as the Nobodies which are the shells of beings that come to life when someone with a strong heart becomes a Heartless, Organization XIII which is a group of Nobodies in cloaks who have their own agenda, Master Xehanort the evil Keyblade wielder, Ansem the Wise, and many, many more things that it would take too long to list. And most of these games are not standalones. They are all entangled in the same plot, so gamers who are really invested in the saga have to play them all.
These sequels also featured many more Disney characters and many more Disney worlds to explore, including worlds based on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Tron, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Toy Story, Monsters Inc., Lilo & Stitch, Pirates of the Caribbean, Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen and Big Hero 6.
The two main sequels are Kingdom Hearts II (PS2) released in 2005 and Kingdom Hearts III (PS4, Xbox One) released in 2019, but in order to understand the events in those games, you have to play the games that were released between this trilogy. Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories for Game Boy Advance, which is where Sora first meets Organization XIII, takes place directly after the events of the first game and leads directly into the events of Kingdom Hearts II, but you would also have to play Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days (subtitle pronounced “three five eight days over two”) for Nintendo DS to learn what Organization XIII was up to before the events of Kingdom Hearts II.
Kingdom Hearts Coded, a Japan-only 2007 mobile game that was remade and released internationally as Kingdom Hearts Re:coded (2010) for Nintendo DS takes place after the events of Kingdom Hearts II.
Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep (PlayStation Portable) is a prequel following three all new Keyblade wielders that takes place years before the events of the first Kingdom Hearts.
Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance (Nintendo 3DS) takes place after the events of Kingdom Hearts Coded.
Kingdom Hearts x (pronounced “key”) released for Japanese web browsers in 2013 and a mobile version called Kingdom Hearts Unchained x released in Japan in 2015 and worldwide in 2016 was a prequel that took place long before all the other games and it told the origin story of Keyblade wielders. That game was rebranded Kingdom Hearts Union x [Cross] in 2017 and Kingdom Hearts Union x Dark Road in 2020 with the addition of the extra game Kingdom Hearts Dark Road which told the origin story of Xehanort.
The events in all these games lead up to the events in Kingdom Hearts III, which was then followed by the rhythm game Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, which takes place directly after the events of Kingdom Hearts III (even their rhythm games are heavy on plot).
Luckily they made it easier to follow the game’s story by releasing the compilation games Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix, Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix and Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue, all available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows and Nintendo Switch. HD 1.5 Remix includes Kingdom Hearts Final Mix (a remastered version of the first Kingdom Hearts that was originally only available in Japan and features bonus content), Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories (the PS2 remake of the Game Boy Advance game featuring cut scenes and voice acting) and HD cutscenes from the DS game 358/2 Days. HD 2.5 Remix includes Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep Final Mix and cutscenes from Re:coded.
HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue includes an HD remaster of the 3DS game Dream Drop Distance, a series of cutscenes showing the events before and during Kingdom Hearts x known collectively as Kingdom Hearts x Back Cover, and an all new game called Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth by Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage, which is set between the events of Kingdom Hearts 3D and Kingdom Hearts III.
I played as many of these as I could because I am totally invested in the Kingdom Hearts world. If someone is interested in this series and they ask me if they should play, I would have only this advice: don’t think about it too much. You’re just visiting Disney worlds and meeting Disney characters and trying to save the world from evil. This game is kind of like a Christopher Nolan movie: a confusing but spectacular experience. Although most of the time the characters in the game are also confused and it’s easy to look at the game through Sora’s eyes which keeps things grounded. And the emotional moments involving Sora, Riku and Kairi are still effective. For all the spectacle in these games, the many themes of the game like friendship, redemption and what it means to have a heart often resonate.