What if I told you that almost every Disney animated feature, and even some of the live-action films, are connected? That Donald and Goofy, along with a spiky-haired kid wielding a giant key, have met and interacted with Peter Pan, Belle, Mulan–even Tron and Captain Jack Sparrow?
It’s possible that you already know where I’m going with this, but for those who are wondering if I’ve simply lost my mind (and you wouldn’t be the first to think that)… welcome to the weird world of Kingdom Hearts.
Kingdom Hearts is a series of video games created by Square Enix (the company behind the mega-popular Final Fantasy franchise) that takes players through several different Disney worlds over the course of an epic quest. It’s an action/role-playing game: essentially you’re moving a character and battling in real time, and you’ve got experience points, spell casting, and new abilities that you acquire as you progress. As you gain new items–weapons, armor, accessories, etc–you can equip them in order to boost various stats. In most cases you can choose which world to go to when, too, so you’re not bound to a strict linear path. The action is often broken up by animated sequences that further the story.
There are many games featuring Disney characters out there, and most are aimed at a younger audience, so people unfamiliar with the franchise may assume that Kingdom Hearts is also for kids. The series, though, is really geared more for older players. While the games are fairly “family friendly” in that there’s no profanity, revealing costumes, or sexual content, the gameplay can be challenging and the story is deep and complex (and, as I’ll explain soon, gets quite convoluted). If you’re familiar with role-playing games (RPGs) in general, and Japanese role-playing games in particular, you already know that their narratives can get really confusing. Kingdom Hearts is no exception. Over the course of the several-game series things definitely get weird.
I’ll do my best, though, to offer an overview:
At the center of the Kingdom Hearts story is Sora, and he’s the character that the player most often controls throughout the series. Sora is a young boy (an original character created for the game) whose island home is destroyed by creatures known as the Heartless, beings made up of darkness who are determined to snuff out goodness and light. Sora ends up gaining the ability to wield a keyblade–a magical weapon shaped like a big key–and uses it to fight these monsters. His home is destroyed, his childhood friends Kairi and Riku are lost in the chaos, and he finds himself in a strange town where he meets and teams up with Donald Duck and Goofy. They work for Mickey Mouse–the king of Disney Castle–as his court magician and captain of the guard, and they’ve been sent out by Queen Minnie to find him after he mysteriously vanished.
They all board a spaceship, called the Gummi Ship, which allows them to fly between worlds, and over the course of their quest they interact with a bunch of different Disney (and Final Fantasy) characters. They help Aladdin in Agrabah, team up with Jack Skellington in Halloween Town, swim under the sea with Ariel, fight alongside Tron inside a computer, and many more. The Heartless have infested all of these worlds, which means a lot of combat for Sora, Donald, and Goofy in their travels. Additionally, many Disney villains are working with the Heartless under the command of Maleficent, so the heroes face off against the likes of Hades and Ursula during their adventure. There’s also Chip and Dale as mechanics who keep the ship flying, and Daisy Duck is a lady in Disney Castle. Huey, Dewey, and Louie pop up, as does Uncle Scrooge. Pluto happens by every now and again. Pete is a bad guy who teams up with Maleficent to unleash Heartless across the worlds. Sora also gains the ability to summon even more characters to help him in combat, like Stitch and Tinkerbell, making Kingdom Hearts possibly the biggest mash-up of Disney characters outside of the theme parks themselves (and the Disney Infinity video games). Even Winnie the Pooh makes an appearance.
The concept of light and darkness plays heavily into the tale, and as the series progresses we learn that there were once many keyblade wielders until a big “Keyblade War” wiped most of them out. After that there were only a select few who could wield the weapons, charged with maintaining the balance between darkness and light. There’s also a place called Kingdom Hearts in the games, which is the heart of all the worlds. It kind of looks like a big heart-shaped moon in the sky when it appears, and the villains are trying to get there because it’ll give them untold power. There’s also the Princesses of Heart (Disney princesses, plus original Kingdom Hearts character Kairi), and there’s a trio of keyblade wielders who sort of got the ball rolling when Sora was just a small child (you play as all three in Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep, which is a prequel to Sora’s adventure). Then there’s a group of powerful enemies known as Organization XIII who have their own sinister agenda. Not to mention Maleficent running around trying to gain control of Kingdom Hearts to conquer everything, Mickey occasionally showing up to kick butt with his own keyblade, and Sora’s doppleganger Roxas. That’s not even taking into account the memory-altering witch, or the evil guy who possesses someone and then proceeds to take on the name of someone else.
Like I said, things get weird.
The game is made by Square Enix, though most of the characters (aside from the Final Fantasy ones) belong to Disney. That includes any originals–like Sora, Kairi, and Riku–that are made specifically for the series. A couple of Kingdom Hearts trading pins have been made available in the parks at different times, one for a special event and one (Mickey wearing a black cloak) as a general release. At a cast member appreciation party in Walt Disney World earlier this year, Donald and Goofy appeared in their Kingdom Hearts outfits for a meet & greet. Donald, Goofy, and Sora all appeared at Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party in 2004 for the release of Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories. At the D23 Expo 2017, during a panel about Disney video games, a new trailer was shown for Kingdom Hearts 3. It was revealed there that a Toy Story world would be a part of the upcoming game, joining the Big Hero 6 and Tangled worlds that had already been announced.
So how did this all happen? Well, there was this elevator in Tokyo…
The birth of Kingdom Hearts actually started with a conversation between a couple of producers at Square. They were talking about making a new action game, which led them to mention Nintendo’s Super Mario 64 and how popular the Mario character was worldwide. Only Disney, they felt, had properties even more well known around the globe, so they spitballed an idea for a game that included some of those characters. At the time, both Square and Disney had offices in the same Japanese office building, and when one of those producers found himself riding an elevator with a Disney executive he went ahead and pitched the concept. As the idea was further fleshed out, the original plan was for it to be aimed at children. However, Hironobu Sakaguchi–the creator of Final Fantasy–stressed that if the game were to succeed it would need a deep story. Given how crazy popular the Final Fantasy games are, the man probably knows what he’s talking about. So, the project evolved.
When work on the game got underway in early 2000, Disney offered Square unprecedented access to their franchises, and didn’t put too many restrictions on how they were incorporated into the game. The writers were sure to keep the characters true to their film representations, though, and in most cases also kept them within their own settings. So you’d never see Tron running around Pride Rock, for example. I have heard (though I can’t find the source now, so this may or may not be accurate) that one issue Disney did have was with the suggestion that Sora wield a sword. They felt that it was just too violent to have him hacking up enemies, so the designers came up with the (now quite iconic) keyblade.
Animal Kingdom had opened at Walt Disney World shortly before work on the game got underway, and the producers were inspired by that and the idea of Disney theme park “kingdoms”. Plus, there was the story’s focus on the light and darkness within peoples’ hearts. Thus, Kingdom Hearts.
One aspect in many video games, particularly role-playing games, is that the voice acting can be pretty bad (sometimes hilariously so). Kingdom Hearts has more or less bucked that trend by having consistently decent voice work, and the games have even had a fair number of big-name voice performers play characters: Mark Hamill, Christopher Lee, and Leonard Nimoy have all taken on roles in various Kingdom Hearts games. While some of the characters from Disney movies are played by sound-alike performers (with varying degrees of success), many iconic voices also reprised their roles, including Jodi Benson as Ariel, Tony Anselmo as Donald Duck, and more. This has helped bring the characters to life, and really given the games a cinematic feel.
The first game quickly became a hit when it was released in 2002, and since then Kingdom Hearts has become a phenomenon with countless fans around the globe. The series has grown to include several best-selling games across a handful of different consoles, and there’s a mobile game available on iPhone and Android smartphones. There’s also a lot of merchandise out there, including books, clothing, action figures, and even Halloween costumes.
I discovered the first game about a year after it launched. I didn’t really know anything about it other than that it was an action/RPG that featured Disney characters, but that was enough to pique my interest. I picked up a copy, gave it a try, and was instantly hooked. I thought the way it presented the Disney worlds was neat, and the story and the original aspects (like the keyblade) were really cool. I’ve played a lot of Disney games over the years, and many of them are fun in their own ways, but at the same time the bulk of them are designed for younger players. There are exceptions–Lion King and Aladdin for the old Sega Genesis were brutally difficult even for experienced gamers–but in general there’s a perceived “audience” for Disney and game publishers will aim their products for that demographic. One of the things that sets Kingdom Hearts apart is that it doesn’t simplify anything, and therefore appeals to older Disney fans. It takes Disney characters and puts them into an epic adventure, combining both the rich stories of Disney movies and the intense depth of role-playing video games.
I considered myself a pretty big fan, but hadn’t really thought much about the games in a while. Then, in early 2016, the mobile game Kingdom Hearts Unchained x (now Kingdom Hearts Union Cross, which I wrote a bit about here) was released in the US. I downloaded it, got addicted to it, and it brought back how much I really enjoyed the world of Kingdom Hearts. So I went online, purchased the entire series, and dove back in. As the game release order and the storyline order do not match, I played them all in the proper order of the story this time and not when each game hit shelves. I immersed myself in Kingdom Hearts, playing through each game and falling in love with the series all over again (even with Chain of Memories, which foregoes the usual gameplay for a weird card-based system). As each game can be pretty long–it’s easy to sink 40 hours or more into each one–it’s taken a considerable chunk of time.
OK, so why am I writing about all of this? Well, there are a couple of reasons:
The first is, as I’ve said, I’m a huge fan of the Kingdom Hearts series. I’ve played the games, I own some merchandise, and I can name all of the members of Organization XIII. So, I wanted to share this obsession with my readers (even if it meant taking a break from playing in order to write about it).
The second reason is that sometimes it’s fun to explore beyond the theme parks and movies. You may have heard of the games but had no idea what they were, or perhaps this is the first mention of them you’ve ever come across, but Kingdom Hearts is a part of the larger Disney universe (in its way) so I wanted to introduce people to it. The series is huge, complex, and not necessarily for everyone. There’s also a bit of financial investment to buy consoles and games. So I don’t expect everyone to rush out and play it (though I think you’d dig it, and I certainly suggest checking it out if any of this piqued your interest). Either way, though, the next time you’re out and about and you see an action figure of Mickey Mouse holding a giant key or you see pics of Donald and Goofy with a spiky-haired kid, you’ll know what’s up.
Now, if you’ll excuse me–Pete teamed up with Maleficent to unleash monsters everywhere, a guy in a black cloak just tried to kidnap Belle, and I’m late for a musical rehearsal with Sebastian. Gotta go save the kingdom!