Kingdom Hearts is a franchise that had humble origins between Disney and Squaresoft talking in an elevator “What if we blend our two more successful IP’s and see what happens? That sounds like a crazy idea….wait, we are going to do this?! Okay then!” And thus, Kingdom Hearts was born. There is a lot more to this that, but Kingdom Hearts really started out as a simple concept that just grew over time.
Now, the series is a massive icon in the realm of action-role playing games with the upcoming release of the long awaited Kingdom Hearts III making people hungry for more Kingdom Hearts.
Lets dive into the heart and look into of the original that started it all.
Back in the late 90’s, many people were trying hard to capture the success of Super Mario 64, as the game was groundbreaking for 3D movement and controls. Squaresoft felt the same, with Shinji Hashimoto and Hironobu Sakaguchi desiring to make a Mario 64-like game.
They were planning to make a game with freedom of movement in three dimensions like Super Mario 64 but lamented that only characters as popular as Disney’s could rival a Mario game. Tetsuya Nomura, overhearing their conversation, volunteered to lead the project and the two producers agreed to let him direct. All of this sounded like a great idea, but they needed one thing; Disney. They wanted high success and figured Disney IP like Mickey could allow for this.
Remember my opening with Disney & Squaresoft meeting in an elevator regarding the pitch for this? I wasn’t joking!
A chance meeting between Hashimoto and a Disney executive in an elevator—Square and Disney had previously worked in the same building in Japan—allowed Hashimoto to pitch the idea directly to Disney. Nomura struck down a number of proposals from Disney in order to pursue his own concept featuring an original character not based on a Disney property. The production team consisted of over one hundred members from both Square and Disney Interactive
This pushed the production of the project and as a result, Kingdom Hearts entered development on the PS2. Originally the story for the game was going to be very simple and have its roots linked into the platformer genre far more. But after some consideration, Squaresoft decided to make the game have a more in-depth story and RPG elements. Why this decision? The game was going to have Squaresoft characters anyway, so they wanted to go the nine yards and represent their IP properly by having grand stories and RPG elements in this new IP.
Some final interesting information on this games development is that Sora was originally designed in mind to be a lion-like character and his keyblade mirrored a chainsaw. Disney thought it was to ‘excessive’ so they decided on a more new design for Sora giving him large gloves, red/yellow color scheme and big shoes, all being nods to Mickey Mouse’s design.
When your game is going to be using Disney IP, you want to have the highest quality voice actors to reprise the roles of icons, so what better picks then the original voice actors themselves!
Kingdom Hearts featured well-known voice actors for both the Japanese and English versions. The Japanese version featured Miyu Irino as Sora, Risa Uchida as Kairi, and Mamoru Miyano as Riku. Other notable voice actors included Kōichi Yamadera, Hideo Ishikawa, and Maaya Sakamoto. A special effort was made to preserve the official voice actors of characters from the Disney movies used in Kingdom Hearts. Some of the voice actors from the related television series or direct-to-video sequels were chosen over the original voice actors from films, where applicable (e.g. Dan Castellaneta as Genie, rather than Robin Williams). The English version featured Haley Joel Osment as Sora, David Gallagher as Riku, and Hayden Panettiere as Kairi. Other notable voice actors included Billy Zane, Christy Carlson Romano, David Boreanaz, James Woods, and Mandy Moore.
Musically, the game had a lot of key talent as well.
Yoko Shimomura composed and produced the music of Kingdom Hearts. While there are arranged melodies derived from previous Disney films, most of the soundtrack consists of original themes written specifically for the game by Shimomura. The opening orchestration and ending credits theme were arranged and orchestrated by Kaoru Wada and performed by the New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra.
Yoko Shimomura is famous for not just Kingdom Hearts but for scores like Super Mario RPG, the Mario & Luigi series, Parasite Eve and more.
The story is of a young boy named Sora living on the Destiny Islands with his best friends Riku & Kiari. They have goals of leaving the island to explore the other worlds they hear stories of and all the while, Sora is having dreams he doesn’t fully comprehend the meaning of. He helps build a raft with Riku & Kiari, ending a hard days work. But soon a storm is hits and the entire island is engulfed in darkness. Sora runs out to see what is going on but he is surrounded by these shadow creatures. As he is about to get attacked, he summons a Key-shaped sword. He fends the creatures off until he bumps into his two friends.
Riku is going to be accepted into the shadows while Kiari vanishes as Sora is about to grab her. Then this giant creature comes out of the ground and Sora fights it, remembering it being the same creature he fought in one of his dreams. After taking it out, it flings Sora into the sky and he passes out.
After being woken up by Mickey’s Dog Pluto, he realizes he isn’t on the islands anymore. This is where the story beings, with Sora encountering many Squaresoft & Disney characters like Leon, Cid and Donald. Sora teams up with Donald and Goofy, as the later two latch on to Sora as he is the ‘key’ King Mickey asked them to find.
The story is honestly very simple from this point onward, with Sora & friends visiting the other Disney worlds and saving them from the shadow creatures called Heartless. In addition to taking out the Heartless, famous Disney Villains work together to capture the Princesses of Heart under the command of a mysterious foe called Ansem: Seeker of Darkness. This was a great way to connect the various Disney worlds together and giving them importance in the larger story.
The final hours of the plot take a turn for the serious and Sora & Friends enter Hollow Bastion. This is where the end-game is and one of my favorite parts of the games story. Sora learns that he can fully trust his friends and understands what he has to do in order to save the ones closest to him.
His actions had odd effects, which lead to specific events that happen in Chain of Memories & Kingdom Hearts II. Overall, I liked this story and its one of the stronger story’s in the entire KH’s series honestly to me. Simple, but effective. Not confusing, but deep.
The gameplay of Kingdom Hearts sticks out compared to other Squaresoft games at the time, as it ditches Turn Based Combat in favor for real time combat. This move was to push the games platforming elements and it was a good move. Sora feels right to control and the early dodge-roll ability you learn allows you to carefully avoid attacks with not much issue.
Swordplay is mapped to the X button and you don’t have much option regarding combo potential; all you can do is mash X. But there is special parts to this, as you can use the command menu (D-Pad + X or Right Stick + R3) to select magic or special ‘limit’ attacks that use up a fraction of your Magic Wheel.
This ensures that you have depth to the combat but its never too complicated. Sora also learns more abilities like high jump, gliding and more which gives levels quite open designs. However, this ties into the games biggest issue; the camera. Its not bad, as you can work with it and get used to it. But it does rear it’s ugly head in a few key worlds and it makes platforming harder than it needs to be.
Magic is a part of the basic combat system and comes in iconic flavors like Fire, Blizzard, Thunder and Cure. However it also comes with fun ones like Areo which can defend you from attacks or Gravity which can push your foes to the ground. When they get higher leveled, it gets really fun to play with the magic system then.
But it pales in comparison to later games and makes the game feel ‘stiff’ when it really doesn’t need to be, more so considering the fun and responsive combat mechanics. It really becomes an issue with worlds like Deep Jungle and Wonderland where platforming is heavily pushed.
Another issue the gameplay has is the AI support, as they are a bit dumb. Meaning, they can waste a lot of potions and mana potions. But you can set the AI commands in the games menus so that isn’t too much of a problem. Overall, Kingdom Hearts 1 sets up a great template for future games and what is present is very solid overall.
Exploring the Disney Worlds
Now this is the reason I got into the series, the Disney worlds. Each Kingdom Hearts game has different worlds to explore, with the ones featured here including the following.
- Wonderland (Alice in Wonderland)
- Olympus (Hercules)
- Deep Jungle (Tarzan)
- Monstro (Pinocho)
- Agrabah (Aladin)
- Little Mermaid
- Halloween Town (Nightmare Before Christmas)
The original worlds of the game include now iconic locations like Destiny Islands, Traverse Town & Hollow Bastion.
Kingdom Hearts is infamous for its visuals and music, with every location feeling ripped right out of the Disney movie its based off of. I personally love the detail in given to worlds like Deep Jungle and Holloween Town for example. The sound effects also have a lot of impact, as each swing of your Keyblade is rewarding and with different effects depending on the Keychain used (what you equip your Keyblade with to change its look/stats), it always makes battles visually and audibly interesting.
The music in Kingdom Hearts is amazing as well, as every track is done so well and has a lot of heart & passion put into it. The links I will be connecting too will be from the 1.5 HD Remix, which was re-orchestrated with the games original composer in addition to Falk doing a lot of work with sound team to remaster every track.
Kingdom Hearts is a great start for this very long series of games and I hope you all enjoyed my look through the original that started it all! I have grater attachment to later games like Chain of Memories and Kingdom Hearts II but I respect this one for starting the foundations that later games built off of.
If you want to play this, consider playing the 1.5 HD Remix version on PS3, as it has new content from the JP release of Final Mix (new bosses) and has the remasters music & visuals.
All music linked to in this article belongs under the copyright of Square Enix and Disney.