These days, crossovers between IP are all the rage, and it is admittedly a mixed bag. As thrilling as it can often be to see three different eras of Spider-Men hang out with each other or watch Master Chief ride the Iron Giant into a battlefield, that kind of shine does have the potential of losing its lustre the more of it you get. But these things hit especially hard when we’re young, and for kids who grew up during the 90s and 2000s, affection for big IP crossovers likely began with one Kingdom Hearts.
Developed by Square Enix and originally a PlayStation 2 exclusive, the original Kingdom Hearts released on September 17, 2002. Then-Square employees Shinji Hashimoto and Hironobu Sakaguchi were discussing a 3D movement game to rival Super Mario 64, and they quickly realised that the only thing that could match Nintendo’s plumber would be Disney characters. As Square and Disney were sharing offices in Japan at the time, Hashimoto later pitched the project directly to a Disney executive on the elevator. The game would be the directorial debut of Tetsuya Nomura, then a character designer for Final Fantasy VII who was given the green light to direct from Hashimoto and Sakaguchi after he overheard their conversation.
Despite all of Disney’s ideas, Nomura shot those down in favour of focusing on his own idea for the game to feature an original character. With no restrictions on worlds to incorporate from then-Disney president Bob Iger, and being informed by Hashimoto that the game had to reach the same level of success as Final Fantasy, Nomura and his writing team — Jun Akiyama (Final Fantasy VII and Tactics), Daisuke Watanabe (Final Fantasy X), and Kazushige Nojima (Final Fantasy VII and VIII) — got to work. Kingdom Hearts I focuses on Sora, a teenager who dreams of leaving his home of Destiny Islands to explore new worlds with his childhood friends Riku and Kairi. When both of them are taken by monsters called the Heartless, Sora endeavours to rescue his friends with the help of Disney characters Donald Duck and Goofy. Armed with a Keyblade, Sora, Donald, and Goofy travel through multiple worlds based on Disney films (Olympus from Hercules, the Deep Jungle from Tarzan, etc.) to meet with those films characters and prevent the films from being consumed by the Heartless.
Kingdom Hearts sold very well, and is often cited as one of the best PS2 games ever. Beyond being a game with an interesting, if strange hook, it came out not long before the 2022 holiday season, and became one of the top-selling titles for that time of the year. Critically, the game received pretty good praise, even as there was criticism about the Gummi Ship and the game’s real-time combat system. In Japan, the game received a “Final Mix,” or what we’d nowadays essentially call a complete and patched version that would later become the game’s default version when it was later ported to other consoles like the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One.
Through various spinoffs, manga, and sequels with some lengthy development times (to be kind about it), Kingdom Hearts lives on to this day. The longer the series has gone on and the bigger its mythology gets, it remains a franchise that players love, even as they’ve made their gripes with the story and Nomura’s character choices pretty clear. This is a series that is memorable in that even if you haven’t played the games, you know of it somehow. Whether it’s through cultural osmosis, memes, or its excellent opening songs by Utada Hikaru, you’ve got a part of Kingdom Hearts in you.
Kingdom Hearts is a series that’s truly of its moment. In its original state, that first game is deeply committed to itself in a way that kids with active imaginations just generally are. Nomura and his writers are being deeply sincere in the story they’re telling, and that kind of sincerity isn’t something that Disney’s always capable of letting stand on its own these days. The circumstances were truly in this game’s favour back then, when a release from Disney didn’t feel like it was overbearing, and when Square Enix wasn’t undermining its own games or going through a strange transitional period.
No doubt the original game would’ve sold well today, but would it be as beloved and memorable in an age where crossovers are standard operating procedure instead of something you were pleasantly surprised by? Likely not. But that’s something that we’ll be seeing soon: the series has ended its “Dark Seeker Saga” and is moving on to a new chapter of its life with Kingdom Hearts IV. With that game and the loss of Sora’s big-arse shoes, we’ll be seeing more than ever what it means for the series to exist not as an upstart trying to prove itself, but an arm of two of the biggest companies on the planet.
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