Several years back, I had the privilege of spending an extended vacation (let’s call it “grad school”) in the San Francisco Bay Area. During the “grad school” years, we had a good bit of time to enjoy the environment and various locales of the fantabulous place that is northern California. One day in late 2003, we took a heady trip into San Francisco’s city proper to visit what we had heard was its entertainment and shopping mecca: The Metreon. (I can’t bear to link to it…now it’s called the Metreon Mall, ugh. Boo, SF) It had an IMAX theatre, places to eat, stuff to buy, things to see, and, most importantly, a place to game. Well…a place to game Sony’s way, that is. The Metreon was the brainchild of Sony as a way to get its products out to the people. And so it was that at the Metreon I was introduced to a little game called Kingdom Hearts.
Now, despite the fact that I wasn’t much of a rabid gamer during those years, I had heard that there was a new RPG out in the ether that included Disney characters. As a lifelong Disney fan, I was excited but unsure. My previous knowledge of video games involving Disney characters was relegated to games for children. I didn’t understand how the characters would translate into a more adult and darker setting.
My experience at the Metreon changed all that. There in their game room with my better half occupied by the latest installment of Tony Hawk, amongst the crowd of all crowds (and I don’t like crowds, so that’s saying something), I thought I might as well play something. So I “gently nudged” my way to an empty station, unaware of what game waited, and played through a good 15 minutes of KH.
I bought the game that evening.
Spoilers of the 2003 variety ahead…
In Kingdom Hearts, the Disney world exists without question alongside your own. The main character is Sora, a young boy who, through help of a massive storm, becomes separated from two of his best friends, the moody Riku and the syrupy Kairi. And because he can’t live without moody and syrupy, he goes on a quest to find them. Meanwhile, in the Disney realm, the same storm has also caused the disappearance of Mickey Mouse – king of the realm. His two mates, Donald Duck – a jester or wizard? – and Goofy, he’s a captain I remember, set off to find him. Sora, Donald, and Goofy come into contact and together they learn about the “Heartless,” the evil creatures that a responsible for the storm. They decide to team up to not only find their friends but also defeat the Heartless. And in addition to the Disney mash-up, the game also mashed in FFVII characters, like Cloud, Aerith, Cid, and Sephiroth.
Sora’s weapon was the Keyblade, which he obtained through some magical whatnot, and which is explained by the likes of his FFVII comrades. The “keeper” of the Heartless was the game’s primary villain, Maleficent. (She is truly the best, most evil, and my most favorite Disney villain of all time. Seriously, did you not see the hellfire and dragon in Sleeping Beauty??) I forget exactly what drove the Heartless on their road to…er…heartlessness, but Sora’s Keyblade played a big role in their defeat as well as unlocking (haha, get it? unlocking…Keyblade… :/) the final secret of the game.
KH’s gameplay — I don’t know how unique it was in the grand scheme of RPGs — was new to me. Unlike the strict-turn based system used in FFVII and the like, KH combined action elements with turn-based RPGing that used a card system. I am so totally not going to describe this correctly, but throughout the game Sora (and Donald and Goofy, whom you could also play) collected cards that could be “played” during battles to induce melee, spells, and summons. You could order and re-order your cards in just about any way you wanted — though you could only hold so many cards at a time — and that order affected battles and their outcomes. I’ll admit, I never got a handle on the system and played much of the game as a button-masher, which led to some really frustrating play.
But as a whole, I really enjoyed KH, especially the music. Like many Japanese-based games, KH had some memorable and emotive music.
The whole soundtrack is fairly strong and each piece works well in its chosen environment. I loved that the tunes ranged from fun and simple to grand and orchestral.
As for the iffy combat system, I think I was the only one who had a problem with it. I mean, I got how to use the cards, but I don’t think I ever really used them to their full advantage. My gaming picked up a little speed during 2003-2004, but I had nowhere near the hours I wanted to devote to learning every aspect of any given game, let alone KH’s combat system. (I also missed out on many a secret, I’m sure).
Still, the game is pretty awesome. It’s fun to see your favorite Disney characters beating the crap out of enemies, and even more to re-imagine them in the unsettled world of Kingdom Hearts. And just about any Disney character you can think of is somewhere in this game. From the traditional (Mickey Mouse) to the modern (Hades from Hercules). The graphics were also really good – colorful, bright when needed, as well as a little creepy at times. The linear play was never boring and there were side quests a-plenty. Oh, and what about that all-star voice cast, eh? Remember Haley Joel Osmond? I see dead people and all that? Uh, how about Hayden Panettiere? Where has she been since Heroes? Mandy Moore, that guy currently on Bones…oh and hey…Lance Bass. Lance Bass, amirite?! C’mon…the man voiced Sephiroth. Yeah, I don’t understand how in the unholy name of NKOTBSB that happened either.