When I was in middle school, I placed runner-up in a writing contest sponsored by an environmental organization and won a couple hundred dollars. My parents were nice enough to combine my new cash with theirs so that I could purchase as Playstation 2, my first console. I had owned a Gameboy Color and Advance in the past; I had lived vicariously through my older friend’s collection of SNES cartridges. But while I’d seen it from afar, the Playstation remained off limits to me. Well, no longer. I tromped over to the house of a good friend of mine (let’s call him S) and demanded that he lend me the game that to my younger self embodied the promise and the beauty of modern video games. Kingdom Hearts.
As it happened, S did not lend me his copy of Kingdom Hearts. He gave me Magic Pengel instead—a fun game where you drew monsters with the analog stick and made them fight each other. I loved drawing monsters more than anything, but I also wanted to play Kingdom Hearts. Some time after, I somehow obtained a copy of the game (likely from the mall? In which case, since this was the Philippines, it was a bootleg.) From this point on I lived the adventure for which I had envied my friend S from afar. The surreal opening cutscene set to Hikaru Utada’s “Simple and Clean” (or “Hikari” if you’re an obsessive.) Falling through the dark surrounded by stained glass and living shadows. Young Selphie in the Destiny Isles, who when prompted repeatedly said “I love the sun!”
Kingdom Hearts was something other than an exciting Disney adventure. It was the first real Final Fantasy game I’d played. As a child I’d absorbed most information on the series I could find through osmosis, combing through webrings and fan-run databases. Everything I learned was second-hand, a mess of statistics, glowing reviews and extremely thorough walkthroughs on GameFAQs. Kingdom Hearts was the first time I met Squall, even if it was under a pseudonym. I knew Cloud’s name when he appeared for the first time in Hercules’s Colosseum, but not much else about him. The game was more than just an elaborate fantasy world. It was a door into an ongoing story I had only ever seen second-hand. Kingdom Hearts doesn’t retain much more from its Final Fantasy forefathers than iconography, but that iconography was more than enough.
But as time went by, without fully realizing it I began to drift away from Kingdom Hearts. I ravenously discussed its spin-off Chain of Memories with my classmate N, thrilling over Rikku’s inner struggle and the introduction of Organization XIII. But I never owned it. Similarly, when Kingdom Hearts 2 finally came out, I was hugely excited to play the new game but somehow never got around to it. I watched my friend S play through a world or two, and that was enough. Years later, when Kingdom Hearts 2 had become a comparatively ancient videogame, I stood by my friend E as he defeated the game’s final boss for the second or third time. It was the most extravagant video game fight I had ever seen. In this way, I continued to love the games from afar.
One day I discovered the writing of video game critic Tim Rogers. In the midst of his pieces on Final Fntasy VI (an opera, with all the excess that implies) and Earthbound (a game that made his relative a vegetarian) was an essay on Kingdom Hearts titled “Alone in a Nuclear Disneyland.” At first I refused to read it, believing it was nothing but an attempt by the author to stir things up. After all, everybody knew that Kingdom Hearts was a classic. Eventually, though, I gathered my courage and opened it up. In this essay I read about Kingdom Hearts’s terrible platforming. I read about its bargain bin assemblage of cliches from Japanese role-playing games. I read about the game’s profound feeling of emptiness, its lack of inhabitants besides Sora, his friends, Square-Enix baddies and requisite Disney characters. As time went by, my struggle with Tim’s criticisms became something I decided I needed to reconcile with if I was to have good opinions about video games (I was a teenager.) The series became a guilty pleasure for me. Then, as public opinion turned completely against the series and Kingdom Hearts became a laughing stock, it became something I hated.
If Kingdom Hearts was my proper entry into the Final Fantasy series, it was also an exhibit of how Final Fantasy would fail over the next decade. Following the PS2 era, Square Enix gradually changed from a cultural behemoth to a dinosaur from the mid-2000s. A zombie wearing haute couture from ten years ago. But the seeds were there from the very beginning. While the first Kingdom Hearts game was a charming but relatively simple story of good versus evil, Kingdom Hearts II increased the number of moving parts exponentially. As director Tetsuya Nomura spent millions of dollars experimenting with his pet project and great work of hubris Final Fantasy XIII Versus, Kingdom Hearst was put on hold. To fill in the gap, Nomura and his coworkers gradually released a stream of spin-offs over the next few years. These were meant to flesh out the world for avid fans, and slowly lay the groundwork for the proper third game in the series that could only begin when Versus was complete.
But this delay had a price. Kingdom Hearts soon became a Chain of Stopgaps: a never-ending play for time to keep the audience occupied while Square-Enix frantically churned out concepts and art assets for another game that would never be completed to its director’s satisfaction. As time went on, every other Square-Enix game spawned its own line of spin-offs. Final Fantasy XIII became a trilogy. Final Fantasy XII received a strategy game on the DS that was forgotten soon after its release. Final Fantasy VII was milked endlessly, of course. Even Final Fantasy XIII Versus itself was spun off into Final Fantasy XV, a last-ditch effort by the company to salvage the time and money they had invested in a hopeless project. Of course, there were some good games among these: Lightning Returns is a cult classic, and the work of Hajime Tabata on Crisis Core was enough to score him a job directing XV. But for the most part, during this period the company’s output became an unending purgatory of self-referential (but immaculately produced!) video game environments with excellent music. As Square Enix went nuclear, everything became Kingdom Hearts.
Just a few days ago, I read Tim Rogers’s review of Kingdom Hearts 3 on Kotaku. In this review, he claims that he quite enjoyed the first two games, but wrote those first negative reviews to drum up hits for his blog. It’s one of many other pieces that have been published over the past few months, reexamining the legacy of the Kingdom Hearts series and deciding whether it adds up to more than the performative scorn the internet has showered upon it for years. Julie Muncy describes the series as a pop-art surrealist masterpiece that anticipated other massive media crossovers by decades. Cameron Kunzelmann compares it to Twin Peaks. Myself, I can’t help but look at Square-Enix’s cutscenes from the PS2 era and think of how few games today capture their blend of ambition, melodrama and spookiness. Independent game creators have spent years mining Metroid and Final Fantasy VI for inspiration, but surely Final Fantasy X has lessons left to teach? Games like Paratopic are just beginning to broach the PSX era for inspiration; the PS2 era remains an unexplored frontier. Perhaps Kingdom Hearts is its Rosetta stone.
I’m still trying to work out how I feel about the Kingdom Hearts games as an adult. I love Yoko Shimomura’s music. The series is beloved by many of my close friends. I realize now that by turning away from the series on the recommendation of another critic, I was denying myself the chance to decide how I felt about it. But I also can’t deny that when seen from a historical perspective, the Kingdom Hearts bears all the symptoms of Square-Enix’s fatal disease. Kingdom Hearts wasn’t just my first real introduction to Final Fantasy: it was Final Fantasy’s apex, the point from which its creators’s stubborn indulgence would divorce their work from the wider conversation they longed to dominate. Every modern Square-Enix game exists in the shadow of Versus. But somehow, in the midst of that chaos, Kingdom Hearts III survived. I’m glad that after all these years, we finally have a chance to experience it.