Save States: ‘Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMix’
-Game: ‘Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix‘
-Original release date and platform: September 16, 2002 exclusively for the PlayStation 2
-Original developer and publisher: Square (now Square Enix)
-Version played: ‘Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMix‘ on the PlayStation 3
-One of my favourite games as a teenager
-I have completed it three times total
-I am a lifelong RPG and ‘Final Fantasy’ fan
2002 saw the release of both Microsoft’s ultra-serious newcomer console, the Xbox and Nintendo’s awkward but lovable GameCube, both of which would struggle to catch the already soaring PlayStation 2. The thunder had been officially stolen from Nintendo outside the handheld market and – for better or worse – the entire gaming industry was turning into a playground for teenaged boys. With the major shift from 2D to 3D playing out on the previous generation, focus was moving toward creating new franchises. 2002 alone saw the launch of the ‘Ratchet & Clank‘, ‘Sly Cooper‘, and ‘Splinter Cell‘ series’ in addition to the creation of ‘Kingdom Hearts‘. This was the era of budding 3D gaming technology that led to Sony’s hubris with the PS3 after all. This was the console that made them believe nothing could go wrong. It was this landscape that allowed the absurd concept of ‘Kingdom Hearts‘ to come to exist in the appropriately absurd manner in which it did.
I was surprised to find in my research that it was not just urban legend that spawned the story of ‘Kingdom Hearts‘ being pitched in an elevator due to the the coincidental proximity of Disney and Square’s Japanese offices. I was also surprised to hear that Tetsuya Nomura got his big break because he happened to overhear a discussion about the game and asked right then to direct it. But, after the surprise, it made perfect sense. It was exactly that sort of spontaneous excitement that surrounded the announcement and release of ‘Kingdom Hearts’. Square was still riding high on the commercial and critical success of ‘Final Fantasy X‘ and to see them team so ambitiously with Disney made fans feel like the future was bright for RPGs and creativity in gaming in general. This was before the dawn of full-blown Summer Blockbuster-style gaming – ‘Grand Theft Auto III‘ had only just been released and both ‘Call of Duty‘ and ‘Assassin’s Creed‘ were only gleams in Activision and Ubisoft’s eyes – and AAA gaming still had the wiggle room to take major risks. ‘Kingdom Hearts‘ had Disney voice actors, big (ish) names attached to the lead characters, and the sense that it was a series to exist alongside ‘Final Fantasy‘. The hype was enormous.
The Way it Plays Today
I went into this playthrough of ‘Kingdom Hearts‘ expecting to run into mild disappointment supported by a healthy dose of nostalgia. The game looked great in HD despite its age, proving that a good art style will always hold up no matter the technological generation during which it was created, but the game’s platforming mechanics and hack and slash focus were far clumsier than I expected and the level design – that I used to praise as the best in the series – was almost comic in its own claustrophobic arbitrary way. And that’s not even mentioning the Gummi Ship, the single most useless and misguided element in any modern popular game that I can think of at the moment.
But when I reached Hollow Bastion, things started falling into place. The game felt like it did when I was a teenager. The battles required some thought, the level design wasn’t perfect, but it was on the right track, and the story ramped itself up to “moderately interesting” status. And then that’s when it hit me. The original ‘Kingdom Hearts‘ is a game that was – intentionally or not – built backwards. After Sora has all his end-game abilities, both combat and exploration make way more sense in the context of the rest of the game. It’s nothing new to slowly award new moves to a player over time, but usually the rest of the game matches this progression. In ‘Kingdom Hearts‘, progression doesn’t feel like the slow build of a character, but rather the frustrating restriction of access to a full moveset.
When ‘Kingdom Hearts‘ was released it was a delightful anomaly in the video game world. It was still as Japanese and dramatic as most Square titles, but it allowed for a light-hearted whimsy with the inclusion of many Disney universes tied into the deceptively humble beginnings of what would grow to be Nomura’s overly complicated brainchild. Looking back, it feels like the novelty of all these elements – along with the excellent animation work – carried most gamers through until the game actually started to play well. It made sense at the time, but the best games don’t age and ‘Kingdom Hearts‘ feels as old as it is.
Next week I play a game that was made by what used to be a beloved developer for the Nintendo 64 and was highly anticipated at the time of release, but got a lukewarm reception. It will be my first time playing it.