Sunday, March 3, 2019

My Road to Kingdom Hearts: Part 2

I’ve been getting back into Kingdom Hearts lately. Replaying the originals, diving into the spin-offs for the first time, and watching Katrina experience the adventure from the beginning. While doing so, I’ve been thinking about my personal journey to this point and reliving my memories of the series. Join me for Part 2, focusing on Kingdom Hearts II and Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories.

Kingdom Hearts was a hit and everyone was talking about it. I think? It came out in 2002 before the internet as we know it so I’m really not sure how aware we were of things being popular. It was just a matter of who was talking about it at school.

It was certainly a bizarre experience to see the kinds of people at school who wouldn’t normally play an anime-esque action-adventure RPG about a kid with spiky hair, but here we were. The power of the house of mouse, huh?

I’ll be honest, I didn’t beat the original Kingdom Hearts right away. It took me a while. Like… three years? It was a long time. It wasn’t for lack of trying. I’d get stuck on really hard bosses (Oogie Boogie) or somehow my save data would mysteriously vanish (my little brother) but eventually, I finally got to that emotional, climactic moment.

By that point, a few gaming magazines had trickled into the house and I found myself spending more time on the rising community of gamers on the internet. Soon, I became aware of the next project to feature Goofy, Donald Duck, and a kid with big shoes and spiky hair.

Chain of Memories is probably technically a sequel to the first game. Although “probably technically a sequel” could apply to every game in the series. Even the first one. But it wasn’t all that complicated at the time.

Bringing pixelated graphics to the handheld Gameboy Advance, Chain of Memories featured a card-based battle system where everything except Sora was a card. Donald and Goofy were only summonable in battle as cards. Spells and even basic attacks were cards. Even the rooms you explored were generated from cards.

Despite being a big fan of card games and anime like Digimon Tamers and Yu-Gi-Oh!, the card gimmick of the GBA game wasn’t enough for me. While the graphics were all brand new, everything else was exactly the same.

The same characters, the same worlds, and for much of the case the same story and even word for word scenes. The memory concept seems to have just been a way to explain Sora reliving many of his adventures from the first game.

I don’t think any of my friends at the time ever got the game. We were growing out of Nintendo’s cute handhelds and heading to the fully 3D world of the PlayStation 2. I do once remember being at a Gamestop in a mall while on vacation and finding a fairly cheap used copy. Since Kingdom Hearts II was still a ways away, I figured, “Why not?” but the line was too long to make my parents wait for it. So instead I saved my money for the true Kingdom Hearts sequel.

I followed a lot of hype for Kingdom Hearts II in various gaming magazines and a few websites. Who was this weird blond kid with two Keyblades? Why does Sora sometimes have different clothes? What’s up with all these black cloaks? How in the actual hell are they going to adapt live-action movies?

While the second game did feature the return of six worlds from the first game, they were all completely redesigned, new experiences. We also got plenty of new worlds from Disney films such as Mulan and the Lion King.

And strangely we got to visit the live-action worlds of Pirates of the Caribbean - which was a brand new film and hardly a classic - and Tron - a flop that had a cult following at best. They even got creative with a world that time travels back to the black and white world of the earliest Mickey Mouse shorts.

The game also felt like it had grown up with the players. There was more emphasis on the original characters instead of Disney ones, and the plot started to get a bit more complex. The Final Fantasy characters now sported new, all-black looks inspired by the Advent Children movie. The most noticeable change was the drop in Haley Joel Osment’s voice, providing a more mature voice for Sora.

However, Kingdom Hearts II wasn’t all improvements. The prologue was drawn out and boring. Levels were designed more on action and gimmicky enemies than exploration and puzzles. Some of the worlds, especially Atlantica, were likeable filler. The magic system, my favorite aspect of the original, was absolutely obliterated. Reaction Commands took over special moves, relegated the majority of combat to “hit the triangle button at the right time.” It felt over designed with the addition of Limits and Drives.

I will say that the game handled its connection to the spin-off marvelously. From the opening cinematic I fully understood the basics of what went down in Chain of Memories. Sora, Donald, and Goofy don’t even remember it so it’s all good. Most of the villains from that game are dead too. The important parts are spelled out in an organic way. You really don’t “need” to play Chain of Memories to understand the second game.

I definitely liked the first one more and still prefer the first one for its battle system and level design. But I don’t want this to evolve into a review of a fifteen-year-old game, so I’ll try to focus on just my memories of this game.

By the time Kingdom Hearts II was out in the world, it was back to being a more niche game. Nobody except my close friends were playing it. And even then it wasn’t really a topic of conversation. And maybe it was because I was older or the game was easier, but I watched those final cutscenes after just two weeks.

After I beat Kingdom Hearts II, I never really played it again. I got caught up in some easter eggs and mysteries and would occasionally open it up to explore a bit. Can you really lightcycle into a secret part of the Grid? Who was sleeping in those extra pods? Is it really possible to see Kairi’s panties?

In the end, Kingdom Hearts II was a short step on my journey. When I got into recollecting PS2 games a few years ago I replayed all of Kingdom Hearts, but got bored a third of the way into its sequel. It just wasn’t quite the same

For years, I thought this was the end of Kingdom Hearts. The sequel kept getting delayed to the point where I was convinced we’d never see it. But as you all know, that’s not the case. Because while this is the end of my childhood memories of Kingdom Hearts, the story of my journey with the series has only just begun.