RPG Club Plays Kingdom Hearts: Week 2
Hey everyone! RPG Club is back for more Disney x Squaresoft shenanigans! Go check out last week’s post, and then stick around for this week, about how much Kingdom Hearts bummed some of us out, and how much some of us are enjoying our first ventures into this world of madness.
Pull up a chair, make a hot cocoa, and give us a read.
There’s something heartbreaking about replaying a game you loved as a child only to discover it aged like mayonnaise in the sun. Having spent dozens of hours in middle school bashing my way through the Heartless, I was confident in both my abilities and Kingdom Hearts itself.
But upon stepping foot in those worlds, things didn’t go quite like I remembered.
In my mind, Wonderland, Deep Jungle (home to Tarzan), and Traverse Town were pretty simple, quick adventures to get Sora’s feet wet and level us a few times. In reality, they’re unintuitive walks back and forth across the same rooms, hoping to stumble into the next plot point. Few makers exist to push you towards the next objective, and dozens of heartless flood each room.
Wonderland’s design I can forgive to a large degree. After all, it’s supposed to be a pretty bizarre place, so one would expect to get lost. Still, it boils down to a process of elimination trying to figure out what you haven’t interacted with, and thus, where you haven’t been. But Deep Jungle fares just as badly at the other end of the spectrum. You just run back and forth from one end of the hallway world to the other until the hunter Clayton reveals that he’s evil. That’s it.
Traverse Town is the most aggravating of the bunch. The puzzles simply refuse to activate until you watch a few very specific scenes. Even if you already know about the bell tower puzzle required to unlock the boss, you can’t do it until the game says so. You can reach it and all the constituent parts, which you could not reach during your first visit I might add, but there’s nothing to do…until you talk to Leon.
Sure, Donald and Goofy suggest checking in with Leon as does Yuffie in the town square. What they forget to mention is that you have to talk to him TWICE. Just once won’t do it. Of course, there’s no indication that he has additional wisdom to grumble at you, instead giving the impression that you missed something the first time.
As a youngster, I had unlimited time to joyfully crack convoluted plot puzzles, but now as an adult, they’re infuriating. Contemporary game design may earn criticism from having way too much handholding, but I much prefer that to the “wander ’till you find it” mantra of games past.
The first ten hours of Kingdom Hearts profoundly bummed me out.
There’s no doubt part of it sprung from the antique feeling of the game, owing primarily to its early status in the PS2 library. The environments feel constrained, with Wonderland’s boxy forests serving as a grandly underwhelming introduction to what was supposed to be the first entry in an epic and beloved series. The flat (but upscaled!) textures do little to compliment the relatively faithful character models, making the whole thing feel like playing with action figures set against an elementary schooler’s cardboard diorama.
That’s not even to mention the infamous jumping mechanics. The less said of them, the better.
Looking back over those first few sessions with the game though, it wasn’t the graphics or mechanics which left me sighing and checking the clock. It was something far more primal, something which I’m pretty sure made the game an instant classic for the generation of gamers who fell in love with it at release.
It was the overall spirit of the thing.
Like much of Disney (and, to a lesser degree, Square), Kingdom Hearts trades in nostalgia. Seeing Cloud carrying on with Hades must’ve been sublime for the swath of 10-13 year-olds playing it when it came out, fresh off a love affair with both Final Fantasy VII and Hercules. Everywhere you go in the game there’s some not-so-subtle nod towards this or that property, each practically dripping with fan service. It’s both shameless and heartwarming, the effort put into capturing the voice talent of the original Disney cartoons a warm smile from the developers to all the players with puffy VHS cases still on their shelves.
I know, I know, that’s the point. I get that, but none of it clicked for me. Alice in Wonderland? Not my jam, too surreal, freaked me out as a kid and left me dubious of both cakes and strange bottles. Aladdin? After my time. Final Fantasy VII? Come on, you’re seriously making Cloud more angsty?
By the time I was sliding into Atlantica, I was about ready to shut the whole thing down, viscerally upset by Donald’s disturbing octopus outfit.
Then I took a break to explore and found the 100 Acre Wood section. Suddenly I was grinning from ear to ear. Even now, sitting here writing this, I can’t help but smile as the theme song drifts through my consciousness. It was the moment that Piglet scurried into view that I knew the damn game had gotten me. Kingdom Heart’s scattershot nostalgia finally hit home with me. The bitter cynicism that caked my heart melted away and I pushed on.
I will beat Kingdom Hearts.
Sometime midway through Kingdom Hearts, I got obsessed with Sora’s movement. The jump, the roll: these movements are so imprecise, but so perfectly heavy that they feel like jumping, or rolling. It reminded me a lot of being a kid playing Super Mario 64, taking long jumps across hazardless areas for hours because it felt so good to jump.
Imagine my surprise when, doing research into the game’s development, I found out that Kingdom Hearts was inspired by Square wanting to make a game that moved like Super Mario 64. This makes absolute sense. It clicked everything I’d thought about Kingdom Hearts into place.
Kingdom Hearts gets a ton of flak for its jumping puzzles, and its jumping puzzles are bad bordering on nightmarish at times. None of its movements are precise enough to belong in a Mario game. But, taken by themselves, they’re great actions. They’re physical, and they’re chunky. Without the precision of having been tested and retested by Shigeru Miyamoto in his prime, but nothing has that.
Instead, we have movements that feel like reasonable facsimiles of actually jumping, actually rolling. They feel great, not to do anything with but just to do. Moving around a three dimensional world is a fun part of Kingdom Hearts.
And these movements help engender a sense of reality to a fairy tale world. The less realistic a game world becomes, the more I want to feel like it’s a physical place. Kingdom Hearts’ many worlds feel real and tactile, and this isn’t a product of their blocky junglescapes or kicakss Yoko Shimomura soundtrack: it’s because Sora feels like he exists in these worlds and, by extension, it feels like we’re right there with him.