Kingdom Hearts 1 was originally released by Square for the PS2 in Japan in 2002. Square Enix has released so many different origins stories for this franchise that it’s hard to tell them apart. All you need to know is that the games designed as a crossover between Disney and Final Fantasy by both parties, headed by Tetsuya Nomura, man of 1000 zippers and one of the guilty parties behind Final Fantasies VII, VIII, X and XV. There: I made a zipper joke, I hope you appreciate how I’m blazing through the perfunctories so we can get down to business. The games were scored by Yoko Shimomura, who composed songs for Street Fighter II, the Mario & Luigi series, and more.
I suppose I have to talk about versions before we can get to work. After KH1’s initial release in Japan, the game was ported to the west with additional features – I’ll address both versions as “Vanilla KH1” except where differences demand. This version was then ported back to Japan as “Final Mix” with even more features, including a game-wide recolouring of all minor enemies just to feign additional value. If you’re the kind of person who buys and uses additional skins for game characters no matter the actual content of the skin, you may have found your dream product. Final Mix also had some more notable mechanical additions, which we’ll get to as the game goes on. Naturally, international audiences wanted Final Mix for themselves, but they would have to wait, as this version wasn’t released outside Japan until the release of Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD ReMix on the PS3 in 2013. While there are a handful of differences between 1.5’s version of Final Mix and the original PS2 Final Mix, as far as content is concerned they’re relatively similar, so like the two Vanilla releases, I’m going to address them both as “FM” unless we’re looking at one of the few changes.
These Retrospectives don’t always lend themselves in the way of “reviews,” but if you’re looking for buying advice, the 1.5 release is more-or-less definitive. There’s a minor design oversight that wasn’t in the PS2 FM that we’ll address practically at the end of the first retrospective, but there’s a workaround for that, and if you don’t speak Japanese, the benefits outweigh the teeny, tiny negative.
Let’s get started.
Kingdom Hearts begins on the title screen with its signature tune: “Dearly Beloved.” This soft piano piece appears in a new version all the games of the series. “Dearly Beloved” bookends most of the games, appearing at the title screen and the “Results” screen after the credits, and as a result it seems to flow through the entire series, tying them together musically and emotionally.
If you’re willing to wait, the game has additional pre-game content: a demo sequence with unique elements. This 90s development pattern would be more appropriate if Kingdom Hearts weren’t from 2002. Thankfully, Kingdom Hearts avoids the disastrous 90s pitfall of putting plot in the opening demo. Yes, that actually is something that happened in the 90s, in games like Soul Blazer, where you’re punished for playing the game and rewarded with unique plot for walking away to make a sandwich.
The unique content I’m referring to is a short poem that appears during the demo, which also included in the PS2 manual but is restricted to the demo in 1.5. It’s not quite important to this game, but shows up later in Kingdom Hearts 2, tying the original trilogy together. So while you won’t miss any plot, if you don’t watch the opening demo, you will miss a nice bit of symbolism. The rest of the demo is all right. It’s made up of moments from later in the game, like most demos, and is set against “Hikari – Kingdom Orchestra Instrumental Version,” a remix of the game’s actual main theme. This is a fantastic piece, possibly the game’s very best, and it’s shocking they confined it to the demo. This track later went on to become the main theme of DDD, something it thoroughly deserved.
Once you start a new game, KH1 presents you with a difficulty switch, which I could have glossed over in any other game. Sadly, this is Kingdom Hearts, a series with a rude little habit of forcing you to pay up for your difficulty decisions 40 hours later. Later Kingdom Hearts games would standardize a four-difficulty scheme: Beginner, Standard, Proud, and sometimes a fourth called Critical. The original release of Kingdom Hearts had only two difficulties, Normal and Expert, but Final Mix threw in Beginner and renamed the others to Standard and Proud. Except for the rename, they’re functionally identical, so I won’t be using “Normal” and “Expert” very often from this point on.
Difficulty in KH1 is mostly a matter of statistics: enemies are stronger on high difficulties, you’re a little weaker, and Beginner gives you a few free items to help out. If you’re hardcore, 1.5 back-ports a feature from later games called “EXP Zero.” You can turn it on in Proud Mode to prevent Sora from gaining any experience points whatsoever. Want to see if you can beat the game at Level 1? Well good luck with that, because you’re out of my league, and I’m not going to be talking about Level 1 Challenges.
This all seems pretty clear-cut at first glance. Beginner is Easy, then Medium, Hard, and Deliberately Slashing Your Own Tires with EXP Zero, right? But as we’re going to see, nothing in Kingdom Hearts 1’s opening moments is as simple as it seems, which is just hostile in a game marketed to preteens. And just to underline how baffling this is, the only way I can explain this is to muddle my “Low Spoilers” policy by jumping to the end of the game: Kingdom Hearts 1 has a series of secret videos you can unlock that connect it to its sequels. If you want to unlock them you cannot play on Beginner. The game just locks you out! And unlike some of the more recent games, it doesn’t warn you it’s going to lock you out, which is a pretty ugly surprise (and also reminds me of the 90s, come to think of it). You can unlock the secret video on Standard and Proud, though Proud Mode has easier requirements, as a reward for playing through on Hard. Goodie: we haven’t left the title screen and we’re being forced to make a critical decision!
(There’s a little extra fuss involved in the secret videos in FM, but we’ll put that off until the end.)
When all is said and done, it’s probably best to pick whatever difficulty you normally would in an action game. All else fails, the secret videos can be found online.
Finally, after a great deal of preparatory fuss, the game begins proper. After some logos, we get our first dialogue in the series, from our lead character’s voice actor, Haley Joel Osmet, fourteen at the time of the game’s release in North America. Yes, the actor best known for The Sixth Sense and AI. He also has some Disney animated cred, including Mowgli in The Jungle Book 2 and Esmeralda and Phoebus’ son Zephyr in The Hunchback of Notre Dame II. Oh, and uh… the lead in The Country Bears, god help him. You’re going to find that having past Disney cred is pretty common in Kingdom Hearts voice actors.
His opening reads: “I’ve been having these weird thoughts lately. Like is any of this for real? Or not?” Now, if you haven’t picked up on it yet, I have to warn you: this opening section of the retrospective is going to be more detailed than later. That’s because 1) KH1 forces you to make a number of drastic, long-term choices at the outset, and 2) the opening of a work tends to define the rest of the work, which brings us back to this opening line. The first line in a work is often critical to the rest of the work… but I’m at a loss to make sense this one. Here’s the thing: there are a small handful of references in the game that hint that the rest of the game is imaginary. That probably sounds silly when we’re talking about a series of seven plus games, and it is silly: the idea is abandoned in the first hour of gameplay. I’ll make a little more fuss as we go along, it’s really hard to explain the problem without seeing the other lines floating abandoned in an ocean of denial.
Following this, the famous opening sequence begins, with a pop song. In the English version, this is Utada Hikaru’s “Simple and Clean,” while in the Japanese, we hear her “Hikari” – two different songs that use the same lyrics. Actually, the song playing in the intro is the “Planitb Remix” versions of Utada’s song: higher energy, club mix versions of the song, which really hits you as a surprise the first time around. The original songs play during the end credits.
As the song plays, we see a surreal dream-like sequence introducing our three leads. We’ll later learn that spiky-haired fellow in large, Mickey Mouse gloves and shoes is our lead: Haley Joel Osmet’s character, Sora. Sora is introduced through a now-iconic plunge through water that, dream-like, drops him on a beach. There we meet two other characters. First, a blue-haired boy: who stands in the water and holds out his hand to Sora in invitation. As he does this, both he and the beach are overcome by a tidal wave. Next: a redheaded girl who is with Sora when they witness a meteor shower, a shower that, in another dream-element, includes Sora’s own falling body. The camera chooses to follow this second Sora instead of the original, and we watch as he drops into another inverted plunge, this time into void.
KH1’s opening cinematic is one of the PS2 era’s most memorable moments, so if you’re reading this retrospective without having played the game, it warrants a few moment’s viewing online. At the end of the sequence, Sora finds himself landing gently on a circular, stained-glass platform depicting Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
A few words have to be said about Utada’s song for this opening. I’m not fluent in Japanese – not remotely – so my understanding of “Hikari” is limited at best, but I can talk about “Simple and Clean”: “Simple and Clean” makes no sense here. Based on online translation, “Hikari” is a song about a lover who finds herself in anxiety and darkness, until her partner serves as a light to guide her out of the anxiety. “Simple and Clean” is about the singer’s relationship going too fast. Not only is the light and dark imagery of “Hikari” lost in the English version (light and dark imagery are central in KH), but themes of the songs are nearly opposites! I suppose you could devise some symbolic connection between “Simple and Clean” and the events of KH1, but the distinction between “Simple and Clean” and “Hikari” are very obvious. Hikari was selected for this game, and Simple and Clean was just “Hikari’s” pre-existing English counterpart. To the average Japanese gamer, Kingdom Hearts is a series that features a pop song that introduces the symbolism. To an English-speaking gamer, Kingdom Hearts is a series that starts with a pop song… for no reason. To anyone from any other region, who get the English version of the song no matter what language they speak, the pop song must seem even more arbitrary.
But that may not be a total loss. It’s entirely the first impression talking, but Kingdom Hearts just feels like a series that should have started on a pop song. So even if it wasn’t the most relevant pop song: there it is! Welcome to the show! We have bouncy music and surreal dream visuals. We hope you enjoy your stay.