Sora wakes from the dream exactly where he appeared to wake in the opening cinematic: on a beach on a picturesque island, and once again by his redheaded friend. For real this time. Thankfully, these two exchange names at once. This is great, because we’ve been in control of Sora for fifteen minutes now and still haven’t learned his name. The friend is Kairi, played by Hayden Penetierre, still four years before her breakthrough role in ABC’s Heroes. For the Disney connection, she’s also the voice of Dot in A Bug’s Life, though that wasn’t strictly a Disney production in 2002.
While I feel Penetierre’s performance in KH1 worked for me the first time around, it hasn’t weathered my replays very well. Where Osmet is playing something of an everyboy without much effort, Penetierre seems to be over-playing childishness, despite being younger than Osmet in real life. A lot of KH1’s voice actors make similar and weirder enunciation choices, so this strikes me as an issue with voice direction. All things considered, Sora and Kairi were fine for me as cast members in a 2002 game when voice acting standards were lower, but KH1 Kairi seems off to me in the present day, and Sora sometimes skirts closer to bad from his typical average. KH1 can be a hard game to come back to in more than a few ways, but to me, non-Disney voice acting is the problem that comes instantly to mind.
A few moments later, we’re introduced to the blue-haired boy from Sora’s dream as well: Riku, played by 7th Heaven regular David Gallagher. Gallagher’s experience lends well to the trio by making him sound the oldest, which seems to match his height and demeanour. For those out there who don’t speak Japanese, there’s some wordplay going on with the trio’s names: Riku’s name can be read as “Land,” Sora’s as “Sky” and Kairi’s as… well, “nautical mile” if we’re being literal, but “Kai” means “Sea.” If you’re waiting for the metaphorical fireball to drop, prepare to be disappointed, since we won’t have a regular Fire-wielding character until the second game, and he won’t exactly fill the missing elemental slot.
Riku teases Sora for napping and Kairi for abetting him, and we work out that the trio are building a raft for reasons that go temporarily unexplained. Sora’s share of the work is the only bit left to be done, since he slept through it. After a few moments’ banter, Kairi challenges the boys to a race, and the boys lock eyes and bolt. While there’s not much going on, the scene does a good job of introducing us to our leads’ dynamics: Sora and Riku are competitive, while Kairi seems to get more out of teasing the others and playing along for the fun of playing. She doesn’t even haul out in her own race, she just laughs and follows behind as the boys sprint. As we watch the trio run down the beach, the game displays a title card for the location: the “Destiny Islands.” Subtle as an earthquake.
Still, in what’s going to be a running trend, Kingdom Hearts proves better at conveying story through gameplay than cutscenes, even if you like it for its cutscenes. The wretched tutorial moments made for a bad tutorial, but the mystery made for a spectacular hook. Hooks only last so long, and the Destiny Islands sequence is here to keep you interested, occupied, and educated in ways that may not be immediately obvious. We begin with Kairi outlining what’s left of Sora’s raft-building chores: a scavenger hunt around the island for logs, rope and cloth. With that, the player is left to their own devices.
As a location, the Island is a compact hunk of joy. As I said at the outset, I don’t want to talk about the business-side genesis of the Kingdom Hearts franchise. This is because I’ve heard three distinct stories and don’t know how much of each to believe. One story reported by DidYouKnowGaming says that Nomura was trying to create a game inspired by Super Mario 64. This strikes me as a probable, because it really bleeds through here in Destiny Islands, which feels like a N64 era Nintendo/Rareware game. Mario 64, Banjo Kazooie and for some reason even Perfect Dark‘s Carrington Institute come to mind pre-emptively, with Destiny Island’s emphasis on livable and explorable space. There are also lots minor details, brought over from the sunset age of Adventure games like Myst, one generation prior. Very little else in the PS2 era reflected these kinds of sensibilities – Metroid Prime comes to mind from the era, and Psychonauts is the gold standard, but that’s all that comes to mind – and there are even less today. Personally, I’m glad to find any little parcel that reminds me of the era.
In the process of poking around for your scavenger hunt, you may come to the conclusion that the name Destiny “Islands” is a little misleading. There only seems to be one island, connected to an islet by a bridge. Where did all these kids come from? What about all the improbable wooden structures that have turned the place into a kids’ dream playhouse? As it happens, there is another island where everyone lives with their families, it just can’t be seen from here… even though this island is later seen from there. Good job, art direction! During my first playthrough, I felt this was a hint that Sora was living in a dream world, but now I just think it’s a mistake.
The scavenger hunt is mostly fluff. It’s designed to get you into every corner of the Island so that it becomes intimately familiar to you even hours later. Hell, forget hours later, Destiny Islands is still familiar games later. Psychonauts used its scavenger hunts to get you to discover character conversations, and this feels very similar. As you look for cloth and rope (in places where they might belong) and the logs (just lying the heck around like Sora dropped them on the way to his nap), you will run into some of Sora’s other friends. These are the aged-down Final Fantasy characters from before, and I had might as well introduce them and their voice actors.
Molly Marlette (aka Molly Keck) voices Selphie Tilmitt, from Final Fantasy VIII, now Sora’s age or younger. Marlette has a Disney connection in the direct-to-video 102 Dalmations, but hasn’t been in much else. Disney television regular Shaun Fleming voices Final Fantasy X’s Tidus, now aged down to match Sora. Wakka, also from Final Fantasy X, is voiced by Dee Bradley Baker, a far more experienced voice actor. It’s unfortunate to add, then, that Baker’s performance was churned into ground beef at some point during the process. Thankfully it’s a short performance. Wakka uses this horrible Jamaican-esque accent complete with weird, long pauses. His introduction line has him leaving on with this extended pause before a deflated, questionably-Jamaican: “…………man…?” stuck in at the end. Errant, stupid pauses: more on that subject, throughout the entire series, forever.
There’s a little more to say about the voice acting, thanks to a silly controversy. See: when Final Fantasy X was released, it became the first Final Fantasy game with voice acting, but did not break up the series pattern of letting you rename the lead character. As a result, the name “Tidus” is never said in the voice acting, and so had no official pronunciation until all the way over in Kingdom Hearts, in what was functionally a cameo. In the west, it was fairly common to call him “Ty-dus,” but in a later scene, Wakka addresses Tidus as “Tee-dus.” A lot of fans weren’t going to accept a cameo’s pronunciation as official, but now that Dissidia is out, the name “Tee-dus” is out there for all to hear, and some folks are still bitter about it.
Talking to your friends, you soon learn that everyone on the island, with the possible exception of Kairi, is really, really big on that classic childhood sport of armed combat. I’m not even kidding: you talk to these people, they say hello, and five seconds later they challenge you to a duel! It seems Sora, Riku and Tidus cart wooden swords around with them wherever they go (Sora’s sword appears from nowhere at this point in the game, because they weren’t willing to change the code from the magic weapons he wields in other parts of the game), Selphie uses her skip rope like nunchaku just like her grown-up self, and Wakka has a volleyball, which is pretty much all he needed in Final Fantasy X in the first place.
What’s strange about these fights is how pointless they feel if you’re aware of the returns (unless you have very specific objectives in mind). Beating up your friends returns no immediate reward in Vanilla KH1. None whatsoever, not even experience points for winning, which weren’t added until Final Mix. The fights might, however, award “Tech Points,” a system from Kingdom Hearts 1 (and only KH1) that would give you EXP for blocking enemy attacks or hitting bad guys with their magical weaknesses. If you want to level up on Destiny Islands, it’s all about parrying and deflecting, and only Tidus returns enough points for any decent levelling. And that’s thanks to a glitch! (In a cute note, Final Mix fixes the glitch but increases Tidus’ Tech Point yield to be equal to the old glitch. Everyone wins! Take note, whoever revised Metroid Prime for the UK). Tidus is kind of a pain to fight, Wakka comes down to whether or not you can play baseball to deflect his shots, and Selphie’s fighting style is… frankly pathetic, but bear with her a moment.
The real reward for fighting the trio is that it unlocks the option to fight them all at once when talking to Tidus. Here, Selphie’s fighting style, which made her a pushover one-on-one, makes a lot more sense. The three FF expats all have different ranges: Tidus pushing in close, Selphie at a moderate distance and Wakka at long range. This means that fighting any of them will leave you open to the others. It makes them a serious pain, quite possibly more than the average player is going to want to put up with while still in the intro. If you win, the prize is still disappointing: a single Potion, the game’s basic healing item. I find it’s much easier to ignore the fight and buy the game’s cheapest item later on, so the only reason to do this fight is for fun or if you desperately need a Potion to beat the next challenge. Unfortunately, if you do plan on playing for fun, do it now, since this fight won’t be available after a certain early point in the game.
The second challenge is Riku, who hangs out on that islet I mentioned early, alongside a strange, bent-over tree that hangs out over the ocean. He’ll challenge you to a fight if you ask, declaring that this one decides champion of the world, or something to that effect. It turns out he and Sora keep score, and I’m afraid that score is going to make you feel even more humiliated once he shoves you in the mud. Riku is brutal. He’s one of the few “bosses” in the game that are programmed to react to your action with counterattacks, and you won’t see most of the others until the back end of the game! Riku’s counterattack is well-telegraphed, but it’s easy to get trapped in mid-swing. If Square was trying to break you of a bad button-mashing habit, I’m not sure an optional boss is going to be enough. Riku is just discouraging to fight, he’s not going to teach a thing!
Riku is great for a player who wants to show off, I suppose. Anyone who does win gets a Potion, which seems even less rewarding here than it did against the Final Fantasy characters. To add insult to what’s already a pile of injuries, this fight will also be locked off even earlier than the Final Fantasy trio – specifically, at the end of your scavenger hunt. What an odd decision, considering Riku is harder than the three Final Fantasy stars combined!
After bringing the items to Kairi, Sora and the others pack it in for the night. Our main trio meets at the bent tree on the islet, and talk about their dreams with the raft. It seems they’re planning something a little more extreme than a pleasure cruise as, with a lot of bravado and sense of adventure, it seems that they’re actually planning to run away. Or at least that’s what they’re saying, it’s hard to tell how serious they are. Riku is the most enthusiastic, talking about how they’ll be able to escape this tiny island and “see other worlds.” Their wording incredibly awkward when they mention “other worlds,” it almost seems as though they expect to leave the planet. This is all very clever in the larger context, but Kingdom Hearts misuses the word “world” so often that I feel there must be a localization issue responsible. The Japanese original must have had more natural wordplay, probably something meaning both “world” and “place,” (though correct me if I’m wrong or presumptuous) because in English, the trio just sound silly using “worlds” when they seem to be saying they’re looking for another island.
Except sometimes they do seem to mean “planets!” Riku explains that this urge to see other worlds came about a few years aback, when Kairi first “arrived” on the island from apparently nowhere, remembering nothing, and, we later learn, was adopted by the mayor. But if that’s the case… why do they expect a raft to work?
The trio are walking back to the boats to go home when Riku calls Sora back to hand him a large, star-shaped fruit from the bent tree. “You wanted one, right?” he says, addressing the fruit as a “paopu” and saying that “if two people share it, their lives will be connected forever.” It’s clear Riku is teasing Sora about Kairi, and Sora tosses the fruit away in a fluster. It’s a good coming of age moment to kick off our story.
And if we’re about to start our coming of age story, it’s perhaps time to bring in the childhood memories before it’s too late. It’s time for some Disney.