Hey, everybody! Who wants to talk about game mechanics until we all drop dead of exhaustion? That’s an appealing opening to a blog post, right? Just as appealing as it would be in a video game. Because I can’t very well put it off much longer, we’ve been so bogged down in story that I haven’t really explained how this game plays. I’m not even able to do it now because first I have to explain the damn Gummi Ship.
Unfortunately, Kingdom Hearts has a prominent sub-mode, a significant part of the game where you don’t play the normal game at all, whether you want to or not. This is Gummi Ship mode. Donald and Goofy introduce Sora to the Gummi Ship off-screen (along with Chip and Dale, who run the tutorial). Sora duly names the ship after the raft he and the others were building, whatever you or Riku happened to have called it. Or maybe it already had that name and this is just a dream-like coincidence? Look, I don’t have time to talk about symbolism, I have to talk about the Star Fox clone you have to play to travel between worlds… a quick, garish, awful Star Fox clone that only resembles Star Fox in the way that it looks like it flew out of the early nineties. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Once you first reach the map screen (you can get there from any Save Point or through designated world exits), you’ll find Traverse Town connected to other worlds via special routes. You can also see Disney Castle sitting off the background where you can’t get to it. At the moment, you can reach two worlds from Traverse Town, but if you go to one of them, you’ll discover a fourth world that joins the others in a circle. You can tackle these new worlds in any order, but you’ll want to keep in mind their “Battle Lv”: one of the nearby worlds is marked with one “star” of Battle Lv, another two, and the last one three. It’s a pretty clear progression, and if you want my advice, you will ignore it. I’m going to cover the worlds in the given order for the sake of this Retrospective, and you can do as you please, but I always, always play the one star world, then the three, and then the two. I’ll explain why as we cover them.
So. The Gummi Ship. The Gummi Ship is fully customizable. You can collect blocks in Gummi mode and occasionally from chests. These blocks are also named after Final Fantasy spells like “Shell” and can be smushed together into any shape you please, so long as that shape is “rigid.” Your ship is even valid if the parts don’t stick together! And that would be great, if the editor controlled in an intuitive way, which it does not. Thankfully, the average player will be able to clear most of the game in the default ship. I’d recommend you try to do a few upgrades, and don’t worry about aesthetics. Just slap on a better engine (so Gummi mode ends faster), a shield (so you can screw up) and a battery of cannons and lasers (for fun). Stick all the guns you can carry five feet in the air to the right of your ship for all I care, you might even have some fun with it. Except… don’t actually stick your guns five feet in the air to the right of your ship. The game will treat any gaps between parts as part of the ship’s hit box! Use whatever parts you please, but it’s best you bunch them up.
Along the way to each world, you’re going to have to put up with some obstacles. First of all, there are enemy ships out there, named after Final Fantasy monsters and apparently piloted by Heartless, which is so preposterous that Kingdom Hearts 2 tossed the idea entirely. These ships are all made in the same Gummi Editor as your ship, and you can occasionally find their blueprints if you destroy them, which is a cute and clever way to sidestep the use of the Gummi Editor for those who aren’t interested in customization. Unfortunately, because these ships are usually inadequate in terms of armament or engines, you may still have to use the editor, but at least the game gave you something instead of nothing at all.
You’ll also have to deal with a number of weird, blocky obstacles waiting between worlds. What are they? Well, they look like some high schooler’s 3DS Max project exploded in all directions. Gummi mode is filled with basic polygonal shapes and rotating flat tiles, interspersed around rings you don’t have to fly through and will be punished for trying. There are also asteroids that at least look like they should be there (you can blow them up for health and shield refills), and large brick structures that don’t look like they should be there at all. I imagine they’re there to make the Gummi Ships themselves look natural, as it makes it look like everything is made of gummi.
The art is one thing, but the real problem with Gummi mode is that the hit detection is shot. I’m not sure if it’s a matter of the dynamic Gummi ship or what, but things in Gummi mode just don’t seem to interact with each other like I’d expect. You crash into things that shouldn’t have been close enough for you to hit, and your shots go wild constantly. I seen others play this mode with just as much confusion as me, it’s almost universal. It may be a matter with depth perception (Kingdom Hearts DDD has a similar mode that actually works for me, thanks to the 3DS’ 3D capabilities), but Star Fox handled all of this just fine on a 2D screen nine years prior, and Star Fox 64 five years prior, so I can’t understand why Kingdom Hearts is doing such a poor job in 2002.
I can at least compliment that Gummi mode has customizable controls, even if the Gummi Editor and the main game do not.
Whatever the problem, Gummi mode has developed an ugly reputation in what feels like the majority of the Kingdom Hearts fandom. This mixed reception makes a new inclusion to Final Mix even stranger: “Mission Mode.” Thankfully still optional, Mission Mode attaches special missions to each Gummi route. These missions include all sorts of mixed objectives, like shooting down a certain number of Heartless, or just surviving untouched. Usually the missions restrict your Gummi ship’s loadout in one way or another. One memorable mission asks you to get through with only a cockpit and an engine! The only prizes for these missions are decorative gummi blocks and PS3 Trophies in the KH1.5 release, so most players are going to ignore them. I’m going to the missions in a later entry (probably towards the end of the game, when all the routes are unlocked), but for the time being, can we please get back to the actual game?
So. After pages and pages of writing about introductory sequences and alternate modes, it’s time to see what a “normal” KH world is actually like. “Normal” sounds like a nice relief from–
Presuming you do go to the world with one-star difficulty, you’ll arrive to find it a wonky, checkerboard pink world when viewed at a distance. All of Kingdom Hearts’ worlds are seen on the map as globes with prominent decoration (the ability to shoot at them in Gummi mode is just an added bonus). While the “globe” is probably an abstraction, none of the worlds look very big, much like the Destiny Islands. In fact, they just look big enough to… well… host a Disney movie! That’s our case here, as we arrive at our first bone fide “Disney World”: Wonderland, from 1951’s Alice in Wonderland.
The trio arrives in Wonderland by falling through the rabbit hole sequence. Goodness knows how they got there, or anywhere they end up when they first arrive on any world, really. They just seem to walk onto the stage from nowhere, something CoM teases by turning it into a plot point in its own weird way. At the bottom of the rabbit hole, the trio lands in a surreal room you might very well forget exists by the time you’re done playing the game. This is unusual: Kingdom Hearts usually makes fairly efficient use of each of its rooms, with plenty of revisits. This dead-end, which you barely visit even when you’re in it and will only sort of see again, is a definite outlier. There’s a minor treasure here if you come back during the plot, but it’s so far out of the way that only the most determined walkthrough writers ever found it!
The plot gets started when Sora and the party spot the White Rabbit babbling about being late, so it seems at first that we’re going to be following the plot of the film for the time being. The Rabbit is voiced by Corey Burton, not his last role in the game. Burton is best known for his work as a certain other Disney character we’ll be seeing later, but also for doing the voice of Brainiac in the DCAU and elsewhere.
The next room is near the most visited single room in the franchise. The Bizarre Room doesn’t look very conspicuous, at least outside of that traditional Wonderland way, but you’ll be back here if you plan on playing through the franchise. You’ll be back here enough to justify a retirement home. The mess begins when Sora spots the White Rabbit running through the door with the talking doorknob (also Corey Burton). Sora wakes the doorknob to ask permission to go through, but the door points out that Sora’s a giant, and you know the drill: Sora has to drink the potion on the table and shrink down. The thing is: the doorknob is asleep again when he gets down, and will door ultimately never opens. (You finally get to pass through eight games later in Kingdom Hearts X[chi]). What’s weird is: once you solve a puzzle, you catch up to the rabbit straightaway! Was the door the long way around?
The puzzle you have to solve is some clever Wonderland fare, though somewhat in breaking with the film. If you look around the Bizarre Room, you’ll see several furnishings not from the film, many of which seem to be painted onto the walls. What you have to do is notice a cubby-hole in the corner blocked by a 3D bed, grow back to full size, and push the bed into the wall in a surreal break from reality. (This is easier than it sounds, as there’s a targeting reticle on the bed, you’re not just pushing random furniture.) The bed then becomes another of the 2D objects painted on the wall! This exposes the cubby, which leads straight to the Queen of Hearts’ courtyard.
As you try to work out the solution to the puzzle, you’ll be attacked by your first magical opponents. Dressed in a little witches’ hats and red cloaks (they’re designed to look like Final Fantasy’s Black Mages!), these are the Red Nocturnes, the first of what I like call the “bell wizards,” given their shape and the way they shake to cast spells. The bell wizards are little floating Heartless aligned with one of the three major Final Fantasy elements: Fire, Blizzard and Thunder. Not only do they look like bells, but each one of them is named after a musical style, which has led the sequels to build up an orchestra of recolours. The Red Nocturne is Fire-aligned, meaning it will heal if you hit it with your Fire spell. This is a bit of a piss-off, considering you have no other spells, and the Fire spell is a homing projectile, so it’s is practically made for hitting flightly little insects (like the Blizzard bell wizard, for instance!). Thankfully Donald is intelligent enough not to target the Nocturnes with Fire intentionally.
As you enter the courtyard, you meet up with this world’s plot, where it seems we’ve jumped straight to the end of the film where Alice is being put on trial by the Queen of Hearts. Except there’s a change: Alice is on trial for trying to steal the Queen’s heart! Alice here is voice voiced by Kathryn Beaumont, her original voice actress, who only retired from the role in 2005! The Queen is Tress MacNeille again, who also voiced the Queen in House of Mouse, a footnote you’ll be seeing on a lot of the Disney talent. Alice’s attempt at a defence goes more or less ignored, and she’s soon sentenced to be… well, you know.
Sora isn’t about to stand by and watch a beheading, even though Donald and Goofy try to stop him from “meddling.” Donald and Goofy mentioned this back on Disney Castle: they have to maintain “the world order,” where they have to pretend there are no other worlds when visiting a world that doesn’t yet know about the others. The trio even changes their clothes in some instances to blend in. Of course, Sora doesn’t really play along with this Prime Directive stuff, and we won’t hear mention of this anti-meddling “rule” again until halfway across the game. Goofy starts to shout that the Heartless must be responsible for any heart theft, because that’s pretty obvious from his perspective, but he cuts off, apparently deciding this would break the world order. The franchise will never pretend the word “Heartless” is taboo again, but this may just be Donald and Goofy coming to realize that lying about the name would be completely impractical.
Sora offers to prove Alice didn’t do it. The Queen of Hearts decides to humour this (even pure chaos like Wonderland can be generous from time to time), and tells Sora to go collect evidence in the nearby lotus forest, which I can only presume to be the scene of the crime. Why the Queen was going for a pleasure stroll in a hostile forest a hundred times her size, I can’t imagine.
Stepping into the forest, Sora is greeted by no less than the Cheshire Cat (unvoiced), who, through his usual haze of nonsense, informs Sora that there are four pieces of evidence. Three of these described as being easy to find, while the last is not. You actually don’t need to collect more than one piece, but the Cat tells you there will be a prize for getting all four, so you had might as well get your hands dirty.
The Heartless show up to disrupt your investigation. You’d think that would make it easier to grab evidence that they exist, but I guess they are shadow-monsters and a little hard to get in cuffs or a choke-hold. Which finally brings me to combat. Good god, it’s been 15 thousand words in my first draft alone, fine, let’s talk about half the game.
Kingdom Hearts is what’s typically described as a Brawler, a 3D game genre typified by action games like God of War. The Brawler seems simple as-is, but it descends from an even more restrictive genre: the Beat ‘Em Up. Why am I talking about this line of descent? That’s because Kingdom Hearts was released in 2002 and was designed in the years leading up to that. The modern 3D Brawler as we know it was defined by God of War in 2005, and turned the genre on its head. What I’m saying is: Kingdom Hearts does not play like what we expect from a modern Brawler. Instead, it plays like an evolution of a 90s Beat ‘Em Up, and that has a weird impact.
A writer on Gamasutra once made the following comparison. After God of War, Brawlers focused on attacking large numbers of enemies with every normal attack, and dealing high damage to single enemies with special attacks. The cost of using special attacks was that the lesser enemies closed in on you, and that meant trouble. This creates the high-intensity swarm battles that made God of War famous. Beat ‘Em Ups, on the other hand, forced you to deal damage to single opponents with your normal attacks, and to only attack groups with special attacks, and special attacks were rare to the point of desperation. Those games forced you to pay a price to do group damage, but it wasn’t a tactical price like in God of War. Typically, that price was magic points or ammo, but usually health. Both games essentially focus on crowd management (Beat ‘Em Ups with a little more resource management), but each had a different tactical flavour, and the 90’s flavour is the kind you find in the original KH1.
For comparison, have you ever tried the original Streets of Rage? The sequels are better, but load up the original to see just how slowly Axel and friends walk, even “speedy” Blaze. It’s like their muscles are too heavy to hold. They didn’t gain the ability to run until the sequels and that was not unusual. The slow movement makes your crowd control skills imperative. Kingdom Hearts has that same design mentality. Sora controls like he was towing a barge. He’s slow, and swings like the Keyblade weighs fifty pounds.
The question has to be asked: how did we get here? How did a 2002 game churn out a Destiny Islands that plays like Mario 64 from 1996, have a shoot-em-up Gummi Ship mode from 1993, a combat mode from 1991, and an opening demo video that we’d expect from the early nineties in general? It’s clear that Square was drawing influence from a lot of classics, so much so that it may be deliberate, but I think I think but the answer may lie in the way magic works… which I’ll be covering in a later entry. For now, think of it this way: you’re going to see that Kingdom Hearts 1 exists part-way between an action game and an RPG, in more ways than just “action game with stats.” It may very well be that the developers looked at turn-based RPGs, then looked at real-time action games, and tried to put Kingdom Hearts somewhere in the middle!
Many have pointed out that the slow swing emphasizes that Sora is an amateur, but that’s not really a compliment toward Kingdom Hearts 1 so much as it is a compliment toward the sequels: after all, Kingdom Hearts 1 is the baseline! It can’t be credited with making the Keyblade “heavier,” later games need to be credited for making the Keyblade lighter! No, Kingdom Hearts 1’s heavy controls are meant to create a very specific style of gameplay. It’s slow, it’s deliberate, and if you want to overcome Sora’s limitations, you’ll have to pay a price, just like the old Beat ‘Em Ups. For Sora, this price comes in the form of Magic Points (MP) or from choosing between a limited number of Abilities. Too bad your pool of both is so limited at the moment.
Thankfully, you might have some Abilities. While you earned your first ability for clearing a world, generally Abilities are unlocked by levelling up. Depending on your character build, you’ll probably start unlocking your first few in Wonderland. Once you have Abilities, they must be equipped to the character that owns them at the cost of Ability Points (AP). Generally speaking, Sora, Donald and Goofy are going to be short on AP, to keep you from equipping all your Abilities at once. While most skills play nice with one another, some overlap, so it’s important to make sure your selected abilities works well with your play-style, especially once Sora starts to unlock his special attacks.
Two important early-game skills are Scan, a skill that lets you see enemy HP bars, and Guard, which Final Mix pushed ahead to the later levels for some reason. This seems strange in hindsight, because Guard is a default skill in later KH games, just like Dodge Roll. This skill lets you block attacks while standing still and hitting Square, and you’ll need to master using it alongside Dodge Roll (pressing Square while moving) if you want to survive. You can see why it’s a problem when Final Mix forces you to go through nearly a quarter of the game without it!
That’s it for now, we’ve wasted enough time. We’ll get back to gameplay during the next world, where it will do the most harm.