I discover as I set to work taking screenshots that Spazbo4 also put this world off until after the three-star world. It’s not like there’s anything… wrong with Olympus Coliseum. Really! It’s just that Gummi Mode really is that bad, so no one wants to take the extra route, and then there’s… the boss.
If you must go to Olympus Coliseum (the two-star world) before the three-star world, make sure to stop off at Traverse Town as you go. Not necessarily to talk to Cid, but to visit Huey, Louie and Dewey for Potions and Mega-Potions. You’ll thank me. If you haven’t already, it might be worth it to buy Donald and Goofy some new weapons, since the game doesn’t give you better weapons in the wild until very late in the game. Huey, Louie and Dewey have a few weapons available for your partners every once and a while, usually in pairs: Goofy’s weapons are usually an attack Shield versus a defence Shield, while Donald has to choose from an attack Rod that will lower his magic but raise his strength, and a magic rod that does the opposite. You’ll probably pick one type and stick with it towards the end of the game.
If you haven’t guessed: Olympus Coliseum is based on Disney’s Hercules, even though there’s no coliseum on Olympus in Disney’s Hercules. It was in Thebes. And make no mistake, the coliseum is on Mount Olympus. Just look out between the pillars and you’ll see clouds just below the floor, exactly how the film depicts the home of the gods. Olympus Coliseum is the smallest world in the game, consisting of an outer courtyard, an antechamber inside the coliseum walls, and the coliseum itself. Three rooms, and you never get to explore the latter. Any experienced gamer can tell you what that means: tournament segment.
Olympus Coliseum’s challenging, but you won’t gain many levels here. It’s why you can sneak over to the three-star world without anyone busting your buns! As a matter of fact, Olympus Coliseum is entirely optional, unless you’re trying to unlock the Secret Video, but the rewards are so worthwhile that you might as well give it a shot. Besides, you’re not going to be a jerk and leave the world to the bad guys, right?
Inside the antechamber, Sora and the gang run into Philoctetes the satyr, who isn’t paying attention and mistakes them for Hercules. Phil asks “Hercules” to move a nearby plinth that’s about as big as Sora and made of stone. Of course you can’t, and things all go downhill from there. Now that Phil and Sora are properly introduced, Phil (voiced by Mr. Harvey Bullock, Robert “Bobby” Costanzo, who’s had the role of Phil since the Hercules TV show) says the coliseum is running a tournament, “Heroes only!” Showing a profound obligation to the fate of the universe, Sora and his friends insist on entering a time-wasting tournament with no listed prize.
Phil humours the trio by letting them play a mini-game where you knock barrels into barrels. It’s not very substantial but we won’t be hearing the end of it here in KH1. Funnily enough: it’s one of only a handful of mini-games you can’t replay within KH1! At the end of the game, Phil rewards you with the Thunder spell, a crowd control spell that’s one of the best in Sora’s arsenal. How good? Let me put it this way: there’s a speed run achievement in KH1.5, and online guides still recommend you go out of your way to fetch Thunder, even though Olympus Coliseum is completely optional. Makes me wonder why I never come here before Wonderland, even if I had no intention of staying.
…Oh, right, Gummi mode. Never mind.
Thunder introduces a few complications in the magic system, which is why I put off explaining the magic system until now. Like most RPGs, Kingdom Hearts works on an MP system. MP is marked in blue in the corner of the GUI. But it’s not as simple as all that, even though it really should have been. This is going to get complicated and I’m so sorry.
In most RPGs, MP is measured in the hundreds and it costs you a set amount per spell. Sora’s MP, on the other hand, is measured in just over a dozen big blue chunks. He caps out around 16 but most players will have to settle for lower. Most spells, like Thunder, take away an entire chunk. But Fire and Blizzard take away only part of the chunk, causing a confusing yellow bar to appear on the ridge of the blue MP bar. You restore MP either with items (Ethers), by collecting magical bubbles that drop from dead enemies alongside health orbs and munny, or by hitting enemies. Hitting enemies and MP bubbles are your primary source of MP, but this is a gradual process which only restores the yellow bar, not the blue one. If the yellow bar fills out, you get a single point of blue MP back. But here’s the thing: the yellow bar is as long as the blue bar, no matter how long the blue bar happens to be. That means the more MP you have, the longer it takes to restore a single point. This is so meticulous it’s starting to sound like the score mechanics of one of those tightly-wound bullet hell shooters.
(I believe Donald works on similar mechanics, though his yellow bar is invisible. This may mean that giving Donald strength-boosting weapons will boost his MP recovery rate, but I’ve never tested that.)
Oh, and did I mention that because there’s no Magic stat, your max MP determines the power of your spells? That’s not how any other RPG on the market works. It’s so bad that you’ll see veterans of the original game giving bad advice ten years later for MP-related challenges, and you can’t blame them, because the game sure doesn’t explain anything!
Back in the plot: Phil doesn’t really care that you won his little barrel game. He tells you to take a hike, and you’re no more than a few steps out of Phil’s line of sight when who should show up but James Woods in his true form: Hades, god of the underworld. Woods has been in films going back to the 70s, though fans today probably know him best for Shark and for playing obscure Hollywood actor James Woods on Family Guy. He’s also our first non-Final Fantasy character actor with a Square Enix connection: he played big bad guy General Hein in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and I’m sure we can try to forgive him for that. It seems Hades actually wants Sora to compete, and gives the trio an entry ticket. With that in hands, Phil is forced to let you enter the tournament, and Sora is so pleased he doesn’t even bring Hades up.
The tournament structure is simple: you clear nine rounds without a break, and you win. Each round pits you against a group of opponents, almost all of them Heartless (“some real weirdos,” Phil says. They were probably snuck in by Hades). Unlike most fights in the wild, almost all of these battles start with every Heartless in the field at once, without separate waves hiding reinforcements. Heartless give you EXP but never drop health balls, magic restoring bubbles, Munny and certainly not items. After each battle, the party will do victory stances taken from Final Fantasy games: for example, Sora may imitate Squall, or Goofy may imitate Rikku from FFX.
It’s here, more than anywhere else, where you’re going to start noticing the flaws in your partners’ AI, because this is a situation they’re just not built to cover.
The strategy for the tournament seems straightforward, right? It’s a battle of attrition. You beat some Heartless, a few of whom might have tricky formations, but it’s largely business as usual. So long as you keep your HP and MP high enough to push through later rounds, you’ll be fine, especially if you keep in shape for the final round, which is usually a boss. If you can keep your items stocked, all the better. Too bad Donald and Goofy will never grasp that. Goofy has more item slots than you ever will. You should be able to rely on him as a mobile hospital, but don’t count on it. If you don’t change their settings, Goofy will blow his Potions on anyone with a scratch, and Donald sometimes runs out of MP after the first round of a tournament. If you do change their settings, items still won’t make it to the final round.
You can’t even count on your teammates to focus on the most important enemies! In-battle, you can directly them to manually attack a target with Triangle (this is a source of trouble in 1.5HD, but more on that later). If you’re not targeting an enemy, Triangle will make them try to move to Sora’s position. But that’s it. You might notice the flaw in this: you have to target something yourself to order them to attack it, so either you’re all fighting the same enemy as your allies or you’re flicking the targeting reticle around the arena every time they beat a target. That or you’re relying on their base AI. Anything more nuanced is lost.
As for the items and spells… well…
Like I’ve been implying, Kingdom Hearts 1 does let you customize your partners’ AI, via the Customize screen. You’ll be able to use the Customize screen to tell them how often to attack, and how often to use offensive and defensive abilities or items. The trouble is: the lowest setting is still too high. Ask them to only heal you when strictly necessary and you’ll still be out of potions within five rounds. The higher settings are sometimes better for your survivability, but if you want to stop Donald and Goofy from burning through your supply, the best option is to never let them handle any items in the first place. And do I have to mention why ignoring a major feature of the game is a bad thing?
And if you do want them to use items, you might still screw up. Remember how the game forces you to restock characters’ inventory manually? They’ll run out of items one day, you’ll forget to restock, and you’ll probably forget they could ever carry them! KH2 fixed this system, finally allowing Donald and Goofy to syphon munny directly from your blood. That’s certainly a UI improvement but I’m not sure you’re better off for it.
Long story short, the only way you could hope to keep your teammates in line during the tournament is to blow through enemies with your own magic, and since your magic is way more important, you’re just going to have to give up on keeping your teammates in line. Period. See, I haven’t brought it up yet, but this is one of those games where it only matters when the leader dies. If Donald and Goofy are knocked out, they’ll be back on their feet with a good chunk of their health back after a minute or so. A lot of people, myself included, saw this as happening in the first game because they were cartoon characters, but there are so many human allies in later games that I think I have to leave that theory behind. Either way: only Sora matters, so guard yourself above all else, and don’t cry if a boss axes your teammates in minute one.
That’s not to rag on Donald and Goofy from top to bottom. The Tournament just isn’t their ideal scenario, and once you notice it you’ll never stop seeing it. But trust me: if you take them away and force Sora to survive on his own (and as you’ll see, the Coliseum can do that) you’ll miss them. Goofy’s loaded up with skills that cause area damage and knock Heartless aside, keeping them off of Sora’s back, and his defence-focus makes him so hard to kill that you can count on him sticking around for a while. Donald isn’t that useful yet, but once he gets Cure, watch out. The roles they play are so critical to Kingdom Hearts’ gameplay that they haven’t been changed since. This is true even in coded, which only features Donald and Goofy in a mechanically bizarre scenario that you’ll have to see to believe, yet still relies on the same basic tactical roles!
For all I’ve whined about your teammates, the tournament is not actually that hard, so long as you came here after Wonderland . Part way through the tournament, you’ll meet up with the Blue Rhapsody, the Blizzard-focused bell wizard, who’s a pushover compared to the Red Nocturne since you have their weakness from the get-go. But the real trouble shows up half-way through the tournament, in a custscene. It seems Hades has brought a stooge into the tournament, hoping to challenge Hercules in a later round, and “accidentally” kill him. His ringer? Cloud Strife, hero of Final Fantasy VII, voiced by The Young and the Restless’ Steve Burton, who has played Cloud ever since.
Cloud looks strange here. Never minding his bandaged Buster Sword, he has a single black-feathered wing hidden under his cloak, the significance of which will be more obvious to Final Fantasy VII fans. It’s clear KH’s Cloud has a different sort of plot under his belt than FFVII’s Cloud. Hades announces to Cloud that he’s changing their deal: Hades wants Sora dead as well. Cloud protests, so Hades puts in a few words of encouragement and Cloud just walks off without committing to anything. …That’s it, Hades? Couldn’t you have bribed him with a second reward? Knowing Hades, he probably doesn’t intend to help Cloud out in the first place. Would it have been so hard for him to verbally gift-wrap a pony?
Sora and Cloud meet up in Round 7, not 9, an encounter that will cut the preliminaries short. In spite of the game interrupting the prelims a few times for cutscenes, this fight begins with no setup. Cloud feels no different than a random encounter! Cloud is a rough boss for World 4, so it will probably be a relief to know this is another of those fights you don’t have to win. Cloud uses a special attack in this fight called Sonic Blade, which will allow him to dash forward with multiple thrusts of his Buster Sword. It’s so fast, it will probably catch a new player entirely by surprise, leaving them open to multiple hits. If you can beat Cloud, the only prize is more EXP. You get an alternate cutscene for losing, in which you see Cloud hesitate over whether to kill you or not. Hades doesn’t wait long after seeing this minor sign of betrayal. He doesn’t even wait a full second to see what Cloud will do! Whether you win or lose, Hades sics Cerberus on you from out of nowhere, announcing that “Accidents happen.”
Hercules rushes out (voiced by The Lord of the Rings’ Sean Astin – not a popular casting choice, though I’ve never minded him), letting Sora and his friends get away, but Cerberus has already hit Cloud bad. Sora and friends make it back to the antechamber, where you get a chance to save before Sora decides to get back in there and help Hercules. Did I mention you could save? Replace your items, too? Or maybe bail? Leave, entirely, maybe for the duration of an entire world? Say… that friendly-looking three-star world over there! I wouldn’t blame you for bailing.
If you do return to the arena, you find that Hercules has hefted Cloud over his shoulder, but doesn’t seem to be able to fight off Cerberus with the extra load. As a result, he’s glad to see Sora. Sora and the others take over the fight and things go well at first, before turning into a certified disaster. Cerberus, our first Disney character serving as a full boss, is vulnerable only on the faces. And I do mean the “faces,” not the “heads”: unlike some similar KH1 bosses, you can’t swat at the side or back of Cerberus’ heads. The blow must contact the face, even though you can get on Cerberus’ back with some effort! No, you’re going to have to fight him head on, and that leaves you at the mercy of Cerberus’ most powerful attack: he begins to vomit darkness. I can’t call it anything else. The boss is puking and there’s nothing you can do about it.
There’s even less Donald and Goofy can do about it. Remember when I said tapping Triangle would coax them to follow you? Well that doesn’t work if they’re too close to a target. They’ll just keep fighting the target, no matter how many times you call them. And that’s trouble, because after Cerberus churns up his lunch, it starts to come back out the floor in the form of pillars of darkness. Donald and Goofy, with their 2002 AI, will stay in place and be wiped out. As a result, you’ll spend most of the fight without their help. To slow things down even further, every time Cerberus ralfs he becomes functionally invincible, and you have to go for a jog around the arena (although if you can get on his back, that’s usually safe). It’s tedious, and Cerberus’ bites and stomp attacks can kill you pretty easily on their own.
The only real advice I can give you if you’re having trouble with this segment is… to skip it. I’m serious this time. Skip it, come back with level ups and prizes from the three-star world, and you’ll thank yourself. I don’t like doing these things myself, but I figure: “The game must have given you free reign of three worlds for a reason.” Or at least that’s what I tell myself. If you’re not willing to do that, pack some Mega Potions to heal the entire party whenever the barf pillars stop. Maybe equip some Darkness-resisting Accessories, if you’re willing to pay up at Cid’s.
If you win the day, it’s celebrations all around, with Hercules whispering to Phil that he put Cerberus through the ringer before Sora arrived, so you only really beat the boss while it was weak. This proves to be true when you fight the dog at full health in a later tournament, and it’s a near-endgame-level boss. Phil’s okay with keeping the secret, since Sora seems to have grown on him enough to dub Sora and the others “Junior Heroes.” He even allows them into later tournaments.
Your more immediate reward is given to you by Cloud, who waits for you at the world’s exit gate. He apologizes. He tells you that he’s looking for a friend, not unlike Sora, and Hades promised to help (the game’s ending seems to imply this is Aerith, but Final Mix implies it’s Sephiroth!). Cloud gives Sora a gift: the Sonic Blade ability. This is Sora’s first special attack. Like a lot of KH1’s special attacks, Sonic Blade will make quite a few returns in later games.
Sora’s special attacks are a hefty investment… so hefty you might not even bother, though you should make an effort in the second half of the game. Not only do the special attacks cost a premium of Ability Points just to equip them, but you have to spend a load of MP to even use them, and even then they can only be used in certain situations. Sonic Blade can only target enemies on or near the ground, and can only be used while you’re standing solidly on the ground yourself. Things get even more confusing if you equip two special attacks with highly similar use-conditions, sometimes as similar as “standing on the ground!” Delightful.
The PS2 versions discourage the use of special attacks even further. The special attacks would show up at the bottom of Sora’s menu commands, under the entry for “Items.” This meant that the only way to use special attacks was to flip through the menu and hope to land on the command the moment it turned on at the bottom of the list. If you mess up, you’ll be stuck on a “blank” section of the menu, unable to do anything until you realize what’s going on and switch back, a delay that could kill you! In 1.5HD, special attacks are triggered by pressing Triangle when a prompt appears just above your menu. This is nice and accessible, and makes special attacks far more viable than they ever were on the PS2.
Once you finally get a special attack going, the game will have you tap the button (Triangle or X, respectively) at key points, Mario RPG timed hit style, to cause extra damage. Sonic Blade has Sora dash back and forth across any targets in your path, which is pretty effective for something you get at the start of the game, which is probably why it costs so much damn MP.
After Sora leaves, we cut back to Hades having a rant about how much he hates Hercules. His rant is interrupted by the arrival of Maleficent. Yes, Hades is one of her shadowy council members, and it seems Maleficent doesn’t approve of personal vendettas getting in the way of their grand plan. He tells her to buzz off, and she chooses to leave him to his mess. In a nice showing, if you skip Olympus Coliseum for most of the game, this cutscene will be modified to account for late-game events, which is some real dedication on the part of the dev team.