Jumping to the outer planets always struck me as daunting for some reason. I’m not sure why, beyond that it’s a feeling left over from my first playthrough. Kingdom Hearts is happy to play the danger card, by opening the first world with a competent villain from moment one.
It’s Agrabah today, home of Disney’s Aladdin, and Maleficent is here talking with Jafar, played by original voice actor Jonathan Freeman. Freeman has played Jafar in virtually every opportunity imaginable, even the stage production. He also voiced the puppet Tito Swing on Shining Time Station. From Jafar and Maleficent’s conversation, it seems Jafar’s been directing the Heartless to find the Keyhole in Agrabah. He’s also looking for Princess Jasmine, who seems to have escaped under his watch. This news comes from Iago, still voiced by comedian Gilbert Gottfried. Gottfried’s got such a distinctive voice that I’m sure you’d recognize him from any role he’s been in (I’m personally fond of his Mr. Mxyzptlk in the DCAU and Lego Batman 3), but he does have one Disney connection I can find: a cameo appearance in The Emperor’s New School as Kronk’s voice under the influence of a voice modifying potion.
Maleficent isn’t happy about Jasmine’s escape. She chastises Jafar, saying that their coalition needs Jasmine especially: she’s one of “the Princesses of Heart” and they need “all seven.” Jafar calls out more Heartless, dressed as desert bandits, and tells them to go searching. Maleficent cautions him, as she did Hades, not to steep himself in the darkness for too long. “The Heartless consume the careless.” But he laughs her off. The scene’s pretty darn good. Jafar’s a comedy villain on a normal day, but he’s also one of the more competent ones out there in the Disney arsenal, especially considering he eventually gains magic. Naturally the game would be interested in making him look more threatening than Clayton! Seeing him talk to Maleficent almost as an equal, and then to laugh her off, is all very well done.
Sora, Donald and Goofy arrive at the main gates and are immediately mixed into the fighting. No cutscene with the trio, no breather. This is the only world in this game that opens directly into combat, though some of the others come close. At the moment, the only new Heartless you have to deal with is the Bandit, but don’t let your guard down. The Bandit is a long way from the Soldiers of Traverse Town. Bandits can parry your attacks (rarely), and can control their scimitars like a missile weapon with magic. Another enemy that shows up, though I may be wrong about them showing up immediately, are the Pot Spiders. These are Heartless that possess urns around town that you’d otherwise break for minor pickups, like munny, HP orbs, or magic-restoring bubbles. They’re a surprise, but they’re harmless.
Excusing the Bandits, you’re going to have a pretty good time, since Agrabah – the city portions at least – is one of the tighter designed areas in the game. I’m a big fan. There are a lot of easily accessible vertical areas, it’s dense without being restrictive, and while there are a few jumping puzzles, they are more about when to jump than the disaster that was trying to land in a specific spot with hippos and Merlin’s front door. I still think KH should have modified its engine to make these jumping puzzles a little easier, but if it had to stick with what it had, it should have used more reflex challenges like Agrabah’s collapsing window shutters – or no reflex challenges at all – than the moving platforms it uses elsewhere. Since it’s only been a few hours since the game tried to convince you that Vine Swinger was an acceptable mini-game, we’re riding high, though sadly this isn’t the entirety of the world.
It also helps that you’re largely at your own discretion in Agrabah, reminiscent of the Destiny Islands. It only gets better as the city opens up. You eventually find Jasmine hiding in an alleyway. Jasmine is voiced by her original voice actress Linda Larkin, who like Freeman is known mostly for this one role, though she did play the lead in bizarre fantasy advergame Darkened Skye. Jasmine tells you about a boy named Aladdin who was helping her, just in time for Jafar to show up and unleash a pack of Bandits. You’d think he’d try to kill you himself, but Jasmine breaks for it and he deals with the primary concern. The Bandits won’t last long, as you’re probably used to them by now and they don’t perform very well in the crowded alley, but the chase is on and the finish line is indeterminate. You get no direction at all, which is obnoxious after the world already forced you to find an arbitrary destination once so far.
You eventually discover that you have to go to Aladdin’s loft home, which is looking far snazzier than was probably intended. There, you’ll find none other than the Magic Carpet, trapped by the Heartless under a wardrobe. I guess the Carpet is the only thing on the face of existence that doesn’t have a heart they could eat, so they decided to be sixth grade bullies about it? That sounds like the Heartless. It’s hard to get across in this format, but when they’re not attacking you because of the Keyblade, the Heartless are consummate children. While they’re often portrayed dangerously, they’re just as often portrayed as the kind of villain you’d expect in a classic Mickey Mouse cartoon. They’re half demons, like the Darkside, and half total dorks, like the Bouncywilds.
Finding the carpet is kind of a pain, by the way. The camera in the loft is wonky. It’s set to focus on you using two of the four walls until you get all the way to the edge, so it’s easy to think there’s nothing on the other two walls! Maybe it’s just me.
The Carpet is excited to see you, and leads you to the front of town. If you had gone through Agrabah’s gates earlier, you’d have seen a broad expanse of sand in all directions. Sora and pals can’t go anywhere in it without getting lost, and Carpet is here to guide you through it. After you talk to him, this room is essentially eliminated from the game (you go straight to the upcoming room instead). I can’t help but think the level designer sent Carpet here just so you could look at the room before it was wiped out!
Once you do talk to Carpet, he takes you down to a patch of desert where you’ll find Aladdin (I think the TV show addresses Carpet as “he,” you’ll have to excuse me). Al (Full House‘s Scott Weinger) is not exactly in a good place right now, and I mean that as absurdly as possible. He’s being swallowed by one of those whirlpools of quicksand you see in media for some reason, and we will never get an explanation for this one. Your arrival triggers a swarm of Bandits, and you fight them off for so long that eventually Aladdin gives up you rescuing him (ha!) and he pulls out the Magic Lamp, wishing on the Genie to rescue you all. So if you were wondering where we are in Aladdin’s plot, there you go. Actually, it’s probably unfair to compare Kingdom Hearts 1’s Agrabah directly to the plot of Disney’s Aladdin. Agrabah is a great example of how the plot would be disrupted if Jafar had been working with Maleficent all along, instead of carrying on as though the Heartless had no impact on the plot.
Unsurprisingly, Genie here is performed by his on-again, off-again voice actor, Dan Castellaneta, of The Simpsons fame. He also played Megavolt in Darkwing Duck and… frankly, the man is so prolific that I’d be here all day just listing his Disney credits. Though I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the most groan-worthy casting choices in history: the Hercules animated series once cast the voice of Homer Simpson as Homer the poet.
On the trip over, Genie talks to the others and gets across the idea that he wants to be free. Aladdin suggests he do it, and… I feel this whole scene lacks a certain degree of emotion? Kingdom Hearts just does this sometimes. It often just misses the emotional core of the original stories and includes them so begrudgingly that they lack all feeling. Of course you can’t have Aladdin leave Genie in slavery, no matter how much you want to abridge the plot to fit in elements of Kingdom Hearts’ plot, but if it has to be there, put some feeling into it! It’s a slump you get used to as a Kingdom Hearts player, which is probably a bad thing, considering it lets the devs get away with this same laxity, game after game.
Sora and friends are now going to rescue Jasmine, and I guess we’re just… assuming Jasmine’s been captured. Nice faith in your friends, team. I mean, she has been captured, but you don’t know that for sure! Your return to Agrabah showcases why I like the area so much: once Agrabah is fully unlocked, it has multiple paths weaving through it, giving you plenty of freedom of movement, but it hasn’t been fully unlocked quite yet. At this point in the story, the paths are selectively blocked off, nearly making a different level out of the same base map. It’s very clever. It stops being clever by the time Days tried to make an entire game out of the one idea, but it’s clever here, at least.
Jafar also has a new surprise waiting for you when you return to town: the Fat Bandit. Cousin to the Large Body, this Bandit can’t be hurt from the front, but isn’t dozy and dopey like the earlier Heartless. Instead, it has two types of fire breath attacks it can use to cause long-range and area damage. The Fat Bandit’s a major player, and stays as one of the tougher enemies in the game late into the Coliseum tournaments. It’s a good target for magic, especially if you haven’t tried out Gravity.
You’ve got a new helper as well. Aladdin can serve as a Guest party member, armed with a scimitar. This brings back memories of the Aladdin Genesis game, not the last time we’ll see Kingdom Hearts make what might or might not be a reference to the 16-bit Disney games. He has a few charge attacks and a lot of thief-like skills to increase pickups and rare drops. He’s not really better than Goofy in terms of combat, but that’s true of most combat-focused Guests. Tarzan was handy thanks to his combat skills and Cure spell, but you’re going to find that a lot of the Guests that come after Tarzan come down to “Do you want Goofy with different paint?” They could have done a little more to make them stand out, is what I’m saying.
After regrouping in Aladdin’s loft (a pointless but mandatory intermediary step that I often forget to perform when playing), you come up with a plan: Jafar has sealed the courtyard in front of the Palace, so your plan is to open a rooftop door into the courtyard and confront him. Aladdin knows Jafar will be in the courtyard, and not inside the palace, because Square has obstinately refused to ever depict the inside of Agrabah’s Palace despite this world appearing in several games. I can’t imagine why. The palace in the film and shows has wide halls, balconies, gardens, menageries… it could be an entire game world if they wanted, but game after game, here you are in the bazaar! It’s silly in KH1 and it’s stupid by the time you reach coded.
To get to the courtyard, you’re going to have to find a way to open the gates Jafar has sealed. In classic video game tradition, the switch for the gates is outside of the gates themselves. In fact, it’s in an area the game describes as a “Bazaar.” In reality, the room is nondescript: it’s the main street that looks more like a bazaar! It gets even worse when you think about it a little. If this is the Bazarr, why did they put the lock for the castle’s front door in what should be the most crowded part of town?
Unlocking the gates in the Bazaar should be easy, but my younger self would like to launch a complaint from my original playthrough. The door to the Bazaar is just plain hard to find. It’s on the second level of the town, tucked into a niche that is also in the corner. KH1 does this with chests a lot – in fact my 1.5 playthrough saw me finding a chest in a later world that I had never seen in any of my previous playthroughs! – but a mandatory door?
Once you get to the Bazaar, it’s a simple matter for the Keyblade to work the palace lock. Later in the game, you can return to this room and occasionally find a new type of special Heartless: another mushroom called the Black Fungus. Unlike the White Mushroom, the Fungus is hostile, spraying poison gas that Donald and Goofy will just wallow in. It’s like Ceberus’ darkness attack: your partners’ limited AI prevents them from moving out of the area of effect, and you’ll spend most of the fight with them dead. It’s a pain, because the easiest way to kill the Fungi is one of Sora’s special attacks that demands Donald and Goofy be alive at the time. But that isn’t the end of the fungal combat strategy: they can also turn into completely invincible rock for a time, which is only made worse by the little game you have to play to earn their special items
The trick is: if you kill a Black Fungus with the last swing of your combo, they’ll drop a powerful item guaranteed. Otherwise the drop is simply random, and the odds aren’t very good once you consider the Black Fungi’s low numbers and low appearance rate. Between them turning to rock, spraying you with acid and their not having much HP in the first place, killing them with a finisher is easier said than done. Thankfully, there are tricks you can use, and the Fungi show up throughout the latter half of the game, so you’ll have plenty of opportunity.
Back to the plot. You break into the courtyard from above, see some nice juicy chests on the opposite rooftop, start platforming over to them… and are interrupted by a cutscene. Jeeze game, c’mon! I hate when this happens!
Jafar and Jasmine are just standing around in the courtyard, waiting for you to show, and I suppose it would be a shame to disappoint them. Too bad it’s a trap: long story short, Iago steals the lamp before Aladdin can wish this plot to an immediate close. That done, Jafar decides the best course of action is to magically shove Jasmine into a Pot Spider, and then call Pot Spiders into every urn in town to form a midboss: the Pot Centipede. Jasmine’s urn is shoved into the middle of the Centipede, which begins the boss fight. The midboss breaks through some of the barricades in town over the course of the battle. It is presumably trying to escape with Jasmine, but it never really takes those final steps, making it look pretty silly. I’m reminded of Blind the Thief in Link to the Past, who claimed to want out of the dungeon but never actually tried to go. What is even your plan, here? This all makes sense in a moment, but perhaps there should have been some sort of final obstacle “preventing” it from leaving?
The Pot Centipede is a neat boss, but once you’ve worked out its gimmick, you can stop it so hard it essentially can’t harm you. Essentially, the boss is just the head and tail of the centipede (which share a health bar), while the body is a conga line of Pot Spiders you can break until there’s only one left, which presumably contains Jasmine no matter which ones you smash first. Jasmine keeps calling out during the fight, which is helpful if the Centipede gets away and you need to track it down. The boss’ speed depends on the number of Pot Spiders in the conga line: if you bust up the urns, the Centipede will become almost too slow to move, but if you leave them alone, it will run rampant. As you destroy pots, others will animate about town and rush in to replace them, but Agrabah has a limited supply of the things, so eventually the Centipede will be stranded. It all sounds very nice on paper but again, if you know what to do and plow through the urns first chance you get, it probably won’t recover. The strategy a little too effective.
But if you haven’t guessed it: you’ve been had! Jafar pulled a Raiders of the Lost Ark on you and Jasmine was never in the Pot Spider to begin with. He, Jasmine and the Genie are off to the Cave of Wonders, and you’ve got to go after them. This is good pacing, very exciting!
Let’s dash it!