You run off and get on Carpet to go to the Cave which, it turns out, was just next to Aladdin’s quicksand pit. And before you’ve gone four steps, you end up in another boss fight. And it’s a tedious one. More than once I’ve considered just going off to another world just to break up the pace for a little.
What is the boss? It’s the Cave of Wonders guardian, the tiger head made of sand, charged with darkness by Jafar. For some reason, the Guardian is fought to the usual Agrabah combat music instead of boss music, which was something that’s always irritated me here even though the game does this a few times. I think it’s because of the pacing problems. The game comes off as though it’s pretending “Nawww, we didn’t really put two bosses next to one another! That would be tiring. This is, uh, an environmental hazard?” Kyle’s first-grade niece watched us doing this fight for the Marathon, and after a moment she said, matter-of-fact: “That’s not actually a bad guy.” Man, could I get behind that. Could this just… not happen?
So what am I complaining about? Well, the idea’s simple. The Guardian ‘s eyes are the target, each having its own health bar. While you can climb the Lion’s mane… sort of… the easiest way to get to the eyes is to wait for the Guardian to shove its face into the sand as part of an attack animation where it blows sand at you a few seconds later. If you’re lucky, you can even get on top of its nose and stay there, where it won’t be able to easily dislodge you (although I find it’s much harder to stay on top in 1.5. Maybe that’s just a coincidence). Up there, the Guardian can only hit you with a small fireball attack, which hurts like hell but is manageable with Aero, since Aero has especially good protection against projectiles.
If you can stay on the nose, the fight is easy. Tedious, yes, but you seem to be breaking the game a little, so maybe you have no one but yourself to blame. If you can’t get on the nose, the fight is rough and still tedious as hell, except this time it’s the game’s fault for keeping your targets out of range. The Guardian frequently spits out some of the Heartless living inside the Cave to drag the fight out even longer. Oh, and it keeps shoots those damn fireballs, which are so small you might not see them coming. Eventually you will clear the darkness out of each eye, and the Guardian will never interact with you again… in any game, even though Agrabah is in several. Square knows this guy can talk, right? He’s so static that in coded you find a secret on his nose!
Since I’ve spoiled that you come to Agrabah several times in the series, it’s interesting how much variety you find in the Cave of Wonders. In KH1, the cave is made up of ledges that open into to deep pits, complete with Indiana Jones style boulder traps and some statues that spout water in an attempt to push you into the pits. You might say the game is trying to get you to go into the pits, and you’d be right, because they actually lead into a different part of the dungeon. Half the dungeon is a series of dark, watery caverns underneath the brickwork segments. If you make it to the far end of the Cave without visiting the basement, you’ll find a treasure-filled room and a blocked exit (and a temporary save point that’s later erased for some reason). To clear the blockage, you’ll have to search the caves.
While the topside is great, the caves are the major failing of Agrabah to me, though I like the idea of a dungeon with two wildly different segments you have to search between. Because the caves are water-logged, there’s a lot of swimming. Swimming isn’t very bothersome in the caves like it was in Merlin’s room, as any platforming you have to do is generally simple, but from time to time swimming will prevent you from getting up to a certain ledge, forcing you to take the long way round for no reason. Also, like in Wonderland, there are a lot of secrets you won’t be able to reach unless you return later in the game, but it’s much harder to tell in Agrabah since all the cave walls look the same, not to mention the fact that you might try to jump to treasures you can’t actually reach. On the flip side, there’s one cave you can reach if you come back with a skill from the next world, even though you aren’t supposed to be able to reach that cave without the Yellow Trinity consideraby later in the game. Did they test that door?
But the real capper on the caves is just bizarre. To successfully navigate the caves, you have to swim up several waterfalls. Like a Pokemon game! If you’re like me, you spent nearly an hour cycling around the caves, completely lost, under the radical assumption that things that aren’t physically possible shouldn’t be physically possible.
You eventually find a few of those monkey idols carrying red gems from the film. And even though the film taught you not to touch those things, you have to do so here. You can use the Keyblade to do so in some instances but, in a few confusing exceptions, you have to bring Aladdin into the party so that Abu will jump to the rock. You know, Abu! The monkey who hasn’t shown up in the game yet! When you finally do find your objective, you might not even recognize it as your objective, but I feel this is a more acceptable puzzle. You end up on a ledge and see a series of stone discs stacked in a pillar. You might have noticed these discs blocking the door in the treasure room, above, which is your best clue. To open the door, you have to hit the discs with a spell to drop the pillar down and open the door to the Lamp Chamber. It’s artistically (though not mechanically) reminiscent of the big central pillar in Snowhead Temple in Majora’s Mask.
Though I do have an teensy problem with this puzzle. Simply put: you never have to use projectile spells to break an obstacle at a distance in any other part of the game (Ed: I later learned that you don’t have to use a projectile here and you can jump attack it. The rest of this paragraph was written with the misunderstanding that you needed a projectile). Once again, I’m reminded of another game: Half Life: Opposing Force. In that game, you have to shoot a box to open a door. Half-Life has had you break several boxes to open doors, but usually with your Crowbar/Wrench. The game has essentially taught you that bullets shouldn’t be used to break things, and maybe can’t be used to break things! KH1 has never used magic to destroy things from a distance before, only to – in a manner of speaking – enchant them, set them on fire, or that sort of thing.
Once you’ve removed the pillar of discs as an obstacle, you gain access to the Lamp Chamber, which looks nothing like the one from the film… in any game, no matter how iconic that scene from the film may have been. There, Jafar wishes for Genie to show him the Keyhole, which is behind a wall of the Lamp Chamber that Genie removes. It’s been asked before why Jafar doesn’t ask for more prominent things, like, say, the other Princesses he and Maleficent seem to be looking for, but fan theory is that Genie’s big powers are limited to Agrabah. Maleficent is present to see the unveiling of the Keyhole, but once Sora and the others storm in, she leaves just after being spotted. This is the first time our hero sees the villain, and I like how he knows her immediately: she’s kind of unmistakable. Jafar doesn’t waste much time, and wishes on Genie to “Crush them!”
This leads to an interesting boss fight that, not unlike the Pot Centipede, I feel doesn’t really seize its potential. Essentially, the Genie floats slowly around the room, shouting loud warnings and apologizing to you as he attacks as clumsily as possible. He sometimes drops health balls when he thinks Jafar isn’t looking. Hilarious! You can’t hurt Genie, though I can’t imagine why you’d want to. Not only would it go against the story, the way he drops health balls almost makes him a more of a benefit than a threat. The problem with the fight is that you spend so much time chasing after Jafar around the room that Genie is almost always out of your line of sight, his lines heard muffled in the background. You can easily miss the whole joke!
Jafar, meanwhile, has magical powers now. I’m not sure why. It’s either out of a misunderstanding of Aladdin‘s plot, or because of his abusing the darkness. Either way, he’s flying and teleporting about as a ball of light and shoots beam attacks from his staff. This is the only boss fight in the mid-game where I had an easier time I had chosen Rod at the start of the game than if I had chosen Sword. Rod’s Air Combo Plus skills make it a lot easier to catch Jafar on the move. Catching Jafar vulnerable can take a while, so the long combo from Rod makes every catch count.
This boss is probably as good a time as any to remind you of one of KH1’s control flaws: Sora will never (or almost never) grab a ledge while he is locked on to a target. I don’t know why this is, but it is, and it impacts not only basic combat but every boss fight in the game with height involved, and is sure to catch you at the worst possible time. It was true of the Trickmaster, it’s true here, and it will be true again in the future. Unlock your target before you try to climb a ledge!
Beating Jafar earns you an upgrade to your Blizzard spell. Spells in Kingdom Hearts 1 can be upgraded twice, through the Final Fantasy system of Spell, then the same spell with the suffix “–ra,” and then the suffix “–ga.” So this upgrade would upgrade Blizzard to “Blizzara.” This spells function exactly the same as Blizzard, except with a major damage and distance upgrade. It’s pretty handy.
But of course beating up Jafar won’t keep him down! He wishes he were an all-powerful Genie. He doesn’t need to be goaded into doing it like in the film or anything. I guess we can blame all that “abuse of the darkness” stuff for making him power-hungry? (The manga comes to a similar power-hungry conclusion, but it’s not quite the same.) Jafar’s wish causes him to blow through the floor into a magma-filled chamber below, which prevents anyone from getting ahold of his lamp.
Sora and the others consider getting Jasmine out of the Cave, but like idiots they go in alone. Oh, don’t worry guys, there’s only a powerful throng of bad guys out to get her, including a dark fairy you just saw! And I want to point out that there’s four members in Sora’s party even though you can only control three. One of them could have easily stayed behind, but no. And sure enough, Jasmine is kidnapped by a mystery assailant. I suppose Sora and the others don’t technically know about Maleficent looking for the Princesses, but she was just there, you guys, come on!
In the lava-filled basement, it seems Iago has grabbed the lamp and made off with it, so that’s a problem. It’s up to you to chase Iago down (yes, Iago is functionally the boss here) across a battlefield made up of a lot of rising and falling platforms. Meanwhile, Jafar is lurking on the outside of the arena, invulnerable and throwing boulders and magic at you (Ed. pardon me, Eamonn informs me in the comments that you can actually hurt him, “just a sliver,” with magic! he shares a health bar with the lamp). It’s best to ignore Jafar unless he throws a giant boulder, at which point you should duck behind one of the rising walls or dodge roll to safety. You’re just going spend most of your energy chasing down Iago to pummel him. After a while, Iago runs out of breath and takes a rest, so even Sword users won’t have too much trouble here. It’s a neat idea for a fight, but not quite fully realized, like all of Agrabah’s other battles. I feel that similar battles in later Kingdom Hearts games corrected the problems with this prototype.
Defeating Jafar again gets you the Fire spell upgrade, Fira (is that pronounced “fi-ra” or “fear-a”? …”fur-a”?). This is just a damage upgrade, but is much appreciated. I’m glad they gave you both upgrades at approximately the same time, since the two spells are your bread-and-butter but most players are going to favour one over the other. Their –ga level equivalents are also handed out almost one after another. Beating Jafar has an even more interesting benefit as the icing on the cake: as one of Maleficent’s confederates, Jafar was carrying a piece of Ansem’s report. These reports are some of the most crucial world-building in the series, so we’re going to be taking a close look at them.
This first report introduces you to Ansem himself, showing us a man afraid of the “darkness in the heart.” Here’s an important section:
“But though I am called a sage, there are things I do not understand.
I believe darkness sleeps in every heart, no matter how pure. Given the chance, the smallest drop can spread and swallow the heart. I have witnessed it many times.”
It is clear Ansem is something of a scientist and also something of a philosopher, phrasing his deep questions in both fields in the wording of the Kingdom Hearts universe. This section of the report is the first time Kingdom Hearts has hinted that there’s more to “Darkness” than the simplistic good-and-evil dichotomy it appears to have. Over time, we’ll learn that Darkness has a magical substance to it, like the purple effect clogging the eyes of the Cave of Wonders, but yes, the term also refers to dark motivations, but in a way that seems tied to that magical essence. Between Maleficent’s cautions and Ansem’s musings, we’re taking the first steps in an interesting direction that makes Kingdom Hearts more than the Disney fable it appears to be at the start. We’ve got someone starting to ask nuanced questions about the nature of evil, in a series based on Disney, the flagship of black-and-white simplicity. Even though Disney’s works often go deeper, Kingdom Hearts will go deeper still. In fact, that black and white world is going to provide our most interesting lens on these bigger questions. I’m jumping the gun a bit, but let me just say this: only Kingdom Hearts could do what Kingdom Hearts does. That will makes sense later. This is going to be more interesting – and more complicated – than we probably could have expected at the outset.
Kudos to the team at Square for establishing the Report ahead of time, and then giving the pages to Maleficent’s allies. It makes it seem far more like a real document, and the sections that don’t are all from Final Mix, which make sense in a different sort of way. Reports in later games go less and less established by game. It is not always clear where the reports are coming from in later games, making them less physical artifacts and more abstract narrative aides for the player.
The cast returns to find Jasmine kidnapped, and that’s bad and all, but they still have to deal with the Keyhole before the Heartless destroy the entire world, which I imagine would also be problematic. Sora does so, and it’s sealed off with a cool but strangely pointless shower of liquid gold. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with a little flash from time to time. This also causes the Cave of Wonders to collapse on you… sort of. Sealing the Keyhole triggers an escape sequence on Carpet-back, similar to the film when Abu touched the ruby. Except once you’re out… the Cave is fine. It hasn’t collapsed at all. This isn’t the last time Kingdom Hearts will indulge in this kind of silliness, and strange as it is, it’s not even the last time it will even happen in Agrabah. The escape minigame isn’t worth talking about and cannot be repeated: you just dodge obstacles and take HP damage that you would be hard-pressed to die from on lower difficulties. All I can say is that it’s so stiff that I’m glad it wasn’t brought back for a high score.
Back at Aladdin’s loft, everyone is moping. Also, apparently Aladdin is down to his last wish? Why? He wished to get out of the quicksand, and that was established as his first wish. He started to wish to Genie before the lamp was stolen by Iago, but the wish was never granted! Genie, just as upset as everyone else, suggests they wish for him to get Jasmine back (I guess he does have that power?) but Aladdin keeps his word and wishes for Genie’s freedom instead. You know the bit. It’s a bit more emotional here than the setup, I’ll give the game that much credit.
Aladdin does, however, request that Genie travel with Sora, which Genie accepts as a favour for a friend. Genie functions as a Summon, who can use multiple attacks that replace Sora’s normal Keyblade swings. I don’t think he’s really worth the trouble, but the effort and sentiment is appreciated. You also receive the Three Wishes keychain from Aladdin, a good all-around upgrade with one gnawing downgrade: it’s a normal-sized Keyblade and you’ve probably been using the extra-long Jungle King this whole time! Better you suck it up, but if you’re like me you’re going to feel the difference. You also gain the Green Trinity ability, Trinity Climb, which in turn unlock a major feature I’ll get to in the next entry.
With that, you’re left to your own devices, and can even meet some of the local Agrabahnians. This is a weird feature. These people, who are all Traverse Town remodels for extra creepiness, are only available for the tiniest window, and you could easily miss it by going straight to the Gummi Ship from Aladdin’s loft! Once you leave town, the Heartless will return and they leave again, forever. Thanks, ghost town!
Backing away from the heroes to our omniscient VillainCam, we see Maleficent’s shadowy council has broken up (probably because you could have cut ahead to do the worlds in any order) and the room has become properly lit. There, we learn the identity of Jasmine’s kidnapper: Riku. Hades – one of only a handful of villains you can’t possibly have defeated at this point in the game – and Maleficent are having an argument about whether or not Riku should have stuck around to help Jafar. Maleficent is adamant that Jafar was “beyond help” because he was so lost in the Darkness, and Hades changes the subject fast, implying he’s abusing the darkness just as badly. They turn back to Riku, and it’s a great moment to see, because in spite of their personal debate, Maleficent and Hades are in perfect sync when they turn to seducing Riku to evil. This is something they’re both equally good at doing, and they work well together.
It seems Riku kidnapped Jasmine as part of an explicit deal. In return for the kidnapping, Maleficent used her magic to track down Kairi, and shows Riku a magical vision of his friend. Kairi is seen lying on her back, as though asleep somewhere. This is a clever moment: you see, if you get a Game Over in any Kingdom Hearts game, your character is depicted floating on their back, as though suspended in the air. It’s a major motif. Kairi depicted here in a magical vision is similarly suspended in the air, though her limbs aren’t slack. She looks far more like a tidily dressed corpse. It’s has an eerie combined effect.
Maleficent has outdone herself: she even promises Riku a ride through the void to find Kairi, wherever she is. The ride will be provided by another member of her group: Captain Hook (Corey Burton’s signature role). Hook doesn’t seem all that keen on the deal, but is going along with it. Clearly Maleficent is up to something and he’s just following orders for the good of the group, but if Hook isn’t eager to help, one has to wonder whether Maleficent just has the whole group on a tight leash, or if they all need Riku on their side for some specific reason…
There’s a one last thing to wrap up in Agrabah. If you’re a careful searcher, you can find your first Torn Page here, deep beneath the Cave of Wonders. (One thing I like about the Torn Pages in this game is that they’re often stored somewhere where a lost relic would be stored!) Taking it back to Merlin’s House, you can finally advance the story of another world…