Returning to the world map, you can pick between two worlds from Agrabah, and like Deep Jungle there’s actually a third in the distance, though you’ll find that’s a little misleading. In all honesty, it doesn’t matter which world you pick to go to next. The world on the lower path is marked as “easier,” but no matter which path you pick, you’ll be intercepted half-way to your destination by a giant space whale. No word of that was hyperbole: you’re snapped out of space by the all-consuming mouth of Monstro the whale from Pinocchio. His world is dead but he’s endured, and is eating passing space ships for sustenance. Congrats, you’re stuck in it now.
Yup, that’s right. The whale is a world of his own.
If you think about it, it makes sense that there was a “surprise” world after Agrabah. The easier of the two worlds on the map was two stars higher in difficulty than Agrabah. But the world you were heading to does matter a little. Monstro essentially parks on the path you pick, which can muddy things up if you’re doing Gummi missions – for that reason, I recommend you take the upper path, where the missions are less frustrating. Unfortunately, if you want to go back to Monstro, he isn’t always there on return trips. He is a living thing! In Final Mix, the odds seem to be higher if you warp.
As you enter the world, Sora is knocked out, provoking a flashback back to when he and Riku, much younger, explored the cave on Destiny Islands and discovered the not-door at the back of the cave. Once again, you can see how misleading it is that Sora experiences both actual flashbacks and Kairi flashbacks when only one of those is supposed to be “suspicious,” but I feel like I’ve railed on that enough at this point. Finding nothing of interest, young Riku announces his plan to leave the island when they’re older. We also learn that Kairi has just arrived on the island. While the boys’ ages aren’t specified in this game, later games would suggest that they’re somewhere in the area of five years old. Ish. This is a timeline question we’re going to have to explore in detail around the time of BBS. After this, Sora wakes inside of the whale.
The weird thing about Monstro is that even though you were just eaten by the whale, and you meet characters who are trapped here, you can leave Monstro at any time. Where did the Gummi Ship even go? Did it melt in his mouth? Taken all together, Monstro is an optional world despite him snapping you out of the sky (I’m not certain, but you may need the ability it gives you part-way. The remainder of the world is absolutely optional). However, to beat the game, you’re going to have to clear Agrabah and two of the three worlds that follow, a set which includes Monstro. If you’re going for the Speedster trophy, you have all sorts of options, but you might want to stick with Monstro. It’s easier, and as far as speed run trophies are concerned, faster… once you know the route. For everyone else, Monstro is way more important to the plot than the other two worlds.
Considering the clues I’ve been mocking, I should probably say out loud that I suspect Monstro wasn’t always optional, especially considering how important the plot can be. The characters all act like they’re trapped. And the plot doesn’t really… make sense if you come back here later. Oh, the game tries to patch the discrepancies, but this time I feel it doesn’t really work. I won’t be able to explain what it does until later – much later, when the changes are applied – but hold on to your hats and try take a few guesses as we go.
Monstro begins with you finding Pinocchio already inside the whale. Sora and friends act like they know him even if they don’t, as we’ve already discussed, and they wonder how he got here. Pinocchio doesn’t answer, and so the audience will never get any answers, ever. We’re off to a great start, Square, congrats. Pinocchio somehow traverses from his current position to the other with an armful of gummi blocks (physically impossible) and shows us that he’s found his father and their goldfish, Cleo. Cat unaccounted for.
Jiminy Cricket does a few introductions, and we meet Geppetto, voiced by Tony Pope, who was doing the role in House of Mouse at the time. By the way, how’s this for Disney history? Pope actually voiced Goofy for 11 years, prior to Bill Farmer! Primarily at the Disney parks, but that’s still no small job. Sadly, Pope died two years after the release of KH1.
Geppetto explains that Pinocchio informed has him about the Gummi blocks, and Disney’s most famous craftsman has been using them to make an escape ship for his family. Collecting them out of the mish-mash Monstro has swallowed, I suppose. Geppetto just gets started talking about how important Pinocchio is to him when the kid trots off down Monstro’s gullet. Wow, that has to be the fastest plot to gameplay transition in the entire series and–whoa! Hi, Riku, we’re going real fast today, where the hell did you come from?
So I guess we’re dealing with the central plot at last, huh?
Riku is peak dick here, and in a way, peak childish. KH1 approaches its leads on the childish side of coming-of-age, but Riku has deliberately framed the events here in Monstro’s guts to be even more childish than they needed to be, for his own unscrupulous reasons. Maybe to provoke Sora’s old rivalry with him? He claims he and Pinocchio are “playing” inside the stomach of the giant cetacean, and somewhere during the scene Riku crosses the line from “bully” to “after-school special bully” crossed with “stranger danger from an 80s infomercial.” It’s honestly a little creepy how he interacts with Pinnochio. Riku jogs off into Monstro’s gullet with Pinocchio in tow and ho boy, here we go.
I think I understand where Square was coming from with these decisions, even if I don’t agree with them. In 2002, gamers were already familiar with the inside of a whale in Ocarina of Time, so I imagine Square felt the need to differentiate. Once you’re past Monstro’s mouth, his guts start to look weird. They’re just roundy walls splashed with paint at random, probably meant to resemble… cells, perhaps? You just have to see it to believe it, so pardon me if some of the screenshots for this entry are just random shots of the wallpaper. There’s nothing really wrong with it (hiding a White Trinity in a colour splash is actually clever), but it all comes off like something of a mid-nineties product, with glob-like textures that resemble nothing in particular, certainly not real walls. I think I’m thinking of Descent, in particular. But the real problem – the real problem – is that these indistinct shapes are used to make a fucking maze of twisty passages.
“A maze of twisty passages, all alike,” is a phrase from the seminal Adventure game, Colossal Cave Adventure, from 1976. That text game featured a maze with virtually no description except the above sentence (if you looked closely, the words re-ordered in certain rooms, but that’s neither here nor there, as the name has stuck and has come to encompass mazes that are even worse than that!). The doors in a maze of twisty passages aren’t arranged in any logical sequence, forcing you to work out the maze by trial and error and (in a traditional adventure game) by dropping items behind you to tell one room from another. It made no sense that you couldn’t just navigate the maze with basic spatial relations, but there we were in the seventies, where it could maybe be excused. Here in 2002, a non-Euclidean maze is less acceptable.
The game does at least have rooms that look different, it’s got that over Adventure, and even goes so far as to number them (the names of rooms in KH1 appear when you approach an exit, even on your first visit, unlike later games that only show it on revisits), but that doesn’t repair the fact that the maze follows no logical structure, and some of the doors are even one-way! This is all aggravated by an unrelated problem: Monstro contains more obvious, Metroid-style “come back later” moments than any other level to date. This is for good reason: you get the tool that lets you solve most of these “come back later” puzzles before you’ve even cleared the world, but it still makes it impossible to tell what is relevant to the current maze, what’s baiting, and what’s bullshit.
(After writing this section a long time ago, I saw this post on KHInsider, suggesting the correct doors through Monstro are green-tinged! I’d never noticed it myself, and it’s revolutionary.)
Your objective, not that you’re aware of it, is to find Room 4, which branches off of Room 5. Knowing to look for Room 5 is enough of an advantage in and of itself that I bet it could shave 15 pointless minutes off your first playthrough. You can only work that you’re supposed to go to 5 by tedious process of elimination as Heartless attack you from all sides. How does a whale get a gullet full of Heartless, anyways? It turns out there’s an explanation! Monstro has a neat gimmick later in the game you’ll find monsters from a different, random world each time you come back (though they’re only in certain rooms). It seems he’s snapping them up as he goes! But the random gimmick doesn’t take place until you clear the world, so for the time being, enemies are predictable and that sadly undercuts the unspoken explanation they had waiting in the wings!
The first new foe you’ll encounter are the Search Ghosts. Search Ghosts are the surreal footnote to this weird world. Jiminy’s Diary insists they’re from the next world, something he writes down even though you’ve never been there! They appear even more prominently in the world after that, and match that third world’s aesthetic. What a mess! Search Ghosts aren’t very dangerous. The ‘search’ part of their name comes from how they don’t act until they spot you nearby using visible, red line-of-sight cones. In any other game, enemies that function like this are very dangerous if they spot you (think of the Sniperwilds from FM), but the Search Ghosts are almost as sedate after they’ve spotted you as they are before. They can go invincible/invisible after they’ve seen you, but that’s such a common power among the Heartless that it hardly bears mentioning. Even Shadows can do that.
There’s also the Barrel Spider. This is a Pot Spider packed with gunpowder, and they’re practically harmless if you suspect them ahead of time, since a Fira spell will kill them instantly – in a chain reaction if you can help it! You eventually get to the point where there’s not even any sense in acknowledging them, as they’re really not that dangerous. For the time being, use Fire.
Finally you make it to Chamber 4, and we get a cutscene with Riku in the room ahead. It seems Maleficent is here, and she asks Riku why he’s still bothering with Sora. I’m surprised she stooped to entering a whale’s guts, so I guess Riku’s an important project after all. Riku says Sora isn’t important to him, and was “just messing with him a little.” Maleficent cautions Riku against involving himself with Sora, saying the Heartless prey on darkness like that. She then teleports away and… leaves him behind? Years later I still don’t understand this. Once his objectives are clear, you probably won’t understand either. Just take him with you!
Sora catches up to Riku in Room 4 and Riku accuses Sora of not actually trying to save Kairi at all when he’s so busy fighting to save the worlds. Sora’s already tried to spell out that he’s been looking for them both, but let’s give Riku the benefit of the doubt. This could be an interesting debate between a personal but not selfish “good” act versus a “greater good” act, in this case going to find your friends versus saving the universe. It’s an argument we can explore later, but for the time being, we’re interrupted by a Heartless boss.
As I understand it, this boss, the Parasite Cage, is a reference to the Prison Cage boss in FFIX. The fight with this thing is a once-in-the-game opportunity, because Sora reaches out to Riku in a gesture of good faith, and Riku joins you for the duration of the fight. You’ve got a party of four instead of three! KH2 will do this a few more times, but it’s still very rare. Once the fight starts, you realize why this doesn’t happen on the regular. Riku’s AI isn’t very complicated, and the Parasite Cage won’t even target him. It’s clear the programmers didn’t want the game to catch fire processing three fully programmed allies at once. It was only 2002, after all. But nevermind that. The narrative advantages are great, and Riku can cause damage, and that’s neat.
The Parasite Cage is a great-bodied thing shaped like a gourd, with a false mouth made of cage bars on its gut, and a second, real head on top. The real head also sprouts a pair of long, ropey arms. Naturally, it’s caught Pinocchio in its belly-mouth. The Cage can only really hurt you by swatting with its arms, and its range is limited since it can’t move from its position. This means if you had infinite magic, you could hypothetically Fira and Blizzara your way through the entire fight, but Sora’s magic doesn’t work like that (probably to keep you from doing exactly this!). Am I going to surprise anyone when I say that this easy, under-programmed and under-capable boss is the first phase of two? Of course I’m not. After you beat the Parasite Cage, it escapes, and this escape seems to provoke Monstro’s innards into coughing everyone else into the mouth. Delightful.