Kingdom Hearts 1 – Swim this Way

Sora’s third trip to the 100 Acre Wood returns to Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree for the segment where Pooh manages to get himself lodged in Rabbits front door. If you’re not familiar with Honey Tree, Kingdom Hearts does little to vary it: Pooh shows up at his friend Rabbit’s house, imposes himself, and poor Rabbit is too polite to be inhospitable, even when Pooh’s being a jerk. This all gets worse when Pooh gets stuck in the rabbit hole on the way out because he ate too much. Which is extra silly because Rabbit has a larger back door. Watching this happen involves a lot of moving around on your part, which is pretty boring, though there’s one funny moment where you narc Rabbit out by showing Pooh where he stashed his hunny pot (in the beams of the ceiling!). The plot doesn’t vary from the film until it comes time to get Pooh out of the hole, when Rabbit (unvoiced) suddenly announces that a drink of carrot juice will slim Pooh down. If you say so, talking bunny, my suspension of disbelief is invulnerable in 100 Acre Wood.

Unfortunately, who should show up to complicate things but Tigger (Jim Cummings). Tigger’s making an early appearance (he was never in Honey Tree), but he’s just as troublesome as ever, as he’s decided to go bouncing through the carrot field. If he’s not trying to smash the carrots deliberately, he’s doing an awful good job of it all the same. Rabbit’s about ready to have a conniption, so this might not be a good time to tell him that you were throwing around his cabbages on your way in. Instead, get out there and play another mini-game to save the carrots from the tiger. Wow, Greenpeace just doesn’t talk about their niche work.

Remember the unreliable Rush command in the honey tree game? This game is all about the Rush command. Don’t even try to play it without. Nominally, the aim of the game is to run underneath Tigger and catch him as he tries to squash the carrots, but the game demands such precision and speed that it’s almost not worth the effort to play without Rush’s dubious “help.” Not that the Rush command makes things easy, it just makes things playable. For starters, using Rush causes Sora to dart towards Tigger’s target carrot, but you’ll often have to get Sora into the centre of the bulls-eye yourself. That’s fair, I’m sure we all want some skill to be involved, but you have to learn where the game’s auto-help stops and your skill begins. More troublesome is the fact that for some reason you can only use Rush if you’re already near a healthy carrot in the first place. They can each take two bounces before they break and become useless to both Rush and to your score!

Scoring in this game is unusual as well. You need at least one surviving carrot to progress in the plot (I believe) while you need 150 points to earn this game’s credit toward Cheer. Your score is based on the number of times you catch Tigger, multiplied by the number of surviving carrots. That multiplication is the key. If you beat the Cheer score, it’s because you won big. If you don’t beat it, it’s because you lost hard. There isn’t much of a middle ground. Sora gets the carrot juice to Pooh and everything wraps up early, without any marching band songs or anything!

If you picked up the Torn Page from the Dalmations like I suggested, it’s possible to carry on the plot in 100 Acre Woods immediately. If you haven’t, don’t worry. 51 Puppies is nothing, and you have multiple worlds left to search. This next section of the ‘Wood is simultaneously the simplest and most complicated mini-game. The story is partially based on the Winnie the Pooh short, Winnie the Pooh and a Day for Eeyore. That is to say, an animated short that wasn’t from The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh! Heck, Day for Eeyore was never compiled with other Pooh films to the best of my knowledge and can only be found on its own! There’s also a reference to Blustery Day in this stretch. 100 Acre Wood is a little more complicated than the other Disney plots, but if you grew up with these Pooh movies, they’ve probably blended together in your head and I bet you didn’t notice.

This section starts with Pooh on a bridge. This is the bridge where, in the short film and original book, he invented the game of Poohsticks. And would you believe it: Poohsticks isn’t the mini-game here! I admit that Poohsticks is a little random in the real world, but c’mon! A. A. Milne outright handed you that mini-game! Instead, we cut straight to Eeyore (who is, say it with me: unvoiced) who’s managed to get stuck in the water. Sora saves him… or doesn’t. If you let him slowly slip past, he’ll actually loop back to the start of the river! Eeyore, are you a wizard?

Once he’s on shore, Dumbledore here announces that his tail is missing. As Eeyore waits by his house, you’re supposed to guide Pooh to the nearby hill to get a good look around to find the tail. This involves an utterly pointless… mini-game?… where you have to guide Pooh up the path while avoiding hunny pots that distract him. If they do distract him, all it costs you is patience: you just wait for him to get back up and keep going, without consequence. Why is this here? You can argue it’s a tutorial for a later mini-game, but then why are the pots here when they aren’t a part of the later mini-game at all? I suppose to add a modicum of challenge?

By the way, if you know where Eeyore’s tail is from a previous playthrough, you can take a close look with first person view and see that it is actually is there! Nice touch to the devs!

Once you get on top of the hill, you find a simple rope swing, and Owl and Pooh decide that the best way to search for Eeyore tail is to use the swing to launch Pooh into the sky like a trebuchet. I take back every critique I’ve made about this game, and maybe every critique I made against a Game Boy Final Fantasy for extra credit.

Mechanically speaking, this game is… off. You’re supposed to press a button to give Pooh a push in the swing, and Owl tries to signal you when to push him.  Two problems with this. One: if you do well at the game, you’ll actually never find the tail! If you get the score you need to qualify for Cheer, Pooh goes flying into the bushes and finds nothing! Eeyore’s tail is only found if you do moderately well, causing Pooh to crash into Eeyore’s house of sticks, where the tail was snagged.

Once you are trying to do well for Cheer’s sake, you’ll discover that Owl’s gestures are faulty. Maybe the two problems are linked: maybe the devs were trying to help you get a medium score in hopes that you land on Eeyore’s house? Even that’s a pretty generous guess. Some online guides will have you launching Pooh into space in no time, but c’mon developers.

Clearing the game turns your Torn Page into, holy shit, the first Stop upgrade? We just got Stop!  I guess that’s what you get for efficient puppy-finding. (Notice how the game made absolutely sure you couldn’t get 51 puppies before at least getting to Monstro, where you found Stop in the “first” place.  That said, it is possible to get Stop here if you skipped out on Monstro.) Enjoy your Stopra, you dog-loving, bear-hurling contradiction.

And with that behind us… we come to one of the most hated sections of the entire franchise.

Oh boy. Here we go.

So having escaped the jaws of a giant space whale, you consult your map again and remember that you have two worlds you can visit: one five-star and one six. If you’re like me, you probably assume all the worlds are mandatory, and figure “I might as well go to the easier world and build up my level.”

Ah ha.  Ah ha.  Ha.

Atlantica, you discover, is a world entirely submerged in water. “Under the sea,” if you will. Donald notices this while still on the map and decides to use his magic to transform everyone into a sea creature so that you can explore it: Sora is turned a merman of sorts with a dolphin tail instead of a fish’s, Goofy is turned into a turtle, and Donald has octopus tentacles below the waist. You’re only a few seconds into the water when you run into some locals: Ariel the mermaid princess, her friend Flounder, and her chaperone, Sebastian. This trio is voiced by, respectively: Jodi Benson, Ariel’s original voice actress (also the voice of Barbie in Toy Story); Eli Linnetz, the voice of Tipo from Emperor’s New Groove; and Kevin Michael Richardson, a voice actor so prolific I’m having trouble picking out one highlight role. Frankly I loved him as Richard Hawkins in Static Shock, and besides that, he’s a DCAU regular and voice of The Joker on The Batman.

It’s a good thing Ariel and her friends showed up, because you have no idea how to swim. Sora jokes that he’s not used to these waters. Haaa…

I’m of the opinion that it’s hard to ruin an artistic work with a single mistake, unless that mistake is huge, or if it’s harmful in the real world. No, I find that a constant mistake is more damaging to a product. Stabbing the upholstery damages the upholstery, no mistake, but maybe you can patch it. But stabbing the upholstery and dragging along from end to end… Maybe my analogy is a little garish and the average mistake in games aren’t as bad as trying to bleed your couch, no matter how much it might deserve it. My point is: the best way to get a constant tear across your game? Screw up the gameplay itself. If you screw up the gameplay, you screw up every segment touched by your wretched gameplay, and if you want to screw up gameplay faster than anything, screw up the controls. Kingdom Hearts screws up the controls on Atlantica. Welcome to the next hour and a half or so of gameplay: it’s all broken.

Swimming in Atlantica means moving on the vertical. This means buttons had to be assigned to move on the vertical! Square Enix picked the Circle and Square buttons outside of Japan, which you may have noticed, are not the Up and Down facing buttons on the cross-shaped button pad. They are the Right and Left facing buttons. The Jump button, Circle, goes up, while the Square button makes you go down. I guess they felt the need to reserve the upper Triangle button for giving Donald and Goofy orders, but sheesh. This might even be worse in Japanese. Jump is on the lower button, X, instead of Circle. This means that when you come to Atlantica, the Jump button, which makes you go up, is below the button that makes you go down. I typically like inverted flight controls, but that’s because they’re attached to a stick! I really shouldn’t dwell on this because the controls wouldn’t be satisfying even if they did make sense. Sora is far too slow when rising and falling to make this anywhere near playable.

Goodbye, only legitimate fish in the sea!

Because the rising and falling controls suck, the best way to get anywhere is to lock on to something in the distance and press the left stick forward, which will cause Sora to move at an angle toward your target. That’s the trick to moving around Atlantica, and, in my opinion, why the treasure chests behave differently here. Oh yeah, Atlantic couldn’t even have normal treasure chests. The chests are clams and to open them, you have to target them with attacks or spells (based on their colour). The trick with clams is that they remain on the screen even after you’ve opened them, while normal chests disappear. This allows you to use them for navigation. But now you can’t tell which chests you still have to open! Maybe if the game had left their mouths open?

If you use clams for navigation and give the rising and falling buttons a lot of berth, Atlantica is… workable. To be honest, I’ve never really minded Atlantica that much in the first place. But other people hate this place. If you’ve never been here, odds say you’d hate it too.

How bad are Atlantica’s controls to the gaming public-at-large? Well, let’s take a look at something the Kingdom Hearts design team did while making Final Mix. The Ultima Weapon synthesis takes sixteen ingredients in Final Mix (bear with me, this is going somewhere). 5 are Mystery Goos, which you get from Mushroom Heartless by doing some complicated tricks. 6 of these ingredients are taken from Final Mix exclusive mini-game Heartless, which are the embodiment of complicated tricks. 3 are from mass-farming basic items to synth Dark Matters, a truly tedious process. We’re 11 items in, and already this is a gruelling test of just how much you really want Sora’s best Keyblade. You just know those remaining 5 items are going to be brutal. This was Final Mix, they had all the hindsight a worldwide release behind them to make this the most frustrating part of the process. And what are those remaining 5 items? Common drops from Atlantica. Coming back to Atlantica for five random drops is considered to be just as frustrating as playing hopscotch in a handstand to coax synth Stones gimmick Heartless. It’s considered just as tedious as hunting Shadows for Dark Matter materials, because the Moogles hate you to their very souls. That’s the reputation this place has. Oh, and there are no new synthesis enemies here in Atlantica. That would have been too cruel.

It’s not really that bad, but that is how people see Atlantica. And if I’m going to convey the Kingdom Hearts experience to you, I feel that that’s something you’ve got to take in, too.

So. A movement tutorial. 60% of the way through the game. I suppose that’s better than 99%, eh Kingdom Hearts 2? Ariel has you chase Flounder around the room for a while before some Heartless show up. Apparently they had been chasing Ariel and her friends before they arrived. You… stopped to provide a lengthy movement tutorial to a group of obvious liars while being chased by monsters? Ariel and friends bail, some of them hiding in a nearby clam so that after this fight tutorial, we can have a chest tutorial! Also, for some reason, the clam contains a save point. I don’t know either.

The Heartless that have arrived are jellyfish-shaped Sea Neons, one of the most inconsequential species of Heartless in the series. It’s like they were programmed for this tutorial and never expanded into a proper monster. Their primary defence consists of squeaking while you beat on them. From time to time, they are known to move. I mean, probably. It’s hard to say, because they are usually dead by then. If it weren’t for their “Enemy Card” in the GBA version of Chain of Memories, the Sea Neon would have been relegated to the dustbin of gaming history. And since the Sea Neon is no longer as relevant in CoM’s 3D remake, that’s exactly where they’ve gone.

You pop a few water piñatas, and Ariel returns all excited and impressed by your ability to actually eliminate the bad guys. She suggests you go see her father, since he’s been furious about the Heartless invading the world. She says it will be easy to find his palace: just follow the trident markers on the walls. Hahaha, oh boy. You thought we were done with the problems with that discussion on shitty controls, but we haven’t even begun.

There are two problems with the trident markers, excusing the part where you barely know how to move to begin with. First off, they’re not always where you want them to be. It can be very easy to wander off the beaten path and lose track of them. This is in spite of the fact that the devs placed a lot of redundant tridents around the walls. The trouble is: if you get lost and spot a trident in the distance, you can’t confirm it’s a new one, you might easily get back to the start of the path! Another problem is less developer incompetence and more mean-spiritedness, that blurs into the surrounding incompetence until the very waters of Atlantica bleed with your hate. Partway through the trident path, you find an underwater jet stream that pushes you along at high speeds. The tridents direct you to turn right in the middle of the jet stream, but only appear just as you’re supposed to make the turn. You’ll probably miss. Then you’ll get back in, make the turn, and end up in the middle of a second jet stream that pushes you out the ceiling! If you get pushed out the ceiling, not only will you be set back, but lost! Hope you find one of the redundant tridents along the walls!

Ariel is a Guest character in this section, and most guides I’ve seen agree with me in kicking Goofy out in favour of her. She’s a healer (Ariel uses “magic potions” for her spells), and I’m a compulsive hoarder of healers on a regular day (you should see me in Shining Force 2), but it’s more than that. Unfortunately, Goofy’s limited mobility and small size as a turtle ruin his everyday strengths, while Ariel’s magic circumvents the mobility problem entirely. Ariel’s tail flip attack (possibly inspired by the NES game?) also has vertical depth, which helps her hit things even better than you or Donald. She really should be with you at all times.

Part of the way to Triton’s, you’ll encounter Search Ghosts (which are, again, supposedly “native” to this entirely underwater place with no undead whatsoever) and also a new Heartless called the Screwdiver.  The Screwdiver is a diver-type Heartless that serves as this world’s “generic foot soldier.” They’re relatively capable, which can be bad news if you’re still fighting the controls, and they absorb Thunder attacks. That may not be as bad as it sounds. True, Thunder might have made things easier while you learn the controls, but your first-level Thunder spell is so thoroughly outclassed by your upgraded Fira and Blizzara spells that it’s hard to recommend it at this point in the game. Where is the Thundara upgrade, anyways?

You dogpaddle along to Triton’s castle, past a few canyons and some underwater sculptures, possibly spotting the only underwater Trinity in the entire game along the way. The palace continues the weird theme from Agrabah where KH1 doesn’t want you to be inside of castles: you end up only seeing this one from an extreme distance and from the inside of a single room. In that single room, you find King Dad in the process of vaporizing some poor Heartless that swam come within his line of sight. Ariel might have understated his dislike a little. Ariel introduces her new friends, and Triton notes that they swim like crap. I know, sir. I know. He orders Ariel to stay in the palace until the Heartless are dealt with, but she leaves in defiance and I… guess we should… follow her?

By the way, Triton is voiced by his original voice actor, Kenneth Mars, who did extensive work in the Disney animated series (TaleSpin, Darkwing Duck), was a regular in the Land Before Time sequels (as Grandpa Longneck), and, of course, played Inspector Kemp in Young Frankenstein.

Everyone leaves but Sebastian, who stays behind and whispers to Triton that the Heartless are coming from Ursula’s Grotto. I think it’s kind of interesting to think of the Heartless as “coming from” somewhere.  From your perspective, with their ability to teleport to your location, they just pop out of nowhere, but I suppose everyone else must be seeing them move about like regular monsters?  Unfortunately, Sora and the others aren’t around to hear this, so we’re going to be taking part in what might better be called “shenanigans” than “work.”

Prev: Kingdom Hearts 1 – The Neck Bone’s Connected to… All Sorts of Places, Apparently!
Next: Kingdom Hearts 1 – Calamari ala Tesla

This retrospective’s screenshots come from Spazbo4’s longplay of the PS3, 1.5 HD version of Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix at World of Longplays (YouTube).