Ariel’s pissed at her father’s behaviour from earlier, so to calm down she suggests you all go to her treasure trove, just a few rooms back. Along the way, you’ll encounter your first Sheltering Zone, a giant Sea Neon that splits into four Sea Neons when you kill it. You can avoid the split by killing the Zone with magic or a critical hit, so it becomes a matter of strategy and luck whether you prefer a shorter fight for smaller returns, or a drag for better EXP and drop odds. Best get a handful of those Ultima Weapon ingredients while you’re here!
At her cache, Ariel shows you her stuff, isn’t it neat, including a Torn Page kept in a surface-world chest, if you can find it among the carefully organized clutter. Here, Ariel explains her dream of, wait for it, seeing other worlds. Oh, shit, we’re back in the realm of absurdly particular use of the word “world.” Sora sort of coughs and sputters to keep from saying what he knows, and Ariel impulsively suggests they go check out a sunken ship nearby, because that sounds pretty cool. “I’m bored, let’s go rob some place?” That’s about as substantial as most game plots. Let’s do this!
And it’s here where we come to Atlantica Major Problem 3, and its little sister, the abysmal Problem 4. Problem 3 is immediately obvious: you don’t have tridents pointing the way to other parts of Atlantica. Atlantica is hard to navigate, and it is only made worse by the fact that you probably didn’t learn the layout while you were staring at the tridents! But we’re not done: not only are you lost, but your destination isn’t accessible in the first place. I’m not even kidding. You have no way of knowing where to go until you’ve solved the problem entirely by accident. That’s Problem 4. …The Dolphin Problem.
The only way to reach the shipwreck Ariel is talking about is to go back down the trident path to the large “main room” near the start. There, you must find a dolphin swimming around and can ride its tail. It will carry you up the jet stream I mentioned earlier, except in reverse, allowing you to reach a door at the other end. Did I mention you don’t know how to do this, or that you even know to do this? Did I mention you probably think the jet stream is a dead end? Did I mention that the dolphin will drop you if you get near any Heartless, but with no indication that the Heartless are responsible, perhaps making you think that the dolphin is just unreliable? Did I mention the trident path room is super-large, meaning it’s full of Heartless? Did I mention you don’t know you need to do this?
But that’s not the real heart of things. Oh no. The great, triumphant cherry on this is the fact that the dolphin is not initially in the main room at all. It’s in another room, outside Ariel’s Grotto. You have to ride it there, or it won’t show up in the main room. The thing is: riding the dolphin in the previous room doesn’t seem to accomplish anything. This not only teaches you the wrong thing about the dolphin in the main room, but doesn’t clue you in to the fact that riding the dolphin here added a second dolphin to the “main room” in the first place. So if you don’t ride the dolphin outside the grotto, you will never find the dolphin in the main room, ever, and so will never realize you are supposed to do anything in the main room, at all! And once you do find the dolphin outside the grotto, you won’t realize you accomplished anything in interacting with it, and so won’t go to the main room until you stumble on the dolphin there, for unrelated reasons, entirely by accident? And people hate this world, you say?
By the way, since we’re talking about failure, I should tell you that another Pink Agaricus appears between the two dolphin rooms. You can’t get a high score here, because you can’t use any special attacks at all. Were they even trying to keep this world together at that point?
You finally pull through the jet stream and end up in a room with the sunken ship. You enter the ship, which features a series of Resident Evil fixed camera angles that culminate in that shark from the movie crashing through the ship’s windows as you open a chest. It fails to grab you, but is waiting for you outside as an optional midboss. This fish, named “Glut” according to behind-the-scenes information from the movie, is technically optional, since you can just bail from the room if you want. If you do fight him, he’ll give you a good idea of how bosses work with swimming controls: poorly.
Glut has attack power through the roof. Cartoonish sharks – especially sharks like Glut that came out a few years after Jaws – tend to be mostly teeth, so that makes sense. This high attack was probably put into place because it’s so hard for Glut to hit you in the first place: if his attack wasn’t sky high, he’d be completely ineffective. And remember: Kingdom Hearts is a slow-paced, 90s beat ’em up inspired game where how you land your attacks and how you avoid them is critical, so maybe this isn’t so bad. If only you could dodge in this soup. I recommend you dodge by moving vertically, but to be honest the best way to stay alive is to pray Glut goes after teammates instead of you. Failing that: Aero. He’s going to hit you from time to time, you might as well have a shield up. Thankfully, Glut doesn’t have too much HP. What he does have is the Stealth Sneak glitch, where he gains a sudden and irrational invulnerability to everything for no reason. This asshole can come after you another dozen times before he realizes he’s dead.
Well, not “dead.” Like Sabor, Glut leaves this fight alive, only to come back later. Defeating Glut does have one advantage at this point: you can now open a secret passage that leads straight back to Ariel’s grotto, and you can use it to come back in the future, skipping the dolphin puzzle. More than worth it.
The prize you collected from the ship turns out to be as crystal trident head. Recognizing it as matching an indentation on the wall of Ariel’s Grotto, Sora heads back to install the thing, just for Triton to burst in and destroy the crystal trident head with his lightning. Ariel is furious at him destroying her things and interfering with her life again, making this the rough equivalent of the scene in the film where he destroys the statue of Prince Eric. It’s not quite as effective as that, but it’s effective enough that when Ariel swims off, you still believe it. And it gets even better after she leaves.
See, for all the flak Atlantica gets, it has one of the most memorable cutscenes in the entire series. Triton corners Sora and the others in the Grotto, and reveals that he knows they’re off-worlders, and that Sora is the bearer of the Keyblade. He’s been hiding the existence of other worlds from Ariel to keep her from running off, and rubs it in Sora and his friends’ faces that they’ve been meddling in the affair of other worlds – remember that rule? This is a jarring invasion of the main plot into a Disney affair, and it’s very effective, especially in breaking your presumptions of what Sora is doing. Triton adds that when he tells you that the “The key bearer shatters peace and brings ruin,” and while he doesn’t given any examples, he’s clear that there are examples, and he wants you gone. That he says this just after pointing out that you’ve been meddling makes it a pretty personal complaint. Like, even to the player.
But it’s more than that. It breaks the idea that Sora is, by virtue of being the Keyblade master, a chosen hero of good. Previous Keyblade masters, at least once, have done awful things, and you know so little that you can’t argue with him. “Those who know nothing can understand nothing.” Also, that “ruin” note. Maybe you hadn’t thought of it before, but it’s there right in front of your face: you have a powerful weapon, and you control access to the heart of the world. With the right information you could destroy the entire planet. This is a pretty plump and tempting piece of background info. I know a lot of folks went into the prequel game, Birth By Sleep, hoping to find out exactly what Triton means, but since Atlantica had essentially been declared location non grata at that point, there was never going to be a direct connection.
The cutscene continues, following Ariel as she swims off to cry, and finds herself in what I can only describe as room that exists only for this cutscene. Oh, I’m not saying it doesn’t exist as part of the game. You can find it no trouble. The problem is: it’s an optional room with only a single, pointless clam-chest inside, holding a generic item. It is otherwise devoid of enemies, of worthwhile treasure and of puzzles. See what I mean? During the scene, Ursula’s moray eel familiars, Flotsam and Jetsam (both Corey Burton) tell her that Ursula can help Ariel out, and the sea-witch quickly arrives. Ursula is played by her original voice actress, Pat Caroll, who was a regular on comedy variety shows for decades. She has a number of Disney connections, even including Ursula’s sister in The Little Mermaid II (oh, Disney DTV) and a one-time appearance in Chip ‘n’ Dale Rescue Rangers. But I think for many she’ll always be remembered for playing Grandma in the Garfield holiday specials.
Ursula fills an odd role in this game in that she never really acknowledges her connection to Maleficent. She was there in some of the early scenes of Maleficent’s evil coalition (if you didn’t recognize her powerful and distinctive voice at once, perhaps you haven’t seen The Little Mermaid in a long time!), but no reference is made to the connection from that point on. Maleficent doesn’t appear on Atlantica like she did on Olympus Coliseum, Monstro and Agrabah (perhaps you can blame all the water for that), Ursula doesn’t acknowledge Sora as the Keyblade wielder like Hades and Jafar. Now, everything I’ve just said also applies to the boss of the next world, and remember that these worlds are optional, but that doesn’t seem quite right either. It’s as though the Maleficent connection was added later. It’s a shame, too, because watching Ursula and Maleficent play off one another would have been fantastic.
Ursula goes about the steps of seducing Ariel to her side, noting that Ariel wants to go to “other worlds” and taunting her that Sora and his friends are from another world, and if they can go world hopping, so can she! This… doesn’t seem the best way to approach things. What if Ariel just goes to Sora for help? She doesn’t, but what if she had? Ursula cuts to the chase compared to the film, with no surface-world shenanigans getting in the way: she says she needs Triton’s trident to do her magic, and sends Ariel out to steal it.
Sora and the others go looking for Ariel, and are cut off, in a manner of speaking, by a new Heartless en route to the palace. I have to give the game credit: the juxtaposition of Ursula and Ariel sneaking into the Palace while this new ugly face shows up in your path is just too well done to dismiss as a design accident: Ursula left this thing to delay you. This Heartless is the Aquatank, a giant fish balloon that often carries Screwdivers into battle. The Aquatank attacks very rarely, but hits hard when it does, and has almost as much HP as Glut – keep in mind that even though I said Glut didn’t have much HP, I meant “didn’t have much HP for a midboss.” Between Glut, the Aquatanks and the Sheltering Zones, Atlantica is packed with meat shields. In fact, if it weren’t for the Sheltering Zones, the Aquatanks would have more than double the HP of any other minor Heartless to date. Perhaps this is the devs’ way of acknowledging that attacking underwater is much easier than defending. In spite of everything, the HP of these new monsters works without becoming sloppy, which is more than I would have expected. I don’t think I’m going to be able to say that again.
You arrive at the Palace, but you’re too late (why Sora and the others knew to go there, we can only imagine. You the player came because you saw Ursula talking to Ariel!). Ursula has the trident and has already thrashed Triton, and is threatening to do the same to Ariel. She says she is going to send Ariel to another world as promised: “the dark world of the Heartless!” Wow. Wow that’s awful dialogue. That’s 4Kids censoring “kill” awful. I’m glad Ursula mentions the Heartless, for reasons that are otherwise going to be troublesome down the road, but crap, no one should be allowed to get away with a line like that.
Ursula bails when Sora shows up, which is a little peculiar. The throne room isn’t set up quite like how I’d expect a boss arena to look, but there is a suspicious amount of empty space, as though there could have been a boss here after all. Triton insists Ariel go after the trident, and if the Keyblade wielder goes with if only because we won’t give Triton time to protest.
Ursula’s Grotto exists off a secret passage in the ship area. Sebastian tells you about it, and goes with you to show you the way. You know, ostensibly. In reality, he joins your party because he’s needed to hit the secret switch that opens the way to the grotto, which if you ask me is a pretty thin way to hide a secret door. Didn’t Sebastian say the Heartless were coming from this grotto? What, through the crack around the door? This secret switch is hidden behind a pile of rocks only someone very small (Sebastian) could navigate. Of course, Glut will waiting around the ship be there to cut you off if you try. He’s pretty much the same as before, except this time he will die once you clear his HP. I’ve heard this fight is also optional, but I’ve never been able to skip it myself. The person who was saying it was optional may have been referring to the entire world of Atlantica being optional. It’s hard to tell.
Inside the Grotto, past the creepy fish skull, you’ll find a dark-lit tunnel filled with Ursula’s collection of poor unfortunate souls, which aren’t quite as animated as I’d like but are still pretty creepy and depressing in their own way. The hall is patrolled by Search Ghosts, whose line-of-sight cone looks very malicious in the darkness, creepy touch! Past the Search Ghosts is the most insidious trap of all: a fork in the road. Have a fun coin flip, kids: one door leads to a save point and thus HP restoration from your fight with Glut, while the other leads directly to the boss. Bite me, Atlantica.
While I still think Ursula could have fought you in the throne room in a previous draft, the fight with her here is one of those boss fights that relies on the environment. Like Ariel, she uses potions for her magic, and she is going to try to use her big magical cauldron to take you down. This mechanics behind this fight are… less than self-evident. This is probably one of the most frequently asked questions about KH1: how do you beat Ursula? Triton tries to explain how to do it if you talk to him, but that dialog was optional, so I don’t blame anyone for missing it. I never found the fight all that complicated, but when I was looking up the details for this very Retrospective, it turns out that I had only half-understood the details even after all these years. I suppose I should break it down piece by piece.
This fight pits your party of four against Ursula and her eels. None of them are serious immediate threats, but Ursula is invincible: according to Triton, she’s drawing power from her cauldron. During the fight, Ursula will toss potions into the cauldron. Like Ariel, she’s casting a spell. It takes a few potions, but soon enough, a spell that will burst out of the cauldron and hit every one of your party pretty damn hard. You don’t want that to happen. What you have to do here is to follow Triton’s advice: attack the cauldron with the same spell Ursula is using. If it’s glowing red, use Fire. Blue: Blizzard. Yellow: Thunder, at great cost to your MP. God help you if you’re colourblind, goodness knows developers don’t respect you any other day of the week. Since Ursula is invincible, you can’t attack her to restore your MP, so you’ll have to rely on hitting Flotsam and Jetsam if you’re not willing are able to use an Ether (in fact, I’d say this is why the eels are even here in this fight!).
What I hadn’t realized for years is that the cauldron essentially has a hidden health bar. When it starts glowing with a spell, you have to hit it numerous times, and rather quickly, before Ursula’s spell comes out. I had previously been under the impression that you had to hit the cauldron once for each potion, but no: pound it, and bring some Ethers to compensate. Once the cauldron “overloads,” it will knock out the baddies, and allow you to harm Ursula for a brief window. Order your allies to help out, as you don’t have much of an opportunity here. She gets back up quickly, and you’re going to run out of MP if the fight goes on too long. Even Rod players can’t cast spells forever at this point in the game.
Flotsam and Jetsam are killed as a result of this fight, and Ursula flees through a pipe in the back of her room. “Let’s go,” Ariel orders, and you… can’t? You can’t actually swim through the pipe. We’re suddenly on Problem 3, the “I can’t know where to go” problem again, and I bet most players never noticed there was an another door left to use anywhere else on the planet. Your only hint to its location is the new mobility upgrade you just got after defeating Ursula. This is Mermaid Kick, elsewhere called Dolphin Kick because let’s be honest, Sora’s not a mermaid, he’s a mythical abomination. This skill lets you move forward at a rapid clip which would be appreciated if it weren’t a) out of control, b) tied to the “swim up” button, even though it moves you horizontally!
What you actually have to do is follow the description of your new ability, where it says it lets you swim against “currents.” Oh, is that what the jet stream was supposed to be called? As it happens, the next door is actually in the jet stream, nowhere near that pipe she used to escape. It would be easy to see the door if you swam back to the jet stream, but whoops! That secret passage at the shipwreck will have many players skipping the jet stream entirely! I’ve never seen a game horse up a perfectly good design idea with a better design idea, but here it is for all to see.
I wish I could say that this secret cave was the end of the bad news, but for some players, the next boss is the epitome of Atlantica’s failure. Personally, I don’t mind the fight, but here we go all the same. You encounter Ursula in a patch of open sea, where she grows into a giant, gaining a crown for no reason because we skipped that plot point from the movie. And here we go. The fight involves you smacking her head as she calls down Thunder, blows bubbles at you and even bites you from time to time, and you can dodge almost none of these attacks. I’ve found Mermaid Kicking to the right or left does okay in some situations, especially against the bubbles. But the worst is her use of Thundaga with the trident. You can’t dodge this without perfect and purely accidental timing. You just can’t. I once saw a discussion of whether or not it was possible to do a no-damage run of KH1 and someone brought this up as a counterpoint and the whole discussion essentially ended. It’s just ruthless.
Like in every Atlantica fight, the best defence here is an aggressive defence. Aero will help a lot against Thundaga, but better still is to use accessories that reduce Thunder damage. The game has a lot of these elemental defence items, and they’re not always worth it. But against a boss that relies so heavily on a single kind of attack, stacking multiple accessories on Sora will nullify Ursula’s primary advantage. Maybe switch off some of Ariel’s skills so she only casts Cure and Aero as well. It’s too bad you can’t Summon anything (remember what I said about having to stand on the ground?). In the end, your lack of options is all the more reason to be aggressive in your defence.
Lastly, it’s possible (though I wasn’t able to do so in 1.5HD) to get lodged behind Ursula’s head, where she won’t be able to shake you or hurt you with anything other than Thundaga. I’ve got Ariel lodged back there once, too. Ursula will go bonkers with Thundaga to dislodge you, especially if she takes out your forward-facing allies, but Thundaga’s not so bad with the above prep. I can’t guarantee this strategy in 1.5, but it might be worth a shot!
So you beat Ursula and oh hey! There’s the Thundara upgrade! Thundara’s just a power upgrade (Thunder’s range was already pretty impressive) though I believe it causes the animation to show thicker bolts of lightning. After the fight, everything cleans up tidily. Triton even apologizes to Sora, and in a moment of true generosity, uses his own trident to trigger the magical device in Ariel’s Grotto. With a flash of light, you discover that the Grotto was hiding the Keyhole all along. No wonder Triton didn’t want Sora near it! Thankfully Sora doesn’t take this moment to turn complete, cackling evil, and he finally seals the heart of the world. Fantastic.
Now let’s never come back.
Again, I don’t hate Atlantica. Sometimes I even like it! But I’m hardly going to laud it after seeing how poorly it’s treated so many others. In fact, I feel like I’m not conveying the frustration the average player is likely to experience when met with this water-wall. So how about we get around to the Wrap-up, and next time we can go to a world that seems to frustrate only me, instead of frustrating to everyone else.
There is one thing left to discuss before we get to the wrap-up, though: Wait, you say, is Ariel not a Princess of Heart? No, apparently she’s not! Some folks have argued that her heart can’t be considered free of Darkness, considering she practically destroyed her kingdom out of selfishness, but if I’m going to be frank: I think the developers just didn’t want go to the trouble of moving a mermaid around Maleficent’s castle. They could have arguably made her a human for that segment, but that would have meant a major change of plot, and sometimes it’s better to cut to the chase. For some folks, I know the real contention is that Ariel isn’t a Princess of Heart but Alice is, even though Alice isn’t a Princess in her movie at all, but that’s something I’m going to have to address later down the line.
Besides the Thundara upgrade, clearing Atlantica gets you the Crabclaw Keychain, a good all-rounder with strength and magic boosts, and moderate recoil. It’s an acceptable payoff for all that swimming if you’re the kind of player that can’t commit to specialization, like me.
You also get Ursula’s page of Ansem’s Report, page 3. Yup, we don’t get to read Report 2 quite yet – the Report is in fragments, get used to it. Report 3 chronicles Ansem’s encounter with the Shadows that are multiplying on his homeworld. He wonders if they’re “the people who lost their hearts, or incarnations of darkness? Or something entirely beyond my imagination?” Ansem decides that the Shadows are devoid of emotion, he dubs them “The Heartless,” which is going to be stage 1 of a long-reaching etymology joke this game is telling.
For the time being, let’s just ponder over the metaphysical idea of someone putting raw, sentient evil under scientific scrutiny. It’s an idea I find strangely appealing, thanks entirely to its real-world impossibility. You’ll learn quickly that Darkness in KH isn’t necessarily out-and-out Evil – though learning that will leave you questioning what Darkness actually is. Nevertheless, Evil isn’t normally a tangible thing you can study in the manner Ansem is proposing, so if we imagine a situation where he could, as with the Heartless and Darkness, one can only imagine what kind of results he’s going to find.