The final approach starts when you return to Traverse Town to get Cid to install the Navi-G. He’s not keen about you going to Hollow Bastion, but sets you up all the same, and as you’re waiting, Sora has another of his… incidents.
Flashing into a vision of a great library, Sora sees an older woman talking to Kairi – a very young Kairi, about the age Sora and Riku were in Riku’s flashback. The present-day Sora is floating around as a ghost, but no one seems to notice him. The older woman then begins to tell Kairi a fairy tale. This is one of those cliché moments, the big expository legend that you just know is true. But there’s a catch: this legend is only slightly relevant to this game. Kingdom Hearts 1 actually shows a great deal of patience in its worldbuilding, and sets up this worldbuilding just for its own sake, and doesn’t use it to drive the plot for several games to come. I think that kind of worldbuilding and restraint deserves respect.
Nevertheless, the legend is important, so here it is in full. Thanks to OKong’s full transcript for this and a lot of other help with other direct quotes to come.
Long ago, people lived in peace, bathed in the warmth of light. Everyone loved the light. Then people began to fight over it. They wanted to keep it for themselves. And darkness was born in their hearts. The darkness spread, swallowing the light and many people’s hearts. It covered everything, and the world disappeared.
But small fragments of light survived…in the hearts of children. With these fragments of light, children rebuilt the lost world. It’s the world we live in now. But the true light sleeps, deep within the darkness. That’s why the worlds are still scattered, divided from each other. But someday, a door to the innermost darkness will open. And the true light will return.
So, listen, child. Even in the deepest darkness, there will always be a light to guide you. Believe in the light, and the darkness will never defeat you. Your heart will shine with its power and push the darkness away. Do you understand, Kairi?
The vision breaks up there, and once Sora is back in the present, Cid is back to announce the repairs are complete. Let’s do this! Let’s kick some ass? Are you ready? A-are you sure? …How’s your synthesis going?
I’m still not ready. In fact, I’m going to stall. Do you know what I haven’t talked about yet? Late-game abilities. Yeah, that’s the ticket.
There are some abilities you get in the latter half of Kingdom Hearts that radically change the way the game is played, many of which have become series fixtures in later entries. I’ve already mentioned a lot of abilities, but there are some I’ve missed that really do deserve the spotlight. For starters: MP Haste boosts your magic restoration, and MP Rage causes you to restore MP when you take hits, not just when you deal them. These abilities are so good together that if you equip them both, you become a real machine. Rod players get both early on, and that’s one of their primary advantages, though if you forced me to choose between Staff’s early skills and Sword’s early stats here in KH1, I’d take the stats.
Other abilities help keep you alive directly. Allies get Second Wind, a skill that helps them recover faster from unconsciousness. You, Donald, Goofy and a few allies can also get Second Chance. This precious skill keeps you alive at 1 HP if you take a hit that would otherwise have killed you, only failing if you take a hit when already at 1 HP. Just watch out for combos: if one hit takes you to 1 HP, the next will kill you. It wouldn’t be until KH2 that you’d get a skill to deal with combos. Bailing and recovering above 1 HP is even easier in Final Mix where you get a new skill, Leaf Bracer. This gem from heaven makes you invincible from the moment you cast Cure until the moment the spell stops. It makes healing reliable, and that changes absolutely everything.
Kingdom Hearts 1.5 also added Combo Master, a skill from later games that lets you continue a combo even if you miss a hit or two, which is very handy. I don’t have much to say about it, beyond that I like having it around, but as something that was added 10 years after the fact, I felt it should be acknowledged.
But one of the best late-game skills doesn’t belong to Sora at all, but to Goofy. Goofy has two notable skills, actually (Donald has very few skills to begin with thanks to his magic, and nothing worth talking about). At level 30 in Final Mix, Goofy will learn Evolution, a skill that lets him heal just like Donald, making him even more valuable as a partner. But that’s not the real winner. It’s at level 42 (or 30 in the original) when he learns his crown jewel: MP Gift. This skill lets Goofy transfer MP to other characters, and he actually transfers more MP than he uses up: two of his MP for three of theirs in Final Mix, or one for three in the original (1.5’s English version of Final Mix says that 1 point of MP still becomes 3, but that’s not true – they just forgot to change the original English translation. I guess you could say they… goofed up? Eh? Eh?). MP Gift is phenomenal, even in Final Mix. This skill keeps Donald and Sora charged, and when Donald and Sora are charged, the entire party stays alive. Hell, forget Evolution. Turn it off, turn off some of Goofy’s combat skills too, and MP Gift will have even more fuel to work with. With Goofy’s magic multiplying across the party, you’re going to be in better shape than you ever were before you got it.
Are we good? Armed to the nines, got our shin pads, buckled up? …Okay, I guess I can’t put it off any longer.
First off, the Gummi Route to Hollow Bastion is a nightmare. Maleficent’s set up an absolute blockade, and this maybe the first time you feel obliged to upgrade your ship. But once you’ve made it, the castle makes its first impression.
We’re in the same location Riku was during his first Final Mix exclusive scene: at the base of an astonishing, rising waterfall that curves around you in a horseshoe loop, as though the rest of the world had fallen away in every direction. The Rising Falls funnel you through a series of floating, shattered rubble, which leads up past strange floating bubbles that you can enter and appear below the water, where there is still more air (and treasure).
Above you is a great, impossible castle: the Hollow Bastion itself. Too twisted to be real, the Bastion looks at a glance like magic and clockwork, and is dominated by a great Heartless emblem, visible even at a distance.
But the real seller is the music. I haven’t mentioned the music much since Traverse Town, because the Disney world’s music is satisfactory but unmemorable. Now that we’re back in a unique world, we get “Hollow Bastion,” which is among the best ambient game themes ever created. Orchestral, daunting, darkly magical, it’s one of Yoko Shimomura’s best work and perfectly embodies the approach up the Rising Falls best of all. While it’s not time for a fight, the combat theme, “Scherzo di note,” plays off “Hollow Bastion” excellently, giving that same impression of an old, grand ruin, bigger than all of you, bigger than the Heartless and Sora, or even Maleficent herself.
Climbing the floating rocks up the falls would be a bit of a pain without High Jump, but not impossible. Either way, your slow climb is soon cut off at a large platform with a fountain, which seems to be the largest remaining chunk of what used to stand here.
Riku is there, and he’s just attacked the roaring intruder from before: The Beast (Robby Benson) from Beauty and the Beast. Benson was doing a lot of animation in the early nineties, including Exosquad and The Legend of Prince Valiant. He also played the lead in King’s Quest VI! True to Maleficent’s guess, the Beast was no match for Riku and has been brought to his knees. In fact, after telling him off for trying to get back up, Riku ignores Beast for the rest of the scene as though he’s of no consequence. You’ll probably forget him yourself!
Riku talks to Sora instead, discussing their rivalry, and then Riku says that it all has to end there. “There can’t be two Keyblade masters!” Riku reaches out and demands the Keyblade choose its true master, and to Sora’s surprise, it leaps to Riku!
And I really hate that introduction. For starters: in discussing his and Sora’s rivalry in such open terms, Riku is calling attention to the rivalry stock plot, and that’s just trite. But it gets worse considering Riku’s previous behaviour on Monstro and Neverland. He’s been a bullying child for about half the game now. By invoking their rivalry, the childishness of his behaviour, and the rivalry clichés of anime, it makes it seem as though he’s taking the Keyblade right now to be “the best,” and that the Keyblade is jumping to him because he is the best. And while Riku certainly is trying to prove he’s the best, tying it to the Keyblade’s reasons for jumping hands is a mistake.
The thing is: Riku isn’t actually asking the Keyblade to choose the more worthy master, despite choice of words. What we’re supposed to take from this scene, and the hints leading up to it, is that Riku was the Keyblade’s chosen one all along – it was never Sora. That’s why Riku saw the Keyhole at Destiny Islands. That’s why the Keyblade appeared to Sora only after Riku, flushed in Darkness, was completely out of the picture and unable to receive it at the time. And that’s why it returns to Riku now. It’s one of the most important details in the franchise, but I feel they fudged it by having Riku look directly at the fourth wall to say: “This scene is about rivalry.” I didn’t say so when I first put up this post, but I should have: when I first played the game, I actually thought the Keyblade jumped hands because Riku was “stronger” alone and didn’t pick up on the fact that it was destined for him at all. Suffice to say, I don’t like the scene much as it’s written.
Riku proclaims he’s going to use the Keyblade to “open the secret Door, and change the world,” and tosses Sora one of their old play swords as a final insult. Well, his final insult. The real insult comes a few seconds later when Donald and Goofy suddenly get up to go after Riku. After all, their orders are to follow the keybearer, not necessarily Sora. Wow guys, how heartless can you get?
But Sora isn’t entirely alone with the player in confusion and ugly feelings. The Beast is here as well, and he finally stands up, asking Sora why he’s fighting. He says, “I fight for Belle,” and claims he won’t stop until she’s safe, and Sora decides to emulate his stubbornness, and carry through to the end. You might almost wish that he hadn’t.
Depending on your next course of action, you’ll probably discover two things. One: you can’t get to the Gummi Ship without Donald and Goofy. Goodbye grinding, you’re now effectively trapped in this scenario. Two: Sora losing the Keyblade is worse news than you could have possibly expected. You may recall that the Wooden Sword is useless against the Heartless, and that’s still largely true (damage you do will be minimized to near useless, but not zeroed like back on Destiny Islands). The real kicker is that your magic is sunk as well. Who would have thought the Keyblade was enhancing that, as well?
For this whole stretch, you essentially have to rely on Beast for combat, giving him orders with Triangle when necessary. He’s okay at the job, but is severely grounded, being terrible against fliers with no skills capable of downing them. Meanwhile, Sora is only useful for Aero, Stop and his set-value spells – Cure and Gravity – since his MP is effectively treated as 1 for this period (or at least that’s my best guess). It’s going to be a slog, and it’s worse in how you don’t really know what you’re supposed to be doing.
Thankfully I can help. Riku has entered the castle through the main gates and sealed them behind him. You’ll need to break into this crumbling castle under the walls and unlock the gates by messing with its mechanical gears. It’s not going to be easy, but at least the Heartless are thin since they’re no longer chasing you as the Keyblade bearer.
You will, however, have to deal with a new Heartless, and it’s a little strange: it’s all purple-black, and fades into the darkness when it dies instead of releasing a heart, like the Shadow and Darkside. These are Darkballs, spheroid balloon-like enemies with two tentacles that look a bit like the Shadows’ tiny antennae, and something of a tail. They’re also total bores. They bite, they flail around, they go invisible and invincible for a long time… also like the Shadows, come to think of it… and their stats are terrible. If they weren’t fliers (meaning Beast is awful at fighting them) they wouldn’t be worth talking about at all. Now that I’ve said that, I guess the Shadows and Darkballs have “sucking” in common, too?
Once you work out how to use Hollow Bastion’s elevators (or just jump off the right ledge, that’s fine too), you have to navigate under the castle with the help of those magic bubbles from before: the ones that let you walk under the water. Once you make it past the pools of magic water, you get inside the castle’s walls and come to the most unfair bonus puzzle in the game. I didn’t know you could even do this until Kingdom Hearts was eleven years old: you can freeze the magic bubbles with Blizzard and climb on top of them. The game never prompts you to do this. To my understanding, this is only useful in one place, but they knew how tough it was to work out, because that’s where they crammed Hollow Bastion’s Dark Matter in Final Mix. (There is a second Dark Matter in Hollow Bastion out in the open, which I can only assume is making up for Atlantica not having one.) To make matters worse, this chest is held near the entrance to the room, and as I said a few posts back: that’s where you’re instinctively taught never to look for things!
From there on out it’s pretty simple: you bash through some walls with Beast, and do a series of switch puzzles to navigate the gates in the basement. Then it’s allllll the way back to the front gates, preferably with a pit stop at a save point if you know what’s good for you. Because even though Riku got into the Hollow Bastion ages ago, he apparently hasn’t gone any further, and will be waiting for you just inside.
Interrupting the proceedings, a cutscene shows Maleficent in a room called the Great Hall, where the six Princesses gathered so far are kept in stasis: Snow White, Aurora the Sleeping Beauty, Belle, Cinderella, Alice and Jasmine. Did you notice that the first four match the Stations of Awakening during Sora’s opening dream, and that there were three mystery Princesses depicted on the final Station, who had not yet been captured at the time? One of the game’s many subtle notes.
Maleficent demands that the Princesses’ hearts reveal the location of the Keyhole, and beams of light shoot from the sleeping princesses to point her toward a large, gilded Heartless emblem at the back of the room, which is spilling coloured smoke in four rough quadrants along the X that runs through the symbol. Did she… did she honestly not suspect the large, gilded Heartless emblem spilling coloured smoke as being the location of the Keyhole? I mean, she did assemble the princesses here, but she also went to the trouble of asking them to clarify!
So. Riku at the entrance. Just as you enter the castle, Beast sees a vision of Belle behind him, back through the doors. But when he turns to face her, the vision turns into a Shadow. Enraged at being taunted, Beast charges after the Shadow, and the doors slam shut to lock him out. Now that Sora is alone, Riku appears from nowhere. Okay, I can buy that Riku is that stealthy. But then Donald and Goofy appear form nowhere too, two of the most ostentatious allies this side of Mario RPG, and I think Square is being just a little generous with their idea of “stealth.”
Riku tells Sora to beat it, and Sora refuses. To emphasize he’s being serious, Riku uses magic to put on an armour I can only assume is made of Darkness, partially to show how little it bothers him, a partially to threaten Sora with it. Sora insists he isn’t afraid: he says the darkness can kill him, but he’s adamant it can’t take his heart, because his heart will stay with his friends. Yup, it’s the first true (mandatory) friendship speech of the series from the mouth of our lead character.
Riku responds by trying to murder him. Which, even for a friendship speech, seems like an overreaction.
Riku hurls a spell at Sora that later games would call Dark Firaga, which is no small fireball. It was one awful thing for Riku to take Sora’s friends, responsibilities and honours, but we’ve just crossed the line from schoolyard bullying and douchebaggery to “asshole who whips out a glock to solve personal problems.” Thankfully, Goofy responds and catches the spell on his shield. Riku asks if Goofy is willing to betray King Mickey, and Goofy responds: “Not on your life!” with such feeling that I just can’t help but believe him. I know I’m a little biased from watching him on Goof Troop, but Bill Farmer’s pretty great. He goes on to say he’s not about to betray Sora, either, and gets another laugh out of me by calling out: “Goodbyyyyye, Donald!”
Of course this convinces Donald to come to his senses, and Donald changes sides. He sheepishly says: “Well, you know. All for one and one for all.” That’s cute too. Though I have to say, Sora and Goofy versus Riku and Donald could have been pretty cool.
Riku, having already proven he’s willing to blow a hole through his ex-best friend, asks how Sora expects to fight to the death with no sword. Sora responds with the rest of his friendship speech, saying he doesn’t need a weapon, because he has his heart. Riku insults Sora’s heart, which is just… petty, actually, and honestly hammier than the speech itself? Riku that’s the second dramatic moment you’ve tried to scuttle, are you just that committed to the rivalry cliché? (I’m sad to say that KH1, CoM, KH2, will relegate to cliché character roles at the worst time, but the series seems to have been moving away via Days, coded and DDD, with BBS somewhere in the middle).
Sora says that his heart may be weak, but it’s grown through his experiences and connections to others. He then says, in more childish words than I like to admit when I’m trying to take this seriously, that the connection between him and his friends will last as long as they care for one another, and declares: “My friends are my power!”
This is probably a lot to ask right now, but if you can, indulge me. I know this line is hammy, but it’s also critical. If you want to understand why Kingdom Hearts is important to me, why I’ve written two hundred fifty pages so far for the first game in a series of seven going on eight and a half, you’ve got to take a look at this section. Not so much for itself as for what it created in later games. KH1 is at many times fluffy and insubstantial, but it was a fluff piece that was given a lot of love, which you can see in its moments of extra development care and detail. There are the alternate cutscenes I’ve covered, and subtle foreshadowing like the princesses and the Stations of Awakening. Thanks to that care, it went on to serve as the foundation of a more complicated series, so even if it might be repeating the themes that were in every anime at the time (the power of friendship), it’s still the foundation of greater things. Here in this scene, Sora is talking about the central conceit of the Kingdom Hearts series, and Kingdom Hearts 1 especially. If you look at the line closely, you may find that it means a little more than it seems, especially if you brushed it off at first thought as generic Disney sentiment.
Think back to the ending of the 100 Acre Woods. At the time, I mentioned that segment was taken from The Many Adventures of Winnie The Pooh. In case you haven’t seen it, I’ll go into more detail. The film ends, as per the book A House on Pooh Corner, with a scene between Christopher Robin and Pooh. Christopher Robin, bound for school for the first time, asks Pooh what Pooh likes to do “best in the world.” Gradually, Christopher drives the conversation toward saying what he likes to do best in the world: “doing nothing,” specifically in the 100 Acre Wood. Pooh argues that it’s fun to do nothing, but Christopher says: “I’m not going to do just nothing anymore,” alluding to all those boring pains of growing up. He’s half sad and half brave about it, maybe a little eager despite the costs.
But he asks Pooh something, saying: “When [I am] away just doing nothing, will you come up here sometimes?” Christopher Robin also asks him to “never forget me, even when I’m 100?” It’s clear that Christopher Robin is afraid of the rigours of adult life bringing an end to his childhood joys. He’s afraid that if he leaves his childhood, it won’t come back. It’s not that he’s afraid that he’ll forget it, but almost as though he’s afraid it won’t want him back anymore, once he becomes an adult.
In Kingdom Hearts, 100 Acre Wood begins with the childhood world fading away, Pooh wondering how he’ll say goodbye to himself. Given time, Sora, in the Christopher Robin role, painstakingly reconstructs the world. Sora never technically asks Christopher Robin’s question during this plot, but there’s no reason for him to do so: Pooh assures Sora that he’ll be remembered all on his own. This is complimented in Neverland, as Wendy asks Peter if she can ever go back to Neverland, and he promises she can so long as she believes. There is no scene where she grows too old for Peter Pan as per the books, because Kingdom Hearts is making a very different point than those films. A related point! But a different one.
Keep in mind one of the key changes between these stories and the originals: the age of our protagonists. Christopher Robin was six, Wendy around twelve. Sora is closer to fourteen or fifteen! Remember the opening of the game: with Riku, the older boy desperately trying to escape his childhood, and with Kairi, the playful friend who nevertheless represents a different path to maturity, who proposes that Riku’s path will lead to danger. Kingdom Hearts 1 doesn’t just present the original Disney stories as they were, for children, but aims to contextualize them for an audience at the cusp of maturity without losing their original childhood magic.
Disney isn’t alone in this picture. Don’t forget the crossovers with Final Fantasy. Consider which Final Fantasy games were portrayed: FFVII, VIII and X. In 2002, Final Fantasy X had been out for only a year, and features two characters as children. Final Fantasy VIII was three years old, and features one character an adult and one a child. Final Fantasy VII, the game that shaped a generation, features a cameo-cast of adults. The cast gets older the older the game: the characters are aged relative to the audience. And those are important words: “shaped a generation.” Kingdom Hearts isn’t entirely about childhood experiences in Disney, it’s about foundational stories in general.
When Riku insults Sora’s “heart” being weak here in Hollow Bastion, he’s not just playing against some gushy Disney-meets-anime concept of abstract strength and weakness. We know from his previous rants that, to Riku, this debate is about Sora’s childishness. Riku believes that he has a strong heart and that Sora a weak heart because Sorais childish. Sora counters that by saying that his heart has been strengthened through his experiences, experiences built on Disney and Final Fantasy stories, the experiences of childhood. Kingdom Hearts 1 wasn’t just built out of a hodge-podge of Disney classics and random cameos, it was constructed to emulate the childhood and the early teens of its target audience. Sora is saying that his experiences with these so-called worthless childish experiences actually make him a better, stronger person, not a weak one.
This offers an interesting answer to our earlier questions about whether or not Sora is dreaming. Remember that, ages ago on Destiny Islands when it seemed like the game couldn’t decide if this was all real or a dream? The opening lines of the game are: “I’ve been having these weird thoughts lately. Like is any of this for real, or not?” Thinking about it, I believe this isn’t meant to be a trick question like it appears. The funny answer to “Is any of this for real” is yes. A life built up and lived in joy is being held up as real, or more real, than any of the forced maturity Riku counts as his power.
And then it goes further: Kingdom Hearts 1 uses this sentiment as a springboard to a new point that will serve as a critical thesis in later games. “My friends are my power.” Just like how these childhood experiences shape you as a person, the people in your life also shape you into a new person. And so long as they support you, they will further shape you into a stronger person. As long as you support them, you’ll be stronger together. The idea of foundational experiences shaping the person is used as a platform for the higher idea that relationships shape the person.
That may not seem much more nuanced than Sora’s original “My friends are my power,” but there are three points I want you to consider. First: I’ve said in the past that “Kingdom Hearts does not make friendship speeches lightly.” For all its reputation, Kingdom Hearts’ lead characters mostly only talk about friendship if they have a reason to say it. There is, unfortunately, a knee-jerk reaction to praising friendship on the internet, but I think it’s important to spell out that there’s a difference between an empty platitude, like Sora’s friendship speech in Olympus Coliseum, and one that the work actually tried to establish a sentiment. Kingdom Hearts isn’t simply regurgitating clichés to please Disney’s licensing division. The characters earned these points.
Second: as I said, I didn’t come to any admiration for this scene for some time. Just like there’s a difference between an empty platitude and an established sentiment, and there is a further difference between a simple sentiment and a detailed one. This idea is only beginning to grow, and it’s not a simple growth. Kingdom Hearts is not satisfied to leave this one idea lofting on its laurels. It is going to test this idea, it is going to beat it with a knotted rope. In later games, the franchise is going to draw new conclusions, conclusions that actually drew my attention back to this original scene. The franchise has more to say about this, more to say about this one idea than most games do about their entire plots.
And thirdly: to ask an old question, what is Darkness to Kingdom Hearts? We haven’t been given an answer, but it seems less likely than ever to be “evil.” Riku is using Darkness as an excuse to grow up quickly, to avoid having to develop through the experiences of childhood because childhood is childish. He is walling himself off from his friend and childhood to the point of very rash action. We may not know what Darkness is, but in Sora confronting Riku with the idea that he has become a better person by growing with his friends instead of trying to force adulthood.
And the Keyblade returns to Sora’s hand.
Naturally this starts the first real boss battle between Sora and Riku. You’d think this triumphant reunion and personal victory would result in an easy sweep as per shonen tradition, but Riku is not about to give you an easy sweep at anything. Like Anti-Sora, Riku is uses ambushes from nowhere (jumping, in this case) to take you out, and often responds to your attacks with counterattacks, like an upgrade of his old kick. Alongside the ambushes, he uses Dark Firaga and normal combos with the Soul Eater. Like Anti-Sora, you’ll want to use Aero… and you’ll secretly pray that he ambushes Donald or Goofy, because it leaves him open to attack. In the end, Riku is one of the harder bosses you’ve run into so far, but he’s not so extreme that you won’t be able to handle him with the help of Aero. Oh, and so long as you haven’t changed your equipment while you were running around with Beast and a Wooden Sword. That would be problematic.
Riku flees the scene, and Beast wanders in lazily. He says to Sora: “It seems your heart won this battle,” which was probably supposed to reflect Beast’s introductory speech about what Sora fights for, but it just comes off as a trite addition to the recent friendship speech. Game, I just spent a few pages trying to defend the friendship speech, don’t get gushy at me. As a victory prize and sign of Sora, Donald and Goofy becoming truer friends, the game finally unlocks the White Trinity, Trinity Detect. You’re now technically capable of unlocking every prize on previous worlds. You can switch Beast back into the party if you want, but I’ve always kept Donald and Goofy in, for sentiments’ sake. Even if they don’t deserve it.