Space Paranoids, Continued
The trio returns to the Pit Cell (come to think of it, putting an exit-gate in a prison was stupid, but putting an entrance-gate inside a prison is funny). There, the MCP grabs them almost immediately and slaps them on the Game Grid, where Sark explains they’re about to be executed via mini-game. Oh well, I guess our time has come. Get out the Atlantica rhythm controls, friends! “It’s a small world af-ter all!”
No, it’s Light Cycles. Unusually for Kingdom Hearts 2, which has been relatively generous in making mini-games easy, dying here is a very real possibility. Light Cycles probably has the hardest mandatory mini-game in KH2, not because of the game itself, but because it’s actually tied to your stats, which could be anywhere at this point. God help the Level 1 challenge players. A lot of players aren’t that fond of Jiminy’s bonus requirement, either, so it just gets uglier and uglier.
Sadly, this isn’t the over-the-shoulder version of the arcade Light Cycles TRON fans have been waiting for since 1982, nor is it a port of the original Atari game. Instead, Sora will ride a Light Cycle through a maze that assembles as he travels through it (not unlike the Treasure Chest Game in Majora’s Mask, or similar 2D products that predate both). As he goes, he’ll be attacked by variously coloured Magnum Loader Heartless. I’ll talk about how these neon, unicycle Heartless behave in battle once they appear in a proper battle, but for now I’ll simply comment on their name, which is a clear reference to FFVI’s Magna Roader (or “Mag Roader”) monster. This is the only time KH has done that with a minor enemy, to my knowledge. Fans are divided on whether the name was changed to “Roader” from “Loader” thanks to the infamous Japanese-to-English R/L confusion, or if it’s just a cutesy computer pun.
Let’s get down to the game. Sora has no control over the speed of the Light Cycle, as per the original game. He can turn left or right at given turns with the shoulder buttons, and can use three techniques against the Heartless: he can attack them with the Keyblade, ram them sideways with the Light Cycle by using Charge, or he can use “Guard,” which covers him with a shield. The Loaders are capable of using similar attacks, distinguished by colour. The blue Magnum Loaders can use Attack, the Yellow can Charge you, the Green can use Guard, and the White can do whatever they want. (Normal Magnum Loaders that appear in combat are red, but those don’t appear during the mini-game.)
After you clear a tutorial section, a cutscene plays in which a Devastator Heartless (more on them later as well) opens fire and blows a hole in the wall. This is when the real game starts, with Sora gunning for the hole. Unfortunately for him, the game cheekily throws a wall in his way during your first attempt, forcing him to weave through a maze to get back to the hole for a second dash. I love that they did that. There’s only a single maze, with a fork that splits it into two paths. Your objective is to make it through to the hole alive. On subsequent runs, Jiminy’s objective is to kill 30 Heartless while you’re at it, keeping in mind that Sora can’t stop his bike at any point. There should be enough Heartless on both branches of the fork, but a player may find one path or the other more to their liking for whatever reason.
This mini-game operates under the assumption that Sora’s three attacks work in a rock-paper-scissors style. Attack is supposed to beat Charge, Charge is supposed to beat Guard, and Guard is supposed to beat Attack. In practice, Guard does cover Attack, but Attack does a shitty job of protecting against Charge and does almost no damage in the first place, so the ideal solution to use Charge at all times, with no sense of nuance. Nuance is the enemy! Here: I’ll underline it for you. Nuance is so discouraged in this mini-game that, should all else fail, you can always crash head-on into a wall. I am legitimately advising that. Sora will take damage for doing so, but any pursuing Heartless will straight-up die.
When the player approaches the end of the maze, they discover that Devastators are now guarding the broken wall. There’s a good micro-narrative here, well done on that front. The Devastators fire projectiles at you, and you can kill them by deflecting their shots with Guard.
While this game can be rough on all difficulties, Critical Mode players are in for a particularly rough time thanks to their low HP gain. You wouldn’t believe how many threads I’ve seen about this online. Light Cycles uses your actual HP and Defence (and presumably Strength for Attack, not that you should use Attack) and it is so easy to die carelessly here. If you can’t beat the mini-game, you’re in even more trouble…
If you can’t beat the mini-game during your first attempt, the curse of KH2’s shitty checkpoint system returns and boots you back to Hollow Bastion. I can’t be 100% certain about this, but it looks to me like this is what’s happening: if you lose the mini-game, KH2 will unload the mini-game, unload the game grid, unload Space Paranoids, load Hollow Bastion, load the computer room, the player will interact with the computer immediately, the game will unload the computer room, unload Hollow Bastion, load Space Paranoids, load the Pit Cell, load the in-engine cut scene, unload the in-engine cut-scene, unload the Pit Cell, load the temporary game grid room, load the game grid cutscene, unload the game grid cutscene, unload the temporary game grid room, load the mini-game tutorial, complete the mini-game tutorial, load the transition cutscene, unload the transition cutscene, load the proper mini-game, and only then let you pick up where you left off. I’ve seen 80s games that thought torturing the player was the only acceptable form of game design and they still checkpointed smarter than this!
After escaping, you find you’ve escaped… back into your cell! High five! No, of course the MCP hasn’t replaced the door, so you’re essentially free, and it seems you’ve saved Tron while you were at it. Don’t question it. He was also in the Game Grid and is looking pretty beat up. When he sees you, he looks up at you incredulously and says “Why didn’t you just transmit the data?” I… uh… don’t look at me! I thought that’s what Leon was doing when he left the room during the last cutscene! You mean nobody thought to put in the password into the password field on the computer screen that was locking them out earlier in the game? Tron, it’s the Idiot Ball World Series in the User World right now, and believe me, I’m just as frustrated as you.
Tron rejoins the party, though you should kick him out immediately as there will be live Heartless waiting for you this time around and Tron still has none of his powers. The first Heartless you’ll encounter are Strafers, the generic soldier type of Space Paranoids, though unlike most of Kingdom Hearts’ generic soldier enemies, these ones have a long-range attack. They come backed by other Heartless in glowsuits from other worlds, including the Bookmaster, Emerald Blues and Cannon Guns. Oh and regular Soldiers, which mixed up with Strafers in the blandest enemy salad this side of Koopa Troopas and Buzzy Beetles: a distinction is there, but nobody cares.
The Pit Cell isn’t far from your destination: you only have to cross the room with the Energy Core from before. Actually Space Paranoids is easily the shortest world in the game, possibly the smallest “full world” in the series outside of coliseum worlds. It’s surprising how long it’s drawn out by all the intermediary events.
You enter an empty room that screams “trap” and approach a console at the far side, where Tron asks for the password. They tell him the names in a more-or-less arbitrary order (at least it’s arbitrary in English), with Kairi last. Unfortunately for them, the computer has a final security routine that it, for no particular reason, calls a “game.” This brief computer voice is done by Rosalyn Landor, who must have wanted money for a coffee as she walked between voice recording booths. Despite this small role, Rosalyn is established Disney talent, having been the voice of the Blue Fairy since 1999. She also played minor roles in The Incredibles video game and in Dirge of Cerberus. Her voice here is actually quite eerie, and surprisingly memorable for a bit-part.
The “game” begins when three monitors in the room start to summon Heartless. Their displays even say the word “Heartless,” which gives the whole thing an odd Shin Megami Tensei vibe. I suppose that makes sense: Megaten’s original compu-occult vibe did come from the same era as TRON, after all. You have to defeat the Heartless, gathering data orbs until you have filled a short bar, at which point you can unleash the power of the bar to disable a monitor. It’s handy to leave orbs lying around to get a head-start on your next bar, and that mixed with the reduction in Heartless-spawning monitors mean the challenge gets easier as you go. The experience is so light that I think, with a little tweaking, it could have occurred as an everyday, Gauntlet-esque gimmick element in Space Paranoids without too much trouble.
Tron accesses the DTD, finally regaining the bulk of his powers. This includes a number of electric attacks directed through his disc. Unfortunately, the DTD is now unlocked and the MCP pounces. It declares that it “might have anticipated such a simple password” and once again: did the computer-people have access to Ansem’s data or not, because it seems like the names of the princesses would be in his secure files and not the unsecure ones? This isn’t as blatant a computer illiteracy as the last time but I still feel like somehow I’m the only person in this “developers and player” relationship that’s actually programmed things on a computer? Maybe the MCP expected some numbers or symbols in there, or this is just another instance of Kingdom Hearts the series using a cliché (“the computer is condescending!”) instead of building up their characterization.
The MCP also decides to use a self-destruct program he finds that will destroy the whole town. Oh good. You’re… going to destroy yourself. This is a wonderful plan. Even the bad guys get to play in the Idiot Ball World Series!
…Wait, so when Sora was slamming on the keyboard earlier, he wasn’t just putting Riku and Kairi’s lives in danger, but under other circumstances, he might have triggered a self-destruct program for the entire town?
Thankfully Tron thinks faster and resets the DTD’s password, though he worries that will only buy you time. He’s being a little misleading: Tron actually hasn’t bought any time at all as far as the self-destruct program is concerned. All he’s done is stopped the MCP from using the DTD to do anything else to slow you down or hurt people. The self-destruct program is still live, and you’re going to have to reach the I/O Tower from the film to stop it.
On your way to the Tower, you might get lost and take a side-path to a room with red Magnum Loaders. These Heartless like to dart around with little regard to attacking you, making them only mildly inconvenient. They clearly weren’t popular with the developers either, as they barely show up outside of Light Cycles! In KH1, an enemy defined by speed would have been notable, but here it’s just par for the course.
Once you’re on the right path, you’ll fight your first Devastator as well. These are probably the largest standard Heartless in the game, and consist of a spinning top-like core, four rounded legs, and a penis gun. It can convert between a melee flying mode and a missile ground mode, and makes a huge mess while doing so, summoning an electric storm that’s probably its strongest attack. The transformation attack is also the only really notable thing about them, as they’re not all that dangerous otherwise, in either mode. They’re simply high-HP.
To the shock of everyone who’s ever played a video game, you somehow make it to the Tower before the self-destruct program! In fact you’re well ahead of time, giving you a safe zone to hang around in. Here you get one of the strongest defensive items in the game, the Gaia Belt. There’s also another console how which will let you return to Hollow Bastion or Light Cycles, but inconveniently won’t let you jump directly to the Pit Cell. I’m not sure why. You could go to Hollow Bastion, then go to the Pit Cell, so they’re just adding another step to a simple process. It’s all just part of our running theme of KH2’s developers not realizing how annoying loading screens are, and how the slow loading times in the PS3 versions underline this for all to see.
There’s also a map here, and I feel really odd about it. If you were playing along, you probably didn’t even notice you needed a map. Isn’t it odd how KH2 lets you “find” maps but practically hands them to you in almost all instances? Oh no! You were without a mini-map for five seconds. What horror. I can’t help but wonder if they may have been a remnant of an earlier draft (yes, here I go again) where chests were better hidden and there was more exploration. In the current game, chests are almost never hidden and there’s so little exploration that you almost don’t need a map to begin with!
Once you’re ready to step out of the I/O Tower, your opponent will be just stepping in. This is the Hostile Program set to destroy Hollow Bastion, and it has the curious honour of being one of the very few unique bosses in the series that is not a member of the minor enemy species. And you can kind of tell the developers aren’t used to designing stuff like this, because it doesn’t quite… look like a TRON program? It’s got the neon lines and fingers that look like chips, but the rest of it might be best described as “spiked balloon with demon eyes and floating arms.” It just doesn’t fit in. The wiki puts it best: “It appears to be based on the local Heartless, though it is not a Heartless itself.” I wouldn’t be surprised if it had been designed as a Heartless and had the signature elements filed off early on. KH2 has one other of these “non-Heartless unique bosses” coming up, but the other one fits in a lot better with the local aesthetic.
Tron and the MCP exchange a few words, the MCP tries to point out that Tron is being irrational. Tron says that “something in my code commands me to do what is right,” but he can’t tell which part of his program is urging him to do this. This is all leading up to a brief friendship speech, and I do mean brief. It’s just Sora saying: “Friends— They help each other, that’s all.” I do feel Tron has plenty of reasons to do what he’s doing as it is, but KHI user MasterSpockanort points out that this seems to be an evolution in Tron’s relationship with his users – now that he’s met three of them, and all – and that there’s probably something more going on here than a defence program trying to stop the system from being destroyed.
The Hostile Program is another chase boss. In fact, it reminds me of a chase boss from another game, since it uses laser beams that remind me of Majora’s Wrath. Unlike our previous chase boss, the Prison Keeper, the chasing isn’t necessarily here to convince you to use Wisdom Form. Instead, you are supposed to knock data orbs out of the Hostile Program and then use the Keyblade to “Freeze” the boss when the bar is complete. Yes… yes, that’s all very nice… or you could turn on Valour Form and actually chase the bastard, ending the whole fight a lot faster. I don’t think KH2’s devs realized just how damn fast Valour Form really was, and its High Jump helps you dodge the Program’s attacks.
…What are you still here for? That’s my entire fight strategy. Valour Form makes an absolute fool of this boss, there’s nothing else to describe! Remember when I said I unequipped Explosion in Standard difficulty to keep the difficulty up? This is a very easy game. If you want me to say something, I’ll mention that this boss also has a new boss theme, The Corrupted. It’s one of my less favourite boss themes, actually, so you haven’t bought much of a word count.
(Apparently – I’m just learning this now – trying to fight the Hostile Program on PS2 versions of KH2 with a backwards compatible PS3 could lead to an invincibility glitch, but there’s a patch on the PSN to fix this!)
In FM+, clearing the Hostile Program gives you the Vicinity Break Ability, an area attack used mid-combo. I suspect this may have been introduced as a substitute for Explosion, which you’ll recall the game delayed in this version. It’s still pretty overpowered and I’m not sure why they put one Explosion-like attack off only to introduce another. In both versions of the game, clearing this boss gets you a Drive Gauge upgrade, unlocking another Atlantica update in the process, though we won’t get around to that for some time.
With seemingly no fear that the MCP will use the I/O Tower for any other reasons ever again, Tron tells Sora that it should be okay from here on out. He can lead his own resistance against the MCP now. “It’s what my User would want.” This guilts Sora into finally admitting that Ansem was his enemy (emphasis on the past tense). Sora’s just about to admit to killing the guy, too, before he remembers Mickey’s confusing statement about Ansem being alive and is too confused to continue. Well… that’s one way to read the scene. Sora’s exact words are: “Ansem—he was our enemy. I mean… he still is… I guess.” It’s also possible to read the scene as saying that Sora’s just admitting to himself that death hasn’t really gotten rid of his hatred for Ansem, which would be very mature of him to admit! Either subtlety is appreciated.
To Sora’s surprise, Tron admits that Ansem was his enemy as well: Tron says Ansem installed him, but also installed the MCP. Tron remarks: “The Ansem I first knew wouldn’t do that.” He doesn’t know what else to tell Sora, because he doesn’t know why it happened, either.
Tron then confides the new password to Sora, Donald and Goofy. It’s, uh… “Sora, Donald and Goofy.” Or something like that. That’s cute, and at least I won’t have to raise any questions about word order this time, because KH2 repeats “Sora, Donald, Goofy” in exactly that order often enough to make an infamous two and a half minute YouTube video, so maybe this isn’t as secure as you think it is.
Leaving the world gives you the Photon Debugger Keyblade, which gives you Thunder Boost. Like the other spell-enhancing Keyblades, this is a bit of a snorer (it’s way too specific) but if I had to pick any spell to enhance, it would probably be Thunder.
Back in the real world, Tron gives you a little pixelated “Thank you” screen that’s extra cute. And on that note, we return to the Hollow Bastion trainwreck, already in progress.