When Squaresoft first announced their intention to team with the Disney corporation to produce a new intellectual property, many people thought they had lost their minds. Here was the legendary Japanese developer of the Final Fantasy franchise, not to mention such hardcore RPG favorites as Chrono Trigger and Xenogears, co-producing a game with a massive American media conglomerate known mostly for producing family-friendly entertainment. There was no possible way it could work.
But it did. The end product of their combined efforts was, of course, Kingdom Hearts, an action RPG released for the Sony PlayStation 2 in 2002. Kingdom Hearts featured an interesting mix of famous Disney characters such as Mickey Mouse and Peter Pan, past Final Fantasy heroes such as Squall "Leon" Leonhart (Final Fantasy VIII) and Aerith Gainsborough (Final Fantasy VII), and original characters. Players assume the role of Sora, a simple young man who at the beginning of the game is found enjoying life on a small island with his friends Riku and Kairi.
Eventually, through a mysterious series of events, Sora finds himself in possession of a weapon called the Keyblade and comes face to face with a shadowy band of creatures known as the Heartless. The trio is separated, and Sora finds himself transported to another world called Twilight Town, where he meets up with Donald Duck and Goofy, themselves on a quest to find the missing King Mickey. After some battles with the Heartless, the three new companions agree to travel together to find their missing friends, find out what the Heartless are up to, and ultimately put a stop to their schemes.
Despite the initial disbelief, Kingdom Hearts was typically well received by critics and the gaming public alike. Why did it work? Actually, a better question might be, "Why did we ever expect it not to work?" Both companies involved are known for their attention to detail and their commitment to delivering an excellent entertainment product. The writing and gameplay depth are of typical Square quality, while Disney contributed some excellent source material that is intertwined nicely into the overarching plot, as well as the cash and connections to land a big-name voice acting cast including the likes of former Academy Award nominees Haley Joel Osment and James Woods. Despite some minor issues with the complexity of the combat system and the camera, there was little doubt that this collaboration was a hit, selling more than five and a half million copies to date worldwide.
Whatever culture shock there might have been initially soon subsided, as Kingdom Hearts would go on to spawn a pair of sequels — Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories for the Game Boy Advance and Kingdom Hearts II for the PS2 — as well as a toy line and a series of manga comic books. Both of the aforementioned games continue Sora’s adventures, and while it really isn’t possible to get into plot details without revealing spoilers, they include many twists and turns and introduce gamers to new allies and enemies alike. They also expand the Disney influence to include content from such fan favorites as Tron and Pirates of the Caribbean.
In terms of gameplay, both sequels differ from their predecessor, and from each other. Chain of Memories features a real-time, card-based battle system, while Kingdom Hearts II improves upon the original’s combat engine with multiple additions, such as the use of the triangle button to trigger special in-battle events. Also, the second game features several new minigames, and while both Kingdom Hearts I & II feature space-shooter segments featuring Sora and company’s spacecraft, it is much deeper, more user friendly, and more enjoyable in the latter game than in the former. Overall, though, neither of the follow-up titles is quite as good as the original Kingdom Hearts, but the PlayStation 2 sequel is far closer in quality than the sub-par GBA offering.
The Kingdom Hearts series is still going strong these days. Before the end of 2008, an improved PlayStation 2 version of Chain of Memories is due to hit the States for the very first time (it was actually released in Japan as part of Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix + in March 2007). Also in the works is a prequel adventure, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, for the Sony PSP, and a Nintendo DS side story, Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days. Both are expected to be big departures from past titles, as they are the first games to not feature Sora as the main character. Plus, the PSP title is said to feature different scenarios starring three different main characters and some major changes to the battle system, while the DS edition will be the first to feature multiplayer gameplay, for up to four players. Regardless of their differences to past games in the series, they will no doubt delight the millions of Kingdom Hearts fans who have come to fully embrace this once seemingly unfathomable creative collaboration.