I’ve been playing a lot of Kingdom Hearts lately, for no particular reason at all. When the first game dropped way back in 2002, it was pretty much the coolest thing since Gogurt, which had only been invented the summer before.
It was an insane idea. Sometime in 2000 in Japan, a game designer at Square bumped into a Disney exec, dressed smartly in a vest of silk and happiness, in a presumably whimsical elevator made of candy and good intentions. Sometime after the Disney exec whistled for one of the several enthusiastic singing birds on his shoulder to fly over and hit the lobby button, the Square guy brought up the idea of bringing together Final Fantasy and Disney into one sexy, alcohol-soaked union so deliciously decadent that they’d have to design the game underground to hide their sins from God. The man from Disney hummed a little tune as he considered the offer, his eyes sparkling with delight. Soon the squirrel in his anus put down his basket of wishes and left a trail of cinnamon and whimsy as he rushed to shake the man from Square’s astonished hand. The deal was struck, the Anus-Squirrel had spoken, and an amazingly fun game came out a few years later.
Kingdom Heart’s overall story is…convoluted isn’t descriptive enough. Have you ever seen Memento? The answer should be “several times”. Now, imagine seeing Memento as the guy from Memento. That would make more sense than this weird narrative of friendship and darkness and light and giant keys that are somehow also swords and people whose shadows take on lives of their own and like ice cream too. Truly migraine-inducing to think about it all at once. There have been seven games released, each of them more complex and baffling than the one before and I’m not even gonna pretend like I understand most of them enough to make fun of, but only the first two really matter to the vast majority of gamers. Kingdom Hearts I began on a small tropical island with three kids who were all apparently best friends because there really weren’t a ton of other people there to be friends with. They spend their absurd amounts of free-time on the beach, eating fruit and wishing for parents while ridiculously catchy techno J-Pop blares from the horizon 24/7, with no clear source. The kids have long since lost their sanity, but it doesn’t matter, because they’re best friends. Forever.
One’s an impetuous spiky-haired optimist (that’s you) with baggy shorts and a lot of zippers. He loves life and the Disney corporation. The other’s a brooding spiky-haired pessimist with lots of zippers. He’s the oldest of the three and the most jaded, the kind of person to ignore the beauty of the island paradise and try to find a way to turn the beach into a JC Penny. The sole girl is pretty much the female version of the optimistic guy but with red hair, a pink skirt, and maybe half as many zippers. Like all generic Japanese video-game girls, she’s pretty nondescript and likes to place one or both hands on her heart for emphasis when she speaks, because that’s where her feelings come from and she has to keep them safe at all times. One day a massive storm hits the island and kinda just messes everything up, separating these particular kids, while probably making most everyone else on the island homeless or wonderfully dead, and sending them off to distant, magical Disney worlds. FEMA shows up, of course, right on time, at the very end of the game. It’s up to the spiky-haired optimist to find his three friends and bring ’em all back together so they can once again eat fruit, lounge on the beach, wish for parents, and wait for the next inevitable tropical storm to start the never-ending cycle of futility over again. Because they’re best friends. Forever.
This was an awesome premise, and showing up in Aladdin’s world and laying the smackdown on Jafar so he could hook up with Jasmine, or helping Winnie the Pooh maintain his perpetual high by supplying him with “honey” never got old. You got to fly with Peter Pan and his crew of continuously endangered orphans, and help Jack Skeleton defeat what was basically a magically animated burlap sack filled with maggots. You even got to visit Tarzan’s hilariously racist, and yet politically sensitive, version of Heart of Darkness-era Africa, where there were no black people at all and yet tons of anthropomorphic gorillas with really good singing voices to entertain the British explorers. All of this led up to a massive, insane fight against a bad guy who turned the bottom half of his body into a ship with a large, disturbingly throbbing cannon. The man castrated himself with technology just to kill you, a child. He permanently destroyed his natural ability to fire off baby-juice with reckless abandon in order to destroy just one kid. You gotta respect that kind of determination, because at that point, clearly, he just sort of deserved to win.
So anyway, you brutally beat him and some confusing stuff happens. There’s a massive door he was trying to open to get to a giant, literal heart made of light, the Kingdom Heart (lol that’s what the game’s called), that’s apparently a sticky, translucent metaphor for life and the good in everyone. After you beat him, he tries to open said door and is promptly torn apart by rays of light behind it, like an albino, because he never realized a sticky, translucent metaphor for life and the good in everyone would probably be a generally positive thing, and not cloaked in shadow like Wesley Snipes. I didn’t understand any of it at the time, or really now, still, but it was pretty damn cool when it was set to J-Pop. A few years later the sequel came out and added Mulan and The Lion King and some confusing-ass story beats and everyone just sort of lost their mind at how cool everything was. And then gamers were done with it and waited with anticipation for the third game, hoping some Pixar films got represented. Some seven years later, that still hasn’t happened, but one can hope. One can hope. One can hope we’ll finally be able to find Nemo, live a bug’s life, and tell toys horribly depressing stories.