Q. Where did it all go wrong?
Q. What is your favorite Kingdom Hearts moment?
A. Two questions, same answer!
I will always maintain that Kingdom Hearts 1 was a straightforward game with a straightforward plot. Well, straightforward for a JRPG’s descendant, at least. In a nutshell, the universe is in danger, and it appears the Disney Council of Evil, with Maleficent at its head, is to blame. Honest, noble, and fairly mundane Sora, his best friend and rival Riku, and Kairi, his makeshift girlfriend, are all caught up in the crossfire when their world (hometown) is destroyed. Sora answers the call of the hero, Riku is seduced by the darkside, and Kairi flops around like a fish. At about the same time the trio finally works through their issues, the true evil is revealed: a scientist king who gazed into the darkness too long, and sacrificed his kingdom, people, and sanity for the sake of learning more about an unspeakable horror. In his final moments, the evil king is defeated not because of Sora’s strength, but ultimately because he believed the core of the universe, the core of humanity, was darkness, but, no, it was light, and he was obliterated mentally and physically by the revelation. The worlds are restored, but the trio is still separated in the final moments, because adventures are always to be continued; so the last we see of Sora is a boy who just saved the universe exploring a whole new world joyously with his new (duck ‘n dog) friends. Fade to black, let’s call it a day.
And then it all goes straight to Hell.
In North America, if you played Kingdom Hearts 1 with some dedication (saved all the worlds and saved all the puppies… not certain which one is more important…), you would receive a bonus movie that acted as a teaser for (presumably) Kingdom Hearts 2. I literally am incapable of describing the impact of seeing this movie after devoting forty nearly continuous hours to earning it. After a story where there are implied to be two keyblades in the universe, one of which is wielded by Mickey Mouse, here’s a warrior in a strange cloak utilizing two keyblades at the same time. And he’s fighting heartless we’ve never seen before. And he can run straight up a building! And who’s that other guy? He’s wearing a blindfold? OMG is that supposed to be Riku? Did he get blinded by the light at the core of the universe? But now he’s free? How did he escape? What happened to Mickey? Did the other dude steal his keyblade? Is that Oathkeeper? Why are there so many heartless? What happened? What’s going on!?
Practically days after Kingdom Hearts was first released, the Internet was ablaze with theories and conjecture for what was coming next. No two people could agree on one solid theory as to what was coming. There were even naysayers that claimed nothing could live up to the potential of that one teaser movie.
Who could have guessed that that was the right answer?
Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, the GBA game that followed Kingdom Hearts 1, was a tremendous tease. Kingdom Hearts 2, Squaresoft knew, was to be the next big thing, so this “side story”, even though it directly continued the plot of KH1, had to pace itself to only tantalize the audience for the upcoming hotness. Organization XIII was born here, and it’s clear they were created with an emphasis on “mystery” and not much else. Anyone in the Disney or Square pantheon could be under those hoods, and the fact that Axel and Vexen both resembled ersatz Final Fantasy 7 characters only fanned the fandom’s fanatic speculation that Organization XIII was some big crazy melting pot of Disney/Square characters hiding under hoods. Chain of Memories’ (second) ending introduces DiZ (Delightfully Immature Zealot), a character wrapped in bandages in an effort to hide a face the player had never seen, but, oh, he’s mysterious, so what’s hiding under there? Come to think of it, I don’t think CoM introduced a single new character that is actually operating under their “real” given name.
And then came Kingdom Hearts 2, which, to its credit, did finally give answers to all the questions that had been asked thus far. The bad news? It approached those answers in the worst possible way.
Let’s revisit Ansem. As I mentioned earlier, in KH1, “Ansem” is simply (?) a scientist king that goes too far in his research of heartless. It is clearly stated throughout that Ansem did not create the heartless (he created some heartless, but he didn’t originate the idea), he just found them, labeled them, and enhanced them until they ran amuck over his world and others. Again, during the KH1 finale, Ansem is evaporated by the light of his own hubris. There was, in short, no reason for Ansem to return. Even if we wanted to revisit the heartless (which, according to that bonus movie, was always the intention), Ansem was not at all necessary, all we needed was some other loser to find a door to darkness and release them, or even go the extra mile and dig out some even greater evil and claim that the newbie is the real origin of the heartless, Ansem was only a misguided, weak fool, bwa ha ha and whatnot. But, no, Kingdom Hearts 2 brought back Ansem in the form of Xemnas. Yes, you watched Dark Ansem die, but this is Twilight Ansem, and he’s just as murderous as the last Ansem.
The insanity didn’t stop there. Just to confuse everyone further, Ansem was revealed to not be Ansem, but actually Ansem’s apprentice, Xehanort, and the real Ansem was that guy all wrapped up in the bandages. I’ve given it a lot of thought, and, even after years, I still have no idea why this “twist” was introduced. It’s the kind of plot twist that makes everyone look like an idiot (so Leon, Cid, Aeris, and all of Ansem’s subjects had no idea what the guy looked like? They just loathe anybody with the same name?), outright contradicts preestablished, straightforward facts (Xehanort wrote about Ansem meeting King Mickey in the first person… so… Xehanort was confusing his own identity?), and alienates anyone who just enjoyed KH1 but hadn’t yet played KH2 (“Man, that Ansem is a jerk.” “Weeeeeell…”). It adds practically nothing to the story, aside from exonerating an Ansem #2 that was just created, and, perhaps worst of all, it further complicates a plot into “Who’s on first” wordplay territory. The literal plot of Kingdom Hearts 2 can be explained as, “Ansem is dead, and in his absence, Ansem hatches a new plan, but Ansem, Ansem’s former mentor, thwarts Ansem’s efforts, losing his life in the process, and Ansem dies shortly before Ansem is finally killed.” The only benefit to introducing Ansem the Wise is that it gives DiZ (Delicious, Inviting Zest) an interesting reveal to hide under those bandages. But that wouldn’t be necessary if that stupid mummy hadn’t been introduced in the final moments of CoM, anyway!
Ever hear of Vader Syndrome? Well, remember Empire Strikes Back? Where that big scary dude reveals he’s actually that blonde kid’s father? It is an amazing, Alderaan-shattering moment because it completely flips the dynamic of everything that has ever occurred before and after in the story. And it’s a neat trick, but you can only do it once, or you very quickly get diminishing returns. Imagine if the series went on to explain, I don’t know, that the princess was also related to blondie and the scary dude, or something even dumber, like one of the robots was also the son of the scary dude. It wouldn’t enhance the story in any significant way, it would just pile some dumb trivia into a universe that shrinks and shrinks because it seems like there’s only one important family in an entire far, far away galaxy.
Kingdom Hearts has a terminal case of Vader Syndrome. Every game since Kingdom Hearts 2 has introduced new characters that, presumably in an effort to endear them to the audience, are just new versions of previously existing characters. There are three playable characters in Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, all of them all new, and 66% of them are either Ansem or Sora. Remember “the other guy” from that teaser movie I so loved? He was a Sora. Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days introduced an entirely new character into the timeframe between Chain of Memories and KH2, and, surprise, she was just another Sora, but in the shape of another Kairi. Even more confusingly, “Ansem” also seems to be aging in reverse, he’s at his oldest when Sora was born, and by the time Sora is fifteen, he appears to be just old enough to rent a car.
None of this is a bad thing from a story telling perspective. Oh, who the hell am I kidding? Of course it’s a bad thing: it’s needlessly convoluted and even requires dedicated fans to create new and interesting descriptors for characters so we’re not just talking about Ansem being at odds with Ansem all the time. But, to return to the original point of this paragraph, you want to tell a story with such needlessly complicated plots, that’s your business, but it’s terrible for this franchise. Look at Kingdom Hearts 3. It is confirmed that it will feature Big Hero 6 and Tangled, and it would be insane for them to ignore Frozen, the entire Pixar library, and let’s throw the Marvel and Star Wars cinematic universes in there. I know an eight year old that loves all of those things, and has the Legos to prove it. By the time the game is finally released, let’s say he’ll be ten, just a perfect age for a Disney crossover game that could be an ideal gateway to the more heady Square-Enix JRPGS of yesterday and today. But I could not, in any kind of good conscious, recommend Kingdom Hearts 3 to the kid, because, holy cow, he’d have to read my thirteen part Kingdom Hearts FAQ just to begin to understand what’s going on. No child should be subjected to that. I shouldn’t be subjected to this!
So, it is with that, that I leave you, Kingdom Hearts. You looked too deeply into the darkside of complicated plots and complex character relations, failed to come up for air at any point in the last fifteen years, and drowned in the darkness, finally swallowed by an impenetrable black. You’ve sacrificed your kingdom, people, and sanity all for the sake of mystery. Maybe, one day you’ll realize that Kingdom Hearts should be… light.