Why Kingdom Hearts is the Crossover of a Lifetime

Kingdom Hearts was first released in 2002 for the PlayStation 2 by Square Enix. The game seemed very out-of-place at first glance, combining original characters with those of Disney’s most famous animated faces and Square Enix’s most memorable personas. However, the game was a huge hit, becoming the franchise that is now known and loved by many. Some call it the ultimate crossover. But there are multiple layers to the popularity and stability of the Kingdom Hearts franchise that is not dependent on nostalgia. By combining the characteristics of all the styles they are melding together, Square Enix meshed these characteristics to produce Kingdom Hearts, a game that can stand alone without the success of its predecessors.

Bridging the Generations

The cast of Kingdom Hearts.
The cast of Kingdom Hearts.

One reason for Kingdom Hearts’ wide scale popularity is that it draws in two very different groups of gamers. When the game came out in 2002, there were many young kids who wanted this game for the parts of it that were Disney. They wanted to explore and fight evil with their favorite characters by their side. These kids represent the first group that the game appealed to at the time of its premier, the Disney generation. Still too young to know of the Final Fantasy franchise or have an understanding of what role-playing games really were, these players bought the game for the pleasure it provided at face-value; it allowed little kids to roam around the worlds to unlock their imagination and live their dreams.

The second group that bought the game was the Final Fantasy generation. This demographic was mostly teenagers and adults who, instead of grabbing the title for the Disney references, grabbed it for a multitude of different reasons; as Final Fantasy fans, they wanted to see cameos from their favorite heroes and villains; as fans of the action-adventure RPG, they picked it up because it looked like an interesting interactive title; or maybe they got it for nostalgia, a flash to the past to fight with their childhood heroes. Whether it was one or a mix of these reasons, they were as eager to go to the nearest EB Games as their younger siblings to buy the game. And most people from both generations loved it, which set the stage for dialogue between the two.

The Disney and Final Fantasy players were hooked on the game for plenty of reasons (the fact that a game can be enjoyed by such an array of people in and of itself is admirable). But it got these two groups talking. The age gap disappeared and younger and older players were able to talk about the game and, in result, many other things. Different games, pop culture, anime, music, anything really; it allowed for a cultural mix between the two generations. Through this, Disney gamers were introduced to the gaming world. For many, Kingdom Hearts was one of the first games they got emotionally invested into and spent a large amount of time playing. This interaction let them learn from the older players about different games and other media, which conveniently flows into the next category on the list…

The Perfect Gateway Drug

In the gaming world, Kingdom Hearts can easily act as the RPG gamers’ marijuana. Firstly, it introduces the player to characters in some of the greatest RPGs ever created. Kingdom Hearts is a great way to get interested in Square Enix’s other games, Final Fantasy titles especially. The dialogue and interactions Sora has with Final Fantasy characters in the game can easily stir curiosity in the player and leave them with questions they want answered. All they have to do is pick up one of the Final Fantasy titles and enter another world of amazingly deep stories, memorable characters and incredible battles.

    An example of Kingdom Hearts' gameplay.
An example of Kingdom Hearts’ gameplay.

The ease of Kingdom Hearts also makes it a good way to enter other game worlds. The gameplay in the franchise is not very complex; it is basically a button masher. Press X as fast as you can to kill as many heartless/nobodies as you can. This is beneficial to a gamer who wants to enter the RPG world for the following reasons: they can focus on the plot rather than the gameplay to see if they enjoy the RPG format; they won’t get frustrated with the game so they can play it until the end to see if the action-adventure game is something they are interested in; they may want a similar game with more of a challenge and therefore buy other titles that are similar to increase the difficulty level. Kingdom Hearts is a fantastically enjoyable, simple game with a with a pretty straight-forward plot. Although people enjoy it, it may leave them asking for more in the genre and that can unlock more doors to the players (anyone get the pun?).

Combination of Multiple Aesthetics

kh3
Timeless River

Square Enix really pushed the limits of the PlayStation 2 graphics interface to the max with Kingdom Hearts. Speaking aesthetically for a game made in the early 2000’s, the cut scenes are visually stunning. The faces are detailed and expressive, the environments are vivid and life-like, and the longer, more graphically advanced cut scenes are extremely life-like and eye-catching. But it also takes the cartoonish Disney-esque style and adds it into the interface. For example, The Hundred Acre Wood is full of cartoonish wonderful. The setting changes, the lines become thinner, and you really feel like you are in the pages of a storybook. Each world has its own unique stylistic touch. The Land of Dragons has thick lines and bright colors, reminiscent of Chinese calligraphy; Timeless River is a monochrome masterpiece of anachronistic people and places; Port Royal has thin lines and dark colors, accenting the realism needed to portray The Pirates of the Caribbean. Square Enix executed the entirety of the games artistic aspects wonderfully by mixing their usual styles with those of the genres they were trying to illustrate, proving that they truly captured the idea of a crossover on all realms of game design.

kh2
Sora, Donald, and Goofy preparing for a battle in Castle Oblivion.

A Medley of Childish Plot and Mature Themes

Kingdom Hearts at first glance emphasizes some of the most over-used clichés in Japanese based video games imaginable, friendship and camaraderie being an example. And it does emphasize those things, which is fine. This aspect appeals to the younger, Disney generation stated previously. But in this franchise there is truly something for everyone. The younger players get to enjoy the larger than life worlds along with Sora and his friends. The older players, on the other hand, get to interact with the game’s hidden meanings and darker subplots; Kingdom Hearts asks some pretty heavy questions. The Final Fantasy generation receives the philosophical, thought-provoking subtext that they would expect from a typical Square Enix production. The way Square Enix combines the morals and themes of both player generations attributes to its success as a crossover.

One of its major themes is presented throughout the entire franchise’s plot and is even implied by its title. Where does the heart truly lie? It also touches upon some very serious, personal themes. How do I balance the forces of darkness and light in my life? What if darkness takes over my heart? If I make the wrong choices, do I have a chance for redemption? These questions are mostly faced by Riku, the deuteragonist, who is persuaded into betrayal and tries desperately to find his way home. In response to Riku’s struggles, there is Sora, his arms always open to his friend. He shows that forgiveness can always be found if one tries hard enough to change, which satisfies and appeases the players who may be intimidated by the profound questions of Riku’s subplot. In Kingdom Hearts II, Sora helps Riku take off his blindfold showing that, with the support of others, people can be brought back into the light again.

    Roxas being absorbed into Sora for the final time.
Roxas being absorbed into Sora for the final time.

Another mature theme found in what appears to be a childish, E rated game is the question of identity. Roxas, Sora’s alter ego, faces this question in the beginning of the franchise’s sequel when he discovers that he is literally a “nobody.” He undergoes a quest for self-identity just to discover that he is merely a part of something bigger; he is a piece of Sora. He is nothing but a hindrance to Sora’s development on his own. In the end, he gives up what little self integrity he has to awaken his true self so the worlds can be balanced again. Roxas’ crisis and realization of his own insignificance is very real and vivid for the older fans of the series that may be going through a similar situation in their own lives. Kingdom Hearts’s plot may seem happy-go-lucky and Disney-esque but within its symbolism lies questions for the players that are extremely stimulating and self-reflective.

Kingdom Hearts was able to powerfully combine childish fantasies with mature content and become a game that can easily survive the test of time. By being able to attract so many players of different maturities, mixing aesthetics to create a unique design, and opening up the world of the gamers’ to more than they would have expected, Kingdom Hearts can most definitely be called the crossover of a lifetime, a game design feat that may not be matched for years to come.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Posted on by
Lover of manga, games, books and adventure. 20 and excited to see what life has waiting. Likes playing with words, weaving them together and watching them dance.

Want to write about Games or other art forms?

Create writer account

48 Comments

  1. Best game ever in my childhood back in 2002 as 11 yrs old! Oh, what a memories!!!

  2. donniem
    0

    I think if it was not for that tutorial level at the beginning of the game, i probably would’ve got bored at the island as a kid and never played this game.

    • Mary Awad

      Finding mushrooms has never been more tedious or painstakingly horrible…

      • Certainly my least favorite part of the game, but even that was fun. Loved the HD rereleases. Can’t wait for the next.

  3. It is outrageously overrated in my opinion. The game-play is not very good. The camera angles are terrible. The level design is a true confusing messy maze. A damn map would’ve been nice, or at least make the environments more varied so area A and area B don’t look exactly the same. That being said, its still a great game and one that kept me involved from start to finish.

  4. Eric Henderson
    0

    Started this game recently. I suppose its not a lot different than I expected, but its going to break my roommates heart when I tell him I don’t know if I can make it through the game.

    I love the concept and I will definitely play KH3, but I just have the worst time with older games. I want to like them, but the combination of the graphics, the odd camera angles and the lack of simple conveniences like maps and objective hints really make them more of a job than a game for me.

    Oh well, I’ll keep powering through it for now. At least I’ll be able to say I gave it a shot.

    • The game is pretty tough in the beginning. The early levels are pretty boring. Until you get past Agrabah, I would say. Even then its not great. The story kept me going.

  5. I never played this game. I had some friends who did- they said they liked it, but failed to provide this depth of analysis. I like this article’s multiple-level analysis of distinct uses of “cross-over” in the game. It sounds like a lot of thought went into designing this game- does anyone know if that ingenuity was rewarded with any industry awards or official recognition?

  6. It’s interesting, if they made this game today, I think I might have laughed if off. However, they definitely pulled it off at the time and I still find it highly enjoyable to play today. Also can’t wait for KH3 to come out as I am curious to see what characters may emerge given the numerous properties Disney has acquired since KH2.

    • Mary Awad

      Gotta get my hands on a PS4 for that one. It’ll be great. And I greatly believe that the time period effected KHs popularity. I don’t know what makes that time period so perfect but it was and people really took to the game.

  7. Elaina Chastain

    I was definitely part of that Disney generation. I remember seeing Final Fantasy games in stores after playing Kingdom Hearts and my mind was blown. Also, I like how you said that “Kingdom Hearts can easily act as the RPG gamers’ marijuana,” because it’s SO TRUE. It can be so addictive it’s insane. We’ve aaaaaall experienced that KH addiction hard.

  8. Candice Evenson

    “Gateway drug” is an interesting way to describe it. The game controls were simple–especially in KH2 with the combo moves that were only a click away. Most of the difficulty revolved around impatience and thumb cramping- how many bars of health does Clayton have anyway? So I certainly see what you are saying about it opening the doors for new players to enjoy more RPGs.

    The fact that it attracts two audiences-those of Disney and those of Final Fantasy is an equally valid point. I never played the Final Fantasy series; it was the wide array of Disney worlds that drew me in. Even after I started playing, though, I found myself only interested in characters I knew already- the Disney ones. In any case, it was a wise way for them to widen the range of their target audience without upsetting anyone. After all, it IS the ultimate cross-over game.

    You are also right to applaud the graphics- and recognize the stylistic choices that went into creating the 100 acre woods vs. a scene from POTC. I loved going into that book!

    • Mary Awad

      The graphics and styles really were great and unique for each world and I really feel that added to the crossover vibe. And it was personally my gateway drug and those of the people I was talking to while writing this so yeah. But if it wasn’t for you that’s fine too~ 🙂 a good game is a good game.

      • Nilson Thomas Carroll

        The game’s aesthetic and tone are its strengths, definitely. The gameplay is above average, but not great, but those environments…Halloween Town, especially at the end, is pretty incredible.

  9. Great discussion of the larger themes and perhaps darker elements of subplots including Riku and Roxas. It is easy to get swept in the major narrative thread of Sora, especially in Kingdom Hearts I and II, when playing it as a youngster, But as I have grown up, I find the added complexity of Riku’s and Roxas’ situations more compelling and interesting.

    • Mary Awad

      Thank you! And it is really hard to see the darker side of things. When I realized it I was like, Wow, that’s deep! So it really is fun to over-analyze games sometimes~

  10. This is such a great article and the concept of Kingdom Hearts does cater to a larger audience than most videogames. I never played it before, but the graphics were and are still significantly better than most of its counterparts. Thanks for the good read!

    • Exactly! The graphics and story-line flow smoothly within the work and it creates and sets you in a world where you can interact with characters and enemies and create your story based on the RPG dialogue that you choose.

  11. Sadly having not played the games due to not being able to afford the gaming system or games, I only have a biased opinion. However, I have watched my friends play the games and it appears to be a very fun and inspirational environment. Getting to create your own story with the characters of Sora and *Donald and *Goofy [(c)*Disney] and getting to return to already-visited worlds and play mini-games with each of them are what really fills the realm and experience of the game. The boss battles with Organization XIII and various villains from those famous and well-loved stories that we all know just really tie in the experience all-the-more. I would recommend these games to anyone! I myself need to play them but it’s hard finding a working (c)PS and (c)PS2 out there when there’s already a (c)PS4. I shall try anyway and probably write another comment over it once i’ve actually played it!

  12. I’ve always wanted to play this game, but ended up watching my friends play instead. One of these days I need to pick up this game and just play it. It always caught my interest.

  13. I loved this article!

    Kingdom Hearts was definitely my gateway game. It encouraged me to buy a PS2 after a friend was playing it at his house. I remember saving up my allowances as a junior high student to buy the console and game and then waiting for the sequel to be released. I’m excited for the release of KH 3, even now that I’m in college. These games are really fun for all ages. I also appreciate that you touched on the themes and how they can appeal to an older audience.

  14. You forgot to mention that “Kingdom Hearts” introduced gamers to how ‘Square Enix’ produces their games. It can be many years until the next installment gets released. Frustration is part of being an RPG fan.

  15. To be honest, I feel the real appeal of the “Kingdom Hearts” series is almost entirely due to its smart melding of Disney nostalgia and Square Enix angst. This effectively captures a huge audience in the kid-preteen-teen range. Some people viewed that melding as a gamble, but that’s probably the most solid recipe for success I’ve ever seen in a crossover series. It helps that on top of that intelligent formula, the games usually look good, sound great, and at times play like a dream. As for the “mature themes?” I’m sure you can find them if you look hard enough, I’m a firm believer that you can find a little philosophy in everything. But we need to devote more time to discussing these themes than mentioning them briefly. Hey, that’s something I’d be interested in! I’m ready to read WAY too far into it.

  16. This was certainly one of my favorite games when I was younger. My wife was/is also a big fan of them. The HD remastered version looks pretty nice, but I’m not sure how much younger generations will be into the games, considering that part of the appeal for my friends and I was the integration of the Final Fantasy characters.

  17. I think the game was good, but in my opinion the game hasn’t aged well.

  18. Ben Kerns

    While I love the original Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II, I feel that the series as a whole has fallen to many of the problems that plague modern Japanese RPGs. What started out as an attempt to tell a grandiose story has grown too large and become more confusing than interesting. The characters remain intriguing, but their goals have become muddled. In part I feel that this stems from the constant need to franchise successful games instead of allowing their creators to make a sequel only when they plan to, or even allowing games to stand alone.

  19. Brandon Stark

    Kingdom Hearts for me personally is part of my Top 10 games list. I’m glad you discussed the dark tones. When I first played this game the subjects and themes really wowed me. The Disney aspect was a great move for the game. I enjoyed the fact even though Disney characters were introduced, they presented them in harm’s way and had choices for the characters to make. Great Article.

    P.S. Hopefully we’ll see the third game in the next few years.

  20. I loved this games storyline. It teaches the truth that some people are just “heartless,” yet that as the good guys we can do our best to change the world of heartless people

  21. Aurianna

    Kingdom Hearts was one of the few games I played over and over again. Will all the sub-games, Square Enix has created an incredibly intricate plot that keeps it appealing to older gamers, I mean I’m 22 and still love to play it, haha. I can’t wait for KH3!! Great article!!

  22. This game has been one of my favorites since I was little. I love how many different attributes there are in this game! It is absolutely fantastic.

  23. Hi there, Ms. Awad.
    I’m really impressed by your willingness to approach this subject as Kingdom Hearts ages into its twelfth year of popularity. I say that because, for this gamer, I feel a distinct twinge of shame and disgust when I look back at my years as a Kingdom Hearts groupie.
    Gateway drug the game may be, it was (and is) as troublesome a drug for fledgling video game fans as Naruto was for anime fans. The reason I think that is because its plot follows the same poisonous and rambling path that many animes do today; a vague concept and too many characters have acted as band-aid fixes for this game for too long. What you described as “mature themes” are too often fuzzy and figurative ideas about good and evil that can be found in any hero’s story, and Kingdom Hearts is that story stripped down to its bare bones.
    That being said, I agree with your approximation of the game as being child-oriented in its worlds, simplistic gameplay, and toonish characters. But it has suffered greatly since its first game and contaminated future gamers at a young age. The characters are one-dimensional cliches; at the ripe old age of 21, Sora’s “My friends are my power” peace-and-love-and-save-the-girl approach to everything makes me physically ill. The game leaves the major action to the boys (yes, yes, I remember Aqua, but it was far too late for me as a disgruntled fan) and reduces powerful and spunky female characters to damsels waiting for them throughout the games.
    Perhaps the most major failing of this game for me is its shameless recycling of old plot devices, places, and even character recoloring (I don’t believe the Roxas/Ventus thing was scripted; I think it was pure laziness, unfortunately). There are so many directions the developers at Square Enix could have taken this game; there are so many Disney worlds that could have been incorporated. But no: year after year we received handheld excuses for content (Chain of Memories was a chore; Coded was a joke) and year after year the worlds were recycled.
    And to cover this laziness up, more original characters with spiky anime hair were added to keep the plot unfinished. It is wholly unsatisfying, and I can’t see an end to this franchise in sight. The more it procrastinates, the more it becomes a beast that I can’t recognize as the Disney/FF crossover the first game, delightfully, was.
    I agree that it was a charming concept at first. It was good for children; the controls were not complex. But the series has fostered a generation of fans that have learned not to question its shallow plot and characters. It becomes more and more like an anime; the characters grow more naive (peace and love and justice and save-the-girl), the Disney characters are put on the backburner to make more room for anime recolors of rejected Final Fantasy hero concepts, and men overwhelm the cast as women are used over and over as plot devices to motivate them.
    Kingdom Hearts has duped millions of people. I worry for the future of gamers who got their start here.
    –Lindsey

    • Mary Awad

      Hi Lindsey~ Thanks for such a detailed comment! And I agree. I never said the games wasn’t cliched. It is, big time. And with each installment in the series the story gets more jumbled and the franchise gets a little worse each time (in my opinion, KH1 was loads better than KH2. Coded was a waste of money and the card system in Chain of Memories did not translate well at all). I was just explaining its characteristics as a great crossover game. But you make good points and as the franchise gets longer, the series crumbles. Quality not quantity, right? But I still thoroughly enjoyed BSB and 358/2 so who knows. Maybe if we look past the horrible cliches that most games have, we can still have a quality experience with it. I know I have.

  24. Jemarc Axinto

    Kingdom Hearts has touched so many, myself included, by virtue of bridging this very same gap between the generations. While I think the excess nature of it (in regards to all of the different crossover games) is too much, I still absolutely love the series. Also, KH3 is to be released at the end of the year (fingers crossed).

  25. I completely agree that Kingdom Hearts is an incredibly unique game that blends two very different worlds. It is a testament to the talent of the developers that the game is as cohesive as it is. It is a crossover not only between Final Fantasy and Disney, but between two different generations of gamers as well. I’ve always been fascinated by the maturity of the themes found within the series, so I really enjoyed your discussion of them.

  26. This article made my heart fill with happiness because you hit the nail on the head. Kingdom Hearts can so easily be misconstrued as a game meant only for the young target audience of the Disney Channel, but it is a series so much deeper than that. One can learn a great deal about personal redemption from characters like Riku and even Diz (who is one of my least favorite characters, but I can appreciate his effort to be a better person at the end of KH2).

    Kingdom Hearts even endorses ideas of being selfless through the characters of Namine and Roxas because they want to be their own people, but for the better of everyone else, they relinquish their individuality and fuse with their somebodies.

    It was also a series that really brought me into the Final Fantasy world; Kingdom Hearts leaves such a great deal of mystery around the backgrounds of its characters, that it seems only natural to want to pursue these other, unfamiliar characters who decide to make the occasional cameo.

  27. I found the original Kingdom Hearts very entertaining with a high replay-ability value. However, Chain of Memories ruined the franchise for me and I haven’t played any of the sequels or spinoffs since.

  28. I enjoyed the first game immensely, though I do regret that I rented it instead of buying it, because by the time that I had purchased it I had lost the memory card with my original saves on it. The Alice in Wonderland level at the beginning of the game was incredibly tedious to me, to the point that it made me not want to finish the rest of the game when I restarted it. Reading this, however, made me think that it should be put on my list of games to finally complete this summer.

  29. Kingdo hearts isa wonderful example of what is great in theory, but oor in execution. WHile all the facets the article mentions are present, they are unfortunately lost and muddled within a narrative which does a poor job of explaining what is happening. None of the plot points themselves are difficult to grasp, and many of them are decidedly dark, but the plot continually pushes itself in too many directions at once for the story to be cohesive. There are the subplots of each individual world, the character plots for each character in the story, the individual plots of each game, the overall plot of the main story, and a dozen new plot devices in each game all pulling away from one another.

  30. I remember picking this game up when I was twelve and was instantly hooked. My situation was a little different in that I was playing Final Fantasy 7 & 8 a couple years before Kingdom Hearts and loved the plot of these games. As a twelve year old seeing hearing that Disney characters where going to be assimilated with final fantasy characters I instantly knew I had to have this game. The biggest thing I remember from this experience is how well Square Enix was able to duplicate the original Disney characters personality’s from the films. This really touched me because I looked at them as an extension of the movies that I loved growing up.

  31. As you have pointed out, Kingdom Hearts is a great gateway game, and for me, that is exactly what it was, as it was the first video game I ever played. I think the two reasons you pointed out as its appeal are the two main reasons Kingdom Hearts turned me into a gamer. Wonderfully put.

  32. S.A. Takacs

    I really enjoyed this article, especially the part about the themes of light and dark and identity. The mature and child-like themes of Kingdom Hearts blend well which makes it enjoyable for video game players of all ages. Great article!

  33. I LOVED ME THE CRAP OUT OF KINGGDOM HEARTS!. Your right the themes were childlike yet mature. As a final fantasy person and a Kingdom hearts person the connect was very beautiful and to this day I still bust out the ol psp and play BIRTH BY SLEEP.

  34. THESE QUESTIONS ARE VERY DEEP “It also touches upon some very serious, personal themes. How do I balance the forces of darkness and light in my life? What if darkness takes over my heart? If I make the wrong choices, do I have a chance for redemption”

  35. I feel ridiculous, but these games pull on my heartstrings every time I play them.

  36. Amber

    Kingdom Hearts will probably forever be one of my favorite video games. It was actually one of the first video games I had ever played. I first played Kingdom Hearts in 2003 when I was 12 years old. I loved the Disney aspect of the game, I didn’t know anything about Final Fantasy though (I later played a few Final Fantasy games, but I couldn’t get over how I had seen them first in Kingdom Hearts). This game got me through a lot of hard times/decisions in my life (minus the boss battle with Riku in Hallow Bastion, that didn’t do anything but anger me for years). The game has since grown with me, from Chain of Memories, to Kingdom Hearts 2, to Birth by Sleep, to 358/2, to Re:Coded, to Dream Drop Distance, and eventually to Kingdom Hearts 3. I think this game sits with gamers as the Harry Potter series does with others. We grew up with Sora, Riku, and Kairi; we will continue to love and care for them as we grow up. I think the Disney theme’s bring people (especially younger generations in), but it keeps us coming back for the fantastic storyline, the beautiful cut-scenes, and the awesome gameplay.

  37. Emily Deibler

    Wonderful article. I can attest to Kingdom Hearts acting as a gateway to the Final Fantasy games. KH was a pivotal part of my childhood.

  38. I don’t play the Kingdom Hearts games, but I do watch the walkthroughs and cutscenes on YouTube. The gameplay, graphics, and storyline fascinates and intrigues me every time with each new release or re-release. I am a huge fan of Kingdom Hearts and the creators of this franchise have made something that will be remembered for years to come.
    Who’s ready for the release of Kingdom Hearts 2.8? I know I am!

Leave a Reply