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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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