Join us on a journey into one of the most interesting games on the PS2 as we piece together the story of how Kingdom Hearts 1 came together!
Kingdom Hearts is a franchise that’s infamous. It’s completely and utterly incomprehensible unless you’ve played the entire franchise, it’s a series with a huge fanbase that will crucify you for saying something out of turn about it, and it’s a game that for the longest amount of time was all over the place in terms of systems you could play it on.
Yet if you look back upon the development history of the very first Kingdom Hearts game then you’ll see a game that is a miracle.
Everything about this game shouldn’t have worked on any level, one that shouldn’t have made it past the concept stage. It’s a story of wonder, of fantasy, and of magic, and a story I want to tell you right now.
The Birth Of The First Kingdom Hearts Game
In the early 2000s, Square Enix wanted a game that could rival other franchises in terms of mascot. Nintendo had Mario, SEGA had Sonic, Microsoft had Master Chief.
Square Enix only really had Final Fantasy and the nature of that series meant that there was no fixed main character that could become a mascot. In an Ultimania interview, Tetsuya Nomura, the director of Kingdom Hearts said the following:
“The producer Hashimoto (Square Co., Ltd. Business administrator: Shinji Hashimoto) was speaking to a person from Disney. Coincidentally, I was in the same place talking to Mr. Sakaguchi (Executive Producer: Hironobu Sakaguchi) about what kind of game to make.
“I want to make an action game with stylized characters,” I remember vaguely thinking to myself at that time. I offered my hand and said, “If that’s the case, since I have an idea I want to do, please let me do this.”
The person from Disney was in on the idea and said, “Since it’s stylized, it would be best if there are Disney characters that are known world-wide.” It was a great opportunity, as if it was destined.”
Putting Mickey Into The Mix
To begin with, Square Enix wanted to make a game about Mickey Mouse (which will make a lot of decisions discussed later make a lot more sense), but Disney wanted to make a game about Donald Duck.
Nomura didn’t want to make a game about either of those, and managed to get Disney and Square Enix to agree to let him use a completely original character in the form of what would become Sora.
Even after getting them to agree to allowing an original character, Nomura still decided to mix some Disney DNA into the design of Sora.
Sora has white gloves, red shorts and massive yellow shoes, There’s still the DNA of Final Fantasy characters here, with massive spiky hair, a ton of chains and some absolutely wild dialogue.
Originally though, he was going to be part lion, with a tail and lion ears, though this was quickly turned into the design we ended up with in the final game.
The Keyblade To the Kingdom
When Kingdom Hearts is brought up, people tend to think of Sora’s weapon, the Keyblade. There’s multiple different designs, but the one that people tend to think of is the Kingdom Key. Yet the original intent wasn’t a key at all. It was a chainsaw, as Nomura elaborates on:
“The first weapon I showed Disney was a chainsaw. It was this chainsaw-like weapon that I had a rough sketch of when I first showed my concepts to Disney.
Everyone got this scrunched-up look on their face and nobody said a word in the entire room. Dead silence. And I thought no, I guess this wouldn’t work, huh?”
Kingdom Hearts is best known (well, outside of the baffling storyline) for the ability to visit different Disney worlds and interact with their respective characters. That first game has you visiting Atlantica, Deep Jungle, Wonderland, Olympus Coliseum, Agrabah, Monstro, Halloween Town, Neverland and 100 Acre Wood.
Developing The Characters & Worlds
These choices were made as an attempt to reflect the character development of Sora and the gang, with him growing more as a person throughout visiting all of these worlds. There’s also some fun visual quirks, such as your swimming animation completely changing after visiting Atlantica to be more dolphin-like.
As it turns out, Nomura and the team didn’t really have much in the way of boundaries choosing worlds, as documented in a 2005 interview with xPlay:
“Overall the process was quite smooth. There weren’t any big restrictions or a set of guidelines we were given. Disney has its worlds already created, and there’s no reason for us to change that, so it wasn’t to a point where they had to lead us and take our hands.
It was more us trying to bring out the best of what is already made as far as Disney characters go. The only thing we were careful of doing was staying within the characters’ established roles and what kind of dialog these characters should have.
That’s something we all tried to stay within certain boundaries on.”
Analysing The Disney Influence
The first game sticks very specifically in the realms of what could be easily defined as Disney Classics, with movies ranging from The Nightmare Before Christmas to The Little Mermaid to Alice In Wonderland represented.
Later games would take wilder swings such as Timeless River in Kingdom Hearts 2, Tron in the same game and the Country Of The Musketeers in Dream Drop Distance, but this first game was very much something that they wanted to keep as simple as possible when it came to world design.
The story might have been extremely complicated, but these world designs are relatively simple, and extremely easy to understand once you’ve visited them once (with the notable exception of Atlantica, which is the worst designed world in a Kingdom Hearts game by far, to the point that when it returns in Kingdom Hearts 2 it’s just a rhythm minigame).
It’s this simplicity in design that makes them all so memorable, and it’s the reason players still remember the worlds featured in Kingdom Hearts 1.
Odd Things That Have Actually Happened In Kingdom Hearts
- Sora has the hearts of two different people who happen to look identical to him inside of him.
- Mickey Mouse leaves a woman in hell for over a decade.
- Then Mickey Mouse gets chokeslammed.
- And then Mickey Mouse fights multiple variations of Satan.
- Goofy dies.
- Donald Duck is stronger than any Final Fantasy character, canonically.
- Donald Duck also dies.
- The souls of numerous murdered children are reincarnated into balloon animals that you callously use as battle fodder.
- Thirteen different men and women are actually the same geriatric old man. This will never be properly explained.
- Kingdom Hearts is a door.
- Wait, Kingdom Hearts is actually a massive digital heart in the sky.
- Wait, Kingdom Hearts is ACTUALLY a massive keyhole in the sky.
- NO WAIT, KINGDOM HEARTS IS A DIFFERENT WORLD ENTIRELY.
- NOBODY KNOWS WHAT KINGDOM HEARTS ACTUALLY IS.
- Did somebody say the door to darkness?
- Sora dies.
- The concept of a Nobody and the many, many inconsistencies.
- Characters from The World Ends With You just… show up.
- Time travel exists and is wildly impossible to understand.
Following The Story – A Nigh On Impossible Task
As indicated earlier, the story of Kingdom Hearts is one of the most infamous elements of the games.
It’s all over the place, complicated and deep, with themes beyond what you’d expect from a game of this nature, and it turns out that this wasn’t entirely Nomura’s decision.
What the story would eventually become was entirely his choice, but the original story? That was much simpler.
“We talked about concentrating on the gameplay and just making a simple story, and we also thought about Disney’s target age range, and thought maybe we should avoid a complex story.
But at a point where we had the project set out to a certain degree, I got a talk from Mr. Sakaguchi, saying that if we didn’t aim for the level that FF (Final Fantasy) does, this project would be a failure.
Well, I understood what he was saying. So, for the game’s contents… the gameplay was always the same sort of thing from the start, but we improved the story greatly.
At the beginning, we were thinking we’d make the story extremely simple.
At that time, when characters like Ansem didn’t even exist, we were thinking that you’d kill Maleficent and the game would end there.”
Is Mickey Mouse Actually In This Game?
It’s also interesting to consider how important Mickey Mouse has become to the story of Kingdom Hearts, since he only ever appeared in one scene in the original game (a scene in which he’s shirtless for some reason, and which becomes an actual important element to the story later, because of course it does).
This scene is at the tail end of the game and serves as the close to the storyline, and it turns out the reason for that is more than just a creative decision.
Once again we turn to the Kingdom Hearts Ultimania, and we see the following statement from Nomura himself:
“Due to contractual issues, we were only able to use him (Mickey Mouse) in one scene. So I thought hard about where to put him in… Disney gave us permission for a role such as waving from the back of a crowd of people in town, but if we were going to use him, I thought we should use him in a single shot to leave the greatest impression. So there was only that one place that we could use him in, really.”
It needed them to sign off on the designs, on Mickey, Goofy and Donald doing frankly wild things. Yet they did, and it resulted in an absolutely incredible game (that first Kingdom Hearts game is better than people look at it in retrospect, it’s only because Kingdom Hearts II is so beloved that people look down on it), a wonderful series and one of my favourite sets of characters in gaming.
Don’t forget to check out our list of the best PS2 games to discover where both Kingdom Hearts games ranked, and let us know your favourite odd fact about the game on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!
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Ryan is a seasoned retro gaming features writer with bylines at Fanbyte, PCGamesN, Lost In Cult and more. When he’s not writing, you can find him playing retro video games.