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The troubled history of Kingdom Hearts reflects Square Enix's own

Bob Mackey

In his weekly column, writer Bob Mackey will alternate between two of his passions: the Japanese RPG genre and classic games.

This Tuesday brought the announcement of Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD Remix's American release date, and with it, feelings of ambivalence from people like me who once thought the strange pairing of Square and Disney would do more than tread water for a decade. I worked at a mall GameStop when the first installment launched in the fall of 2002, and even though I'd outgrown Disney (and had begun to outgrow Square), Kingdom Hearts felt like the first true RPG of the PS2 era, outclassing the at-the-time-recent Final Fantasy X, which relied on the same pre-rendered – albeit prettier – backgrounds that evoked the previous console generation's limitations.

Regardless of how you felt about the characters on display, turning away from our in-store TV during the Kingdom Hearts demo reel proved nearly impossible; Square's technical wizards worked overtime to ensure that an army of 2D Disney characters would look and move perfectly in real-time 3D – and they still do nearly 11 years later. For fans of Japanese RPGs and classic animation, the tag-team of Square and Disney felt like some impossible dream that somehow came true, despite the odds against it. After leaving the Capcom legacy behind in the mid-90s, the existence of Kingdom Hearts seemed like a second chance for Disney to make their games more than just cheap tie-ins sold on marketing alone.

Gallery: Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD Remix (2/25/13) | 6 Photos

You only have to take a brief glance at the offerings of Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD Remix to see where the series went off the rails. Instead of making Kingdom Hearts 2 part of their upcoming collection, Square's including what's literally implied to be only half of a game: Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories, a 2008 PlayStation 2 remake of a 2004 Game Boy Advance installment that initially acted as a way to bridge the long gap between Kingdom Hearts and KH2.

Instead of merely taking the form of a lightweight, portable version of its console sibling, Chain of Memories flooded players with a surprising amount of lore about the formerly straightforward Kingdom Hearts world. No longer would the series' formula be so simple as Square-plus-Disney; in what can be viewed a safeguard against the possibility of losing the Disney license, the Kingdom Hearts universe added an entirely new cast of characters that each new game would focus on in one way or another – heck, the PSP's Birth By Sleep would reject the main Kingdom Hearts cast in favor of fleshing out the backgrounds of these impossibly beautiful men.

It's this off-putting bait-and-switch that made me leave the series behind after 2006's Kingdom Hearts 2. I picked the game up, knowing the flaws of the original, but excited to see how Square would turn more Disney properties into their crazy brand of action-RPG. Instead, the game opens with one of the most interminable prologues in JRPG history – quite a feat! – by centering for hours on a collection of generic, angst-riddled teens talking about bargain-basement existentialism in ways that would get them laughed out of a remedial Kierkegaard class. When the game finally dropped me into some Disney worlds, I found myself exploring levels based on movies the first Kingdom Hearts had already touched upon. The die-hard Square fanaticism that steadily grew within me throughout the '90s couldn't help but dip significantly.

The history of Kingdom Hearts also reflects the history of Square itself. The first game went into development while the developer stood atop the world, and hit retail shortly after Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was such a financial disaster that it would change the company forever. After a single console sequel, the series has spent the past seven years bouncing between different portable systems, all while offering a few new Disney worlds and further exploring a plot that's grown into a mess of anime stereotypes and increasingly lowered stakes.

Knowing the story isn't at all essential to enjoying Kingdom Hearts as a whole, but there's something uniquely irritating about dialogue where every other sentence contains some clunky neologism tied into an elaborate network of plot points. Square has made it clear that the hydra-headed narrative of Kingdom Hearts won't improve until the inevitable Kingdom Hearts 3 brings us at least a taste of closure – or maybe that's just wishful thinking on my part.

The troubled history of Kingdom Hearts reflects Square Enix's own
If you think about it, Kingdom Hearts is a series where nothing can happen out of complete financial necessity; for ten years, fans have been fed with a slow drip that's even extended to a double-dip on remaking the PS2 games in HD. It's hard to dream up any solutions outside of "complete reboot:" a drastic solution that an increasingly conservative developer like Square isn't likely to make.

Yet somehow, I still find myself caring; every time a new Kingdom Hearts comes out, I'm reminded of the promise the first game held, and turn to writing cranky editorials like these to ease the pain of repeated disappointed. I'll likely pick up the HD collection at some point this fall, if only to be reminded of a much different console era, where Square seemed primed to take on the world. Despite being bolstered by the acquisition of Eidos, the famed JRPG developer now sits in a very different position, as the increasing demands of HD development and the shaky future of consoles could very well spell their doom. If Square Enix would like to stay afloat, they'd do well by making the seemingly friendly and welcoming world of Kingdom Hearts accessible to more than just the lore-obsessed faithful.

Bob Mackey is a freelance writer based out of Berkeley, California. Since 2006, he's written a semimonthly column for the comedy website Something Awful, and his work has been featured on outlets such as 1UP, Gamasutra, Electronic Gaming Monthly, and Cracked. You can follow him on Twitter at @bobservo.

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