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KINGDOM HEARTS Rescued an Anime Exile - - OTAKU COMING HOME

Nick rounds out his tell-all introduction and geek credentials with an exploration of the ever-confusing, always-enjoyable KINGDOM HEARTS and its lessons about the power of heart. Yep, that’s another nerdy tattoo.

Before we dive into this week’s particular depth of our beloved nerdery, I’d like to point you toward my now-regularly updated website. If you want to know more about what I do (aside from standing atop my beloved soapbox here) stop by there, check out some comics for free and keep up with the ol’ blog. Incidentally, my last update was about you Vicers and how much I’m digging it here at Anime Vice.

Alright, enough shameless self-promotion. Let’s get to the good stuff, shall we?

If my first article was about rediscovering my love of anime, and my second was about where that love originated from, it’s only fair that we visit that bleak, dark time when anime was blacklisted in my pop culture rolodex...

Though I was avoiding anime and manga, my embargo of Eastern entertainment was far from complete. Video games did, and still do, factor prominently into my recreational pursuits, and I didn’t lump Japanese games into my self-imposed ban of imported activities. So when my girlfriend at the time found a game at Best Buy that just happened to guest-star Jack Skellington (a favorite of hers) I pulled out my wallet without thinking much about it.

Little did I know that a single purchase would not only mark the start of a new obsession, but begin to reopen my heart to the wide world of anime....

Is... is that GOOFY?! I must be drunk...
Is... is that GOOFY?! I must be drunk...

Disney. FINAL FANTASY. Keyblades. Heartless. Gummi Ships. Awesome action-adventure gameplay. MICKEY MOUSE BEING A BAD ASS. What. The. HELL am I playing?! To this day I’m still not entirely sure. That’s largely because the story turned out to be so damned incoherent that it seemed like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” written by three or four friends while stoned, watching the Disney Channel, and doing speed runs through whatever FINAL FANTASY games they could get their hands on.

The plot was rife with a fly-by-the-seat-of-your pants attitude that betrayed then-first time director Tetsuya Nomura’s lack of comfort in the director’s chair. Even if his character designs were top notch and full of all the unnecessary zippers you could shake a keyblade at, the story was a hot, crazy, mess.

We may look cool and have great gameplay mechanics.... but we make ZERO sense! NAH NAH!
We may look cool and have great gameplay mechanics.... but we make ZERO sense! NAH NAH!

Anybody who hangs out with me knows how lazy, incomplete, and/or bad storytelling drives me insane. Not in a “roll my eyes and laugh” sort of way, but more of an “I can taste bile and have to murder someone” feeling. I’m incapable of not pointing it out. A few months ago I spent two-hours in a movie theater frothing at the mouth over PROMETHEUS and its awful storytelling. My wife, who is much more forgiving than I, hesitates over what movies to choose for us because of this. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve ruined movies that she once liked before watching them with me.

By all rights, KINGDOM HEARTS, and its sequels, should have led me to put the disc into the microwave just to watch it bubble. It should have solidified my disdain for Japanese entertainment for all time. But it didn’t.

Quite the opposite, actually. I sang about it to anybody who would listen.

Yep. That's Mickey, all right. With a sword-thing. And a badass cloak.
Yep. That's Mickey, all right. With a sword-thing. And a badass cloak.

What KINGDOM HEARTS possesses is the rare quality of storytelling that writers in any medium always chase after. It’s impossible to qualify precisely, and few creative folks are able to capture it every time (or even some of the time), but when they do, it tends to excuse most any other shortcomings. It’s a special connection to the person reading/watching/playing along. KINGDOM HEARTS has this most sought-after trait in spades....

It has genuine heart. I guess it was aptly named.

So when I dove into that bizarre mess of a story I didn’t care one bit about the lack of sense - -something that would only increase exponentially as the series continued. I, like so many others, found myself blissfully locked in for countless hours, searching for dalmatians, mastering keyblade skills, and leveling up so I could face down Sephiroth at the Coliseum. I hung on every ridiculous cut scene, bought the soundtrack, clung to every rumor about the next game in the series.

And as I became more and more obsessed, I started to wonder why.

Did I mention the games are beautiful, too? Because they are.
Did I mention the games are beautiful, too? Because they are.

Like FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST would do a year or two later (albeit with a much more sensible story), KINGDOM HEARTS hooked me into a world full of heart. It was an adventure with such earnest heroes and over-the-top villains that the quotient of ridiculousness shot past the point of acceptability and boomeranged back toward the zone of the extraordinary.

A big part of this was the effective use of Disney characters and worlds, with all their pre-existing endearments. However, the real kudos goes to Square Enix, who have always excelled at this sort of thing. The combination proved too strong for my critical powers, overwhelmed my curmudgeon circuits, and put a big, dumb smile on my face. I don’t care if the story doesn’t stand up under close scrutiny, or that I don't always understand all the stuff with "heartless" and "nobodies" and whatever else Tetsuya Nomura and company made up after another night of binge drinking. It just made me happy. (Maybe Nomura wasn’t so uncomfortable in that director’s chair after all).

Hence my first nerdy tattoo, acquired shortly after I beat the first game all those years ago. When I got it, it was a reminder of the sense of wonder KINGDOM HEARTS conveyed so expertly. Nowadays, as I work in writing my own stories, it’s a hint to not always take myself so seriously, so long as my story has heart.

First ever tattoo. Right forearm. I'd get the FMA one a year on the left.
First ever tattoo. Right forearm. I'd get the FMA one a year on the left.

If FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST tipped the balance for me and shoved me back into the world of anime, KINGDOM HEARTS set the scales up in the first place. It helped me to start accepting things for emotional impact first and everything else second. And despite the introduction of more unlikely and unpredictable twists than LOST (another favorite of mine), the series is still something I look forward to playing with each new installment. They’re fun, engrossing, ridiculous, and absolutely lovely. I’ve put 99+ hours into many of them and every minute has been a joy.

Ah, KINGDOM HEARTS, you bastion of insanity. How I love you.

What about you guys? Played ‘em? Love ‘em? Hate ‘em? Let’s keep it going in the comments.

Next week: Everything Old Is New Again or The Art of the Remake (Part 1).

Nick Tapalansky is an author of comics and other things, some of them nominated for awards and stuff. Read some comics for free at http://www.NickTapalansky.com/blog and find him on Twitter as @NickTapalansky.

UsachanMaNon Sept. 17, 2012 at 3:09 p.m.

Played 'em and love them all!!!! :D Kingdom Hearts is by far my favourite video game out there! I've actually got a Keyblade necklace that I'm crazy obsessed with and wear a lot :P And two posters that I have up in my room lol so you could say I am a big fan of the franchise as well :)

Keyblade necklace (Kingdom Key)
Keyblade necklace (Kingdom Key)

I've read that they are going to continue with the franchise with the next instalment being the finale for the Xehanort Arc, and they'll continue adding to the story from there.

Oh and they also have manga adaptations of the game as well :D

Petiewon Sept. 17, 2012 at 4:30 p.m.
I used to love this series, I completed 1 and 2 basically 100%. Max level, every treasure chest found and every item obtained.
I was a really big fan from 1, through COM and to the eventual release of 2. I guess the wait between COM and 2 was what started to kill the series for me. It took so long to come out in Europe that I'd already watched a bunch of cutscenes and wasn't surprised or wowed by what happened in the 2nd game.  

I feel the story started to get convoluted. The best thing about the first game was exploring all of these weird crossover worlds that I knew from my childhood. I was less interested in Ansem, Xehanort, Darkness, the Keyblade war, etc and while I'm glad they made the games into more than just nostalgia trips the fiction really wasn't strong enough and stuff was just retconned from one game to the next without much thought. 

Not the exact quote, but in 2 when Mickey says "He wasn't really Ansem, he just went around telling everybody that he was." is a good illustration of this.
 
IF they ever release 3 I'm sure I'll pick it up, but the spin-offs on consoles that I don't own which are important to the plot is what'll stop me from really being a big Kh fan again.
sickVisionz moderator on Sept. 17, 2012 at 4:33 p.m.
I've always wanted to play KH. It seemed interesting and there was a kick ass commercial a long time ago with an awesome doing in it, but alas I had an xbox so I never had access to it.
Midnightdetectiveson Sept. 17, 2012 at 4:43 p.m.

Wow Nick! I always wanted to play Kingdom Hearts before buying it. Now it sounds kind of like Sega's Nights only better. I really like Nights so I might have to buy the newest Kingdom Hearts.

NickTapalansky staff on Sept. 17, 2012 at 5:36 p.m.

@UsachanMaN:

I've heard the same rumor about KHIII finally wrapping up the Ansem threads and providing a conclusive cap to this particular storyline, which is probably a very good thing. Ever since KH: COM, each game has ended without any definitive conclusion; there's always another step they need to take. This is the sort of thing that works well in serialized storytelling, but in video games, where a sense of accomplishment is paramount, it can start to leave players feeling incomplete, despite how awesome the journey was.

That said, if KHIII can really top off this storyline, it'll be one hell of an epic as far as stories go. Not including remakes/rereleases I count seven games (off the top of my head) that ALL revolve around this one storyline. That's a pretty cool thing to be a part of over the last decade.

@Petiew:

Yeah, that's definitely what was on my mind when writing this article. In fact, that exact moment still stands out to me as one of those questionable moments where I had to wonder what exactly was going on in that writers room. That said, I think the sense of wonder and pure, unashamed heart the game (and whole series) exhibits allows a player to just shrug and keep on going through.

Then again, if I'd watched the cut scenes first I'd probably be pretty annoyed by it too, perhaps even to the point of blowing the series off. I think a lot of its charm is almost infectiously delivered through the gameplay, which immerses the player so deeply in a bizarre world with ridiculous twists that things like "Oh, that guy? He just told people he was someone else," roll off their backs, provided they come as some kind of surprise.

I'd say, if you're gonna give the series another go, try to avoid those spoilers for the next numbered entry! It might be tough, but I'll bet the game is way more enjoyable that way.

@sickVisionz:

Well, if you've got a PS2 or PS3 now, there's no time like the present to dive in. I *think* the first game might be on the PSN now for cheap download. If not, copies usually aren't too hard to find. Great, fun games, despite the ridiculous insanity.

@Midnightdetectives:

NiGHTS is a fantastic comparison. There's another game I loved that made almost no sense but dragged you in anyway. I think KH tends to ratchet up the insanity since it's more in the RPG genre (with an action-adventure interface), but it's definitely the same idea: we have a great game system, some awesome set and character designs, and a story that's batshit insane. The more you play, the more you just love it and don't care.

sora_thekey moderator on Sept. 17, 2012 at 7:48 p.m.

It's funny how I am here reading this and trying to come up with a well-thought out response to this, because anyone who knows me knows I should, but all I can think of is: "Why didn't I read this article earlier?!"

Nick, remember when I say I thought you were awesome? You managed to convey a personal experience of yours so eloquently that it resonated heavily with my experience of this game. For me KH was my introduction to every single geek experience I've ever had. My pseudonym on the internet is "sora_thekey" for god's sake! In some manner or other KH was my introduction to video games, comics, anime, manga and music that isn't a top-chart song list.

Great read!

Jinbeifan1on Sept. 17, 2012 at 10:41 p.m.

ahh kingdom hearts, thats my pre teen life right there... oh who am i kidding, im still plaing dream drop distance! XD Kingdom Hearts is a great franchise, I cant wait for the next big game!

takashichea moderator on Sept. 18, 2012 at 12:15 a.m.

That was a great article! I remember getting into Kingdom Hearts back in January of 2012. I got it as a late Christmas gift for my little sister because she wanted to check out the series when it had her favorite movies: The Nightmare Before Christmas and Aladdin. It was fun playing with the family when we tried to help her clear Wonderland because we were lost for a good hour.

Eventually, she and my little brother got hooked on the series, and I say this game is like a gateway for her to get into Final Fantasy. I didn't have much time to play Kingdom Hearts, but I still enjoy the series. The story does get confusing as it progresses.

The only thing I wish for the third main game is that the girls have an equal spotlight. So far, it's bromance, and I got no problem with it except when people go overboard with yaoi shipping. It never ceases to amaze me. It's just that Kairi and the other girls don't really have a big role, and interestingly, the guys outnumber the girls.

It's a cool series whose story and characters really moved me.

NickTapalansky staff on Sept. 18, 2012 at 6:49 a.m.

@sora_thekey:

It's funny, as I wrote it I found myself at least slightly worried that other fans might misread me as bashing the series. I'm glad to see folks taking it for what it is: a love letter to both an experience and a period of my life I look back on fondly. Thanks for the love, man!

@Jinbeifan1:

I'd LOVE to play KH: 3D but I haven't gotten around to getting a 3DS yet. I've been told I should, and I do want to eventually, but I hardly ever play portable games for any length of time. I'd be buying it for one or two games, and I just can't bring myself to do it yet. Maybe in another iteration (with a second analog stick this time??) and a price drop...

@takashichea:

Yeah, girls really do get ignored in the main KH series, which is tragic. Even forgoing romance, the bond of friendship between gals is just as important as the fellas and could offer a different perspective in the storytelling. In KH II we finally get to see Kairi take some names, but it's almost an afterthought. A cool device to get the player's attention but comes in too late to be much more than a tease. Maybe KH 3...

If you're looking for a fix as far as female KH asskickers there is one offshoot, KH: BIRTH BY SLEEP for the PSP, that offers a tough and awesome lady keyblade weilder as a playable character. Aqua's no joke!

sora_thekey moderator on Sept. 18, 2012 at 11:25 a.m.

@NickTapalansky said:

@sora_thekey:

It's funny, as I wrote it I found myself at least slightly worried that other fans might misread me as bashing the series. I'm glad to see folks taking it for what it is: a love letter to both an experience and a period of my life I look back on fondly. Thanks for the love, man!

I'll be honest, at first it did sound like you were bashing the franchise. I held on through the whole article because I knew this led to you getting a KH tattoo, and based on your past articles I really doubted the article was going to end with: "The next moring I couldn't remember anything, but I did have this Kingdom Hearts tattoo on my arm suggesting that I subconciously liked the game."

I agree with you a lot though. The game did have plots over subplots over genres of plots (this game is the Disney/Final Fantasy version of Inception), but; in my own way, I was able to make sense of it. I love the characters, games, stories, and zippers!!

takashichea moderator on Sept. 18, 2012 at 3:13 p.m.

@NickTapalansky:

Oh yeah, I forgot about Aqua who is an awesome character. Though, a lot of people didn't like how her voice sounded in the English version. I always remember her scene with little Riku and Sora, her scene with Terra at the ending, and her scene with Zack.

Spoilers for those who haven't seen Birth by Sleep!

Aqua: Sora, do you like Riku?

I can't remember the exact quote. That question really had some strong implications.

Edit:

Nice tattoo! I forgot to mention that.

NickTapalansky staff on Sept. 19, 2012 at 5:22 a.m.

@sora_thekey:

Yeah, it was a bit of a balancing act with tone. That's part of why I tossed the tattoo into the cover image; obviously, despite any criticisms, I had to have something pretty positive to say about the series to justify getting a piece of it permanently etched onto my arm!

@sora_thekey said:

I agree with you a lot though. The game did have plots over subplots over genres of plots (this game is the Disney/Final Fantasy version of Inception), but; in my own way, I was able to make sense of it. I love the characters, games, stories, and zippers!!

What an excellent description. It really does have more than its fair share of bizarre turns, but at the end of the day you CAN make sense of it if you try (or alternately, if you don't try too hard). You just don't want to put it under a microscope, you know? I normally have to do that--it's just how I operate--but somehow KINGDOM HEARTS always gets me so attached to the cast and involved in the world that I actively try not to shatter the illusion of plot cohesion that's cast by the presentation and characters.

@takashichea:

I think Aqua got the short end of the stick, and it seems like they went back to the Dude's Club for DREAM DROP DISTANCE. I'm hoping to see a bit more variety in the next console release, but at this point it really is Sora's story. It'd be nice to see them strike a balance between the male/female perspective though, ala FINAL FANTASY X.

Hell, I wouldn't mind seeing an all-female cast in a spinoff like FINAL FANTASY X-2 either. That could be a LOT of fun.

And thanks for the tattoo kudos! It's eight years old now and, despite taking care of it, starting to show signs of needing a touch up. For the first few years it was WAY brighter. I might have to take it into the shop in the next few months and take care of that...

Fat_Magnumon Sept. 19, 2012 at 7:38 a.m.

Much love for these games, easily a favorite franchise of mine. Though strangely enough I've played all but the first game and am currently making my way through Dream Drop Distance, I'd say my favorite was 358/2 Days. I scoffed at the ridiculous of the likes of Cloud Strife alongside characters like Donald Duck but my little sister convinced me to try it and I've been hooked since.

For some reason the quote "I'm what's left or.. maybe I'm all there ever was." from Xemnas always completely randomly pops into my head...

avallonon Sept. 19, 2012 at 8:22 a.m.

I'm really enjoying Dream Drop Distance, but it is reminding me of how absolutely convoluted the story of this game truly is. I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why I am so compelled to see what happens next.

Jonny_Anonymouson Sept. 19, 2012 at 12:06 p.m.

Nick = Legend

NickTapalansky staff on Sept. 19, 2012 at 6 p.m.

@Fat_Magnum:

I can't tell you how many people on Facebook and Twitter have been saying the same thing. It seems like a lot of people found a gateway to the series through a spouse/significant other/family member. In a lot of cases (like mine), they wind up liking the game more than the person who got them hooked in the first place.

But not playing the first one?? C'mon!

That's an awesome line. KINGDOM HEARTS is really good at saying such dramatic, poignant things, though it's peppered in with so much great ridiculousness that it almost seems like an accident sometimes.

@avallon:

It's ridiculous, right?! You ACTUALLY WANT TO KNOW, even though there isn't a thing in the world that could pull it all into a sensible storyline. I'm telling you, they're all drunk in that writing room. DRUNK WITH HEART.

That said, I keep hearing how much fun KH: 3D is and desperately want to play it. I can't decide if I'd rather keep that money in the Japan fund (less than five weeks from going back for vacation) or spend it now and play on the plane...

@Jonny_Anonymous:

Accepted and approved. I only hope I can live up to such a title.

NickTapalansky staff on Sept. 23, 2012 at 10:18 a.m.

@UsachanMaN: @Petiew: @sickVisionz: @Midnightdetectives: @sora_thekey: @Jinbeifan1: @takashichea: @Fat_Magnum: @avallon: @Jonny_Anonymous:

Since we're all KH geeks, I thought I'd share: http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/interest/2012-09-19/2-kingdom-hearts-rpgs-ps3-hd-port-1st-browser-game-revealed

Soooo... No KH 3, but an HD remake of KH 1 with COM and segments of 358/2 to tie it all together. Hmmm... I can't wait to see it, but I really hope this is just a lead up to an actual KH 3 in 2013 (this year's the 10th anniversary, after all - isn't it about time?).

Petiewon Sept. 23, 2012 at 11:06 a.m.
@NickTapalansky: If this gets released outside Japan it might actually worth a purchase. It has all the final mix content in it that was never released over here!
I think a KH 2.5 seems more likely than 3 right now judging by this release. Playable KH2 Final Mix, Birth by Sleep and cutscenes from the 3DS game? They might have finally understood that putting all these important spinoffs onto different consoles made the story harder to follow and lost them customers, so they're trying to bridge it all together for 3. Hopefully anyway!
UsachanMaNon Sept. 23, 2012 at 8:46 p.m.

@NickTapalansky: Thanks for sharing! I like the idea of the remake, it makes it much more convenient for the customers.

NickTapalansky staff on Sept. 24, 2012 at 6:39 a.m.

@Petiew:

It's definitely worth the purchase. I'll prepay in full so I can enjoy it with reckless abandon on the day of release - I've toyed with importing FINAL MIX on a few occasions, and never had it in me to play 358/2 DAYS, so this would be a huge win, both for me and for Square Enix.

I'm afraid you're right though, 2.5 probably isn't far behind and will almost definitely predate KH3. I'd love to see that, but I'm still bummed that they seem to have a team working on this that could, in theory, be developing KH3 (though who knows - maybe they are and they just haven't announced anything yet...).

I just hope we're getting a full HD remake of these games here and not a plain 'ol upscale job. They're (supposedly) giving FINAL FANTASY X a full remake as well, so hopefully that means we'll see KH get the same treatment with brand new in-game assets from scratch, not just a glossy finish and redone cut scenes (which were beautiful to begin with).

@UsachanMaN:

Oh for sure! This is a great idea to reunify the fan base outside of Japan. Over there it seems to be way more common and acceptable to release series offshoots/sequels/tie-ins on different portable consoles, whereas here portable gaming can be pretty divisive: not everybody has time/inclination (myself included) to play portable games.

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