Kingdom Hearts revives childhood memories

There are those games from your childhood that you play, have fun with, and then never pick up again. And then there are those games that stick with you for your entire life, altering the way you play and perceive video games and perhaps your life itself.

Kingdom Hearts is one of those games. Originally released in 2002, it was re-released this past week, along with Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories and Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days, in a high-defintion compilation dubbed Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix.

Kingdom Hearts is widely considered one of the best action RPGs out there, and one of the first to get the formula right. It follows the story of a young, impossibly optimistic boy named Sora and his lost friends, Riku and Kairi. In his travels, Sora encounters many characters from the Disney and Square Enix universes (the distributor and developer of the game, respectively), both familiar and not-so-familiar, while battling enemies unique to the series known as the Heartless.

Sora travels to worlds based on a handful of Disney movies — Tarzan, Alice in Wonderland, and Hercules, to name a few. The combat involves a lot of button-mashing, but there is some skill required. Sora does not always fight alone, though; he is joined by Donald Duck and Goofy both in combat and through most of the game. In almost all of the worlds, Sora gets a new companion unique to that world — usually the main character from the movie the world is based upon.

Even with the backing of these characters, though, it is a difficult game at times — something I am happy to admit. In fact, having beaten Kingdom Hearts more than a handful of times, I still had trouble not dying in the early hours of the game. The platforming has remained steadfastly frustrating at times, but feels a bit more forgiving now — though perhaps it’s just the bigger screen. The non-linearity of the game is surprisingly hard to get past sometimes as well, but it leads to a more rewarding explorative experience.

This is not the original Kingdom Hearts you loved and grew up with. It is the “final mix” — a re-release that, until last Tuesday, only existed in Japan. The changes from the original are mostly cosmetic — many enemies are now recolored to brighter versions of their previous selves — though there are some items and enemies thrown in for additional rewards and challenges, as well as a particularly notorious boss battle.

Also, the remastered visuals and audio look and sound incredible. While it is clear at times that certain textures are taken straight from the original, without much touching up, the character models look as good as you remember the PlayStation 2 ones looking.

Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories, the direct sequel to Kingdom Hearts, has been updated in similar ways, though the game itself has not changed much from its PlayStation 2 incarnation, which itself was actually a reincarnation of a GameBoy Advance game. The game’s combat system is a complete departure from the original, using cards to decide Sora’s moves instead of an on-screen attack menu. The scope of the game is also slightly more limited: Although Sora visits different worlds, they are all the same ones as he visited in the first game, and everything takes place inside a single castle.

However, the sequel offers you the chance to play as the somewhat enigmatic Riku and his inner battle with his obsession of power and evil. That said, the story takes a much darker turn from the original game, as both Riku and Sora take up arms against a new group of antagonists known as the Organization. This is the first game to include the deaths of characters, too.

The most interesting re-release in the set, however, is Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days. Originally released for the Nintendo DS in 2009, it is now presented in this collection as almost three hours of video footage, completely remastered from the original game. It presents side-stories and back-stories to many of the characters that appear both in Chain of Memories and Kingdom Hearts 2. And it must be said that the tale in cinematic format is just as heart-wrenching (though some would say cliché) as it was as a game.

What started out as pure conjecture — the idea of making a Disney game that could rival Nintendo’s Mario games in popularity — has ended up a hallmark game of a hallmark series. These games have not changed much since their initial release, and picking up the control still brings you right back to your couch all those years ago. It still evokes the same senses of wonder, mystery, and fascination as it did when we were kids.