The 10 Most Embarrassing Things in Kingdom Hearts

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The 10 Most Embarrassing Things in Kingdom Hearts

I have a deep, dark secret. I’m not quiet about it—it’s just a part of me at this point. I’ll make this list the place to divulge that onto the world. For all the attempted big-brain takes I try and have on videogames and the thoughtful critical prose I create about them, this almost feels embarrassing. There’s a franchise I’ve adored my entire life, ever since I saw the box art as a starry-eyed 5-year-old standing in my neighborhood Gamestop. It’s not Metal Gear or Zelda or anything that’s remotely “cool” to be a fan of. It’s Kingdom Hearts.

Most don’t make it further than the impossible crossover of Final Fantasy VII’s Cloud Strife exchanging words with Donald Duck, and why should they? That doesn’t sound like a “so-weird-it’s-good” idea in the way that a Wendy’s Frosty and french fry does. In one corner you have a dark, brooding anime-haired soldier going through some heavy PTSD, and in the other you have… Donald Duck. This series begs not to be taken seriously—and yet, it is deeply serious. Beneath the happy, cheery Disney exterior lies stories about desire, loss, what it means to be human, and more. Kingdom Hearts actually means something beyond how nonsensical its initial premise seems. 

They’re also so much goddamn fun to play. Kingdom Hearts II is a title I revisit constantly because it hits a level of challenge and thrill that’s hard to find outside of games in the character-action genre: your Devil May Cry Vs and Bayonettas. The higher difficulty levels the game presents the player with are some of the most fine-tuned experiences I’ve ever had. You have a massive toolkit in this game, you are encouraged to use all of it, and therein lies a level of expressive freedom that Hideki Kamiya and the rest of Platinum Games would envy. I spent a week learning the attack patterns of Kingdom Hearts III’s secret boss, and I spent another week learning how to abuse that to Smokin’ Sexy Style on him. These games are fun.

It will also still be the series that makes you evaluate the magical prowess of Donald Duck in relation to mythically omnipotent creatures like Bahamut, the King of Dragons. Both are strong enough to cast Zettaflare, a universe-ending cataclysm of a spell. This is the suspension of disbelief Kingdom Hearts asks of you: that a cartoon duck exists on the same power level as the literal King of Dragons. For many, that’s a tall order that isn’t worth the price of admission. Understandably so. It’s why I’ll always jump to say, “But wait, hear me out,” when making a case for Kingdom Hearts. So: what better way to accompany my own embarrassment with this franchise than a look through the series’ own 10 most embarrassing moments? These are the ones you can look back on and cringe at, the ones you’d be mortified if your mom walked in and saw this on the TV—God knows it happened to me. 

10. Goofy’s “Death”

Kingdom Hearts Goofy Death

Disney is typically associated with positive things: joy, music, zany antics, etc. Its namesake theme park, after all, bears the moniker “The Happiest Place on Earth.” A concept as frightening as death holds no place there, yet so much of Disney’s narrative repertoire relies on this Grim Reaper foundation. Whether it functions as a character’s inciting incident or as part of their tragic backstory, death is present in most of the studio’s works. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, their first theatrical film, is literally about a woman who is so jealous of another woman that she orders a hit out on her. The Haunted Mansion is a ride entirely about the dead. Death is common in Disney. It just feels bizarre that Kingdom Hearts II would honor this by killing Goofy.

Following a battle against one of Organization XIII’s members, Goofy catches debris from a nearby explosion. A boulder collides with his head and he goes hurtling. Everyone assumes the worst when he doesn’t wake up. The menu that opens when the cutscene ends says “The departing member has surrendered their equipment.” What follows is an intense, emotionally driven sequence where Sora battles swarms of enemies, aided by other allies. “Other” being the operative word here. Goofy is dead—for approximately 10 minutes. As the party takes a moment to grieve their loss, he runs up to them saying, “Ya know, that really hurt.” It was just a bump on the noggin. For the emotional devastation of seeing a beloved character mercilessly slain, just to be made a fool in the end, this makes the list of embarrassing moments.

9. “Sora, it’s Sephiroth!”

Kingdom Hearts Sephiroth

Series creator Tetsuya Nomura has, for the most part, only included Final Fantasy characters that he originally designed within Kingdom Hearts. This seems limiting, but actually gives a wealth of fan favorites from Final Fantasy VII, VIII and X to drop by for a cameo. The original Kingdom Hearts treats fans to an extra special appearance via a secret boss in Olympus Coliseum: Sephiroth. The fight is one of the most challenging in the game, with the one winged angel dealing out enormous amounts of damage.

Sephiroth returns in Kingdom Hearts II with a larger role. In this universe, he is the haunting dark half of Cloud’s heart, his fears manifested. This is one of the times the series speaks really well to the danger of negative emotion—or at least, tries to. Sephiroth’s first scene becomes a laughable one as Donald Duck alerts us, saying, “Sora, it’s Sephiroth!” The collaboration between Disney and Final Fantasy is jarring enough already. A talking duck who cannot be understood without subtitles uttering the name of Final Fantasy’s most iconic villain does nobody any favors.

8. “Who else will I have ice cream with?”

Kingdom Hearts Xion

Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days fits into the larger Kingdom Hearts series in an interesting and somewhat troublesome way. Days graced the Nintendo DS in 2009, the first full release of a trilogy of games announced together at Tokyo Game Show in 2007. Players experience the time that Roxas spent within Organization XIII, and uncover the mystery behind a mysterious 14th member of the group. While the series is largely available on modern consoles through a series of HD collections, Days itself survives as a cutscene collection of important story beats, the original game left behind to rot on the DS.

In the climax of the game, Xion (the mysterious 14th member) fades out of existence in the most painful way. Due to her relation to Sora’s memory, her erasure from the world means the erasure from the memories of everyone she knows. As Roxas struggles to console her in her last moments, unsure of who she even is, he holds onto her identity long enough to plead her not to die, saying “Who else will I have ice cream with?” This is how they come to identify friendship throughout the game. Getting ice cream is what you do with friends, so we prove we’re friends by getting ice cream. Really, it’s a tragic moment and a tragic line—but the pure cheesiness of it can’t be excused.

7. Days is not art

Kingdom Hearts Days

Speaking of Days, a recent sentiment I’ve seen echoed across forums I’ve spent decades on posits that the game is a meaningful work of art. You see, it isn’t just great because of the emotional story it tells. The game is told through the lens of mission-style gameplay a la Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, and some fans purport that the monotony of this structure is engineered to place you into the mindset of Roxas: working a job you hate, day in and day out as you embark on various ultimately meaningless missions at the behest and benefit of someone who undervalues you. It’s a cute idea, but it’s a stretch.

The reality is that this gameplay loop exists to more easily peddle the game’s attached multiplayer mode where players can tackle these missions with friends. It isn’t a meaningful statement about the tedium of working a 9 to 5, it’s a development choice made to try and successfully accommodate the portable platform the game appeared on. If this grand sense of art was intended, surely the game would exist in a playable state on modern consoles instead of its currently relegated status as a “movie.” 

6. A lineage of console diaspora

Kingdom Hearts Collection

I’m almost done ragging on Days, I promise. As previously mentioned, this was one of three games announced simultaneously—the other two being Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep for the PlayStation Portable and Kingdom Hearts: Coded, exclusive to early Japanese mobile phones until its reimagining as Kingdom Hearts Re:coded for the Nintendo DS. You’ll notice that none of these titles (barring the DS port of Coded) share a console as a home, and this is indicative of a problem within the franchise. Until the HD remaster collections were released, to experience all entries in the series on their respective launch days fans would need a PlayStation 2, a Game Boy Advance, a Nintendo DS, a PlayStation Portable and a Nintendo 3DS. That’s an investment of over $1,000, and that’s before accounting for the Japanese mobile phone needed to play Coded, the data plan one would need alongside that, or the costs of the games themselves. That’s a ticket to entry vastly more upsetting than the aforementioned suspension of earnesty.

The biggest kicker is that these aren’t simply spin-off games, as one might expect in a series that extends its reach to this many consoles. All of these titles bear extreme plot relevance to the story that would ultimately be told in Kingdom Hearts III. It’s deceptive that this game is only the third numbered title in the series, because in reality it’s the culmination of nearly 20 years of storytelling, character arcs and plot threads. They’re required reading, they’re on the syllabus, you cannot skip them. The HD collections made playing all these an easier task, but even those fall victim to this same issue: two of the three collections debuted on the PlayStation 3, with the third releasing on the PlayStation 4. It wasn’t until 2016 that all games were available on one console with the PlayStation 4 release of Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 + 2.5 Remix, 14 years after the conception of this series. That is a long time to wait for an accessible way to play these games. 

5. The “whale” problem

Kingdom Hearts X

You might think, “Oh, it’s 2024 now. The games are all collected, they’re even all on Steam now.” You’d be only half right. Kingdom Hearts has had another issue for the last decade: it’s penchant for narrative based gacha-style mobile games. Kingdom Hearts X launched in 2013 as a Japanese exclusive browser game before being rebranded and ported to smartphones in 2015. “Ported” is a stretch to say, though, as the version of the game that exists nowadays is technically a sequel to the original browser game. “Game that exists” is just as big of a stretch, too, as the servers for the game have been shut down. This story can only be experienced via in-app-cutscenes. There is no gameplay. 

These games, as are all other “spin-offs” within the series, are essential to understanding the current saga Kingdom Hearts has embarked upon, but they differ in one important way: they’re monetized to hell and back. When they functioned as games, players would use “medals” to execute attacks, and these medals were gained by pulling on various limited banners that cost in-game currency. These could, of course, be purchased using real-life money, and therein lies the problem. Gacha games prey upon users with money to burn through an artificiality engineered FOMO, and game designers recognize where their cash cows are. Content becomes tailored to reward those who spend money, and free-to-play users get left behind as they find their medals grow weaker and weaker. Eventually, those users can’t progress in the game. They miss out on the story. Kingdom Hearts still has a high-cost barrier to entry, it’s just more deceptive about it now. While Kingdom Hearts X may be offline at the moment, Kingdom Hearts Missing Link is set to release sometime this year, and will surely be the same gacha-hell its predecessor was.

4. Time travel

Kingdom Hearts Time Travel

I should clarify something with regards to these mobile games. They take place in an ancient-but-not-yet-specified era of the series’ lore referred to as the “age of fairy tales.” The characters in these games may be thousands of years older than Sora and his pals. They are so far removed from the events of the console games that they should have absolutely no bearing on the current story. They do, though. Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance introduced time travel to the series, which has since utilized it to an appalling degree. Suddenly, characters from this age of fairy tales appear in the modern era. Characters we thought to be of the modern era are given additional backstories that make them thousand-year-old entities. Time travel is what anchors these mobile titles to series significance.

I like stories about time travel. Back to the Future is my favorite ‘80s blockbuster. Stories that shift to involve time travel are a different beast. I’ve never enjoyed those; they seem more of a magical deus-ex-machina band-aid that exists in the toolkit of less talented writers. How do you escape an overwhelming, ultimate peril? Simply go back to before that was ever even a concern. I didn’t like it in Avengers: Endgame, and I don’t like it in Kingdom Hearts III. If Sora and Co. can rewind time when they lose a fight, there can be no true narrative stakes.

3. Let dead men tell no tales

Kingdom Hearts Ansem Death

It isn’t just that the shift to a time travel narrative is bad in Kingdom Hearts—it’s incredibly convoluted. To time travel, you have to be effectively dead and have no body. You can only travel to a point in time that you exist in, effectively making traveling to the past the only option. Once there, you can not change the course of destined events. Upon returning to your original time, you lose all memory of having time traveled. This makes the ability to time travel absolutely useless. There is a caveat, though, because of course there is: a person that undergoes the act of time travel is able to aid others in time traveling, assuming they exist at a point in the future. Still, what the hell is the point of this? 

Kingdom Hearts III uses this to unceremoniously bring back the already defeated main antagonists of games past for one last showdown. In doing so, it shows us that death in this series truly means nothing. Foes once vanquished can exist in an imperishable state; there will always be the risk of seeing them again. The stakes are crippled even further. I think about Ansem, the main antagonist of the first Kingdom Hearts, and how his violence affected our heroes for games to come. Ansem’s darkness haunted Riku for most of his character arc—but it’s something he dealt with personally. There didn’t need to be a final fight between the two to prove that Riku had overcome his past trauma. I don’t care that Ansem’s final words in the series are inspiring to the player: his last words should have been when he died in Kingdom Hearts.

2. Why does any of this matter?

Kingdom Hearts

Clearly, this list has gone beyond light-hearted meme material. These are real grievances I have with the series, games that I hold oh so very dear to my heart. This is the kind of criticism that can only come from love. I’ve bemoaned the embarrassment I feel towards being a fan of the series, but it isn’t coming from a cringe-worthy scene of Donald Duck sharing the screen with Sephiroth. Kingdom Hearts has repeatedly revealed itself as a mess. It’s the steep financial investments required to stay up to date with the series. It’s the lack of truly meaningful stories. It’s the disappointment that none of this shows any sign of stopping soon. 

I want to go back to Days. Again. To tell you the truth, I fully buy into this idea of it as high art. Good art does not have to be fun. The game explores monotonous situations via monotonous gameplay—you will understand the plight of Roxas because you as the player are living it. It’s not a game in the series I feel joy in going back to, though, nor can I. It’s abandonware. That’s why it does not surprise me in the slightest that a sort of revisionist perspective has emerged for this game. Faced with nothingness, what can fans do but mythologize? 

This goes so much further than Days, though. The sheer level of celebration this series has received is staggering. March Caprice is an annual virtual gathering where fans of the series show off their talents through art, music, cosplay and more. It is the fan convention any company would dream of putting on themselves, and it’s all fan organized. Project Destati is an amazing musical celebration of the series, honoring and reimagining some of the franchises best scores. There are so many amazing fan works out there that more than make up for the less than stellar hoops Square Enix has made them jump through.

The reality is that this series deserves better than half cobbled ideas, cheap emotional pulls and broken narratives—purely because of its fans. Devotees look at works like Days as smarter than might be because it’s all they have in light of a series that does not hold their best interests. That’s the most embarrassing part of Kingdom Hearts.

1. Goofy’s “Death”

Kingdom Hearts Goofy Death

Alright, this one is still kind of rough.

Perry Gottschalk is a Paste intern, thinking about games and the way they make us feel. For more feelings, follow @gottsdamn on Twitter.

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