This year marks the fifteenth anniversary of the original Kingdom Hearts, the game that stirred your Disney childhood and your Final Fantasy adolescence into a cartoony cocktail that almost certainly shouldn’t have worked but somehow went down miraculously smooth. The Kingdom Hearts games are often chided for their arcane lore (though they make about twice as much sense as Metal Gear) and their curious subtitles (fair enough), but they’re almost always a kinetic joy to play, and their stories of teenage friendships torn apart by sundered worlds still resonate. The games have, for lack of a better word, heart. Plus, Mickey is there. If you’re hating on Mickey Mouse, you had better sit down with a cup of tea and think about your life choices.
With the release of Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue this week, it seems like a good time to go back and look at the series in aggregate. Without further ado, here are all eight Kingdom Hearts titles, ranked from worst to best.
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8. Kingdom Hearts: Re:coded (2010): Re:coded is a Nintendo DS remake of a game subtitled Coded (get it?) that was released in Japan for mobile phones. It is, essentially, the second time that the series attempts to remix the events of the first Kingdom Hearts, using the same worlds, characters, and enemies to tell a new story. The first attempt at this, Chain of Memories, does some interesting things, as we'll see in a moment, but Re:coded is just stale. Trying to cram a 3D action game onto the Nintendo DS is an awkward affair, and despite a few interesting bosses, Re:coded has too many stumbles to be worth playing. Awkward controls, an over-reliance on platforming puzzles, and an uninspired character progression system make it a pretty unpleasant experience. The plot, which involves Jiminy Cricket's journal being digitized and corrupted, necessitating a rescue from a digital version of Sora, is the videogame equivalent of a bad bottle episode in a TV series. There's a reason that the HD collections only included the cutscenes from this one, and you shouldn't even watch those, unless you're looking to throw three hours of your life into a digital abyss, never to be reclaimed.
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7. Kingdom Hearts Unchained ? (2015): Unchained ? is the only mobile game in the series, a remake of a Japan-only browser game from a couple years back, and it's not half bad! It's pretty slight, and its attempts at story content are better off ignored, but it's a charming little turn-based game that sees you collecting "medals" that feature characters from throughout the series to use as attacks. There's a rock-paper-scissors system that governs attack types and enemy weaknesses, and because you almost always get to go first in battle, the game becomes about strategizing how best to use your attacks so that you can finish off enemies before they have a chance to strike. You can dress your little keyblade wielder in adorable costumes, and the 2D environments look lovely (even if they get exhaustively re-used). There's an energy system, but it's not oppressive. It's far from an essential addition to the franchise, but there are much worse ways to waste time tapping away at your phone.
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6. Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days (2009): The first Kingdom Hearts game to have an inscrutable subtitle, 358/2 Days is another Nintendo DS outing, this time starring Roxas, the secondary protagonist from Kingdom Hearts II. Less awkward to control than Re:coded and featuring a limited multiplayer mode, 358/2 Days has some interesting ideas but is ultimately hampered by trying to fill in a part of the Kingdom Hearts story that was probably better left ambiguous. It does gain points, however, for its bummer of an ending, a relatively bold choice for a series ostensibly aimed at a young audience. Square Enix decided to pass on including the full game in its HD collections, which is probably a wise choice. There's nothing here that the other games in the series don't do better.
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5. Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories (2004): I've always loved Chain of Memories simply because I admire its gall: Only the second KH game ever released (on a different system, no less—the Game Boy Advance), Chain of Memories gives every indication that it is going to be a completely inessential side-story. The plot, which sees Sora enter the mysterious Castle Oblivion and slowly give up his memories in order to uncover its secrets, totally telegraphs a return to the status quo at the game's conclusion. You know, early on in the game, that Sora is going to forget everything that happens in Castle Oblivion when the game concludes. And why wouldn't he? It's not like Square Enix would expect series fans to play a flippin' handheld game in order to be able to comprehend the events of their big-budget sequel on the PS2!
Except that is exactly what Square Enix would expect, which is aggravating and hilarious and I completely love them for it. Chain of Memories doesn't just introduce the Organization that will be the antagonists in Kingdom Hearts II, it kills several of them off (if you have only played KH2 and always wondered why "Organization XIII" only had eight surviving members, well, there you go).
Chain of Memories has a bizarre, card-based battle system, which is unwieldy and frustrating until you get used to it, at which point it becomes unwieldy and very interesting. It recycles much of its material from the first game (Sora is reliving his memories, remember), but the new material it presents is interesting and compelling, including several excellent boss battles and some tantalizing hints at deeper lore (before the series' lore became a tangled web of dopplegangers and double-dealers). Once you finish Sora's story, there's a whole second campaign to play as Riku, whose deck of cards is fixed, necessitating a change of tactics in a way that's very engaging.
The original Chain of Memories for GBA hasn't aged well, but Square Enix rebuilt it from the ground up as Re:Chain of Memories for the PS2, which was included in the 1.5 HD Remix compilation.
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4. Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance (2012): Dream Drop Distance, the only proper KH title released in the last five years, is so stuffed full of systems and mechanics that it's a miracle the whole thing doesn't come bursting apart at the seams. On the contrary, most of it works, from the collectible "Dream Eaters"—Pokémon-like companions that supplant your usual Disney cohorts—to the "Flowmotion" system, which lets you go leaping and spinning across stages with the flick of a button. Indeed, movement and combat in Dream Drop Distance might feel better than in any other title, an impressive accomplishment given the game's home on the Nintendo 3DS.
The game's biggest misstep is the Drop system, wherein you switch between protagonists Sora and Riku at regular intervals—and not voluntarily, either, as you will sometimes be dragged out of an important boss battle as one character to be switched into the other, only to have to start that battle over again from the beginning when you switch again. It's arbitrary and infuriating, and though it's not likely to bite you often in a given playthrough, you'll want to toss your system into the bin when it does.
There are several Disney worlds in Dream Drop Distance that are new to the series, though some of them aren't particularly exciting (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and others don't quite live up to their potential (The Three Musketeers). There's a Fantasia world which is a delight, and the surreal experience of seeing Jeff Bridges' technomancer take on The Dude from Tron Legacy in a Kingdom Hearts game is worth the price of admission. The inclusion of the cast of The World Ends With You is also delightful, though it comes with the sting of knowing we'll probably never get a sequel to that excellent game.
All in all, Dream Drop Distance is a pretty strong entry—and it's getting remastered for inclusion in the KH 2.8 HD collection, so it will see a wider audience soon.
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3. Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep (2010): In a couple key ways, Birth by Sleep is the strongest entry in the series: The game's progression system, in which individual abilities can be leveled up and fused to create new and unique powers, is by far the most interesting of any game. The trio of playable characters, Terra, Aqua, and Ventus, are likewise more interesting and complicated than Sora and Riku (and poor Kairi, who spends most of the series as a two-dimensional MacGuffin). There's a dearth of Final Fantasy faces in this outing, replaced instead by plenty of characters from other Kingdom Hearts games—Birth by Sleep, as a prequel, spends a lot of time winking at its connections to the other games in the series, though it does so subtly enough that a player could conceivably use it as an entry point into the series and not be put off.
Birth by Sleep smartly uses its prequel status as an excuse to dip into Disney's classic oeuvre, including worlds based on Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Peter Pan (and, uh, Lilo and Stitch, I guess, but there were bound to be outliers). Each of the three protagonists visits each world, but each sees only a part of it, and their stories are all different. This narrative device allows the game to play off the tensions between the three friends, building to a final climax that is darker and more bittersweet than any other in the series. Things happen at the end of Birth by Sleep that are still unresolved—there's a reason Kingdom Hearts fans are chomping at the bit to get their hands on KH 2.8, and it sure as heck ain't the remaster of Dream Drop Distance. (It's because we'll get to play as Aqua again.) Birth by Sleep was remastered for the KH 2.5 collection, and if you were only ever going to play a singleKingdom Hearts game, this one might not be a bad choice.
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2. Kingdom Hearts (2002): When the original Kingdom Hearts came out in 2002, it wasn't just the latest Square Enix game to get big-budget production values to tell the story of pointy-haired anime teens, it was the first Disney game to get that kind of treatment. Getting to explore a condensed version of Halloween Town and Agrabah and Wonderland was like having a digital EPCOT, where there were beloved childhood films instead of foreign countries and spectacular boss fights instead of day-drinking.
Kingdom Hearts's story, of a boy who loses his hometown and his friends and has to travel across many worlds to reclaim them, is as simple as they come—but it plays that simplicity as a strength, relying on a few core emotional beats and driving them home with Square Enix's usual flair. There's betrayal, heroic self-sacrifice, joyful reunions and tearful partings. Also, Goofy is there.
Like the game's plot, the mechanics of Kingdom Hearts are fairly simple—no collectible animal companions, no switching protagonists, no Mario Party-style board games to unlock new abilities (Birth by Sleep really has this). Just magic, a dodge roll, and a sword to swing. Well, a key. Which is also a sword. The point is that sometimes less is more, and Kingdom Hearts's simplicity means that it continues to be both accessible and charming, even seen through the haze of adult cynicism.
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1. Kingdom Hearts II (2005): Of course, sometimes more is more. Kingdom Hearts II takes the formula of its predecessor and cranks it up to eleven, piling on hyperkinetic boss fights and set piece moments in a way that the first one didn't dare attempt. Sora gains a thing called a "Drive Mode" which lets him dual-wield keyblades, or skate around the battlefield shooting missiles or turn into a levitating whirlwind of death. Context-sensitive battle commands let you trigger quick time events to do unique special attacks to every boss. Mickey shows up and he's basically Yoda from the Star Wars prequels.
The Disney worlds are weird and eclectic. Sora turns into a lion to see the Pride Lands from The Lion King. You visit Tron. There's a Pirates of the Caribbean world. There's a black and white world based on Steamboat Willie. There are two episodes to each world, which allows for more than just abbreviated retelling of the movies' original stories. You get special team-up attacks with your Disney allies, and there's nothing quite like the feeling you get when the Beast stands back-to-back with Sora and clamps his giant paw reassuringly on his shoulder before they deliver their final attack together. There's a sequence in the mid-game where you get to fight just one battle with each of the Final Fantasy guest characters and I wish that sequence was five hours long.
But the real strength of Kingdom Hearts II is in how it acts a satisfying conclusion to the games that came before it. Kingdom Hearts II begins by pulling what I want to call a "reverse Metal Gear Solid 2": instead of giving you the protagonist you know and love from the first game, it asks you to play—for several hours—as a blonde kid whose relevance to the story you've been following is completely unclear. Roxas's prologue, confounding to the player even if they're one of the small minority who played Chain of Memories, is almost certainly where the Kingdom Hearts series earned its reputation for opaque storytelling. But by the end of the game, Roxas's story is explained, the loose threads left dangling at the end of Kingdom Hearts are tied up, and even the questions left unanswered by Chain of Memories are seen to.
For a series so thoroughly steeped in Disney's DNA, the Kingdom Hearts games have stubbornly refused to give their protagonists fairy-tale endings. Games end, and friends are locked behind the Door to Darkness, put to sleep indefinitely while their memories are reconstructed or possessed by an ancient evil and sealed away. Kingdom Hearts II is the one game to capitalize on that drawn-out tension and deliver a cathartic, satisfying conclusion with no loose ends—and because it does so successfully, it's the best game in the series.