I'm an actor living in Los Angeles who likes videogames. Go figure.
My ten favorite games are currently:
The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask
Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence
Super Mario Galaxy
The Last of Us
Kingdom Hearts 2
Mass Effect 2
Or maybe I am nothing...Darkness. By the way, this is my first CBlog (or post of any kind other than a comment) so 'Hello'. This CBlog serves as part introduction, part Monthly Musing. Ever since I saw the most recent MM topic I've been sitting on this post and haven't seen anyone else tackle it (though if others have, this isn't an attempt to steal thunder); so, emboldened by having a question of mine addressed on Podtoid, I decided to take a shot. I opened with Jim Sterling's iconic (in my mind) quote because I feel like it is the perfect encapsulation of everything that Kingdom Hearts is. A lot of something and a lot of nothing. This will be long, so get some cocoa and a blanket.
I remember seeing commercials and reading snippets of articles advertising the first game in the series many years ago. I was intrigued but that was about it. To fully understand my love affair with this series, you're going to need to take a brief RichardBlaine history lesson. You see, I was a stalwart Nintendo supporter back in the N64/Playstation days. I grew up with an NES, SNES, and so on. When the Playstation came out, I was convinced that this new "fad" wouldn't last that long but I was secretly envious whenever an interesting title was released. I was a pretty casual gamer and basically lived off of whatever I received for holidays and birthdays, never buying games on my own or researching them. One series that I never played, but was always curious about was Final Fantasy. When the original titles were released for their Nintendo consoles, I was obliviously content with my copies of Super Mario Brothers 3 and Bart vs. The Space Mutants for my NES (I seriously think those were my only games). My parent's taste refined when they later gifted me Donkey Kong Country, Super Empire Strikes Back, and (most importantly) Super Mario RPG for my SNES (among other titles). You see, Super Mario RPG was my first RPG title and the first game that showed me that video games could tell stories slightly more complex than 'Kill 'Blank' to Save 'Blank'' and truly make me feel like I had entered another world.
Unfortunately, by the time I realized that the Final Fantasy series was attempting to do the same thing, I had traded in my SNES and was living it up N64 style. I would have asked for Final Fantasy 7 for my family's computer but we were that one Mac family that you knew back in the 90's before the iPod made it cool to own one. Therefore, it was not until late in the Playstation 2's life cycle that after a couple of price drops, I picked up my first Sony console and my first Final Fantasy game, Final Fantasy X. It was love at first sight. Don't get me wrong, the series is heavily flawed in some respects, but it's very good at the things that it does well. I quickly went out of my way to play through the majority of the other games in the series via Game Boy Advance re-releases, Friend's Copies, and (cough) Emulation. Being able to go back and recapture so many of those older childhood wishes was both empowering and delightful.
Much, much, much later and fully satiated on my JRPG feast; I found myself remembering the commercials I'd seen a few years before for Kingdom Hearts. Now having been a human child during the late 80's and early 90's, I saw and loved just about every animated release that Disney unleashed on the unsuspecting public. Aladdin, of course, being the best. I even picked up the pretty awful direct to video sequels. This game that seemed to combine my newly found love of Final Fantasy games with my childhood and nostalgia-ridden love of Disney movies into a unique, action-RPG universe seemed to good to be true. In some ways it is.
I went out and snagged a copy from the local EB games (to give you some dating). Upon loading it up, I found the opening video to be quite catchy and was quickly immersed in a simultaneously new and familiar universe. However, as I played, I found myself painfully aware of something. While the gameplay was fun and fast paced with outstanding voice acting from a lot of the classic Disney contributors, the story was kind of stupid. Kind of really stupid. I mean, believe in the light to save your heart from the darkness? This is a universe that operates in the same way and with the same level of subtlety as the Care Bear universe. The power of love defeating the power of darkness, the incredibly 'emo' characters, and the bombastic and heavy handed themes are all things that I really quite loathe. It's the stuff that Twilight-reading/Hot Topic shopping tweens' (no offense) dreams are made of. However, more horrifying than this realization is the fact that, in this case, I love it. I eat it up. I want to know all about the darkness and what's going to happen to Sora and his friends. I want to know who Ansem is and what his reports say. I keep playing just a little bit longer because as much as it pains me, I NEED to know if I can redeem Riku and free Kairi's heart. Why does the Organization wear those robes?! They're totally lame but I want one! I've realized that it is to me, what my grandmother's soap operas are to her. Having gone on to purchase and enjoy several other games in the series, I keep waffling back and forth between pure unadulterated enjoyment and utter self-loathing.
However, let's not pretend that the gameplay is perfect while the only problem with the series is the story. The Gummi Ship mechanic in the first game, the card based gameplay of Chain of Memories, and certain aspects of the grid system in 358 Days (also the title of 358 Days), are all systems that have some merits but all suffer heavy flaws. But the horror of these components is that like many gamers do, I find myself pushing through these unsatisfactory systems because I want to continue and advance the story. The same story that I hate but secretly love and hate myself for loving! Returning to my original statement that the series is a lot of something and a lot of nothing, I truly feel that there are so many wonderful things happening with the material being sourced and the voice acting, and simultaneously so many terrible things happening with the over the top and frequently vapid story.
Though it may be different for some others out there, because of my history of repressed Final Fantasy gameplay coupled with a perpetual love of Disney, whenever I play these games it always feels like my inner child is getting away with something. I know that I am capable of enjoying more mature and sophisticated gameplay and story ideas. There are many games out there that are better written, designed, and played than any of the Kingdom Hearts games; but I know that once Birth By Sleep hits the shelves, I'll put on my hoodie and shades and covertly grab a copy like a user buys his fix. It's because of this relationship of true love for a series that combines Final Fantasy and Disney coupled with pure hate for the ridiculousness of it's story and of myself for loving it, that Kingdom Hearts truly occupies a Love/Hate niche within this gamer's heart. I have a feeling I'm not the only one.