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Kingdom Hearts: Just Play It Cool, Boy


I like manly things. Seeing hot-blooded passion made real; men (and women) who speak volumes with their fists; earth-shattering attacks delivered with enough gusto to power Brazil. Itís no small wonder, then, that characters like Ralf, Maxima, and Goro are among my favorite King of Fighters characters -- and why I like fighting games in general. The object of the game is to win, but thereís a secondary objective as well: looking as cool as possible at all times. (Well, unless youíre a scrub.)

I think we can all agree that, whatever our persuasion, whatever our favorites and preferences, video games are very good at making you look as cool as possible. Badass, even. Considering that Iím a featherweight reputed for his losing streak against the wind, most of the time I find this to be a much-appreciated quality.

And then there other times -- more recently -- where sometimes, I donít want to be cool. Sometimes, being badass is detrimental.

What spurred this heresy, you ask? Believe it or not, it was Kingdom Hearts. See, Iíd been meaning to get around to watching a playthrough of Birth by Sleep for a while; the plan was to own and play the game myself, but my PSP had to go and meltdownÖso I figured it was up to YouTube to save the day. ďItís been too long since Iíve last experienced Kingdom Hearts,Ē I told myself. ďI loved the first game, and the secondÖwell, it happened. But this is a critical juncture in the storyline! If I donít watch it, Iíll NEVER be ready for Kingdom Hearts 3!Ē So I knuckled down and started watching, hoping for the best.

To say that itís a train wreck would be pretty harshÖbut I can't think of any better description right now. Generally speaking, this is how my face looks whenever there's a...er, "development."

I canít think of a single game -- besides Final Fantasy XIII -- that has made me facepalm so often, point out contradictions and idiocy, made me beg for an end to the inanity, and worst of all feel utterly indifferent to the proceedings. (I imagine this must be how diehard Star Wars fans felt when The Phantom Menace came out.) Granted Iím not done watching the game just yet, and I intend to see it to its conclusion regardless; Iím hoping that the game was just off to a rocky start.

I donít like feeling this way about Kingdom Hearts. Unlike the searing hatred I feel for Final Fantasy XIII (where I delight in anyone who decides to shit all over its proceedings, a la the Jim Sterling review), I like Kingdom Hearts. A lot. I was one of the naysayers that thought it was a stupid idea at first, but when I heard favorable things about it I started to wonder; when my brother picked up a used PS2, I grabbed the Greatest Hits edition and was left enthralled. I was a fan within an hour of playtime.

Or maybe I should say, Iím a fan of the original. I am NOT a fan of Birth by Sleep. Watching the latter filled me with such depression and mistrust that I had to dig up the original game, pop it in my PS2, and start a new playthrough. I had to see if the game was as good as I remembered. If my love was deserved, or misplaced.

My findings? The camera is awful -- worse than I remember it. Goofy will still use items if Donald gets so much as a tap on the shoulder. The first boss is a pain in the ass if youíre playing on Expert mode (a choice Iím starting to regret). But in spite of that, Kingdom Hearts 1 is -- for now, and as far as Iím convinced -- the best game in the series.

Part of the reason, I think, is that Sora is decidedly non-badass. Heís just a regular, dumb kid way the hell out of his element. Consider that in the gameís opening, heís in a realm of darkness, exploring a stained-glass world and being attacked by shadow creatures, all to an unsettling and mysterious tune. It culminates in a battle against a massive shadow creature, one that Sora canít beat. As he backs off, cowering and unarmed, you can see the fear in his eyes, made all the more chilling by the threat of his childhood coming to an abrupt end.

What happens after that is a stark contrast, but earnest and endearing nonetheless. You get to see Sora run around his island, having fun, competing with his pals, and engaging in childish notions like building a raft and hoping to leave in search of new worlds. You get the sense that Sora, for all his cheer and optimism, kind of sucks. Fighting Wakka, Tidus, and Selphie is a quick way to learn how to get your face shoved into your colon. Go up against Riku, and even if youíre at the top of your game youíll likely get hit by his drop-kick ukemi. Race against Riku, and itís likely youíll fall prey to any number of traps in the course while he performs flawlessly. Inevitably, he earns the right to share the destiny-bonding paopu fruit with your sort-of-girlfriend Kairi -- all because Sora was too weak. While he puts on a brave face (albeit one scene where heís pouting childishly), thereís a scene where heís in a cave and stares at a drawing of himself and Kairi. He grabs some chalk and continues drawing, etching a hand offering Kairi a paopu fruit. Itís a quick moment, but itís surprisingly powerful and telling; I felt more in that scene than I did in the entirety of Ventusí storyline in Birth by Sleep.

But just in case you thought Sora didnít have it rough enough, his island comes under attack from the Heartless. Only this time itís worse than before; you canít even attack them. All you can do is run away as a storm tears into your islandÖand when you finally get the famous Keyblade, you have to put it to work against the monster you couldnít kill earlier. The darkness nearly takes you (while Riku, tough guy that he is, remains unfazed and even welcoming). Your home is wiped out, and you end up warped to a strange new worldÖalone, confused, and with no hope of seeing your islandís splashing waters.

The gameplay reflected it as well. I know itís commonplace to have a hero who starts at Level 1 (i.e. sucks), but the aesthetics and animations help convey Soraís weakness pretty handily. He may have his universeís equivalent of Excalibur, but that doesnít mean he knows how to use it. He swings it how youíd expect any kid playing with a toy lightsaber would: with goofy, cumbersome motions. He doesnít have a clue of what heís doing, but he doesnít have any concerns about finesse so long as he can club his enemies into oblivion. As he should; between his facial animations (which even to this day I adore in the series) and his goofy motions, you really feel like there was an understanding of how to fuse Eastern and Western sensibilities -- video games and cartoons.

And the story (at least, as I recall and interpret it) is quick to remind you of Soraís weakness as well as his strength. Inevitably, Sora does get stronger, and uses the Keyblade to help out in the Disney worldsÖeven if that means spamming Dodge Roll so you can get the hell out of the way of enemy attacks. Unfortunately, this puts him at odds with the rapidly-improving Riku. Heís all too willing to call Sora out for being a hero elsewhere, helping strangers in isolated incidents, when the one person eh SHOULD be saving is more or less in a coma. Sora was something akin to the chosen one for a while, but Riku slaps that notion right out of him when he takes the Keyblade -- and as an added kick in the pants, Donald and Goofy -- and abandons Sora in Hollow Bastion, leaving him no stronger than he was in the gameís first hours. While you do eventually reclaim the Keyblade, you still have a mountain of work left to do; a boss fight against Riku will leave you as a bloody smear on the pavement if you canít keep up. (Oh man, I am NOT looking forward to that fight on ExpertÖ)

Kingdom Hearts 1 hammered in an idea in its narrative and its subtext for us gamers: weakness as well as strength can be vital parts of the overall package. Through strength, we gain spectacle and skill, and a belief that our actions can change the gameís outcome. Through weakness, we gain modesty and meaning, knowing that thereís always a powerful force waiting to snuff out our virtual lives, and adding tension to the package as a whole. Used effectively, weakness -- the antithesis of being a badass -- can make for a powerful tool.

A shame that Kingdom Hearts 2 throws that tool into a trash compactor. Right off the bat, Kingdom Hearts 2 gets it all wrong; yes, the Roxas prologue isÖproblematic, but in a way you might not expect. True, Roxas starts off with the same goofy motions as Sora, but he comes pre-equipped with one of the gameís many Reaction Commands -- he can slide behind an enemy and dispatch them handily. He gets to fight some of the kids around town, but failure isnít an option; theyíre just enemies to knock aside to continue the story. In a call back to the original game, Roxas goes to stained-glass land and fights a giant monster (with several of the shots reproduced); what was a desperate struggle to survive in the first game becomes a showcase of the awesome power of the triangle button. Press it when the prompt comes up, and HOLY COW ROXAS CAN SPIRAL THROUGH MIDAIR AND DODGE EVIL RIBBONS! AND THROW HIS KEYBLADE AND MAKE AN EXPLOSION ZOMGTEHHAWTNESS! Itís a shame, because that boss is actually kind of cool and creepyÖbut its effect is diminished when you have an Awesome Button that makes it less of a threat and more of a boneless clown.

After The Prologue that Never Ends, you finally get your hands on Sora -- and it isnít long before he puts his Awesome Button to good use, too. Letís put aside the fact that due to sleeping for a year in zero gravity, Iíd wager heíd suffer from muscular atrophy or some form of osteoporosis (because, you know, magic). His new abilities give him the power to slash several times per press of the X button, letting him close the distance in a half-second and wail away at an opponent. His Reaction Commands let him do things like spike Heartless like volleyballs, swoop in and smash through enemies five times in a row, and teleport and kick sniper shots at enemies. To say nothing of the Drive Forms, which -- while cool in and of themselves -- turn the already mash-heavy combat into a whirlwind of lights, whooshing sounds, particle effects, and broken X buttons. The tension and desperation you feel in the game (in battle and outside it) are nonexistent when you can literally turn into an angel of death at will. Itís exacerbated when you realize that in order to turn Sora into a Super Saiyan, you have to sacrifice Donald or Goofy. You know, the pals whoíve been with you since the beginning, and helped you learn your way, and missed when they were gone, and had a multi-stage boss fight to regroup the last game. But hey, that was only a year ago.

Sora eventually became a fierce warrior by the end of the first game (sans the over-the-top superpowers), but there was a certain amount of levity and cartoonish flair in the fights. It was a game where the Disney villains were front and center -- enemies never encountered before, and certainly colorful, but far more determined and lethal than you. You start to have respect for villains like Jafar and Ursula after they hand you your ass on a plate; you wonder how Aladdin and Ariel ever pulled off a win against them. When you go up against guys like Oogie Boogie and the titans and Ansem and see their monstrous forms, you think, ďOh man, how am I supposed to beat THAT?!Ē Compare that to KH2, where itís just a matter of waiting for a chance to use your Awesome Button and wailing on an enemy.

And then we come to Birth by Sleep. The Keyblades -- yep, plural -- are in no short supply. Not only do other people have them besides the king and the chosen one, but apparently villains have them too, and you find a field littered with thousands of them. (Why no one ever brought up a Keyblade War in previous games is a mystery.) The Keyblades barely even look like keys anymore -- just weird abstract or mechanical designs. The three main characters all have a bevy of superpowers designed to make them look cool. Awesome armor, awesome blades, awesome skills like the screen-clearing shot lock and transformative command styles, and -- get this -- their weapons transform into things like hoverbikes and hoverboards. But never when they might actually be useful, oh no; everyone always conveniently forgets they can travel through the universe at will at the best possible moments.

There are a lot of problems with this approach. First off, the ability to glide through everything with bitchiní damn supermoves might work in other games, but when youíre a guest in a slew of Disney worlds it doesnít mesh. Thereís no whimsy anymore; the Disney worlds and effects pale when you can sprout sword-shaped wings and explode. Second, thereís a tonal inconsistency when youíre fighting a comedic swashbuckler like Captain Hook, and you can go boosh-boosh-boosh-teleport-spam-slash every other minute. I wonít speak for how challenging things are in the game since I havenít played it, but when youíve got one guy fighting like a pirate and the other being a supersonic jet, enemies are less of a threat and more of a nuisance keeping you from the awesome (HA HA HA) story. Third, the feeling of adversity and pressure you might find in other games -- in the original Kingdom Hearts -- is missing; you may fight a hard boss, but gameplay-wise itís only a matter of time and button-mashing that you win, and story-wise itís just another diversion from the main plot. Fourth, adversity builds character; with all these powers, you canít possibly take a characterís desire to ďbecome strongerĒ seriously. Theyíre already insanely skilled and powerful, and only getting stronger by default; if theyíre up against a strong enemy, itís because their bullshit powers are a cut above your bullshit powers. , and winning is a matter of out-bullshitting their bullshit. (Preferably, as flashily as possible -- gotta look cool for the kiddies, yeah?)

Iíll be the first to admit that Iím not done with BBS just yet. Nor am I done replaying the original game and seeing if it really holds up to a critical eye; doubtless Iíll be playing through KH2 eventually, because Iím an idiot that hates himself. Iíd like to think that maybe thereís something Iím missing, some element that redeems the entire franchise -- or more immediately, makes BBS more enjoyable and less worthy of being renamed ďThe Three Idiots with Less Common Sense than a Brick.Ē Whatever the case, Iíve learned something today.

Cue the music!

Sometimes, itís okay to be uncool. You donít have to spend all your time showing off to us gamers -- sometimes, we like things to be simple and clean. Sometimes we donít want to feel uber-powerful, or like nothing can stop us. Itís that sense of vulnerability that can create a powerful effect, or be used as part of the presentation. Sure, I like my Metsu Shoryukens as much as the next guy, but games can be a varied and effective medium. If I can have more fun playing as a weak, dumb kid with oversized feet than a knight that can fly around and shoot lasers, then maybe being cool means more than just the powers and skills you have.

Maybe what we gamers want -- once every blue moon -- is the chance to see something more than awesomeness. Maybe we just want to see something from the creators, not just the characters. Maybe we just want to see their creative vision -- and with it, their heart.

Whew. That was a long one, but I just had to get that off my chest. Still, itís just an opinion at the endof the day; a part of meís interested in hearing what you all think. Is there a point where being badass starts being detrimental to a game? Where do you draw the line? Are you a Sora/Ansem the Wise shipper?

Iíll let you mull it over for a bit. In the meantime, Iím gonna grab some hot dogsÖand then proceed to watch people use ďdarknessĒ and "hearts" too many times in a single paragraph.

- Thanks for reading! And remember -- if you want to see more content from me, anytime, anywhere, be sure to check out my blog. Give it a read, so we can all become heroes! http://cross-up.blogspot.com/

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About Voltechone of us since 10:40 PM on 02.06.2012

Long-time gamer, aspiring writer, and frequent bearer of an afro. As an eternal optimist, I like to both look on the bright side of things and see the better parts of games; as a result, I love a game with a good story and awesome characters...and anything that lets me punch the heresy out of my enemies.

I'm a big fan of Atlus' games, and I've enjoyed my fair share of fighters and RPGs. Just...please, keep Final Fantasy XIII out of my sight. It never ends well for anyone involved.

You can check out some of my game musinga/stories/random stuff at my other blog, Cross-Up. I've also got a TV Tropes thingamajig, and a web serial novel, too. Maybe my stuff here and there will be the start of things to come. Hopefully good things, but things all the same.

Be a hero. Check 'em out.

Cross-Up -- head here for posts on games, movies, and more
My Troper profile
My Facebook page
My Twitter thingamajig

I Hraet You -- the over-the-top web serial novel...of love, maybe