You know what are absolutely delicious? Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. There's something about that mixture of chocolate and peanut butter that works in spite of itself, like peanut butter and jelly or buffalo sauce on pizza (admittedly, your mileage may vary on that last one). In a similar fashion, the Kingdom Hearts series, a crossover between the illustrious Final Fantasy brand and famed Disney canon, has gone on to become one of the most popular video game franchises on the market. What began as a chance elevator pitch from Square's Shinji Hashimoto to a Disney executive has since morphed into a massive game series that has sold millions of copies worldwide across multiple platforms, and that's without getting into several rereleases, manga adaptations, and even a live orchestral tour.
Now, the long-awaited Kingdom Hearts III is just around the corner, and while hardcore fans have been eagerly anticipating this one for a long, long time, there are no doubt those of us who don't know quite what to make of this series. With so many games to choose from, and a surprisingly convoluted amount of lore for such an ostensibly simple premise, getting into Kingdom Hearts can seem intimidating. Fear not, though: we're going through it step-by-step, so hopefully by the time Kingdom Hearts III is out, you'll be all caught up. So without further ado, let's begin, starting with...
What the heck is a Kingdom Hearts?
Kingdom Hearts is a series of action RPGs developed by Square Enix that originated on the PlayStation 2 (at a time when the company was still "Squaresoft"). The franchise is a crossover between Square Enix's own Final Fantasy franchise and various Disney properties.
Ostensibly, Shinji Hashimoto and Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi wanted to make a game in a 3D environment similar to Super Mario 64, and felt that only Disney characters would be iconic enough to rival Nintendo's mascot. After the aforementioned elevator pitch to Disney, Hashimoto and the game's director Tetsuya Nomura began work on the game, with the blessing of Disney's then-president Bob Iger to access various Disney properties with few restrictions. Nomura was drawn to the word "kingdom," as it was associated with various Disney parks such as Animal Kingdom: when the rights to said parks couldn't be secured and the concept of "heart" was cemented as a central theme of the game, the title "Kingdom Hearts" was selected. The rest, as they say, was history.
The games primarily follow the adventures of Sora, a young boy from the Destiny Islands who, after his home is attacked by an encroaching evil known as the Heartless, obtains a key-shaped sword called a Keyblade and sets out on a journey across various Disney-themed worlds. Along the way, Sora teams up with Donald Duck and Goofy, and the trio fights to save the worlds from the Heartless invasion.
...That sounds weird?
It kind of is! On paper, the idea of a Disney/Final Fantasy crossover sounds pretty absurd. But to reuse an analogy from earlier, Kingdom Hearts is like a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup: two good things that mix together into one great thing. In addition to these games having engaging combat, colorful visuals, and excellent music, they also appeal to both Disney fans and Final Fantasy fans. Exploring iconic Disney worlds and seeing popular Final Fantasy characters like Cloud and Sephiroth pop up is a treat, and there's a lot of nostalgia to be had for fans of both properties.
There are a lot of these games. Where do I start?
There certainly are! The first Kingdom Hearts game came out on the PS2, but the series later spread to the Game Boy Advance, Nintendo DS, PlayStation Portable, 3DS, and even mobile phones. This platform fragmentation is probably why the series has gained a reputation for being so byzantine. Fortunately, Square Enix has made catching up on the series surprisingly easy. if you have a PlayStation 4, you can pick up Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 + 2.5 ReMIX, a collection that includes HD versions of the first six games in the series (both 1.5 and 2.5 were also released on PS3). After that, you should also pick up Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 ReMIX Final Chapter Prologue, which includes the remaining entries and leads straight into Kingdom Hearts III.
Even better, in late 2018, Square Enix released a collection of all three of these compilations, entitled Kingdom Hearts -The Story So Far-. This package includes every remastered game (which includes both playable and some video-only titles) and retails for $40 in the US, which is a steal for nine video games. So catching up on the Kingdom Hearts games is easier than ever! As of this writing, this collection is only available in North America, but hopefully it will see the light of day in other regions too.
...okay, but what order should I play the games in?
I'm glad you asked! Generally speaking, I find that release order is the best way to experience Kingdom Hearts. The aforementioned compilations have also handily segmented the games off, making it a little easier to figure out what games to play in what order. But, to help answer that question, I'm going to go over each game in the series sequentially, starting with...