"Square Enix hasn't merely cashed in on the nostalgia, and has fired on all cylinders to provide these games with a loving upgrade at a outstanding price point."
Failing chemistry. Updating my AOL Instant Messenger profile countdown to release day. Learning piano because I loved the Hollow Bastion theme so much and wanted to play it. Picking up Japanese to play the imported versions of the games. Wondering if there were more amazing composers out there besides Nobuo Uematsu and Yasunori Mitsuda. These are all memories I have of a series that has shaped and defined who I am as a person since it first launched in 2002. I'm referring, of course, to Kingdom Hearts.
For years, the mists of nostalgia and great memories masked what is now a fairly dated-looking presentation and some rough technical foibles from the first game in the series. However, with the release of Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD ReMix, Square Enix has polished and shined every facet of the two games (and cutscenes from a third) included so that, at last, they match up with the images in my memory. What's more, they've done something that I'm going to petition be mandatory in all future HD re-releases: over 60 tracks (including the majority of KH1) have been completely re-recorded, using live instrumentation rather than the original PlayStation 2 synth. In the case of Re:Chain of Memories and 358/2 Days, originally a DS title whose cutscenes have been HD-ified for this release, several of the most popular and impactful tracks have also had the spit-shine applied. These new tracks go an incredibly long way at creating presentational parity with the visuals, a feature every developer working on an HD re-release should take note of for the future.
As far as the package is concerned, Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix is undoubtedly the main attraction. This is the same game you remember from 2002: an unlikely but incredibly charming mix of Disney delights and Square Enix melodrama. The combat is still reliant on button-mashing (though I'd argue there is absolutely a degree of skill involved), and the camera (although improved) is still problematic. Aside from the fantastic visual and aural overhaul, American audiences also benefit from having never had access to a localized version of Final Mix. While KH1's Final Mix wasn't quite as massive an expansion as its sequel's, the promise of new (unvoiced) cutscenes, keyblades, abilities, Gummi Ship content, and a challenging new secret boss battle should still offer something to those who have conquered the substantial 30+ hour original journey many times before.
As far as mechanical changes, the most notable are the moving of the context-sensitive fourth menu slot to the triangle button (ala Kingdom Hearts 2 and Re:Chain of Memories) and the remapping of the camera controls to the right stick. Together, these absolutely help the flow of the game and reduce — but not eliminate — the camera woes that were a consistent hassle in the PS2 version. Many of the new Final Mix-specific abilities help to make Sora control and fight more fluidly and are precursors to the more sweeping improvements in Kingdom Hearts II. The bottom line? If you hated the original, you won't like this version — but if you missed it or loved it, this is undoubtedly the definitive iteration and will provide you with a compelling reason to revisit a flawed but bonafide-classic adventure.
As for Re:Chain of Memories, retooled elements are fewer and far-between. The game still benefits from prettification and packs a few redone songs (all of the important ones, for those of you with knowledge of the soundtrack), but the lack of remastered Disney world tracks definitely makes this one feel a bit more budget than KH1. The PlayStation 2 version of the game was undoubtedly superior to the Gameboy Advance original due mainly to the more accommodating control scheme and the tight, card-based combat being closer to its numbered brothers, so it follows that the HD upgrade makes this the definitive version yet again.
Finally, in a move that is at once unsurprising but also slightly disappointing, Square Enix has packed in every major cutscene from the first DS entry in the series, 358/2 Days, which recounts the origin story of Roxas. While it's unfortunate that Square Enix opted not to include the entire game, it's hard to suggest that effort should have been spent porting a DS game that was arguably one of the weaker in the series when these cutscenes do nearly just as good a job catching players up to speed.
The visuals are plenty sharp and look better than ever on the more powerful hardware, and, much like with Re:Chain of Memories, the few remastered audio tracks hit hard and reflect a smart understanding of the fan favorites. Additionally, tracks that were originally not featured in cutscenes have been added to appropriate scenes, which still allows for fans to hear their favorite music during critical moments. Overall, despite being the cusp of what some consider the series' fall into excessive retconning and melodrama, 358/2 Days offers a poignant and surprisingly heart-wrenching character story that adds more weight to Roxas, Axel, and Organization XIII than all of the other KH titles combined.
As someone so close to this series, it's tough to be objective when talking or writing about it. Nearly every important aspect of my life has been in some way influenced by my love of the Kingdom Hearts games, and it's unquestionable that there's a tight feeling in my chest and a simple, innocent smile on my face when I watch scenes like Sora, Donald, and Goofy's first meeting. Fortunately, Square Enix hasn't merely cashed in on the nostalgia, and has fired on all cylinders to provide these games with a loving upgrade at a outstanding price point. Simply put, there isn't a better way to get caught up on the series, and with the inevitable (seriously, watch the credits) release of Kingdom Hearts 2.5, there's undoubtedly plenty more to come.