The Kingdom Hearts games have been around for over twenty years now. Odds are pretty good that you’ve at least heard of them, or your kids have pointed one out at the store because they want the game with Mickey Mouse on the cover. Seems like a no-brainer purchase, right? If it has Mickey on it, it’s obviously for kids. Well, that depends on which game you buy. There are currently thirteen Kingdom Hearts games if you count the remixes and final mixes and 2.5s and 2.7s, not to mention the cell phone games and the Japan-only releases. Everyone who has played more than one of these games can agree that the whole thing is a confusing mess. I’m going to ignore all that mess. I’m going to tell you about the first game, or more specifically, Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix.
Why did I choose a ten-year-old remaster of a 20-year-old game? Short answer, it’s where the story begins and this version is a nicer play experience than the original release. Getting the full Kingdom Hearts story relies on players knowing the background established in earlier releases, and yes, that can include Japanese-only games. And the card-based combat handheld games. And the one you can play straight off your internet browser. It’s too much. Let’s start at the very beginning, one of the best places to start.
The first Kingdom Hearts game stars a youngster named Sora. His friends Riku and Kairi are lost when darkness overtakes their world. Sora emerges from the darkness in a new world where he meets up with Donald Duck and Goofy, who are looking for Mickey, plus a mix of characters from different Final Fantasy games. Sora, Donald, and Goofy set out to find their missing friends and use Sora’s keyblade to close the connections between worlds that let the darkness in. And what are all of these different worlds like? They’re the settings from Disney movies, of course, populated by their appropriate characters. This game’s biggest appeal for younger players is getting to fight in the Colosseum next to Hercules, exploring Halloween Town with Jack Skellington, or transforming into merfolk to go under the sea with Ariel. It’s a Disney lover’s dream.
It is also a nice segue into other RPGs. Some of the most beloved Final Fantasy characters appear in this game. From Cid and Squall to Sephiroth and the adorable shop-keeping moogles, there are characters galore to get kids intrigued about Final Fantasy games. Beyond the characters, Kingdom Hearts is full of action RPG elements. Players move in real-time without any waiting for turns. They can target different enemies and run to avoid attacks. Some skills also help players block and dodge and move quickly through battlefields for high-action, engaging, and sometimes complex fights. It is a ton of fun, but it can get downright difficult for less experienced players.
Kingdom Hearts gives players copious tools to get through the game and uses the whole controller to do so. Players can interact with objects, jump, attack, block, and dodge using only the face buttons. One stick runs while the other moves the camera. The four shoulder buttons rotate the camera, lock on to targets and swap menus. The four directional buttons navigate menus to select items, spells, and special attacks, all while keeping track of the fight on the screen. Did I mention that the control sticks are also buttons? Back in my day, we only had two buttons and were grateful for them. Needless to say, Kingdom Hearts has many inputs and it takes a good memory and quick fingers to use them all, not qualities that littles are well known for. Younger kids, or simply ones with small hands, will struggle with fully controlling this game.
Now, older kids are a different story. If your child has the manual dexterity to reach and remember all of the buttons, this game is for them. Switching targets to complete a rush attack and dodge rolling away from danger is a blast. There is nothing like an aerial recovery to launch yourself back at a tricky boss to make a player feel like the coolest thing on the couch. Then there are jumping puzzles and platforming to add some challenge outside of combat. The controls are a bit floaty in these sections: the real enemy turns out to be the camera every time precise jumps are required, but the game is very forgiving about letting players try anything again. Kingdom Hearts has so much to do and many ways to play that a kid looking for something more challenging than “kid’s games” will be entertained for hours. It is a great way to graduate a kid from two-button tasks to feeling like a proper gamer, all while under the friendly supervision of Mickey Mouse.
The need to plan and prepare for battles in Kingdom Hearts really depends on the difficulty level chosen at the beginning. On Beginner, players who can attack, jump, and lock on can complete the game with those skills alone. As long as your child can remember to make sure Donald and Goofy have items equipped, Sora has the newest equipment, and to activate new skills, the game is a breeze. Enemies don’t attack as frequently and have less health to contend with. Bosses with special mechanics can be tricky, but the game does a good job of pointing out what the player needs to do. Beginner mode is the way to go for smaller children.
For upper elementary and older kids, Final Mix, or standard, mode is more than enough. I wouldn’t recommend Pride Mode to anyone who hasn’t beaten the game and found it too easy, but we are talking about Final Mix here. Players are going to spend some serious time in menus making decisions about skills and gear that best suit their play style if they want to succeed. Donald and Goofy have two style choices each time new weapons are available: defense or offense for Goofy and magic or physical for Donald. Then there are the different keyblades with different stats and effects for Sora to use. Sometimes the weapon with the strongest attack isn’t the best choice. Different armor also defends against different attack types, so players must consider that when making selections. Most importantly, players need to manage AP. It is required to equip new attacks, but the game does not provide enough to use ALL attacks unless you equip the right items, so players must budget resources for optimal gameplay.
Here’s the short version: Your kid needs to be a solid reader to play this game independently. Kingdom Hearts has a lot of text to read, and only a small portion is voice-acted. What is and is not voice-acted isn’t even consistent. Some scenes are short anime videos, game sprites act out some, and some are dialog boxes for players to click through. Scenes can even start with voice acting yet finish with text. Most instructions for minigames or new skills appear only in text and are easy to skip accidentally past.
The text itself isn’t at a terribly high reading level, but there is a lot of it. As long as players can read Final Fantasy character names and Disney vocabulary, there isn’t much to trip them up. Kingdom Hearts develops its own world vernacular over the course of many games, but it isn’t as present in the first game as the others. Younger children will probably need someone on hand to read text boxes as needed, but strong readers can navigate the game world independently.
Honestly, if your child can handle the tense and scary scenes from the movies represented in the game, they can handle the whole game. The game’s hardest theme is how to be there for friends when they seem lost. There are times when characters get disheartened or lose their way, but the solution arrives through the power of friendship and never giving up. A few bosses have a slightly scary look that might make small children uncomfortable, but again, if they can handle Disney bad guys, they can get past Darkside.
Earlier, I asked if the video game with Mickey Mouse on the cover is actually for kids. The answer is a resounding, “Not really.” The controls and reading level are too advanced for the age group most in love with Mickey. Older kids with the skill to play Kingdom Hearts might not want to be seen playing a Mickey game. They are also going to miss out on most of the Final Fantasy content unless they have played a few of the games before.
You need look no further than the Disney properties featured in the game to know who it’s really for. Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, Pinocchio, and Hercules are all Disney movies I grew up with. I also grew up with Final Fantasy, playing the first game when I was small. This game isn’t for kids. It’s for the parents. Later games skew younger, but Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix was made for the over-thirty crowd. You can sit down with Kingdom Hearts and have a nostalgia trip with the shows and games you grew up on while your kids watch and wonder what the heck a Geppetto is.