I don’t think anyone who played the original Kingdom Hearts when it was first released could have imagined the massive proliferation of the series now, almost 12 million copies and a decade later. Equally hard to imagine was just how far the series would come, both in terms of its superbly convoluted narrative and in the evolution of its musical themes. Some of the themes introduced in the first installment of the series have seen four or five iterations at this point, and for that reason it was refreshing to return to the original game’s soundtrack, in this case the European version, and enjoy the sound of a much, much simpler time in the series’ life.
The European version of the soundtrack is identical to the Japanese, save that the vocal tracks are included in their English versions (“Simple and Clean” rather than “Hikari”). One thing I noticed as I listened through is that the synth quality on the album is not up to the same standard as later games in the franchise. The compositions are strong, and the sound is good, but in terms of fidelity the album is lacking compared to more recent entries.
The album opens with “Dearly Beloved,” which has aged with grace. As I felt when this game first released, this is one of the more beautiful themes ever composed for a work of fiction, moving in its simplicity and truly setting the mood for one of the more original gaming experiences of the previous decade. “Dive into the Heart – Destati -” is another track that has made it into subsequent games in the series, and here in its original form, with its haunting vocals, and its measured ebbing and flowing, it is easy to see why it did. As a song, it practically defined the rest of the experience, and still gives me chills to this day.
“Destiny Islands” is a track that has found its way into later games, but not in the upbeat, beginning of the adventure style on offer here, which is buoyant and reflects the as-yet unsullied innocence of the characters. “Traverse Town” is an outstanding theme, managing to evoke the mindset of the town’s refugee inhabitants–downtrodden but upbeat. (As a personal note, I seriously hope to see a return to and expansion of this area in Kingdom Hearts 3DS!)
“To Our Surprise,” the Wonderland battle theme, is a personal favorite of mine, with a catchy melody and heavy percussion and cymbals crashing. It captures the whimsical essence of the world with gusto, and I was always happy to linger in combat when this track was playing. “Olympus Coliseum” is warm and inspires the spirit of competition, perfect for the world it accompanies (despite wearing out its welcome, appearing in almost every entry of the series since). “Deep Jungle” makes use of tribal instrumentation and a pounding percussion background in another stellar mood-setting piece that seems unlikely (given copyright issues) to appear again.
“Hand in Hand,” like “Destiny Islands,” has found its way into later entries in the series in a much less upbeat fashion. It is one of the most powerful battle themes in the game–I always imagined the title referring to the camaraderie between Sora, Donald, and Goofy, and in that regard, I think it is utterly successful. “Precious Stars in the Sky” is the world map theme, which has survived, in some form, in almost every sequel and spinoff. Driven by its melody, it has an “exploring-the-stars” kind of sound, with plucky synths and a starry soundscape. “Friends in my Heart,” another recurring theme, is a beautiful, “simple and clean” piano and synth piece that accompanies story sequences when the characters are reflecting on their friendships, one of the most important themes in the series.
With this next track, I have to be right up front about my utter lack of objectivity towards it: “Hollow Bastion” is, in my estimation, one of the greatest, most emotive, memorable pieces of music ever composed for a video game. It comes near the end of the game, in arguably its most interesting world (in terms of both look and events). The synthesized choir backing the high-tempo piano (furioso!) is chilling, and the haunting violin calls out to players that the end of their journey is very, very near. The combat theme for the world, “Scherzo di Notte” follows up admirably, delivering a dramatic performance with beautiful, intense piano stylings accompanying the odd note carried over from the previous track. These two songs are, without a doubt, the most memorable themes shy of “Dearly Beloved” for the series, and they have yet to be topped by later rearrangements (where the track became the more upbeat “Radiant Garden” theme).
“Forze del Male” accompanies major battles against the forces of darkness in the game’s context, and it is a hard-hitting song that is representative of the kind of simple, epic, good vs. evil storyline that the sequels have abandoned. The otherworldy themes of Organization XIII and the numerous clones, copies, other sides, and nobodies rarely reach this level of intensity, and the first battle that this song accompanies serves as one of the greatest moments of the original game.
“Fragments of Sorrow,” the battle theme for the final world, revisits “Dive into the Heart,” bringing the game full circle and tying the musical narrative up sublimely. The choir vocals and the main section become a leitmotif for the finale of the game, reappearing again in the final battle track, “Guardando nel Buio.”
“Simple and Clean” is, of course, the main J-Pop theme for the game, an English-language version of “Hikari.” Both are beautiful songs, though the lyrics in the English version have a few odd lines, “Don’t get me wrong I love you; but does that mean I have to meet your father?” The title is fitting, though, in retrospect, as this album is undoubtedly simpler and cleaner than anything that came after it. “Dearly Beloved –reprise-” represents another standard-setting move for the franchise, as all entries since have began and ended with the track. “Destati” closes out the album, showcasing the origin of the leitmotifs found in “Dive into the Heart” and the finale tracks.
The reason many of these songs are successful is because of their memorable melodies, which have stuck with me for years and come back to me in an instant. They captured the very essence of the worlds and story they accompanied, and showcased an emphasis on the Disney side of the story that has not been seen in the series since. It is a testament to the strength of the compositions that even now, almost ten years later, the vast majority of them have survived numerous rearrangements, with some of them evolving in complexity right along with the actual games they accompany. Some people argue that the series has, ironically, lost its heart, as Square Enix has pumped out numerous spinoffs, but the beauty and simplicity of these original compositions is at least one argument in favor of its musical proliferation. They represent a simpler time for the series, and one of Yoko Shimomura’s greatest achievements. If you’re a fan of the series, Yoko Shimomura, or beautiful music in general and don’t own this album, you need to make it happen. They don’t make ’em like this anymore.