Today, May 13th of 2020, marks the twenty-fourth anniversary of Super Mario RPG’s release in the US (it was released in Japan two months prior, in March of 1996, and wouldn’t be released in Europe until its 2008 release on the Wii’s Virtual Console, which at the time was a record for longest delay between region releases for a single title).
As far as I’m concerned, Super Mario RPG is one of Nintendo’s finest achievements, and has steadily remained an all-time favorite of mine for these twenty-four years. If you ask me, it’s still the best damn RPG ever.
Sadly, despite being one of the most acclaimed and beloved Mario games of all time, it’s one of the very few that never received a direct sequel (it did inspire the wonderful Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi series, but none of them quite recaptured the same magic as the originator). And it’s basically the only Mario game to not have its characters or world elements carry over to subsequent games (save for a cameo or two). But that hasn’t stopped fans (myself most assuredly included) from hoping and begging Nintendo and Square to bring back this beloved game either through a sequel or simply resurrecting its characters for new titles.
Seriously Nintendo, just put Geno in Super Smash Bros. already. We’ve only been asking for it for twenty years! I don’t mean an insulting, slap-to-the-face Mii costume. The actual character as a playable fighter. You can’t stop adding those Fire Emblem swordsmen that no one asked for. Why not add another character people have actually wanted and asked for for years?
Anyway, happy anniversary to Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars! A Legend indeed.
I reviewed Super Mario RPG as my special 300th video game review. You can read my 10/10 review here.
Is it possible to love half a game? Or to half-love a game? Because I think that might describe my feelings for Kingdom Hearts 3. I honestly can’t remember the last time a game had me grinning from ear to ear and feeling like a kid on Christmas one minute, and then leave me aggravated and annoyed like an adult at the DMV the next. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game that made me feel so emotionally polarized.
Kingdom Hearts 3 is the long-awaited “third” installment in the main Kingdom Hearts series, arriving thirteen years after Kingdom Hearts 2. Of course, considering how every handheld “spinoff” entry in the series that was supposedly intended to whet the appetite of fans in the interim between Kingdom Hearts 2 and 3 are all part of the main story, Kingdom Hearts 3 isn’t really Kingdom Hearts 3 at all. It’s more like Kingdom Hearts 9. And that kind of takes away a little something from the long-awaited experience.
Even from the game’s opening moments, it doesn’t feel like the thirteen-years in the making trilogy capper it should be, but just another random episode in a series. In fact, if it weren’t for the game’s final stage (which somehow simultaneously rushes plot resolutions and drags things out at the same time), you’d probably never even think Kingdom Hearts 3 was serving as the end to the storyline that began with the series’ first entry.
Kingdom Hearts is, of course, Square-Enix’s crossover franchise which sees original characters created by Final Fantasy alumni Tetsuya Nomura travel across the different worlds of classic Disney films. The series also used to boast the occasional Final Fantasy character, but that aspect has been dropped almost entirely for this ‘third’ entry (sans for the Moogle shop, and a few cameos via constellations in the stars. No, not even Sephiroth returns as a super boss).
It’s the Disney half of the game which is the half I love. As a particular fan of Disney’s recent animated films and those of the Pixar brand, Kingdom Hearts 3 is especially enticing in this regard, as Disney’s recent animated output and Pixar films are what Kingdom Hearts 3 really emphasizes this time around with its Disney-themed worlds.
There are seven primary Disney worlds featured in Kingdom Hearts 3 (plus the traditional, optional Winnie the Pooh world, which focuses on mini-games), five of which fall into the modern Disney and Pixar categories: Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., Tangled, Frozen and Big Hero 6. The additional two Disney worlds are based on Hercules (which has been present in all three ‘main’ Kingdom Hearts titles) and Pirates of the Caribbean (specifically At World’s End, a movie I actually very much enjoy despite its general reception). Additionally, the game’s best side quest involves Sora and company seeking out ingredients and making new recipes for Remy from Ratatouille.
Even though it’s a smaller lineup of Disney worlds than some of the previous games, Square was clearly aiming for quality over quantity. And in that sense, they nailed it. This is the best lineup of Disney films the series has represented. And it’s within this Disney fan service that Kingdom Hearts 3 is at its very best.
There’s an inescapable delight every time you enter a new Disney world and Sora, Donald and Goofy interact with characters and events from the films. Many of these characters even have their original voice actors from their respective movies (the cast of Frozen, Mandy Moore as Rapunzel, James Woods as Hades, and the perennial John Ratzenberger as Hamm are particular highlights). Of course, this also means when a character doesn’t have their original actor, it does kind of stick out like a sore thumb (I’m looking your way, Pirates of the Caribbean world).
If you’re a Disney fan – particularly a fan of modern Disney, such as myself – it’s impossible not to have a smile beaming across your face during many of the game’s Disney-centric moments. Naturally, seeing Frozen’s Let It Go recreated for the game stands out as my favorite, but you also get the lantern scene from Tangled, get to ride on the endless door conveyor belt from Monsters, Inc., and fly around San Fransokyo atop of Baymax. It’s moments like this when Kingdom Hearts 3’s many flaws wash away and you can simply bask in the charm of the Disney worlds.
With that said, the game often bungles what should be easy fan service. In both the Tangled and Pirates of the Caribbean worlds, their unique party members (Rapunzel and Flynn Rider in Tangled, Jack Sparrow in Pirates) seem to repeatedly leave your party at every other turn, leaving them feeling underutilized (particularly in Tangled’s case, as Rapunzel no longer joins you if you revisit the stage after its story is done).
In perhaps the game’s most dumbfounding (or hilarious) creative hiccup, the Frozen world doesn’t see Elsa or Anna join Sora’s party, but Marshmallow the snowman (geez, they couldn’t even make it Olaf). Some might say they were trying to do something unexpected, but that seems like the wrong place to do it. Wouldn’t getting an unexpected party member in a returning world like Hercules or Pirates make more sense? They have access to the most popular animated film in history, and don’t fully utilize the main characters? Is it a joke? Especially seeing as Rapunzel – who barely seems to join your team at all – is the only female party member you get in the game, it makes Elsa and Anna’s omission even more baffling still.
Another disappointment with the utilization of the Disney brands is in the boss fights. In past Kingdom Hearts titles, you would at least battle against a fair amount of Disney villains. In Kingdom Hearts 3 there are only three boss fights against Disney characters: The Titans in the Hercules world, Marshmallow in Frozen (they’re certainly getting a lot of mileage out of Marshmallow, it seems), and Davy Jones in Pirates. You can’t help but wonder why they couldn’t have added a few more.
The non-Disney half of the equation is as clunky as ever. What’s even worse is how the game seems to reinforce the idea that the Disney stuff isn’t important, and only Tetsuya Nomura’s characters actually mean anything in the grand scheme of the Kingdom Hearts mythos. Nomura’s original creations simply don’t have any of the likability of the Disney characters with whom they often share the screen.
Even after all these years, Sora remains the atypical “anime boy doofus” character you’ve probably seen a thousand times over in other sources. The villainous Organization XIII consists of one-note, entirely interchangeable bad guys (with the game almost self-awarely reinforcing this when the Organization starts swapping out some members for other characters). Sora’s love interest, Kairi, still amounts to little more than a damsel in distress. Riku is the archetypal ‘rival’ who flirted with the dark side. There are other Keyblade wielders thrown into the mix without any real purpose to be in the story at this point. There are clones of characters. Clones of clones. Characters who aren’t clones but look exactly like other characters. There are even characters who share the same name as other characters!
Yes, it’s sad to admit that instead of learning from past mistakes, Nomura has instead doubled-down on them (whether through stubborn arrogance or blissful ignorance, I’m not sure). Instead of developing the core set of main characters, Nomura just kept adding more and more players throughout the series. This has left his original characters with about as much depth as a shallow puddle.
As stated, the Disney element has also suffered from this abundance of characters, with the different Disney casts being shoved to the side as the game constantly reminds us how unimportant they are. In one telling moment, an Organization XIII member discovers that the Dead Man’s Chest from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is not the macguffin he’s after, and immediately disregards it. Yep, that key item from the second and third Pirates movies is merely scoffed at by just another one of the original villains. It almost feels like Kingdom Hearts is now embarrassed of its crossover element at times.
The plot of the game and its characters would feel infinitely smoother if it made the Disney characters feel important to the narrative. Organization XIII alone would be a far more memorable villain group if some Disney and Final Fantasy villains were in its ranks (seeing as they’re established characters, you wouldn’t have to take time with introductions and getting to learn their personalities, thus leaving room to flesh out the original characters that are present). It seems like it should be obvious. You have a big crossover with Disney and Final Fantasy, why not make those aspects of this mythology feel like they mean something? But one is (admittedly delicious) dressing, and the other is barely existent anymore.
Suffice to say, the narrative of Kingdom Hearts 3 is a bit of a mess, with its only real charm stemming from the Disney characters and moments it borrows. But how is Kingdom Hearts 3 as a game?
For the most part, it’s pretty fun. The gameplay is primarily separated into two halves. The first half sees players control Sora, with Donald and Goofy serving as permanent teammates, and each Disney world coming with one or two teammates of their own (for a nice change, you no longer have to swap Donald or Goofy out of the party to make room for the new guys). The gameplay is predominantly a hack-N-slash RPG, with Sora and company hacking away at hordes of Heartless and Nobodies. The D-pad cycles through quick menus, allowing you to use items, cast spells and other such actions. In terms of control, Kingdom Hearts 3 feels a lot like its predecessors, which means it’s quick to get into if you’re familiar with the series, but also means some of the controls feel stuck in the PS2 era.
Sora’s jumps still feel a bit clunky, and cycling through those “quick menus” may not be as quick as one might hope once you start unlocking more abilities and options. If you found the combat of the past games to be a little repetitive, you may find that to be the case here as well. But there are a few new additions to the gameplay that may win you over.
Some may lament that Sora can no longer change into different forms like in Kingdom Hearts 2, but there’s been a fair trade in that the different Keyblades you acquire can change forms instead. By chaining together combos, your currently equipped Keyblade can temporarily transform into a new weapon, giving Sora new moves, altering spells, and boasting a powerful finisher.
Other abilities can be utilized by performing combos as well. Do enough moves when standing next to a teammate, and you can perform a special move with them. Chain together enough spells, and you can perform more powerful versions of said spells. And in one of Kingdom Hearts 3’s best new additions, defeating certain marked enemies during a combo will allow you to summon an “Attraction.” As the name implies, Attractions are vehicles based on Disneyland rides that work like transformations for all three main heroes.
The only issue I have with these different abilities is that they’re all used by pressing the same button (Triangle on PS4). You can cycle through the temporary abilities you currently have available (L2 on PS4), but in the heat of battle it can get confusing and you’ll often use a different ability than the one you wanted. But they do help keep combat fresh.
The other half of the gameplay are the Gummi Ship sections, and this is where Kingdom Hearts 3 has greatly improved on its predecessors.
Players travel between worlds aboard their Gummi Ships (and can do so freely, should they so choose). Whereas past entries placed the Gummi Ships in fixed rail stages that, frankly, weren’t very good, Kingdom Hearts 3 instead boasts three different sandbox worlds set in outer space.
Players are free to fly about the galaxy at their leisure, can fight enemies and bosses, and find hidden treasures. Most treasures consist of more Gummi Ship parts, as players can create their own vessels, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts style. The more you do in space, the stronger your Gummi Ship becomes, and the more options you have available when creating new ships.
For a nice change of pace for the series, the Gummi Ship sections actually feel like a worthy and complimentary alternative to the main game. I found myself willingly spending entire play sessions just in the Gummi Ship portion of things.
In addition, there are more than a few side quests in Kingdom Hearts 3 that will keep players occupied outside of the main story. Along with helping Remmy create fine cuisine, the Disney themed stages all host a myriad of Hidden Mickeys (referred to as “Lucky Emblems” in the game). By taking photographs of these Lucky Emblems, the player can unlock secret items and abilities (naturally, the camera can also just be used to goof off as well). And a number of worlds feature their own mini-games where the player can once again unlock bonuses and earn high scores.
Kingdom Hearts 3 is a beautiful game to look at. As usual, Square-Enix provides some of the cleanest looking cut scenes in gaming. But the real visual delight of the game is how accurately the developers have captured the look and feel of each different Disney world and the styles unique to them.
Perhaps Kingdom Hearts 3’s most consistently great element is its music. Once again composed by Yoko Shinomura, Kingdom Hearts 3 combines her unmistakeable style with renditions of classic Disney themes in addition to original compositions. Even when other aspects of the game seem to be pushing the Disney element to the sidelines, Shinomura’s terrific score brings it to the forefront, while also creating its own identity.
In the end, it’s hard to say that Kingdom Hearts 3 lived up to the thirteen year buildup. And if you weren’t a fan before, it may leave you wondering what all the fuss was about to begin with. The story aims for emotion but never resonates, due to the lack of substance in the characters (an obvious product of the fact that there’s just too damn many of them). The gameplay is decent, but lacks polish in a number of areas. And despite the franchise’s biggest selling point being its status as a Disney crossover, Kingdom Hearts 3 often comes across as dumbfounded as to how to make that crossover mean anything.
Yet, despite all the complaints, I’m still happy I played it. The gameplay is solid enough in its own right, complimented by the vastly improved Gummi Ship segments. Best of all are the Disney worlds themselves. Though they could have (and should have) been better implemented, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a persistent glee in my heart simply by running through these worlds, meeting the characters, and seeing iconic scenes recreated. Some might say I’m just a Disney fan who fell for Nomura’s bait and switch. But hey, when the bait is this enticing, can you blame me?
Maybe it’s because I haven’t played a Kingdom Hearts game since the second proper installment, and I was younger when I played the previous entries, so maybe they suffered from this as well. But as I delve further into Kingdom Hearts 3, I’ve noticed a glaring flaw with it that I (at least at the time) didn’t notice with its predecessors: The Disney crossover element feels tacked on, and ultimately, underutilized.
Again, maybe this was the case with past entries, but whether I’m just more aware of it now or the issue has magnified in Kingdom Hearts 3, the franchise’s biggest selling point – it’s very nature as a Disney crossover – feels largely unimportant. All of the classic Disney movies, characters and storylines feel completely drowned out by Tetsuya Nomura’s original characters (I use the word ‘original’ loosely here, given how Nomura seems to just copy-and-paste the same handful of anime archetypes repeatedly).
Whenever I bring this up to Kingdom Hearts fans, I always get the same responses: “It has to have its own mythology.” “The original characters bring everything together.” Things of that nature.
Such responses are shortsighted, however. Of course Kingdom Hearts should have a mythology of its own, and yes, it should have characters unique to that mythology. But the fact of the matter is, the series is a crossover with the different worlds of Disney movies. As such, the Disney worlds should actually feel like an integral part of the mythology to make the crossover mean something. Instead, the Disney element feels like window dressing, and only Nomura’s original characters have any importance to the overall story. It makes the series’ biggest selling point as a Disney crossover feel…kind of pointless.
Even Donald and Goofy, two of supposed three main characters, just feel kind of there. Mickey shows up as a deus ex machine from time to time. And Sora, Donald and Goofy travel to the worlds of different Disney movies, only for one of a seemingly endless supply of black robed zipper enthusiasts to show up and take the focus off the Disney storyline just so they can say the words “Hearts” and “Darkness” ad nauseam.
Some might say I’m just a salty Disney fan, and while I’m certainly more in favor of Disney movies than Nomura’s creations, my issue isn’t that Nomura’s characters take center stage, but that the Disney half of the equation ultimately comes across as irrelevant.
The sad thing is, the first Kingdom Hearts – from what I remember – did a decent job at weaving the crossover element into its story. The main original characters at that time were Sora, his friends Kairi and Rikku, and the villainous Ansem (who was actually Xehanort…or something). Donald and Goofy joined Sora as they searched for the missing King Mickey, and Ansem/Xehanort manipulated Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent (who in tern rallied other Disney villains) into his plot, with the Disney baddies then playing the role of big bad in their respective worlds. The Disney characters felt like they had a place in the mythology.
But then, when making the sequels, Nomura apparently forgot he made a world that featured Disney characters, as they increasingly began to feel tacked on as an afterthought. The villainous Organization XIII was introduced, with its members now taking the role of the antagonists in every Disney world. It totally undermines the Disney worlds you visit in the games when the Disney villains aren’t even allowed to be the villains of their own world. When it was one singular bad guy orchestrating everything, and the Disney villains had their place in their own world, it worked. But now in Kingdom Hearts 3, the bad guy’s henchman are ranked higher than the Disney villains. Way to undermine your own crossover.
It’s not just the Disney stuff that ends up suffering, either. Tetsuya Nomura apparently has no filter when making characters, and he’s added so many of them to the series over the years that they all feel interchangeable. They’re spread so thin that they aren’t allowed to have any depth, and only possess the most token distinctions imaginable (this bad guy has a guitar, but this bad guy rambles about his scientific research). Nomura’s original characters are defined almost entirely as “good guy” and “bad guy,” with no real sense of individuality among them. It gets so excessive that when the characters mention Kairi – one of the original main characters in the series – I’m almost left in shock. I had nearly forgotten that Kairi even existed. That’s not an exaggeration.
All this before we even get into all the other characters thrown into this messy narrative. There are even characters who are alternate versions of other characters!
This all could have been avoided if, again, Tetsuya Nomura understood how to make the Disney crossover mean something to his mythology. Instead, Kingdom Hearts 3 follows an annoying pattern of throwing Sora, Donald and Goofy into a different Disney world, and just as you start to get excited about reliving your favorite Disney movies in video game form, one of the Organization XIII goons shows up, delivers the same repetitious monologue, and it just becomes a total buzzkill. Kingdom Hearts is at its best when it’s indulging in fan service, making you feel like a goofy kid grinning from ear to ear as you meet one Disney character after another. But Testuya Nomura seems adamant to remind the player that his characters are the only ones that matter, and repeatedly kills the magic.
There are two kinds of Disney worlds in Kingdom Hearts 3: those that follow the stories of the movies they’re based on (more or less. Though at times Sora, Donald and Goofy come across as little more than interlopers in these classic Disney plots. And sometimes, their presence even creates plot holes in the original stories). And there are worlds that take place in the world of a certain movie, but tell a story of their own.
The latter category suffers a little bit less, since they aren’t trying to recreate the Disney movies themselves. But even they often fail to deliver it what should be easy fan service. The former category, however, feel like massive missed opportunities.
I haven’t beaten Kingdom Hearts 3 yet, but I think I’ve visited most of the Disney worlds (I’m currently at Pirates of the Caribbean). And before I sound too negative, I will say that there still is a wonderful sense of charm every time you visit a new Disney world and meet iconic characters, and overall I am enjoying Kingdom Hearts 3. But that’s exactly why the game’s shortcomings sting all the more.
Take, for example, the Tangled world. It looks great, you visit locales from the 2010 feature, and you get both Rapunzel and Flynn Rider as party members. But Rapunzel and Flynn seem to leave your party at any given opportunity (in one particularly hilarious instance, Sora tells the Tangled duo to move on ahead because they can’t fight a horde of enemies… after they’ve already helped Sora and company fight hordes of enemies). And once you revisit the Tangled world after beating its story, Rapunzel no longer joins your party. What a ripoff!
Then we have the Toy Story world. Again, at first, it’s magical. Sora, Donald and Goofy become toys, and you quickly befriend none other than Woody and Buzz Lightyear. But then most of the stage takes place in a mall that looks nothing like it came out of Toy Story, and despite the stage’s token Organization XIII bad guy having the ability to corrupt toys (I guess), the level doesn’t even have the decency to end with a boss fight against Evil Emperor Zurg. You just fight another Heartless monster who follows the same general character design, just in UFO form. What a ripoff!
Perhaps the biggest offender is none other than the Frozen world. Yeah, I often go on about how Frozen is my favorite Disney movie. But personal fandom aside, it’s also the most popular animated film in history, which makes it baffling how Kingdom Hearts 3 manages to bungle it up so much.
Now, to be fair again, being the Frozen fan that I am, it of course felt magical to visit the land of Arendelle in the game. The original voice cast from the movie reprise all their roles (hell yes!), and recreating ‘Let It Go’ is already a contender for best video game moment of the year. I don’t want to sound like its presence is a total waste, but it ends up feeling like the biggest missed opportunity in terms of its translation as a video game stage.
You don’t get to visit most of the iconic locations from the movie. Arendelle’s Castle Town? Nowhere to be seen. Elsa’s Ice Palace? It’s in cinematics, but the best the player gets to see is a generic snow dungeon that could have come out of any video game ever (what’s worse, this dungeon is created by an Organization XIII member, making it feel even more taunting). And while the Tangled and Toy Story worlds at least had the common sense to make the main characters of their respective films join your party, the Frozen world doesn’t even get that much.
Elsa seems like the obvious choice for a teammate, given that she has ice powers. But since the stage (attempts to) follow the plot of the movie, I at least expected Anna and Kristoff to join your party. But despite being the main characters of the highest-grossing animated film in history, you don’t get any of them. The team member you get in the Frozen world is Marshmallow. Y’know, the monster snowman who’s in a couple of scenes in the movie. And you don’t even get him for that long in the stage. What. A. Ripoff.
You really have to wonder how they could have squandered these opportunities so badly. But it all goes back to the same issue: the Disney element of Kingdom Hearts needed to feel important to its overarching story and mythology.
Again, I have no issues with Tetsuya Nomura making his own characters to tie everything together. But there are just too many original characters, to the point when they feel bland and lifeless. At its worst, it almost seems like Nomura drew a sketch of an existing character with a different hairstyle, and decided to make it a separate character in the game because why not.
Both Kingdom Hearts’ status as a crossover, and its own original creations, would feel so much more fleshed-out and meaningful if it gave the Disney characters more integral roles in its mythos. It would be an easy way to rectify the series’ most glaring narrative flaw (too many characters), and make the crossover element feel worthwhile.
I am enjoying Kingdom Hearts 3 for the most part. But playing a video game where I get to visit the worlds of Frozen, Toy Story, Tangled and Monsters, Inc. should feel special in and of itself. But what should be an easily magical experience ends up feeling like a massive missed opportunity more frequently than it should. And that’s a damn shame.
I guess it’s safe to assume that when Kingdom Hearts 4 hits store shelves sometime in the next decade, I can look forward to playing the Frozen II world and teaming up with the Duke of Weselton.
Well dang, Kingdom Hearts 3 actually exists! Yeah yeah, I’ll get to my overdue reviews soon, but considering it’s been 13 years since Kingdom Hearts 2, I felt compelled to do a quick write-up of my playtime so far with this long gestating sequel.
Admittedly, I only started playing KH3 yesterday, so I’m not very far. I’ve completed the game’s first proper world (Olympus, based on Disney’s Hercules) and the first Gummiship segment, and am currently in the second world proper (Twilight Town, a Kingdom Hearts original). But even from my playtime so far, there are some things I have to say.
As we all know, Kingdom Hearts is the bizarre (yet somehow working) crossover between Square Enix and Disney properties, helmed by Tetsuya Nomura, who grew to prominence with his work on the PSOne-era Final Fantasy titles. Strangely, the Final Fantasy representation continues to be lost in the shuffle, which is understandable on the Disney side of things (with the possible exception of Nintendo, it’s hard to imagine another franchise machine that could have a spotlight in the face of Disney). But it always struck me as kind of odd how there are so many original characters in Kingdom Hearts, when many of them feel like they could easily be swapped out for Final Fantasy characters.
Now, let’s get something out of the way: the story. I honestly don’t have a clue what’s going on with half of the plot. But I can’t really blame myself, since Nomura and company saw fit to make every last “spinoff” entry in the Kingdom Hearts franchise an integral part of the main story. And I’ve only played the properly numbered Kingdom Hearts games up to this point, so it kind of sucks that people like me are left out in the cold because I couldn’t keep up with all the handheld and mobile games, re-releases (which contained new story content) and so on. Nomura’s storytelling tends to be convoluted by its own merit, so to spread out his story across so many platforms makes it nearly incomprehensible. I’m only a few hours in, and already Kingdom Hearts 3 has casually name-dropped a small army of characters as if I’m supposed to know who they are or their place in the story. Unless you’re a really hardcore fan who could fork over a small fortune to follow the series through the years, it’s more than a little alienating.
Thankfully, the Disney half of the equation is as charming as ever. And frankly, I wish the central plot were more focused on the Disney bits, and less on the dozens of Nomura characters who, frankly, seem largely interchangeable from one other in both character design and personality. But hey, I’ll suffer through some narrative gobbledygook if it means I get to visit worlds from classic Disney movies and meet classic Disney heroes and villains.
As for the gameplay, well, it’s mostly fun, but there are some dated elements. Namely, Sora’s jumping still feels awkward and floaty after all these years, feeling as though he comes to a dead stop when the jump is initiated, and can only decide which direction he’s jumping in once he’s in the air. Given how long the Super Mario series has been around, I don’t know why any game with platforming elements doesn’t try to replicate the fluid and intuitive jumping standards of Super Mario.
Aside from that, there are certain combat elements that feel a little too chaotic. As usual, Kingdom Hearts 3 is like a hack-N-slash RPG. You swing your ‘Keyblade’ amidst hordes of monsters, cast magic spells, and perform special moves. For the most part, it’s easy enough to figure out, but after you’ve combo’ed enough hits or spells (or Donald and Goofy have done the same) you can unleash special attacks of different varieties, go into special modes, unleash more powerful spells, and use team attacks with your party members.
The problem is that all of these specials are mapped to a single button (the triangle button, if you’re playing on PS4 like me). Oftentimes you have more than one of these specials built up at the same time. And I still don’t understand if there’s a way to swap which one you use next, or if you simply have to use them in order or wait for their window of availability to run out. I mean, when I have the special moves based on Disneyland rides/parades, of course those are the ones I want to use. I don’t care about Sora changing forms, just let me unleash the Disneyland rides!
As for the Gummiship segment, well, from what I remember these were the low points of Kingdon Hearts 1 and 2. But here, I enjoyed it a bit more, as you now have much more freedom to explore and collect items (of which I spent a surprising amount of time). Though the controls could have benefitted from learning a thing or two from Star Fox 64 (seriously, when it comes to controls, just do what Nintendo does…although I guess Star Fox Zero couldn’t even emulate Star Fox 64’s controls…).
Now, I hope I don’t sound too negative, because for the most part I’m having a lot of fun with Kingdom Hearts 3. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a huge wave of melancholic nostalgia when that title scene music kicked in. The game is proving to be a fun time so far, and as a fan of Disney’s modern day output, I’m excited that most of the worlds I have yet to visit reflect contemporary Disney films (if anything, the thirteen-year delay benefited the game’s Disney representation. The past games were released when Disney was in something of a low point, and thus relied on Disney’s past. Now that Kingdom Hearts 3 is released in a time when Disney has long-since got its groove back, the Disney aspect of the game feels less like a yearning for former glory).
Kingdom Hearts 3 is thus far shaping up to be a pleasing experience, but it is a shame some of its controls still feel stuck in the PS2 era, and I wish Nomura would have learned a little from the storytelling capabilities of the Disney movies his games feature, which could only have benefitted Kingdom Hearts’s narrative. Still, I admit that the Disney/Square crossover and the tone that comes with it still feels unique even today, and the gameplay (warts and all) feels more standout than ever in a time when everything else on the market feels the need to shoehorn open-world gameplay and gritty realism. I’ll take Disney characters and anime kids beating monsters with keys any day.
*Review based on Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars release as part of the SNES Classic*
Since its inception in 1985, the Super Mario series has proven to be the avant garde of video games, prioritizing gameplay innovation and concepts unique to the video game medium over all else. This design philosophy has not only allowed the core platformers of the Super Mario series to consistently reinvent themselves, but has also turned its titular plumber into gaming’s renaissance man, able to adapt to seemingly any genre Nintendo decides to cast him in. Of the various “spinoff” Mario titles, Mario Kart gets the most widespread recognition, as it created the ‘kart racer’ sub-genre while simultaneously producing a series that rivals the core Mario titles in popularity. But while Mario Kart might be the most famous of Mario’s detours, the most outstanding might just be the 1996 SNES classic, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, the title that sent Mario into most unfamiliar territory.
Super Mario RPG was a bold venture. A joint effort between series’ publisher Nintendo and Final Fantasy developer Square-Enix (then Squaresoft), Super Mario RPG took the characters and world of Nintendo’s flagship franchise, and merged it with the RPG genre that Square was renowned for. Though a fan-favorite today, at the time many wondered if converting the Mario series into the narrative-heavy RPG genre could work. The fact that Super Mario RPG remains one of the most beloved Mario games should be a testament to just how successful the finished product was. Its hefty reputation is well deserved.
While Super Mario RPG is a joining together of the series and genre of its title, what makes it work so well is how it both pays homage and parody to both parties involved, and turns them on their heads.
The story here is that – just as Mario is about to defeat Bowser for another daring rescue of Princess Peach (here called Toadstool, as she was known in the west at the time) – a massive earthquake hits the scene, throwing Mario, Bowser and the Princess to different corners of the Mushroom Kingdom. The source of this quake is a giant, anthropomorphic sword that has fallen from the heavens and plunged into Bowser’s castle. The sword is called Exor, and declares Bowser’s Keep to be occupied by its master, Smithy, who plans to conquer the rest of Mario’s world.
As it turns out, Smithy is already closer to world conquest than he knows, as Exor slashed through the Star Road on its descent onto Mario’s world, shattering it into seven magical Star Pieces. The Star Road is what allows people’s wishes to come true. With its power scattered into seven fallen pieces, the wishes of the denizens of Mario’s world can no longer come to light. It then becomes a race between Mario and his companions to prevent the Smithy Gang from claiming the seven Stars, which would result in the evil Smithy’s dark desires coming to fruition.
What makes this story memorable is that it both adds a serious narrative to the Super Mario series (for the first time), while still maintaining the franchise’s whimsical lightheartedness. The premise feels like it could have been pulled out of a Disney movie, and the game takes advantage of the nature of the Mario series to add a good dose of humor into the serious RPG plot.
Mario is joined on his adventure by four companions: The aforementioned Princess Toadstool is the obvious ally, but for the first time in the series, Bowser fights alongside Mario in a quest to reclaim his castle. The remaining two members of Mario’s party were original to Super Mario RPG; Mallow, the fluffy, cloud-like black mage of the group, and Geno, an otherworldly spirit occupying an action figure for its body.
It’s a memorable cast of characters. Mario is his usual, silent self, but the Princess becomes something of the ‘tough guy’ of the party after growing tired of being rescued, while Bowser steals the show as the insecure brute with a heart of gold. Meanwhile, Mallow is the kid of the group wanting to prove himself, while Geno has connections to the Star Road and is something of the Gandalf of the team (the wise, old badass). Mallow and Geno left such an impression that – although they have yet to properly appear in another game – fans still long for their return.
No matter how iconic or likable these characters are though, it wouldn’t mean much if the game they starred in weren’t great. Luckily for them, Super Mario RPG was one of the best games of the genre’s golden era, and remains one of Mario’s timeless classics.
The battle system here at first looks like the usual turn-based affair, but with some fresh changes, such as each action in battle being mapped to specific buttons (A for regular attacks, B for defense, Y for special moves, and X for items). The biggest addition Super Mario RPG makes to RPG battles is one that’s subtle, yet game-changing: Action Commands.
During battles, players have more involvement than in other RPGs of the time. During attacks, well-timed button presses can increase damage (and timing them just right during enemy attacks can reduce damage), while special moves have their own interactive elements (repeated button-presses or timing, holding a button and releasing it, etc.). It’s such a seemingly simple twist on RPG norms, but it adds so much more fun to the proceedings than simply selecting items from menus.
There are some small quibbles in that there’s a lack of on-screen directions to inform you of when to use button-presses during many actions (directions are briefly explained before certain special attacks, but others are trickier to figure out). Still, most of the Action Commands aren’t too hard to get the hang of, so nothing’s too cryptic. But if you do manage to master them, you may find that the overall adventure is a bit on the easy side, though I suppose turn-based RPGs aren’t known for brutal difficulty anyway. Still, these hardly qualify as complaints, as they never get in the way of the enjoyment of the gameplay, story, or overall fun.
Meanwhile, wandering through the overworlds is also improved over other games in the genre, with just a dash of platforming added into the mix for – you guessed it – more interactivity than you’d find in other RPGs. The game is given all the more personality when you talk to NPCs, who often put that aforementioned humor on full display. In case that weren’t enough, Super Mario RPG features a myriad of entertaining mini-games and side quests, some of which are exceptionally well hidden.
Being released at the tail-end of the Super Nintendo’s life cycle, Super Mario RPG pushed the console’s capabilities to their limits. Super Mario RPG features highly detailed environments and an isometric perspective to give the game something of a 3D quality, with character graphics that are comparable to the Donkey Kong Country sequels (one enemy monster even resembles good ol’ DK, perhaps to emphasize this).
However, the best aesthetic qualities of Super Mario RPG are in its sounds. Composed by Yoko Shinomura – famous for her soundtracks of Street Fighter II and the Kingdom Hearts series – Super Mario RPG’s score is her masterwork, encompassing a wide range of styles and emotions, and captures that distinct Mario personality while also creating an identity unique to itself. The SNES is widely regarded for the stellar soundtracks of its games, and Super Mario RPG is second only to Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest for the title of best musical score on the platform. It’s an all-time great gaming soundtrack.
Sadly, while Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars remains one of Mario’s most memorable adventures, it seems to be the only entry in the entire franchise that was to be a one-and-done deal. It may have influenced spiritual successors in the Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi series of RPGs – which improved on a few individual elements (Paper Mario introduced on-screen button cues during attacks) – but none of them have captured the same magic of the whole experience that Super Mario RPG did, nor have they left the same kind of unique impact on the overall Mario series.
If anything, Super Mario RPG’s isolation from the rest of the Mario series has only helped it endure as one of the most beloved entries in the franchise’s peerless history (it’s even helped inspire games such as Undertale). Here’s hoping that, someday, we might see Super Mario RPG’s legacy continue in some form. For now, however, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars can at least still claim to be among Mario’s greatest adventures, and one of the best RPGs of all time. A legend indeed.
With that sentence, I have made countless enemies within Kingdom Hearts’ questionably diehard fanbase, who seem to hold Kingdom Hearts storytelling capabilities on a pedestal. But I’m sorry, Kingdom Hearts is simply a failure at its narrative, which is more often than not little more than gobbledygook.
I know, Square-Enix fans often seem to be quick to deride those who criticize the studio’s storytelling of just “not understanding complicated stories,” but that’s just the thing, Kingdom Hearts’ storytelling isn’t complicated, it’s just convoluted nonsense. It seems many people within the gaming community these days believe that more story automatically equates to good storytelling, but that’s just not the case (after all, the Sonic the Hedgehog series began to go off-the-rails once it started emphasizing cheesy cutscenes over polished gameplay).
There are plenty of well-written, complicated stories in video games, just as there are great, complicated stories in movies and TV shows. But thinly-veiled insults towards the intelligence of anyone who dares question the narrative abilities of Kingdom Hearts as simply “not being able to understand something complex” just shows off a great deal of immaturity, which is perhaps not all that surprising, since Kingdom Hearts’ supposed complexity is little more than a faux-complexity.
Admittedly, Kindgom Hearts isn’t alone in this, as the Final Fantasy series began to add layers upon layers of convolution to its plots once Tetsuya Nomura got heavily involved. Seeing as Nomura is also behind the Kingdom Hearts series, well, I’m guessing its no coincidence that they share many similarities in such nonsensical storytelling.
By nonsense, I’m not simply writing off the more weird fantasy elements of Kingdon Hearts (if anything, those are its good points). But Kingdom Hearts is a series whose idea of storytelling depth is to simply cake on as many needless details as possible, fill it with numerous cop-outs and deus ex machinas, and make retcons whenever it’s convenient.
A good example of this can be found in the series’ primary villain, Xehanort (or Xemnas or whatever the Hell his name actually is). In the first (and most playable) entry in the series, he went by the name of Ansem, But then in Kingdom Hearts 2, we discover that Ansem is actually an entirely different character, and that the Ansem from the first game was actually Xehanort. Or at least his Heartless (more on that in a moment). But actually, that’s not even the case, as the Xehanort who was Ansem in the first game is actually the Heartless form of Terra-Xehanort, which in itself was created when the original Xehanort forced his heart into a character named Terra. Terra-Xehanort is a hybrid of two humans, and it splits its heart to create the “Nobody” Xemnas and the Heartless called Ansem from the original game.
Geez, how many retcons does that description alone reveal? That’s not “complicated storytelling,” that’s just Square-Enix pulling a bunch of details out of their ass and then rewriting them in an attempt to make things complicated. So many details about that one character are so needlessly tacked on, and the series is full of such things.
Going back to the Heartless and the Nobodies (one of the series’ better world-building elements), they are entities that are created by the splitting of one’s heart. When the heart is split from the body, the heart becomes the Heartless, and the body becomes the Nobody (you’d think it’d be the opposite, given their names). That’s all well and fine, but the series often uses this element to create duplicate characters who, frankly, only make the series more convoluted.
For example, Kingdom Hearts 2 introduced the villainous Organization XIII, a group consisting of thirteen Nobodies, some of which were established (and later to be established) characters. One of them, Roxas, even turns out to be the Nobody of the series protagonist, Sora. I don’t immediately dislike the idea of Organization XIII, but the inclusion of Roxas really just adds another unnecessary element to the series, as he’s essentially a second main character. By that, I don’t mean he’s a deuteragonist, but an additional main character with a story of his own. That could work, if Kingdom Hearts decided to dedicate a series of off-shoots to the character, but all too often the franchise likes to keep all these different narratives going on in the same game. It lacks any shred of focus.
But wait, things don’t end there. Organization XIII itself isn’t even the real Organization XIII. Though Organization XIII served as the main antagonists for Kingdom Hearts 2, they were later retconned to being a secondary Organization XIII, and the Real Organization XIII (yes, adding the word “real” is what differentiates its title) is a group consisting of (wait for it) thirteen different incarnations of Xehanort?!
Geez, certainly getting a lot of mileage out of that Xehanort character, aren’t they?
I haven’t even mentioned the worst aspect of this convoluted disaster yet: every Kingdom Hearts game is integral to understanding the overall story. Now, that may seem like a no-brainer in many cases, but we’re talking about a series that has released on several different platforms over the years. It would be one thing if the titles released on handhelds were some kind of spinoffs, but nope. They play into the main story as well (which makes the impending Kingdom Hearts 3 actually the twelfth game in the series, not the third).
So, in order to understanding everything that’s going on in this overbloated narrative, you’d have to play the games on PS2, GBA, DS, PSP, 3DS, the upcoming PS4 game, and an episodic mobile game! That’s asking a whole lot of players to delve time and money into all that just to have a semblance as to what’s going on.
Now, Kingdom Hearts fans try to justify this by saying you can now purchase the collections that include the various different games in the series, but that’s an incredibly poor justification, considering these bundles were released years after the fact. If anyone wanted to follow the series in all those years in between, they’d have to own all those different platforms. It’s one thing when a series gets a new entry on a subsequent console of the same brand, since you would assume you’d have the same audience moving on to the next system in that line. And it would be fine if, again, most of these entries were spinoffs. But spreading things out to so many different platforms just to get the full story is ridiculous, especially when the story is as convoluted as it is.
Kingdom Hearts (or, perhaps more accurately, Tetsuya Nomura) simply doesn’t understand how to tell a story in any coherent manner, nor does it (or him) know how to tell a story within the video game medium. It’s bad enough that most Final Fantasy titles these days feel so narratively confused, but at least they’re (mostly) self-contained. But Kingdom Hearts takes the negative aspects of modern Final Fantasy storytelling, and spreads it across an entire series, making what little it does have to tell become thinner and thinner, and then trying to add depth by adding in a bunch of fat and retcons.
This isn’t even taking into account it’s lack of emotion. Now, Kingdom Hearts makes an attempt at pulling at the heartstrings from time to time, but it fails miserably because it seems to not have any understanding of the emotions it’s trying to convey.
Again, this isn’t something that’s exclusive to Kingdom Hearts, as I’ve seen a number of other video games, as well as anime, that seem to have a computer’s understanding of human emotion. Some might say it’s a cultural thing, but considering there have been plenty of Japanese video games and anime that have touched me emotionally, I don’t think that’s it.
A few years ago, Hayao Miyazaki famously (or infamously, depending on how you like your anime) said that he believes modern anime is suffering, due to their creators having a lack of understanding of human emotion and behavior; claiming that many such creators are “otaku” who liked anime and such growing up, and try to emulate it, but without understanding that something extra that gave them meaning. I can say I agree with his sentiment, and I even think this lack of understanding of depth has found its way to video games. It isn’t strictly Japanese games, mind you, but I do feel Kingdom Hearts has become a prime example of a game trying to be deep, but without any knowledge of how to do so.
This makes things all the more sour for me personally, because I am a Disney fan. With all the Disney characters and worlds that appear in the Kingdom Hearts series, and being produced by one of the most acclaimed game developers in history, I really wish the series lived up to its potential. But the Disney material that is present isn’t even utilized very well, always playing second fiddle to the (pretty generic) original characters (and the Final Fantasy characters end up getting an even shorter end of the stick). The inclusions of the Disney and Final Fantasy characters almost feel entirely cosmetic, and don’t add anything meaningful to the narrative.
I can’t help but feel that Kingdom Hearts would be insurmountably better – at least narratively – if they actually got some of Disney’s people to do the stories for the games. At least that way, the narrative wouldn’t be so muddled, and it may actually be able to resonate. I would hope that Square-Enix could fix things up themselves, but seeing as the series’ narrative continues to implode in its own convolution, I don’t see things picking up for Kingdom Hearts without a little outside help.
Frankly, I don’t know how anyone but the most diehard of Kingdom Hearts fans could be looking forward to Kingdom Hearts 3 at this point (if it ever resurfaces, that is). Sure, I’m curious to see what other Disney worlds make the cut, seeing as they seem to be focusing more on recent Disney films as well as those of Pixar (instead of recycling Halloweentown for the umpteenth time). But then I think of all the baggage that’s going to come with it, and I don’t think even Arendelle could save it for me. And boy, is that saying something.
Very few games manage to transcend its predictable structure into a peculiarly constructed being that constantly shape-shifts both narratively and gameplay-wise. Those that attempt to embody this bizarrely delicious concept tend to fail, with the story layering multiple convoluted pieces that simply don’t make sense or bleed pretention, and/or its genre hopping implementation is rendered to a “jack of all trades, master of none”. Nier: Automata is the beloved exception to the rule. It is a robust experience that executes an impeccable variance of the new game plus system, a well paced and mechanically sound example of the seamless transition between different game genres, and incorporates a gripping narrative that is equally provocative as it is convoluted. While a plethora of technical issues and its underdeveloped open-world hold Nier: Automata back from being the underrated masterpiece that everyone claims it to be, it is still an exuberant experience that has the foundation for a masterpiece, simply lacking the required polish and design to reach such meteoric heights. Nier: Automata is a peculiar experience to critique as it’s constantly changing and evolving, with each new playthrough providing a sliver of reflection; my impressions of trepidation upon viewing the ending of Route A were completely different compared to my unanimous praise of Route C and its subsequent endings. It’s a fluctuating experience to say the least, but one that constantly propels the importance of the ride as opposed to the destination. It’s an arduous journey, not in terms of mechanical difficulty, but in perseverance and tenacity; the hunt for truth is a riveting force of propulsion, one that emitted a rewarding sense of satisfaction, despite my personal qualms with Automata’s certain limitations and design choices.