Written by Dragoon 19th November 2016
If you had told anybody back in the early 2000’s that there would be a game that had Disney’s Mickey Mouse fighting monsters beside Final Fantasy’s Cloud you’d have probably been mercilessly ridiculed or locked up in a mental asylum. The very idea is preposterous but that’s exactly what the Kingdom Hearts series is all about. Mixing the RPG pedigree of Square Enix with the childlike magic of Disney, the series has been going strong for almost 15 years now. With the approaching release of Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue (yes that is the actual title and that’s fairly tame by series standards) I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at how this strange concoction came to be.
Before we go into where it came from we should outline what Kingdom Hearts actually is. It’s a 3rd person action-
The initial concept for the series was born from a conversation between Hironobu Sakaguchi, who you may remember from my last article as the creator of Final Fantasy, and Square Enix Producer Shinji Hashimoto. They were talking about how they wanted to make a game with Disney characters, Hashimoto had actually pitched the idea to a Disney executive in an elevator due to Square and Disney sharing a building at the time. This conversation was overheard by one Tetsuya Nomura, a long time character designer for the Final Fantasy series with a penchant for spiky hair and an excessive amount of belts. Nomura had been wanting to make a game that captured the joy and freedom of movement he had experienced by playing Nintendo’s Super Mario 64 but had been told by colleagues that he couldn’t compete with Mario’s established character. They joked that the only way he could do it is if he could use characters as well-
Disney are notoriously strict when it comes to who can use their characters and what they can be used for and this is something that Nomura quickly realised as he met with them. Nomura had his own vision of what he wanted the game to be but Disney had theirs as well, asking him to incorporate certain characters and elements. This didn’t sit well with Nomura who eventually had to put his foot down and say no, this is what I want to do. He wanted to create a game with original characters who would journey through the various Disney worlds. The president of Disney at the time was very supportive of Nomura and gave him a lot more freedom in what he could do with Disney properties which helped create a strong bond between Disney and Square.
The name Kingdom Hearts came from Disney’s theme parks, namely Animal Kingdom. Nomura originally wanted it to just be called “Kingdom” but they couldn’t get the IP with just that. The development team then thought about the games central theme of “Heart” and so they put the two together to create the name we have today. Development began in 2000 but it was difficult for Square, they didn’t have much experience with action games and with this being Nomura’s first time as director as well as the constant back and forth with Disney there were a lot of roadblocks. This obviously led to some panic and anxiety among staff but Nomura was adamant that it would be a success and the game was eventually finished and released in March 2002 in Japan.
One of the more surprising announcements about the game was the fact that Hikaru Utada, one of Japans most famous pop singers at the time, would be creating the theme song for the game. While it was always Nomura’s wish to have her do the theme a lot of his colleagues told him it was impossible but, as you might have noticed by now, if you tell Nomura something is impossible he’ll go out of his way to prove you wrong. Utada had never done a song for a game before but when she was approached by Nomura she was very enthusiastic. The theme, titled Hikari in Japan, went on to sell almost 900000 copies and was later remade in English for the western release as Simple and Clean. This star power really helped the series take off and is a big reason for its success.
What seemed like an unlikely pairing has now gone on to become one of the most successful Square Enix properties. The series has sold over 30 million copies over all of its releases and is still going strong today thanks to the ridiculous number of platforms its various titles have released on. The long awaited Kingdom Hearts 3 is getting closer and closer and Disney themselves have a lot of love and support for the series. The creativity and vision to bring the best of Disney and Square Enix together has shown that taking risks and trying new things can have great results if done right, it’s a story that many developers could learn from.