No Time to Think: How Kingdom Hearts 1 Hinders Itself

No Time to Think: How Kingdom Hearts 1 Hinders Itself

I can’t speak for everyone, but I think it is safe to say that many came to the Kingdom Hearts series due to their love of something else. Kingdom Hearts works with beloved properties: Disney and Final Fantasy. The original intent was to replicate the success of Nintendo’s Super Mario 64. Mario was, and still is, a character recognized around the world. The only property that was more recognizable was Disney. Square Enix (then Square Soft) launched a project, headed by Square producer Shinji Hashimoto, to create a game with the free three dimensional movement of Super Mario 64, with the collective popularity of Disney, mixed with elements from their own franchise, Final Fantasy. Tetsuya Nomura, who had overheard the Super Mario 64 conversation, was brought on to direct the game, having designed several characters for the Final Fantasy series. When Hashimoto had a chance meeting with a Disney executive in an elevator, in a building shared by the two companies, he pitched the idea right then and there. It wasn’t long after that Kingdom Hearts was born.

This is a great story. The unfortunate reality that comes with something like this, however, is that there is a chance that the source material at hand can hinder a story. Kingdom Hearts 1 unfortunately tends to lean too heavily on the audience’s prior knowledge rather than doing the heavy lifting to tell their story. While elements of good storytelling are at times on display, much of this game relies on the player to recognize someone or get the inside joke. The problem with this should be obvious, but we will come back to that.

In the theatre, there is a gesture known as jazz hands where a person waves their hands back and forth rapidly in excitement. There is not much to it beyond that. The gesture carries little significance in the grand scheme of things. When applied to stories, jazz hands work less as an explicit gesture and more as a distraction. They seek to look pretty and it ends there. Don’t look at the poor characterization or the plot that doesn’t make sense! Look! Aladdin is freeing the Genie! That is my favorite part of the movie!

Kingdom Hearts 1 frequently uses jazz hands as a means for players to fill in the blanks that the developers don’t bother filling themselves. This is poor storytelling. For starters, it does not work for people unfamiliar with the source material. Even if the audience is familiar, a story needs to stand on its own two feet. Sure people always bring their own experiences to the table but it isn’t in a story’s best interest to do so. If someone misses a reference, and said reference is missing a story beat or building block, suddenly it doesn’t make sense. There is a hole. A story needs to do this work for the audience, not the other way around. Sure a story can leave something unexplained and the audience can figure it out, but that isn’t what Kingdom Hearts 1 is doing. These references have no explanations or payoffs to the story. They only serve as a means to get people excited about a reference to their favorite game, movie, or character.

Jazz hands aim to distract. They distract the audience from what is actually happening. If someone has seen Aladdin, then seeing the Genie freed once more is exciting. But in the context of Kingdom Hearts 1 and what is going on within the scene, it makes little sense unless you are familiar with the beats of the original movie. Aladdin’s arc in the film of the same name is built upon him beginning as a selfish trickster. Throughout the film he learns what it means to follow through on his promises through his various interactions and experiences. He goes from being selfish to selfless. This makes his choice to free the Genie at the end instead of wishing himself a prince that much more impactful.

In Kingdom Hearts 1, Aladdin starts off as a good guy. He doesn’t lie to Sora, he doesn’t cheat Sora, and shows almost no resemblance beyond appearance to his film counterpart. This removal of growth and expecting the audience to have seen the movie is a great disservice not only to Aladdin as a character but to Kingdom Hearts 1’s story. Simply having Aladdin promise the Genie he will free him at the start of Agrabah and then freeing Genie at the end isn’t enough to tell a proper story. There is simply no work being done here. All the work is put on the audience having seen the movie. They see Aladdin and become excited that one of their favorite Disney characters is in the game, along with some of their favorite moments. Yet these moments are left so bare bones that there is no narrative nutrition.

This more or less happens in a bunch of other places throughout the game. Tarzan has a bad relationship with Kerchak and we have no idea why. Thus the drama that is supposed to heighten the story is based on, “well something is happening but it doesn’t make sense so let’s move on to another scene.” Many Final Fantasy character introductions are long panning or zooming shots, indicating a character of great importance. Yet if you’ve never played Final Fantasy, as I hadn’t, these shots are jarring and confusing. Who are these people? Why are they important? Why should I care that Leon doesn’t want to be called Squall? The games answer to these questions – you just care. We don’t have to give a reason.

YouTuber SomecallmeJohnny says,

“What do these Disney worlds mean to someone who has never seen these movies? When taking the Disney goggles off, they do very little in terms of developing characters. Very basic context is given to each world you are in. It is shallow. You only form these connections if you enjoyed the movies and if you haven’t, what do you get out of that?” 2

This is the essence of jazz hands. They don’t exist to do anything of value. The result is something very shallow. Look pretty and do as little as possible.

Kingdom Hearts 1 works best when it progresses its own story. The game hits its stride when it doesn’t follow its Disney counterparts. Monstro and Neverland are perfect examples of this. The games uses this time to have our main characters interact and progress the narrative at hand, not sloppily recount the narrative from the source material. This makes the worlds feel as if they matter. What would have helped worlds like Agrabah and Deep Jungle would be to focus on the central plot of the game and do something new with the characters from said worlds. Let Sora find Genie’s lamp. Let Sora be childish and make dumb wishes. Let Sora set the Genie free. Let Sora have conflict with Kerchak. Let Sora mend said conflict.

What adaptive choice may work the best in the game are Donald and Goofy. Unlike the other Disney and Final Fantasy characters, they are given time to breathe and are afforded proper character development. While they share traits of their on screen personas, these traits don’t exist in a vacuum but are dual purpose. Donald’s hot headed nature and Goofy’s…goofiness aren’t simply there as references but points of character development. We get to know them through their interactions and their relationship to Sora. Some may argue that this is unfair as Donald and Goofy have way more screen time than the other characters, but this is not an excuse. What it boils down to is poor writing, and poor writing leads to jazz hands being the substance, which isn’t substance at all.

Despite Kingdom Hearts 1 having a fairly strong narrative, it is filled with lots of shallow and meaningless elements that distract more than help with the story. It seems that as a whole, Disney and Final Fantasy are not that important at the end of the day which is unfortunate as there is a lot of material to work with. Had the developers simply focused in on telling their own story and had used these properties as a support system, Kingdom Hearts 1 could have gone from good to great.


  1. Square Enix. Kingdom Hearts Final Mix. Square Enix. PS2/PS3/PS4/XBox One/Windows/Nintendo Switch. 2002.
  2. “Johnny vs. Kingdom Hearts.” YouTube video, 11:37. “SomecallmeJohnny,” 2018.