Kingdom Hearts made crossovers cool — cursing us all, and itself too

It’s 2022, and crossovers are everywhere. From Fortnite to Space Jam 2, media corporations have learned to play nice with one another in the name of epic money-making. It helps that a few of those corporations now own all of the other ones — and there is no media company more notorious for that accomplishment than Disney, the proud owner of Pixar, Marvel Studios, Lucasfilm, 20th Century Fox, and more. Perhaps that’s why the announcement of Kingdom Hearts 4, and the rumor that Star Wars characters could show up in the game, feels bittersweet.

It doesn’t help that Kingdom Hearts 3 did not exactly recapture the magic. Maybe it was because Sora and his friends sailed into the uncanny valley during the Pirates of the Caribbean section; maybe it’s because Elsa performed “Let It Go” in its entirety rather than cutting out a chorus or two and letting us be on our way. Or maybe it was because the landscape of pop culture has changed so much since the first Kingdom Hearts game came out back in 2002. These days, Sora has a much bigger villain to fight: the exhaustion that people everywhere have begun to feel toward crossover events in general and those from Disney in particular.

It didn’t used to be this way. Back in 2002, Kingdom Hearts was a revelation — a never-before-seen example of corporate collaboration across movies and video games. In a talk at DICE 2010, Disney exec Steve Wadsworth and his colleague Graham Hopper looked back on Kingdom Hearts’ legacy, with Hopper noting it was “so radical” for Disney and Square Enix to mash up their characters that many staffers worried internally that the result would be “an abomination.” Why would Disney have agreed to something like this, they wondered? Cloud Strife and Donald Duck, in the same game? How the heck was that going to work?

Here’s how Kingdom Hearts pulled it off: The game’s hero, Sora, ventures into a wacky multiverse of Disney and Final Fantasy worlds. He’s looking for his best friends Riku and Kairi, who’ve disappeared into the multiverse as well, even as it’s being overtaken by a mysterious darkness. Along the way, Sora befriends Donald Duck and Goofy, meets Aerith and Squall, and finds out his friend Kairi is a Disney princess (and, therefore, a damsel in distress in need of his rescue — it was the early 2000s, after all). Meanwhile, Maleficent has manipulated Riku against his friends, allowing for a conflict and eventual resolution between Sora and Riku that inspired decades of queer fanfiction. In the end, Sora and his pals unite to fight back against the darkness, which turns out to be manifestations of their own self-doubt and unhappiness. Their triumph is best summed up as love conquering all. It sold like gangbusters.

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I played through the first three games when I was 19, cynical and still wrestling with myself over my queer identity; I played the games alongside a friend who came out as trans a decade later, both of us finding parallels to our own experiences in the story of Riku and Sora. That makes it all sound heartwarming, doesn’t it? Well, we also spent the entire time imitating Mickey Mouse’s voice and shriek-laughing every single time Donald Duck said anything. The games were just so damn weird, in ways that felt delicious and impossible; they were not only queer-coded and meaningful to us in that way, but also just straight-up wacky.

Kingdom Hearts felt like fanfiction. Specifically, it felt the way fanfiction felt in the 2000s; back then, fan-created works explored groundbreaking, risky ideas (like queerness), but they were also on very shaky legal ground, often mocked by authors who didn’t like to see their characters re-interpreted by fans. Nowadays, fanfiction is seen as a celebration, or even embraced as free marketing by media creators; this dovetails nicely with the current corporate slate of crossovers and multiverses. Everything is Kingdom Hearts now — but it didn’t used to be.

It’s hard to even imagine current-day Disney as an underdog, but in the early 2000s, the company was in the midst of an infamous slump. Disney’s partnership with Pixar had resulted in huge successes, like Toy Story in 1995 and A Bug’s Life in 1998, but Disney’s own animated films were underperforming. This led to strife between Pixar and Disney as the former increasingly carried the latter; the situation didn’t resolve until 2005, when longtime Disney CEO Michael Eisner got ousted and replaced by Bob Iger, who reportedly repaired Disney’s relationship with Pixar. This also led to Disney’s formal acquisition of Pixar in 2006.

The conception of the first Kingdom Hearts game happened during that rocky time period for Disney, at the very beginning of the year 2000. According to Kingdom Hearts director Tetsuya Nomura in an IGN interview, it all began when Square Enix game producer Shinji Hashimoto had a chance meeting with some Disney executives in an elevator. Whatever Hashimoto said to them, it worked, leading to the creative agreements necessary for the game to start development in February 2000. The game would take characters from Square Enix’s Final Fantasy series and mash them together with Disney icons, like Donald Duck and Goofy, but also characters from more modern animated movies like The Little Mermaid and Tarzan.

Sora stands with Hercules in Kingdom Hearts. Square Enix

Back in 2000, crossovers were often difficult to negotiate on any massive scale. The closest parallels on the gaming side would be fighting games like X-Men vs. Street Fighter in 1996, or Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. in 1999. These games felt like the best of fanfiction and “who would win” debates — gifts for players who’d spent years imagining what it would be like if their favorite characters met one another in battle.

Disney had a similar story with Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), a movie in which Disney and Warner Bros. cartoon characters traded quips with one another, alongside live-action actors. This resulted in sequences like a piano battle between Disney’s Donald Duck and Warner Bros.’ Daffy Duck, with the latter hypocritically mocking the former over his “speech impediment.” That gag is only possible because both corporations allowed their characters to not only appear but to make fun of one another — as well as the animation industry itself, given the film’s larger critique of show business. Roger Rabbit was an expensive risk, but it paid off, in both box office returns and critical acclaim.

Back in 2000, though, the Disney executives working with Square Enix on Kingdom Hearts still had their reservations. According to Nomura, Disney wouldn’t allow its best-known character and worldwide icon, Mickey Mouse, to appear in the game — except for in just one shot, so Square Enix had to make it count. CBR’s history of the series states that Square Enix had originally wanted Mickey Mouse to be the game’s protagonist, so Disney offered the compromise of Donald Duck instead. It’s hilarious to imagine Donald Duck as the grouchy hero of Kingdom Hearts, but instead, Nomura came up with a third option. He designed Sora, a completely original human character who has all the childlike curiosity of a Disney hero and all the hair wax and zipper-laden jackets of a Final Fantasy protagonist. He’s the best of both worlds, and the key to uniting them all.

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Just like Roger Rabbit and Smash Bros., it worked. Kingdom Hearts not only succeeded with young kids who loved Disney, but tweens and teens who couldn’t help but chuckle at seeing Squall and Cloud alongside Snow White and Goofy. Square Enix’s Final Fantasy 7 (1997) was a fantasy-meets-cyberpunk RPG with a tearjerker climax and multiple twist-laden reveals about its hero’s trauma-filled past, cited early and often in debates about whether games could be art — yet, here was its roster of characters, also appearing in a corny Disney game featuring Donald Duck as a high-powered magic wielder (and, as always, masterful shit-talker). It made absolutely no sense for Aerith to be smiling gently at Goofy’s jokes, and yet here they all were, running around Traverse Town together.

The result was not only bizarre but hilarious, simply due to the juxtaposition of the serious Final Fantasy heroes with the wackier Disney ones. Kingdom Hearts’ success paved the way for Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories and Kingdom Hearts 2 to bring even more characters and absurd scenarios into the mix. Having earned Disney’s trust (and having padded its pockets), Square Enix incorporated Mickey Mouse into the series as a major character, fleshing out his mysterious appearance at the end of the first game. The results are wonderfully incongruous: for some inexplicable reason, the Kingdom Hearts series sets up the squeaky-voiced, big-eared Disney mascot as a legendary bad-ass with super-powers, outfitting him in a Matrix trench coat and giving him mysterious one-liners about the darkness that keeps encroaching upon Sora and company. Except, again, those one-liners all get delivered in Mickey’s voice. It’s wild.

After Kingdom Hearts 2’s release in 2005, the world as we know it began to form. Disney acquired Pixar in 2006, and in 2008, Iron Man kicked off the first phase of what would become the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In 2012, Disney bought Lucasfilm, and The Avengers and Wreck-It Ralph came out that year, mainstreaming the idea of both a filmic multiverse and a massive video game crossover movie. By the time we got to 2019, the dark timeline had been sealed. Kingdom Hearts 3 came out in January 2019, and two months later, Disney bought 20th Century Fox. In November, Disney Plus debuted with The Mandalorian, and Rise of Skywalker closed out the year.

Axel and Kairi look at a sunset together in Kingdom Hearts 3 Image: Square Enix

Fourteen long years went by between Kingdom Hearts 2 and Kingdom Hearts 3, and clearly, Disney achieved a lot of oversaturation in that time. But also, a lot of other smaller Kingdom Hearts games came out to a mixed reception, and many players cite those games as the reason why Kingdom Hearts 3 didn’t work for them. After all, some of those games were only available in Japan at first, and several of them were only available on handheld devices. Getting caught up on Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days (2009) and Birth By Sleep (2011) required you to own both a Nintendo DS and a PlayStation Portable — and then you also needed to purchase a Nintendo 3DS to play Dream Drop Distance in 2012.

The various Kingdom Hearts games that were released between KH2 and KH3 took some strange turns. Disney remained, but Final Fantasy fell to the background as the game’s world expanded to include more original characters, often with new and unusual backstories and new magical lore to learn and understand. The Kingdom Hearts series still felt like fanfiction, but now it felt like a story by a writer who’d realized they’d rather be writing an original fantasy novel. The results were deliciously odd, and frankly lacking in the mainstream appeal that had made the original KH and KH2 a smash hit for both Disney and Square Enix.

Some Kingdom Hearts fans, like yours truly, love that the series didn’t always pander and got weirder instead. But the unfortunate result was divergent audience expectations heading into Kingdom Hearts 3. Meanwhile, the Disney corporation had become as comically villainous as Maleficent; it seemed to absorb everything in its wake, pulling dozens upon dozens of A-list actors into its rapidly growing Marvel movie slate. Audiences weren’t just facing superhero fatigue by the time 2019 rolled around. They had Star Wars fatigue, crossover fatigue, Disney fatigue … basically, audiences had Kingdom Hearts fatigue.

I actually like Kingdom Hearts 3, but maybe that’s because it reminds me of a past that’s long dead. Sora’s unyielding, boyish optimism in the face of impossible odds used to inspire me, even as a cold-hearted 19-year-old back in 2005. And the fact that Mickey Mouse was and still is supposed to be a bad-ass is never not going to make me laugh. Whenever I watch compilations of ridiculous clips from Kingdom Hearts, often shared by people attempting to mock the series, I roll my eyes because those people don’t understand that everyone who loves these games knows they’re ridiculous — and that’s the point. You can’t not laugh at Donald Duck standing next to Cloud Strife. It’s funny as shit. It rocks!

Except it also sucks. Or at least, it does now. It sucks because at some point, every major corporation realized that crossover fanfiction was a concept that could be monetized to hell and back. Modern-day crossovers don’t exist for the sake of showing audiences something more about who these characters could become if they had the chance to visit one another’s worlds. Instead, today’s crossovers seem designed to inspire a sense of recognition and little more than that. As Cameron Kunzelman put it in his analysis of Space Jam 2: “Tweety Bird ends up in The Matrix. The Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote hang out in the Fury Road universe … The problem here is not simply that the references happen, but that the references are made possible by a system of intellectual property concentration that encourages us to value things in terms of how much recognizable content is in them.”

Sora and Kairi look at the vast sky together in Kingdom Hearts 3 Image: Square Enix via Polygon

Despite it all, though, I have hope for Kingdom Hearts 4. Even as Disney has grown into something so massive and so boardroom-approved that it can’t help but be boring, samey, and homophobic, you can’t quite say the same for Kingdom Hearts as a series. Its complex, lore-packed story is barely understood by most audiences; it’s anything but samey or accessible. It’s not always aimed at a mass audience. And compared to the rest of the Disney media lineup in 2022, that’s fascinating.

I don’t need Kingdom Hearts to be cool again. It does help that I remember when it was cool; I enjoyed Kingdom Hearts 3 more thanks to my own nostalgia. But in 2022, I don’t expect Kingdom Hearts to be groundbreaking or surprising. It can’t be; it already did that job by inspiring our current corporate hellscape.

So instead, I say: Let it be weird. Let it be reactive, more like Nomura’s other project Final Fantasy 7 Remake, which itself serves as a commentary on the player expectations around the original beloved classic. Let it be confrontational, like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? And let it be silly, like the very first Kingdom Hearts game, in which the enduring power of love in the face of an apocalypse earned this succinct description from Goofy: “Even if this place goes poof, our hearts ain’t goin’ nowhere.”