Kingdom Hearts shouldn’t be a good video game. First off, it features an odd hodgepodge of Disney characters like Mulan and Aladdin, along with Mickey, Donald, and Goofy. They’re joined by figures from the popular game series Final Fantasy like Cloud, a mercenary who wields a massive sword, and new ones developed specifically for Kingdom Hearts.
If that’s not enough, Kingdom Hearts features a complex story line involving goodness and darkness and multiple worlds.
But Kingdom Hearts doesn’t just work, it excels. When the first game was released in 2002, it quickly gained a massive following, selling millions of copies within its first year.
Last month, the latest installment, Kingdom Hearts III, was released. It had some high expectations to live up to, putting its developers at game publisher Square Enix, under pressure.
“Fear kills creative ambition, so when coming up with ideas, we tried to have as much fun as possible,” Tai Yasue, co-director of Kingdom Hearts III, said via email.
And if developers were concerned that their audience would lose interest after a decade, they surely no longer are. Kingdom Hearts III was the best-selling video game in January, the second time it’s topped the monthly best-seller charts since Kingdom Hearts II led the field in April 2006, according to NPD Group. In fact, consumers spent more than double the amount of money on the new game in its first month of release than they did on from Kingdom Hearts II during its initial month.
NDP Group declined to provide more details about the sales performance of Kingdom Hearts’ latest installment. But signaling its popularity, Square Enix said it shipped over 5 million copies within its first week—making it the fastest start ever for a game in the Kingdom Hearts franchise.
Disney, which bought Pixar in 2006, owns the copyright to the Kingdom Hearts games. Those are then developed and published by Square Enix for an undisclosed amount. Recently, Disney CEO Bob Iger explained the thinking behind the deal by saying that he prefers turning over Disney’s characters to third-party publishers because his company lacks a history of creating hit games.
As it has done in the past, Kingdom Hearts takes chances with its latest game that at first glance, at least, feel strange. Many of the ideas are aimed at attracting new users, rather than just catering to older fans.
For example, in an effort to appeal to the Instagram generation, the protagonist, Sora, carries a smartphone that players can use to snap in-game photos and selfies. The battles also incorporate new, complex moves inspired by Disney’s theme park attractions — think of the spinning teacups hitting nearby monsters or giant pirate ship swinging back and forth to attack enemies.
In another appeal to younger users, the developers included characters from a number of newer Disney films like Frozen, Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, and Big Hero 6. Although older films like Hercules and Toy Story are also included, older fans don’t get the same nostalgic punch as earlier titles.
The new Kingdom Hearts can be compared to Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, another aging franchise that is trying to keep up with the times without alienating existing fans. However, rather than using smartphones and flashy fighting moves, Breath of the Wild opted for a more expansive world in which players can explore as much (or as little) as they like while keeping fighting sequences similar to previous versions while increasing the difficulty.
On the other hand, new Kingdom Hearts players don’t get much hand holding. The new game assumes players know all of the previous history.
Yasue notes that there is a “Memory Archive” feature that is accessible through the top menu and title screen in Kingdom Hearts III to help fill in the gaps. It has “a few short movies that will give you an outline of what happened earlier in the series,” Yasue said.
That said, Kingdom Hearts’ latest installment still retains most of its charm. There’s an earnestness in the characters and stories, which focus on the importance of friendship, overcoming obstacles, and being a good person.
“Kingdom Hearts is a story with a lot of heart (no pun intended!) and the themes explored in the series are ones that everyone, regardless of age or background, can relate to,” Luigi Priore, senior director at Disney Games, says via email. “Friendship is at the center of it all—something we feel is beautifully captured in how the fans have created such a positive and passionate community.”
The developers also made sure the release was technically proficient by today’s standards. The different locations like the snowy Arendelle of Frozen or Olympus of Hercules, hold up against other recent games that place a larger emphasis on creating beautiful, detailed landscapes. Getting the Pixar worlds to look close to their movie counterparts was challenging.
Priore likened the endeavor to “working on several feature films all at the same time.”
Kingdom Hearts III is just another stepping stone, though.
Says Yasue, “While this is the end of the [current] story arc, this is not the end of Kingdom Hearts.”
Correction: The original article incorrectly stated there was a 14-year gap between the release of Kingdom Hearts II and III. The gap was 13 years. The article also stated 5 million copies were sold. There were 5 million copies shipped. The article originally identified Frozen, Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, and Big Hero 6 as Pixar films. They are Disney films.