Like many children born in the mid-90s, I spent my childhood obsessing over Kingdom Hearts. I dove into the show for Donald, Goofy, Aladdin, and that constant Mickey Mouse teasing. But I kept stumbling across characters with pistol blades, big butt swords, giant shuriken, and zippers I knew nothing about. These were, of course, the staples of Final Fantasy Leon (Squall Leonhart), Cloud Strife, and Yuffie – characters that would lead me to love Final Fantasy 20 years later.
At first I didn’t care about those humans – I bought the game for the Talking Duck That Makes Magic. But during the childhood years replaying the original Kingdom Hearts, resisting my old strategy guide and waiting three years on, these characters have become part of my Disney canon. I didn’t fight alongside Leon, Yuffie, Cloud, Aerith and Sephiroth from the Final Fantasy series that I had never played; it was Leon, Yuffie, Cloud, Aerith and Sephiroth from Kingdom Hearts.
Although knowing they were from other games – just like Aladdin, Peter Pan, and Ariel were from their own movies – I never opened my heart to Final Fantasy. The idea of switching to a turn-based series with a lot of reading didn’t appeal to me in my childhood. But decades later, I dove into Final Fantasy through Final fantasy 7: Remake, Yuffie’s Intergrade DLC, Final Fantasy 15, and Final Fantasy 14. Final Fantasy 7: Remakethe continuation and Final Fantasy 16 are some of my most anticipated games of the next few years. Almost 20 years later, I feel like my Kingdom Hearts education is finally paying off.
Kingdom Hearts: The JRPG Gateway Drug
If you haven’t played Kingdom Hearts from childhood you’d be surprised to go back and see it started out more like a Final Fantasy game than Disney. Aside from a few brief glances at Donald, Goofy, Minnie, Daisy, and the chipmunks in the Renaissance Fair cosplay, the early hours are all about hanging out on a beach with Final Fantasy characters Selphie, Tidus, and Wakka. When Sora finds himself in Traverse Town, Pluto knocks on his chest and he wanders through a town that has more Final Fantasy characters than Disney characters.
” Who are these people ? I remember thinking like a child. But whether it was in my sheer excitement about the glimpses of Donald and Goofy or the sheer boredom of being a kid with unlimited free time, I got past Leon’s impossible boss fight and loaded speeches. ‘exhibitions. I quickly warmed up to Leon considering his Big Stupid Sword Gun (the infamous Gunblade, which I still think is cool).
I added all the different characters in Final Fantasy to my brain over the years of studying Kingdom Hearts and its sequel. I sorted them into boxes filled with half-truths and a 10-year-old’s understanding of where they came from. I assumed Yuffie and Leon were from the same Final Fantasy game, and I never knew Aerith’s true fate. I kept my distance from the Final Fantasy series when I was a kid, but I kept this box with all these memories locked in my brain.
Years of harvests in preparation
I bought a copy of Final Fantasy 15 at university, although I can’t remember why. I was excited but skeptical to dive into the 15+ entry series. To my surprise, I loved everything. I was really moved by a time when a member of the group lost his eyesight and kept trying to fight. “East this what did I miss? ” I thought. When I found out that a lot of Final Fantasy enthusiasts didn’t like 15, I categorized my experience as fluke.
When Final Fantasy 7: Remake happened, it completely changed my perspective and rekindled my interest. I had learned through 15 that I could love Final Fantasy, even without the show’s rich history, and I had at least heard of Cloud Strife during my time with Kingdom Hearts. In Remake, I found the same kind of storytelling and frenzied fighting that I loved from Final Fantasy 15. But even better, I unearthed this box of memories that I had hidden years ago.
Here are the characters that I knew from my childhood! Cloud, the brooding jerk in conflict with his dark past. Aerith, that calm girl who hangs out with Donald and Goofy. Sephiroth, that shit with the impossible boss fight. I knew these people; well, I knew a version of it.
This feeling of knowledge really hit home with Yuffie’s Intergrade DLC last month, because she was one of the most vocal actors in the original Kingdom Hearts. It was weird to see this character that I met in my childhood without what I considered to be her original setting, plunged back into the series from which she came. I got to rediscover who Yuffie is and see how she is different from the smiling and confident Yuffie from Kingdom Hearts.
It was like watching Space jam then go back to a Bugs Bunny cartoon, or keep Samus in Super Smash Bros. before playing any of its games. These characters are familiar to me, but they are not the same. I know them, but only through an impostor.
Kingdom Hearts I spent years trying to get interested in Final Fantasy, but all I got were a bunch of names and fond memories of Winnie the Pooh, Merlin the Wizard, and Cid the Mechanic Gummi. I ignored Tetsuya Nomura’s call when I was a kid, but came back to adulthood to find all these characters waiting for me.
In a way, I’m grateful for this prospect. If I had followed the path Kingdom Hearts laid out for me as a child, I could have lived through the entire Final Fantasy series that came before. 15 and Remake. But I could also have grown tired of the formula or even the fandom. My way to Final Fantasy was a detour, covered in bizarre fever dreams involving Ansem and Alice in Wonderland. But it created a fan who knows just enough about the original versions of these characters to be excited about the future without the burden of the franchise’s 34-year history.