Every now and then an idea comes along that put to film, on TV or into a book which has every reason to fail. Perhaps those involved never showed an aptitude for what the idea was, perhaps there was a history of similar ideas failing or perhaps the whole thing was just too crazy. These kinds of ideas get tried all the time and most rightfully fail, and fail big. However sometimes, when the fates align and serendipity lends a hand, all the pieces can fall into place and those crazy ideas work despite the odds. This is an article series that will examine the workings of projects that should have been doomed but managed to triumph. An examination of why the particular idea should have failed and why it didn’t.
Square-Enix is a bit of a sacred name among certain video gaming circles. It’s best known as the company behind the monstrously successful “Final Fantasy” series of games, which has had thirteen games in the main series and innumerable spin-offs. They’ve also been the creative force behind other notable gamessuch as “Chrono Trigger” and the “Dragon Quest” series. They’ve ventured into other genres from time to time but their home turf has always been role playing games (RPGs.) Disney’s history in video games was a bit more spotty. They had created strong, if generic, platform style games during the 8-bit and 16-bit eras but seemed to be struggling with the newer systems and their 3D graphics. Also rapidly maturing gamers were starting to scoff at what they considered to be “kiddy games” which made up nearly all of Disney’s video game output up to that point. A chance meeting between members of both companies lead to a radical idea. An action/platform/RPG mixing Disney, Final Fantasy and original characters aimed at a teenage audience? There’s no way that should have worked.
The story goes that at the time the Japanese offices of Square-Enix and Disney shared the same building. Series producer Shinji Hashimoto met a Disney executive in the elevator and that was what caused the idea to first form. Reportedly the game started out as being aimed at the traditionally younger Disney audience and featured a fairly simplistic story starring Mickey Mouse. However as development continued it was decided to treat the subject matter much more seriously and hold it to the standards of scope and complexity set by the “Final Fantasy” games. Having Tetsuya Nomura, a former monster and character designer for “Final Fantasy,” directing the project probably helped with this tonal transition.It meant putting a somewhat darker spin on many of the Disney settings and characters, and it payed off extremely well in the game.
Characters from the “Final Fantasy” games were added in to bring a more mature feel to certain scenes, and Mickey took a back seat role to new original characters. Gamers played Sora whose close bond with his friends Riku and Kairi is at the center of the story from the very beginning. The players jumped from world to world, everywhere from Agrabah from “Aladin” to the 100 Acre Woods of “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh,” and interacted with the various Disney characters there. The structure is fairly standard for an RPG in that the player would meet new characters who need help and then assist them. What set this apart from the more generic RPGs is that because the player already knew the Disney characters they had a build in empathy for them and cared about them being in danger. In a normal RPG these “character in need” roles would be filled by generic NPCs (Non-Player Characters) that the player would be virtually guaranteed to not care about on any emotional level. But when players saw beloved characters from their childhood in danger it struck a cord that helped draw them in all the more.
The gameplay of the series has been refined over the numerous entries. A clunky platforming aspect was all but removed after the first entry, and the combat and magic use has been fine tuned. The series has also taken another big risk, spreading across both handheld and home consoles. While handheld versions of console games aren’t all that uncommon, they are almost always watered down versions of the main game. With “Kingdom Hearts,” Square-Enix has opted to actually create new chapters in the story and fill out the world of the game with handheld exclusive entries. More than anything though it has been the stories and the characters that have captured the hearts of fans. The clever use of existing characters paired with strong original protagonists has created a deeply loyal following. A mash up of Disney and Final Fantasy in an action RPG platforming game, there’s no way that should have worked yet it did.