Sixteen years ago, if you said a mashup combining Final Fantasy and Disney centered around a large-footed child wielding a key as a weapon would be a smash hit and spawn multiple sequels and spin-offs, with the final game being one of 2019’s most anticipated games, people probably would have laughed at you.
On paper, it’s a crazy idea, almost fanfiction-y in nature, and yet it worked fantastically. While we’re all anxiously awaiting Kingdom Hearts 3’s debut next month, now's the perfect time to indulge in some nostalgia and consider the franchise’s finer moments.
There are a lot of them, big and small, but we’ve managed to distill them down to the nine most memorable moments. As would be expected with a list like this, there will be some big spoilers for the games mentioned, so if you haven't played them yet, read at your own risk.
Moment 8: Lea's Keyblade
Game: Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance
Poor Axel. Like Roxas, he just wants a purpose for living, even if that purpose happens to be eating bright blue ice cream on a rooftop with friends. Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance finally gives him a purpose, but not what you'd expect.
Despite working for some form of good throughout the series, everything ends up going badly for Axel. He’s torn between protecting one friend or another, loses them both, potentially develops some feelings for Kairi—possibly because of her connection with Xion — but naturally can’t act on them, all before having to give up himself and his memories so Lea, the "real" Axel, can be revived.
His extensive history in the series gives the player a lot more investment in Lea than would otherwise have been the case, so the lead-up to this moment is much more engaging than it would be for your average NPC. Lea ends up responsible for saving Sora yet again, for rescuing Queen Minnie, and basically for keeping the entire world from falling apart.
That he finally gains a Keyblade for his trouble is a fitting reward for his actions and all Axel endured, but it also means he can fight to right the wrongs done to him and all of his friends, Nobody and normal, finally starting to tie up the many, many loose ends KH dropped all over the place.
Moment 7: Aqua's Finale
Game: Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep
If you had to point to one moment where Kingdom Hearts started getting a bit complicated, it’d be the entirety of Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep. It’s also where Kingdom Hearts starts to resemble Star Wars in a few ways — prequels, ancient catastrophic warfare, Jedi…er, Keyblade Masters, and so on— but unlike Star Wars, this prequel is actually necessary, and no spot is more important than Aqua’s finale.
The build-up to her confrontation with Xehanort takes the focus on bonds and friendship to a completely different level. Sora might not get to spend much time with Kairi after finding her again, and Riku’s got his own problems to sort out, but they’re all still together; they work through their problems and come together when it matters.
Not so for Aqua. Not only does she have to sacrifice herself at one point to rescue Ventus and hopefully find some way of saving Terra, but it’s completely hopeless. Ventus slips into a seemingly endless slumber, while Terra loses himself completely to Xehanort, becoming his vessel and, by extension, the source of conflict in the mainline games.
Friendship didn’t save the day here. Even if it provided the means by which hope could be restored in the future, it still left one main character broken in the end, and that’s something you don’t see much in Kingdom Hearts.
Moment 6: Re: Beast's Castle
Game: Kingdom Hearts II
Backtracking in a non-Metroidvania game risks killing it completely in most cases for one reason or another. A lot of times, it’s just padding, and KH2 gives the impression that’s what the game’s second half will be like.
Mulan-land wasn’t very fun to begin with, and going back there doesn’t change much, so when you first get to Beast’s Castle again, there isn’t a lot to hope for. Sure, it was a challenge the first time around, and the story necessitates it, but it still leaves you feeling a bit bored. Until the end. This is where Sora first fights Organization XIII (outside Castle Oblivion, that is), and it’s a fight to remember.
In fact, it’s one of the game’s most noticeable difficulty spikes, and depending on your playstyle, the potential need for grinding beforehand is enough to make it memorable. Xaldin is a whole new kind of boss, fast, deadly, and resilient. The encounter makes you think on your feet, throwing in some Mega Man-style pattern recognition and avoidance as well.
And it sets the tone for the game’s second half — darker, harder, and more demanding — while kicking off some major lore dumps as well, where you finally get a slight understanding of what’s really going on.
Moment 5: Traverse Town
Game: Kingdom Hearts
You’ve made it through the enigmatic opening sequence, and you survived Destiny Islands and its occasionally frustrating platforming moments. But Traverse Town is where Kingdom Hearts really begins, for a number of reasons.
It’s where Sora meets Donald and Goofy for the first time, and the player gets a better idea of how Keyblade combat works. But more importantly, it’s where the franchise’s key gimmick first shines through.
Seeing Final Fantasy X’s side characters on Destiny Islands is nice, but little more than a cameo, really. Sora’s fight and subsequent conversation with “Leon,” plus seeing Cid working alongside Huey, Dewey, and Louis, forces the player to wrap their heads around how the KH world works: characters from everywhere end up together, fighting against the darkness that destroyed their homeworlds (even if that homeworld isn’t actually FF related.)
It tells the player to leave behind their notions of Disney and Final Fantasy because despite merging both, this is something completely different. And centering their respective plights around Sora’s own journey means it works and works well.
Traverse Town is a metaphor for the rest of the game and series — Sora’s first adventure, and the franchise as a whole, is seemingly simple on the surface, with a lot more going on underneath.
Moment 4: Hollow Bastion
Game: Kingdom Hearts
Hollow Bastion is an important place in Kingdom Hearts lore, but it’s where the first game becomes more serious, and Sora gains a glimpse into something much bigger than his journey to find his friends. It’s also the first non-Disney world since Traverse Town, and that alone gives you an idea that something big’s about to happen.
Of course, that's the fight with Riku, where all the tension and jealousy hinted at on Destiny Islands finally releases. Sora’s friends leave him for a time because of this fight, in a turn of events rather shocking the first time around. Suddenly, Sora is alone and friendless once more, all talk of loyalty and the ties that bind gone.
Of course, the situation doesn’t last, and he gets his friends back, but then you see what happened to all the princesses. The sight has more impact for Disney fans, naturally, but it’s an important step forward in the games’ overarching plot, something you don’t really get the significance of until playing the other games.
And then there’s Hollow Bastion’s crowning glory, the fight with Maleficent’s dragon form. Suddenly, the terrifying beast from your childhood cartoon days manifests in front of you, and it’s so.damn.tough to beat, yet so satisfying once it’s finished.
Moment 3: Xion Fades Away
Game: Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days
A lot of people would say the most memorable part of Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days is when it’s finally over. That’s not far off the mark, but not for the same reason.
True, the game has some (big) flaws, but the final reveal where Roxas (and you) learn the truth about Xion packs quite the punch and makes the series' lore even more complicated.
Up to that point, there’s plenty of speculation about Xion, and it’s pretty obvious she isn’t a regular Nobody, but then it all comes out: she’s yet another aspect of Sora, albeit an artificial one. Apart from some interesting Persona-like commentary on the various aspects of individual identity, it shatters the usual Nobody schtick from Kingdom Hearts II.
Nobodies and their hosts aren’t mutually exclusive, since Xion regained some of Sora’s memories and combined them with elements of Roxas. More importantly, she wants to save Roxas, implying affection, and Roxas wants to save her; in other words, Nobodies and hollow replicas can feel emotion after all, something you eventually find out applies to more than just Roxas and Namine.
The scene also serves as a tragic foil to Sora’s various moments of reuniting with Kairi. Where Sora always saves Kairi somehow and manages to find his way back to her, Roxas watches as his sort-of Kairi disappears in front of him. The sense of loss and isolation pack an emotional punch on their own, but it’s an interesting foreshadowing of Roxas’s own eventual fate as well.
Moment 2: Goodbye, Summer
Game: Kingdom Hearts II
Speaking of Roxas’s fate, that’s another standout moment in several ways. Kingdom Hearts 2 starts out deceptively, especially if you didn’t play Re: Chain of Memories. No Sora, no Donald and Goofy, but you do get Roxas… and Seifer. Unfortunately, though, he’s balanced by some more welcome cameos from FF favorites like Setzer and Vivi.
You also get another set of rather frustrating, KH Destiny Islands style tasks to complete before you can do anything at all.
Annoying as these tasks are, they ease you into what seems like Roxas’ normal life. He’s an average kid who wants to enjoy his summer with friends, hanging out around town and just being kids. Naturally, that can’t last for long; it ain’t called Twilight Town for nothin’.
Part of Roxas’ summer adventures takes him into the mysterious Old Mansion, where he learns his true identity. For the game to proceed, Roxas has to accept his nature and disappear as an individual being. It’s a sad moment in itself: this kid who just wanted to have fun with his friends suddenly realizes he’s literally Nobody and has no real purpose in life.
But it also provides the necessary emotional foundation for understanding the other sub-villains’ motives once they appear later in the game. Like Roxas, they just want a reason to live.
Moment 1: Battle of 1,000 Heartless
Game: Kingdom Hearts II
It’s impossible to talk about great moments in Kingdom Hearts without talking about the Battle of 1,000 Heartless. It’s a fantastically epic conflict perfectly suited to KH2’s increasingly darker tone, and it offers several memorable moments.
The first is seeing King Mickey in combat, where connections between the mouse warrior and Yoda, that other diminutive, semi-omniscient weapon master, cannot be avoided. It's a bit of fun in the middle of a serious battle for the world's fate.
Then there’s the encounter with Sephiroth. The original KH threw this in as a big surprise, but it didn’t really have much story impact. Here, though, it’s the equivalent of Satan working against Sora and friends. Sephiroth is in his darker form, he’s got a purpose, and that purpose is, well, pretty much the same as in FFVII — destroy everything. More importantly, he fights against Cloud, making this one of the better Final Fantasy tie-ins throughout the many KH games.
But the most memorable part of this battle is, without a doubt, Goofy. The game plays a terrible, dirty trick on the player and actually makes you think Goofy dies — the equivalent of Square Enix taking your favorite childhood pet and killing it in front of you.
Obviously, he doesn’t really die, but it’s a heavy, emotional moment and adds a lot of impact to the remainder of the battle on whole, with almost tangible relief when Goofy eventually comes around.
Those are our top Kingdom Hearts picks, but let us know in the comments what your most memorable KH moments are!