The Casual Fan’s Guide to Navigating Kingdom Hearts (Part 1)

So, a while ago, I basically ranted about my own fandom acting superior towards “casual” fans of the series and snickering over how lost they’ll feel once they finally play Kingdom Hearts 3.  But, looking at the size of the series and how many different games have been released on different consoles, that kind of begs the question…what’s the simplest way for casual fans and newcomers to catch up with the diehards, if they so choose?

And now that Square-Enix has announced A TOY STORY WORLD for Kingdom Hearts 3- and they got PIXAR involved in the story for that level- you almost certainly DO want to catch up!

Thanks to the recent release of almost every Kingdom Hearts game in one collection for the PlayStation 4, it’s become much easier to become acquainted with all of the games in the series.  But, still, there are eight games, one three-hour mini game, and one movie that make up the story so far.  That’s pretty overwhelming.

So I’ve created a break-down of the series with suggestions about how best to either enter or continue with it, for the newbies and casuals.  What’s the scoop with each entry, which ones do you need to play to understand Kingdom Hearts 3, and which ones can you ignore, if you so choose?  If anyone has better suggestions, by all means, leave a comment!  We must help our friends!  That’s what Kingdom Hearts is all about!

Disclaimer: As you will see, after each game’s title, I include the question, “Do I need to play it?”  This is obviously based on my own opinion.  However, it’s not about how much I personally enjoyed playing the game.  It has nothing to do with the actual quality of the game and everything to do with the plot, characters, etc., and whether or not it’s likely that they will contribute to Kingdom Hearts 3.

My goal with this guide is to present non-fans and casual fans with the cheapest, quickest methods of getting caught up with the series. That includes telling them what they can and can’t afford to skip.  If you disagree with my assessments, again, feel free to leave a comment saying why.

Let’s start with the series in general…

The Collections

Square-Enix has re-released most of the games in the series under several collections.  The first one, entitled Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD Remix, contains the original game, a follow-up called Re:Chain of Memories, and the cutscenes from 358/2 Days.  The second collection, Kingdom Hearts 2.5 HD Remix, contains Kingdom Hearts 2, Birth by Sleep, and the cutscenes from Re:Coded.

These two collections have since been re-released for the PlayStation 4 as one disc.  That collection is known as Kingdom Hearts 1.5 + 2.5 Remix.  If you have a PlayStation 4, this is the best way to acquire the series.

Finally, a third collection was released for the PlayStation 4 that contains KH: Dream Drop Distance, a movie, and a glorified demo for Kingdom Hearts 3.  I’ll talk about that entry in more detail in Part 2 of this guide.

And now for an analysis of the actual games in the series…

Kingdom Hearts

Available On: PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, and PlayStation 4; also available to read as a novel and a two-volume manga omnibus

Status: The one that started it all!

Do I Need to Play It?  Well…yes.  If you want to try out the Kingdom Hearts video games, of course you ought to play the first installment.

As I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, I love this game and I recommend giving it a try.  It has a simple, emotional story with lovable characters, it’s fun to play, and it incorporates the Disney and Final Fantasy characters into the plot very well.  The manga is a decent adaptation, but the two volumes that cover this game’s story are also the weakest in the series.  If you’re interested, you can read more of my thoughts on the manga here.

The novel’s pretty good.  If you’re not much of a gamer, that’s a fine way to check out the story and decide for yourself if the rest of the series is worth your time.

Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories

Available On: GameBoy Advanced, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, and PlayStation 4; also available in manga and novel form

Status: A follow-up game that takes place immediately after the first one ended, but it’s not considered the true sequel

Do I Need to Play It?

No, not really.  I certainly recommend it because it’s one of my personal favorites and I think it’s one of the best-written games in the series.  But I didn’t sit down to play it until a couple of years after finishing Kingdom Hearts 2.  Other fans will insist that it’s impossible to understand what’s going on in KH2 if you don’t play CoM, but honestly, it’s nothing a quick visit to Wikipedia wouldn’t fix.  This game also has a novel and manga adaptation and the manga is a big improvement over the first two volumes.

Speaking of the adaptations, it’s worth mentioning that CoM has two big plot twists.  Curiously, the novel doesn’t spoil Twist #1, while heavily implying and practically spoiling Twist #2.  The manga outright spoils Twist #1 about halfway through the story, while keeping Twist #2 hidden.  So make of that what you will.

Again, I do recommend this game because I love the story and the characters and the creepy castle. The theme of memories becomes very important to the series from that point onward.  But if you’re not intrigued and you’re itching to get to Kingdom Hearts 2, at least check out the novel or the manga to learn the essentials.  You won’t have missed out on too much.

Kingdom Hearts 2

Available On: PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, and PlayStation 4; also available as a four-volume manga and novels

Status: The official sequel to the first game, taking place a year after the events of Chain of Memories

Do I Need to Play It?

Of course!  Now, if you want my advice and you have the means to choose between different game platforms, go with the PS3 or PS4 version.  The original game, made for the PlayStation 2, is fine and fun to play.  But the HD Remix has at least nine additional cutscenes that enhance the story, extra boss battles, an entire new area to explore, and some fun new side quests.

See, years ago, Square-Enix decided to release new versions of Kingdom Hearts, KH2, and Birth by Sleep, called “Final Mixes.”  They’re like director’s cuts of the original games that were only released in Japan.  When Square put together the collections for the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4, they used the Final Mix versions of each title, so we’re finally getting all of that beautiful extra content overseas.

(Before the PS2 owners start panicking, I promise you that you do not need to buy two copies of the same game.  The Final Mixes are like the Extended Editions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy- they’ve got better content, but they’re not mandatory viewing to understand the sequels.)

Also, the manga adaptation is superb.  If you cannot play the Final Mix version of KH2, the manga will more than make up for what you’re missing in the story department.  Yen Press has announced that translations for the novels are also coming soon.

***

Whew!  There you have it: the first three games in the series, just before the Great Console Spread began.  These are the easiest ones to start with because they’re all available for the PS2, PS3, or PS4.  So no matter which of these PlayStations you own, you only need one to experience all three games.  Not to mention, they’re all available in the form of manga and novel adaptations.

Next time, I’ll give you the scoop on the infamous “side games.”  Which ones should you play and what’s the best way to experience and enjoy them?  Find out in Part 2!

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