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Late to the Game(s): Playing with the Queen of Hearts

Kingdom Hearts and a time before easy mode

By Jeremy D. Wells

Carter County Times

Gaming sure isn’t what it used to be. Honestly, I think it’s gotten much better – and I’m not just talking graphics. The storylines are much more in-depth and engaging than they were when the Legend of Zelda introduced me to the idea that games could be more than space shooters (Asteroids, Defender, Galaga) or action platformers (Castlevania, Super Mario Bros.) with a rudimentary plot.

But it wasn’t really until PlayStation introduced a wider audience to JRPGs (Japanese Role-Playing Games) that many of us saw the true potential of games as a story-telling medium.

For me, the game was Lunar: Silver Star Harmony on the original PlayStation. It was probably the first game outside the Zelda series that I completed; my desire to see the end of the story outweighing any frustration with escalating difficulty. Also, unlike those other games where you just had to be more dexterous to progress, here we had a clear path to improve our party’s gear and skills for eventual success. It was different, and I loved it. And the RPG has been my favorite genre since.  

For me, it was Lunar, but for many others of my generation it was Final Fantasy. For those that grew up later still, in the PlayStation 2 era, it was Kingdom Hearts – a Final Fantasy meets Disney mash-up that has your character teaming up with Donald, Goofy, and navigators Chip and Dale, on a quest to save Mickey and discover what scheme the villainous Shadows are hatching. Along the way you travel through Disney’s various film worlds, interacting with their denizens.

It was one of those games that wasn’t on my radar when it launched – I was very busy in my tech writing career and didn’t play console games, or many video games at all, for several years. If I had played a game, it wouldn’t have been one based around Disney characters. But as I began working in the gaming industry, and started getting back into games for the stories, it was impossible to ignore the enthusiasm my younger colleagues had for the series. I decided I needed to give it a try, and bought a second-hand copy for my PS2 (which I’d also bought used), then I sat on it. I never even loaded the disc in the console, I don’t think. Shortly after picking up the used PS2 I bought a new PS3 and had a glut of games from the company I was working for to play through.

It wasn’t until very recently (we’re up to the PS5 now, for those who don’t follow gaming consoles closely) that I picked up a remastered version of the entire Kingdom Hearts series through a digital sale and started my first playthrough.

It’s great fun, and I’m glad I’m no longer too pretentious to let myself enjoy the absurd fun of Donald Duck as a wizard and Chip n Dale piloting a dimension-hopping spaceship. But it’s showed me another way that games have improved – they’ve gotten easier to play.

Now, that last statement might rile some of the older “hardcore” gamers. The type who complain that games are too easy, and folks just need to “get good.” But I don’t mean that games don’t have difficulty and learning curves. With variable difficulty modes, something games have had for a while, there’s no reason everyone can’t have the challenge they want in a game. But one thing modern games have gotten better at is guiding the player through the experience.

I sat down this weekend with my toddler and “we” played through some of the early acts of the first game, and I often found myself wondering where I needed to go next and if I had completed all the necessary tasks for a level. Even if I could handle the fights with no issues – and I could handle the fights with no issues on normal difficulty – I didn’t always know what I was supposed to be doing.

By the time we got to Wonderland – where you have to collect evidence to free Alice from the Queen of Hearts – I remembered why game guides with walkthroughs were so popular during that era. I was still running around, looking for a way to access a chest I could see on a mushroom but couldn’t figure out how to get to, before I finally looked up a walk-through to discover that I’d already found all the evidence I could. Three more pieces of evidence than you technically need to proceed, by the way. But even after presenting that evidence and having events unfold (events which I’ll refrain from discussing, in case you want to play the game yourself) I still wasn’t sure exactly what my next steps should be.

Fortunately, for me, before I could be tempted to consult the walkthrough again the toddler decided it was time to take a nap. So, we put the controllers away and curled up for a snooze. Soon we were both sawing logs, but not before I had time to reflect on how improvements to the user interfaces of games, and things like quest logs, trophies, and even terrain layout, help guide the gamer and make for a more immersive and less frustrating experience.

Sure, maybe I just still need to “get good” and figure things out. Or, maybe, games should be for everybody – even if that means no-fail modes for casuals and clear progression paths for everyone. Personally, I’m happy we have more of the latter.

Contact the writer at editor@cartercountytimes.com

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