Kingdom Hearts was a magical game, and it still is, 15 years later. But in its very first scene, you have to make what felt like a monumental decision — and the lack of context stopped me dead in my tracks for an embarassingly long time.
It wasn’t a boss fight. It wasn’t a puzzle. I’m sure that to most people, it wasn’t even difficult. But the game presents Sora, the harem pants-wearing hero of the franchise, with seemingly adventure-defining quandaries from the start: Will he choose the sword, shield or staff? And which one will he drop?
There are three pedestals containing these iconic weapons in the game’s very first area, and Sora can’t leave until he picks one up and leaves one behind. Depending on how long you wanted to spend on these choices, you could spend as little or as much time in here as you wanted.
The decisions made here have some ultimately minimal effects on a playthrough. Choosing and losing one weapon over the others left Sora with different stats from the beginning of the game. Choosing the sword improves his attack, shield improves his defense and staff, obviously, improves his magic abilities. The weapons also had other, more major outcomes, like determining the maximum inventory slots Sora could have by the end of the game.
Still, since Sora’s abilities always turned out the same by the end, there was no one right answer ... except, of course there had to be, according to the third-grade me who was just catching onto the concepts of good grades and how to make them. In those very first moments of Kingdom Hearts, all I could do was circle the room, racking my brain about which pairing would set me off on the best possible path.
It was like taking a pop quiz in another language, and back in 2002, it wasn’t so easy to pull up a guide showing all the different pathways. (Please spare me your infuriated, “Back in my day”-laden response to this.) I had little context for this huge decision I was going to make, both because I’d rarely had to make decisions at that age and because the game plopped me right down in front of these choices before I’d ever gone into battle or even learned anything about Sora.
I started and restarted Kingdom Hearts many, many times, and I remember it once taking a group of us almost two hours to settle on our weapon duo. Now that the game is out on PlayStation 4, I’m dreading returning to these most trying of questions, although thankfully there are plenty of thoughtful guides to and advice on which pathways have which effects.
It’s also comforting to know now that I wasn’t alone in dreading the shield vs. sword vs. staff conundrum. Google’s got nearly half-a-million results with people seeking guidance on the same thing:
I like to imagine others wasting a ton of time at the beginning of this fairly long role-playing game on this illogical puzzle game, but it’s one of those mundane moments that defined Kingdom Hearts for me. It was more than just mundane, though; to a much younger me, it was a significant personal decision that no one really could help me with. Between Kingdom Hearts and Pokémon, I learned how to make tough choices, ones that stuck with me in ways big and small. Somehow, making these first decisions also made the later ones — a personality quiz issued by some Final Fantasy characters — much, much easier.
Maybe this early-game puzzle isn’t my favorite part of the game, but I can’t imagine that experience without it — especially because the same damn thing is found in Kingdom Hearts 2 and other entries as well. But at least by the time I got to that game, I was older, wiser ... and knew to care way, way less.
(For the record: I usually chose the staff and gave up the sword. Turns out that was a pretty run-of-the-mill option!)
Below, watch us play Kingdom Hearts on PS4 — although we skipped over the sword, shield and staff portion, for everyone’s sake.