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Artwork from the original Kingdom Hearts Image: Square Enix

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OK, Kingdom Hearts, you win: I love Final Fantasy now

Meeting Cloud, Aerith, and Yuffie in Kingdom Hearts helped me fall in love with them in Final Fantasy

Like many kids born in the mid-’90s, I spent my childhood obsessing over Kingdom Hearts. I dove into the series for Donald, Goofy, Aladdin, and that constant tease of Mickey Mouse. But I kept bumping into characters with gunblades, big-ass swords, giant shuriken, and zippers who I knew nothing about. These were, of course, Final Fantasy staples Leon (Squall Leonhart), Cloud Strife, and Yuffie — characters who would lead me into a love for Final Fantasy 20 years later.

At first, I didn’t give a damn about these humans — I bought the game for the talking duck who does magic. But over childhood years replaying the original Kingdom Hearts, weathering my old strategy guide and waiting three years for the sequel, these characters became part of my Disney canon. I didn’t fight alongside Leon, Yuffie, Cloud, Aerith, and Sephiroth from the Final Fantasy series I’d never played; it was Leon, Yuffie, Cloud, Aerith, and Sephiroth from Kingdom Hearts.

Despite knowing they were from other games — just as Aladdin, Peter Pan, and Ariel were from their own movies — I never opened my heart to Final Fantasy. The idea of moving to a turn-based series with a lot of reading wasn’t appealing to childhood me. But decades later, I’ve gotten deep into Final Fantasy through Final Fantasy 7: Remake, Yuffie’s Intergrade DLC, Final Fantasy 15, and Final Fantasy 14. Final Fantasy 7: Remake’s sequel and Final Fantasy 16 are some of my most anticipated games of the next few years. Nearly 20 years later, it feels like my Kingdom Hearts education is finally paying off.

Kingdom Hearts: The JRPG gateway drug

Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy 7 Remake
Cloud Strife looks quite a bitter better in Remake than he does in Kingdom Hearts
Image: Square Enix

If you haven’t played Kingdom Hearts since childhood, you’d be surprised to go back and see that it starts as more of a Final Fantasy game than a Disney one. Outside of some short looks at Donald, Goofy, Minnie, Daisy, and the chipmunks in Renaissance Fair cosplay, the first several hours consist of hanging out on a beach with Final Fantasy characters Selphie, Tidus, and Wakka. When Sora ends up in Traverse Town, Pluto pounds on his chest, and he wanders around a town that has more Final Fantasy characters than Disney ones.

“Who the hell are these people?” I remember thinking as a child. But either in my pure excitement about glimpses of Donald and Goofy or the sheer boredom of being a child with unlimited free time, I pushed forward past Leon’s unwinnable boss fight and exposition-laden speeches. I quickly warmed to Leon given his Big Stupid Sword Gun (the infamous Gunblade, which I still think is cool).

I added all of the various Final Fantasy characters to my brain over years of studying Kingdom Hearts and its sequel. I sorted them into boxes filled with half-truths and a 10-year-old’s grasp on their backgrounds. I assumed Yuffie and Leon were from the same Final Fantasy game, and I never knew Aerith’s true fate. I kept my distance from the Final Fantasy series as a kid, but I kept that box with all those memories locked away in my brain.

Crops years in the making

Yuffie Kisaragi from Final Fantasy 7 Remake Episode Intermission
Yuffie mostly holds her signature look between Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy
Image: Square Enix

I purchased a copy of Final Fantasy 15 in college, although I can’t remember why. I was excited but skeptical to dive into the series 15-plus entries in. To my surprise, I adored everything about it. I was genuinely moved by a moment when one party member lost his sight and continued to try to fight. “Is this what I’ve been missing?” I thought. When I discovered that many Final Fantasy lovers didn’t care for 15, I cataloged my experience as a fluke.

When Final Fantasy 7: Remake came along, it changed my entire perspective and reignited my interest. I’d learned through 15 that I could love Final Fantasy, even without the series’ rich history, and I’d at least heard of Cloud Strife through my time with Kingdom Hearts. In Remake, I found some of the same kind of storytelling and frenetic combat that I loved from Final Fantasy 15. But even better, I unearthed that box of memories I’d hidden away years ago.

Here were the characters I knew from my childhood! Cloud, the brooding jerk conflicted by his dark past. Aerith, that quiet girl who hangs out with Donald and Goofy. Sephiroth, that piece of shit with the impossible boss fight. I knew these people; well, I knew a version of them.

That knowing feeling really hit home with Yuffie’s Intergrade DLC last month, as she was one of the more vocal cast members in the original Kingdom Hearts. It was bizarre to see this character I met in childhood devoid from what I thought of as her original setting, thrust back into the series she came from. I got to discover who Yuffie is all over again and see how she’s different from the confident, smiley Yuffie from Kingdom Hearts.

Yuffie stands back-to-back with Sonon in FInal Fantasy 7 Remake Intergrade
Yuffie is an odd Remake case, as she’s very similar and quite different from her Kingdom Hearts counterpart
Image: Square Enix

It felt like watching Space Jam and then going back to a Bugs Bunny cartoon, or maining Samus in Super Smash Bros. before playing any of her games. These characters are familiar to me, but they’re not the same. I know them, but only through an imposter.

Kingdom Hearts spent years trying to get me to care about Final Fantasy, but all I came away with was a bunch of names and fond memories of Winnie the Pooh, Merlin the wizard, and Cid the Gummi mechanic. I ignored Tetsuya Nomura’s call as a child, but I came back as an adult to find all these characters waiting for me.

In a way, I’m thankful for this perspective. If I’d followed the path Kingdom Hearts set out for me when I was a kid, I could’ve experienced the entire Final Fantasy series leading up to 15 and Remake. But I also could’ve become tired of the formula or even the fandom. My path to Final Fantasy was a roundabout one, covered in bizarre fever dreams involving Ansem and Alice in Wonderland. But it’s created a fan who knows just enough about the original versions of these characters to be excited about the future without the burden of the franchise’s 34-year history.