“Hey Austin, you should borrow this game. I think you’d really like it,” said an unsuspecting friend in my 6th grade class as he handed me a copy of a game called Kingdom Hearts on the PlayStation 2. “It’s a video game where you play as Sora and he goes to fight monsters in a bunch of Disney worlds,” he encouraged me. My first thoughts were, “I don’t know about this. The main character has spiky hair and I don’t like all that Dragon Ball Z and Pokemon stuff. I’m more of a Spider-Man kind of kid.”
Nevertheless, I went home and started up a game that changed my life forever.
Playing Kingdom Hearts for the first time was unlike anything I had seen or experienced up to that point. The eeriness of “I’ve been having these weird thoughts lately. Like, is any of this for real, or not?” followed by the dream-like opening sequence gave me a feeling of mystique and mystery that was so new to me and instantly intriguing. Contrarily, I felt comforted by the familiarity of the Disney characters and the fun simplicity of the game play. This perfect balance between the new and the familiar was the perfect recipe for me to dive head first into a new obsession, and obsess I did.
While my friends’ copy of Kingdom Hearts was my first exposure to the series, I ended up not actually beating the game because I never figured out how to access the Trickmaster boss in Wonderland. So, I did what any kid would do at that point: give up and buy the sequel! I remember my dad and brother coming home from GameStop one day having bought Kingdom Hearts II. I’d say that is when my true obsession began.
I played the game endlessly, just wandering around fighting heartless for 200+ hours. I played other games at the time too, but KHII was my go-to for any given round of PlayStation-ing. I did end up beating this one and joined a legion of other fans in waiting for an inevitable sequel. Where the “otaku” part of this reflection comes in is through what I did when I wasn’t playing the game.
I was drawing the characters in notebooks (see below), giving my friends their Organization XIII names by switching the letters around and adding an “X,” and watching AMVs on Google Video (remember that?). I made my own Kingdom Hearts trading cards, lamented the fact that there was never any merchandise available at Hot Topic or F.Y.E., poured over the original Tokyo Pop releases of the manga, annoyed my then-girlfriend about it constantly (she didn’t even have a PS2), made my own AMVs, passively observed the KHInsider forums, downloaded every cutscene from KH-Vids.net, tried to make my own fan-film, built my own key blades out of cardboard, the list goes ON.
Let me reiterate that I was truly obsessed with Kingdom Hearts, but it taught me a lot of wonderful lessons. I learned video editing from making AMVs, and I developed a burgeoning taste in music from watching other people’s AMVs. I learned how to burn CDs and DVDs, I learned about online fan communities, and I started to broaden my interest in Japanese media leading me to investigate shows like Bleach and Death Note, and manga like Black Cat and Ruroni Kenshin.
Through a lot of those early years being obsessed with Kingdom Hearts, I felt pretty alone. No one around me seemed to love it as much as I did, and even the friend who initially introduced me to it moved on to other things. Some of my Halo and Call of Duty-playing friends were even openly hostile to games like Kingdom Hearts (note: I have nothing against people who play those games) and much of my fandom for it stayed quiet and solitary. I definitely learned a lot of hard lessons about making sure your fandom doesn’t burn so brightly that it burns other people out on the thing you like.
But, that solitude didn’t last forever. I eventually found friends who loved the series as much as I did and who I could bond with over it. Those relationships led me to where I am today, as someone who spends a lot of time still pouring my heart out over games and anime. While I don’t think anything will ever return me to the obsessive fervor I had over Kingdom Hearts back in the day, it taught me how to be a fan in the way I felt most comfortable being one; with a deep love and appreciation for stuff. Kingdom Hearts pressed just the right buttons in my little kid brain, and those dominoes continued to fall until here I am, a 26 year old grad student writing on an anime blog he started with an awesome group of friends.
Happy fifteenth birthday, Kingdom Hearts II! You’re now old enough to dress as edgy as Nomura draws.