Before starting the text itself, allow me to warn you: I’m not a game designer and I don’t have the basic notions of level design. Everything I say here is based on my own experiences as a player of this game series, as well as the experience of rewatching all the Disney movies that has a world in the Kingdom Hearts’ games. Without further ado, let’s get started.
I discovery the KH series in my preteenage, but I never really cared about it. Nowadays I love this series so much that I looked for three different consoles just because they had a game of Kingdom Hearts. Right now I don’t want to talk about how I enjoy its too complicated plot (or how I disapprove this). I want to talk about something I realized in the past years, and that’s something this series do better than all the licensed Disney games: there no other game that reproduces the worlds of Disney movies with such fidelity like the work of Nomura and his Square’s internal dev teams. To explain this, I’m going to talk how each Disney world is showed to us, their unique characteristics and how each movie was adapted to become a stage on this video game's series. Also, I’m going to point out some game design’s elements that I believe it guided the creation of all worlds in each KH game and helped to all of them have a certain familiarity, even coming from so different movies.
The first game was more focused on the platform sections, due to this the scenarios were very closed and small. To progress the player is required to surpass platforms and obstacles. Nowadays, people see this platform sections displeasure due the very boorish controls. But let’s give it a break. The developers of Square(soft) were experimenting with mechanics yet. But over those 15 years, they have been polishing them and removing what did not work to make something really pleasurable. Let’s go to the worlds!
Following the rule of design of the first game, Alice’s world is very closed, with the walls strangely well-seen and full of box-like rooms. It seems a lot of a theater’s scenarios, something that mirror the 1959 movie, where we can spot Alice in very closed environments or that looks like a theater’s play.
One of highlight of Tarzan’s movie (1999) was the sequence of the protagonist slide though the branches in the treetops. This was possible thanks to the Deep Canvas technology, using the reproduction of 3D dynamic environments with 2D drawings. In the game, we can experience this with a slide mini-game to reach the Jane and her father’s camp. Also, the areas are connected in a similar manner with the movie: we start at the tree house, following the forest and ending in the camp, not to mention the bamboo’s forest newly opened by Clayton.
This world has two parts: the Agrabah’s streets and the Cave of Wonders. The first one is focused on the beginning of the movie, the sequence of bread theft made by Aladdin. In this part we see the streets on the outskirts of Agrabah, which are full of tall buildings and alleys. As the results, the first section of this world is very vertical, with big walls all around you and alleys only accessible by the superior floors.
The Cave of Wonders mirrored very well the environment of the movie of 1992: cave areas with rooms filled with treasures. As a reference, there are a switch mechanisms in some monkey statues, with a huge ruby that can only be touched by Abu. At the end there is an escape sequence under the magic carpet, alluding to the iconic scene of escape in stretched plane.
The movie of Pinocchio (1940) is present in the first game in a very curious manner: the Monstro whale swim through the in-between worlds’ space. Except for the mouth region, where is the boat of Geppetto and wrecks of other boats that form a series of platforms, the rest of the world is an original area more in the bottom of the whale. Full of levels and with multiple entrances and exits, it appears a real maze.
Aside this, the Monstro didn’t have many variations until Birth by Sleep, where, in a Mirage Arena mission, you have to fight him in the middle of the ocean. His scale is reliable to the colossus of the film.
Atlantica is a world set on the subaquatic realm ruled by King Triton in The Little Mermaid (1989). To reinforce the idea of being under the sea (and not just the characters floating in middle air), they implemented an effect over the screen that distort slightly the scene, giving to the player the feeling of seeing the world through the water. Add to this more elements easily perceptive, as sound effect and bubbles.
The colors’ tune tries to get close at maximum the original movie of 1993. They go further and add to all the characters a special texture that emulate the typical modeling clay of this kind of film. Ally to this the fact the stages looks like models of larger scenarios. This give us the feeling we are in fact inside a model of a scenario for a stop-motion movie.
The world of Peter Pan’s (1953) is very curious one. In the first game it’s basically the Captain Hook’s ship and the Big Ben Clock Tower. The main mechanic of this world, without a doubt, is the ability of fly that Tinker Bell give to us. Such ability was not chosen by chance, considering the original animation movie the biggest highlight was the segment of flying animation of Peter Pan, Wendy and her brothers through the skies of London, before going to Neverland.
In the other games that this world makes a return, we have the pleasure to visit the island of Neverland and the surrounding ocean. The mechanic of flying is still there in the 358/2 Days, while Bith by Sleep focused on the on-foot exploration, with the Captain Hook’s ship in the background constantly attacking with its cannons, wherever the player is.
In contrast to the original game, Kingdom Hearts II has a much broader areas and platform section less frustrating. This happens thanks to the such smooth controls, as well as the new movements of Sora that allows him to navigate through the map with more freedom and speed. Because of this, I believe what dictated the stage’s design was precisely large scenarios with greater freedom of movement. Hardly you’ll see Sora hitting the Keyblade in a wall by accident due the lack of space during the combats. By the way, the first thing I noticed was the camera being a little further from the character, allowing me to see my surroundings better.
This is a game with a generous number of worlds, including the return some worlds of the first game with another perspective, worlds based on the very begin of Disney animations and even live-action movies!
Just like Wonderland showed the main concept behind the level design of the first game, the same happen in the stage based on Mulan (1998): here the platform elements are decrease greatly in order to focus into the action and the combats, giving to us bigger areas. The choice of this world seems to be right, like the peak of the mountain and the imperial palace’s square.
One little note: the movie had a special treatment with the smoke animation that tries to emulate the smoke coming from an incense. This detail we can see in the game, when we explode certain elements of the environment.
Just like the Land of Dragons, the designers took advance the vastness of Beast’s Castle to its favor. There is not many open-air areas, but the height of the ceiling is dizzying and the choice of colder colors only reinforces the dense and gloomy climate that surrounds the cursed castle, as it is in the 1991 movie.
I chose not to talk about the first incarnation of the world based on Hercules (1997) because in KHI it was just a Monster Arena, with only three different places. But in KH II the focus is Hades’ Underworld. Despite we see just briefly in the original movie, the environment is well done, focusing in the mists and haze. This even influence the level design, where we face a false floor hind by the mist and narrow passages, just like a cave.
In Birth by Sleep there is a new are depicting the city of Thebes that appears in the movie, although it’s limited to be just a big square.
This is, by far, the world that most positively surprised me when I played it for the first time. Its premise is to represent to first animations of Walt Disney, like the Steamboat Willie (1928). Donald and Goofy have the looks of the first version, while Sora try to replicate the cartoons of that period. The work is so thorough that even the sound and voice lines have a filter that emulates the typical noises of the recordings of that period.
Also, the world brings four portals to different areas that depict other short-movies from the same period, like “Building a Building” (1933), “Mickey’s Orphans” (1931), “Mickey’s Fire Brigade” (1935) and “Gulliver Mickey” (1934). These are areas that vary widely, sometimes being enclosed sites, or even a mini-city and open fields.
Graphically speaking, the first world based on a live-action movie is really well done. I congratulate the animators and the engine they used. They achieve the visit of a so recent movie (the movie launched in 2003, while KH II is from 2005) doesn’t look out of place or ugly for a PS2 game.
That said, the greater mechanic of the world involves the moonlight, which reveals the cursed from of the Black Pearl’s pirates. This transition effect from shadow to light was as smooth as it is in the movie, with pirate models swapping instantly and almost without notice.
At this point, you have realized how happy the game was choosing world with such vast places, since the gameplay require bigger areas for Sora move freely during the combats. I believe the highest point is in the world based on Lion King (1994), something Nomura wished to put in the series since the first game.
Here the environments are extremely vast, as is the savannah we see surrounding the Pride Rock. So vast is the savannah that playing with normal Sora would not be appropriate (apart the context that there are no humans in Simba’s world). This allowed a lion version of the main character gave to him the ability to move with much more speed and agility. Both the huge savannah and the vertical canyons, which require jumping with momentum, only reinforce the sense of vastness present in the original film.
At first, I imagined I didn’t have nothing to report about this movie aside what I already commented before (faithful to the movie, environment recreating the movies’ scenario, etc.) until I reach the ending of the movie: the Master Control Program, or MCP, creates barriers to protect himself from Tron’s disc, not to mention the giant Sark.
All this refers to the idea of final boss in video games, something really uncommon to the period the Tron movie launched (remember that the movie itself has allusion to video games inside its virtual thematic) and obviously Kingdom Hearts II wouldn’t do different. The fight is a bit more elaborated, but the barriers system and the giant Sark are there, just like in the movie.
The Birth by Sleep has as main feature the story being split into three main protagonists: Terra, Ventus and Aqua. This way we just don’t see the plot from different perspectives, but some parts of the worlds are only playable through certain character. Therefore, each one of them witness a specific moment of each movie.
Furthermore, happening 10 years before the first game came in handy and portrait the three worlds of the Princesses of Heart: Aurora (Enchanted Dominion), Cinderella (Castle of Dreams) and Snow White (Dwarf Woodlands), and other worlds. Some are old acquaintances of the players, but now we visited them in an earlier era.
The first world we visit in Birth by Sleep had a special treatment to reproduce the colors of Eyvind Earle’s illustrations, who was responsible for the Sleeping Beauty (1959)’s scenarios. It’s possible to notice the color tones lighter and softer and some areas with geometry objects, like the woods that connect Aurora’s castle to Maleficent’s tower.
Behind the fireplace, where in the movie was the spinning wheel that curses Aurora with the sleep spell, you can find a chest with the command “Sleep.”
With Ventus we explore Maleficent’s den in order to find Aurora’s heart. We are constantly stormed by the Queen of Evil’s army, being two types of enemies: the infantry and the archers, who are always placed far away from the player or in higher grounds. There’s an original area here: a huge hall with waypoints, that review to be a labyrinth when Ventus get closer of one of the invisible walls.
We confront Maleficent herself but, different from the first game where we face her dragon form, here we fight against her human form, with the help of the three fairies, making a small reference to Prince Philip’s escape, who also had the help of the three fairies. The highlight goes to the attacks of the Maleficent: all of them we can see in the movie: lightning bolts, flames, a sound magic around the area, but can be deflect with a combine attack with the fairies. She also has a pursue attack with the animation of her spiral teleport magic used in the movie.
Of the three worlds of the classic princesses, this one possesses the largest environments, courtesy of the enormous castle. As a result, we see areas such as the corridor connecting the gate to the hall: it is a round with 4 waves of enemies, to entertain the player until arriving at one of the exits.
In visual terms, the world is happy to emulate the colors and tones used in the Cinderella (1950), courtesy of the seven scenario artists: Dick Anthony, Merle Cox, Ray Huffine, Ralph Hulett, Brice Mack, Art Riley e Thelma Witmer
It may not seem like it, but a good part of the film focuses on Jaq and Gus preparing Cinderella’s dress and buying a fight with Stepmother’s cat: Lucifer. Ventus ended up taking the role of Gus on the game, helping the mouse in the search for the material of Cinderella’s dress. There’s a déjà vu feeling coming from the Wonderland, all thanks for seeing everything so big and for having Lucifer as the final boss of this world, with a moveset that take advance of the platform of the room.
The whole stage makes us think that we are inside of children’s storybook: the most pastoral colors, high relief scenarios (just like Pooh’s 100 Acre Woods) such as the field of flowers in which Snow White pick up flowers. That’s because Walt Disney put the studio’s effort into making a movie that give to the spectator the experience of watching an animated tale. In order to reach this, he contracted two artists specialized in making such illustrations and with European origin to be responsible for the Snow White’s art style as a whole: Ferdinand Hovarth and Gustaf Tenggren.
TERRA: His part in the story basically replaces the role of the hunter who “tries” to kill Snow White. The final boss of his part is the spirit of the Magic Mirror. It’s an interesting fight because it intensifies the fact that you’re inside a mirror with its reflections: the floor has a reflection “water mirror” style and it reflects everything: Terra, the boss and his doubles. By the way, many moves from the Mirror involves him multiply himself and create an illusion of an infinite corridor.
AQUA: behind the dwarves’ house there is a chest with the command “Poison”
VENTUS: His part starts at the dwarves’ mine, in a circular area where he must look for the hidden dwarves. There’s an interesting mechanics to help you to identify each one of the dwarves: most of them are hiding inside boxes, but each one of them react differently when Ventus approach: Grumpy attacks him, Happy runs away, Sneezy sneezes and Sleepy simply stay still, taking a nap. We find all of them except for Dopey and the reason behind this is pretty curious. When you find one of them, they make a commentary to Ventus. Since Dopey don’t say a word…
The world is based on the ship that transported Experiment 626 to his exile, which appears only in the first 11 minutes of Lilo & Stich (2002). Just like the Monstro whale, the ship travel through space in-between worlds that the trio of heroes travel as well.
Thanks to the spacecraft enviroment, obviously there are rooms specially designed to deal with low gravity.
Curiously, it’s not very clear in the movie if the cell chamber where Jumba is imprisoned was in the same ship or in the Galactic Federation’s planet, but the game make it clear that are separated things using a teleporters system.
Besides that, the cells in the movie are organized in a vertical way, using platforms to access each one of them. It was a great opportunity to make a platform section in the game, with treasure chest hidden inside some cells.
As I was playing in Dream Drop Distance, two things stood out a lot. One was the Flowmotion system, that breaks the borders of navigation and movement from the previous games. The only limit now is simply the visible and invisible walls from the scenarios. There no inaccessible area anymore, and the player doesn’t need to learn a new technique like High Jump or Glide in order to reach these parts. Sora and Riku can climb any wall and reach any height, allied to moves that reach the apex of fluidity and allow them to perform even more daring acrobatics in the Sleeping Worlds.
This take us to the second thing: this game has a happier mood comparing to the previous titles. There’s something really circus and carnival-like here, full of vibrant colors, festive decorations and elements easily found in a circus environment. It ended up that allied to the stunts and special attacks with the Spirits that we can perform.
I believe that these two points were the guiding principles for choosing the worlds present in this game:
The world based on the Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) seems to be one of the first chosen ones based on the principles of Dream Drop: both the fact that the Notre Dame Cathedral is presented so big in the movie (just like the opening of the movie likes to emphasize, the cathedral towers seem to stand above the clouds). The Cathedral Courtyard, place of the famous Festival of Fools is all decorated in a festive way and referring to the gypsies performing in a circus way in the movie.
Everything here is really impressive, considering the game was develop for a handheld console like 3DS and it’s possible to climb the Cathedral from outside only using the Flowmotion, as well as fall from the Towers and reach the floor without a loading screen in between.
Another highlight from this world is how it recreate so well the scenarios, the scale and tone from the movie, created and coordinated by Lisa Keene in the original.
The Tron movie has appeared already as a Kingdom Hearts world named Space Paranoids. This time is the version of Tron: Legacy (2010) to show itself. The new version of The Grid appears even more vast (going beyond the simulation’s horizons) with broad sectors and more vertical, with buildings and straight structures. It’s minimalism and highlight the light lines, counting with the visual primarily dark with neon. This fact is a counterpoint to Space Paranoid world, that had sections with very saturated and primary colors.
I’d like to talk about the battle between Sora and Rinzler. It has a strong emotional charge due the story from the Kingdom Hearts II and see his friend Tron modified and reprogrammed is a very complicated situation to deal with. The fight isn’t just well recreated, but it recalls from the same fight Rinzler has against Sam Flynn in the movie, at the Disc War arena, with the final blow from that fight being recreate here in the game as one of the most powerful movies of the boss.
While we had only seen the interior of the Monstro so far, Pinocchio received a new world in an ambience that is both unusual but at same time consistent with the theme of the game: the Pleasure Island. It’s unusual since this is one of the creepiest and tense moments of the movie, but the developers managed to create a world that explore the Amusement Park side of the place. It has a huge are with a roller coaster, Ferris Wheel and other toys spotted in the movie.
In addition, there is a more enclosed area of a dome with trampolines, trapezes and other circus instruments.
Still, the Monstro is here, but the concept behind the stage is other. His interior has changed, much wider and with less platforms. Go away that maze with ins and outs in order to have more vast areas and switches that activate platforms e even flip the whole place upside-down.
Another new thing is a section of phases focused on the seabed that, unlike the aquatic environment of the Atlantic world, Sora walks on foot, just like Pinocchio does in the movie, thanks the that stone he wrap on his donkey’s tail. This aquatic ambience makes a good use of the level-style of the game: it has big areas, with parts that reinforce how deep is the ocean’s abyss.
One of the most curious worlds to be in Kingdom Hearts since Space Paranoids. It’s based on a 2004 home video movie called “Mickey, Donald, Goofy: The Three Musketeers” that even with only one-hour length, it’s a unique movie comparing to the other Disney home video products. The animation, narrative rhythm and jokes are top notch.
The movie happens as a comic story, read by an omniscient narrator. In the game the Dive and the Reality Shift we interact with comic book pages.
In terms of stages, it took advance of the vastness of the Musketeers’ Training Yard, the plains and the tower where Minnie and Daisy were imprisoned and the Opera, with many alleys and even a backstage.
Based on Fantasia (1940), here the musicality reigns in the whole world. The voices and sound effects are muted for the classic music that plays in the BGM and the attacks sounds are exchanged for a note of determinate instruments. Not to mention the Reality Shifts, with a rhythm QTEs of a small portion of the music that plays in the movie. Everything for the mix of gameplay with the orchestrated music, the same happens in the movie, where happens a synesthesia with the music dictating everything that happens onscreen.
In this world it recreates the “Pastoral Symphony”, “The Nutcracker Suite” and “Night on Bald Mountain”, not to mention that the already traditional Yen Sid Tower is located exactly where the most famous segment of the movie occurs: The Sorcerer's Apprentice.
Even after so many titles, every time a world or a character from Disney movie appears for the first time in any Kingdom Hearts game, the developers and producers go beyond than simply modeling and put them into a 3D environment. They really dig, get inspiration from the original material and search carefully the movie they came from and try, as much as possible, pass them into the game. Not just the worlds and characters’ visuals, but also in the level design and mechanics. Each title has a central theme and it’s visible that worlds selection is made take the best of each one of the design’s focus.
As far as I can see of Kingdom Hearts III, they are going to expand what they learned from the mechanics of Birth by Sleep and Dream drop Distance. Promising expand even more the areas of the worlds, with graphics that rival with the visual of the movies themselves. I hope that they continue to be faithful and that this series remains as a reference when it comes to adapting animation movies into great mechanics and video game stages.
P.S.¹: I would like to thank especially the team of O Camundongo website who helped me in my research about the production of some Disney movies. It’s a Brazilian website, but I’m positive this is the biggest fan-to-fan Disney website I’ve ever seen. It’s very clear their dedication and passion for this studio. Their special articles focused on each film, especially those that are part of the series“A Outra Ponta do Lápis [The Other Side of the Pencil]” are incredibly detailed texts talking about the life and work of the artists, painters and animators who have marked and still mark the productions within the Disney studios. I strongly recommend it!
P.S.²: Also many thanks to Ricardo Kuraoka for reviewing my text