Kingdom Hearts is a weird science experiment with a twisty plot and ridiculous narrative “dont’s,” and yet it remains my, and many others’, favorite game series. For all intents and purposes, these games shouldn’t work, and yet they’ve charmed a whole generation by cramming Final Fantasy into Disney fluff. Whether we all love Kingdom Hearts for the emotional, nostalgic storytelling, the fact that we’ve grown up with it, or because we like trying to explain the ass-backwards plot to no avail, one thing’s for sure: This franchise is an exception. With one of the most blindly devoted fan bases (I am damn well aware that this includes me), it’s one of few series that rarely catches hate from its own fans. Only love and praise.
With the long-awaited Kingdom Hearts III ReMind DLC—which promises new worlds, Keyblades, playable characters, modes, and story updates, both through the $30 DLC and a free update—out January 23 for PS4 and February 25 for Xbox One, the fan forums are overflowing with hype. So we thought, there are a nice, crisp 10 games in the series (not counting the many re-rereleases and remakes), and that makes for a nice, clean listicle of the 10 best Kingdom Hearts titles of all time. Just base games released in the U.S., to clarify. Of course, the remastered and Final Mix versions are the definitive ways to play, so feel free to assume that’s the version we mean.
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10. Kingdom Hearts Re:coded
Released 2011; Nintendo DS
“Mickey, it’s Riku. They put bugs in him.” This is a quote from this game. I’m a diehard for the series, but this is the one game I played once and never really wanted to go back to. It was a lot of filler, which isn’t necessarily off-brand for Kingdom Hearts, but I mean, they released it on mobile phones in 2011, and it was just kinda boring, comparatively speaking. Not a terrible game, but it had some of the worst writing in the series. Skip it and read the Wiki if you’re just looking for the road to Kingdom Hearts III, but it’s worth playing if you’re a diehard like me.
9. Kingdom Hearts Unchained ?
Released 2016; mobile
I played the shit out of this when it came out. It was a mobile game where you and your friends could make your own character. The story finally started to interact with the main series, but there was one huge issue. Microtransactions. You didn’t need to buy anything to play, and the story was pretty easy to get through on free-to-play, but there were a lot of the negative parts of the mobile game industry in this title. It was a fun one, a good time-killer, and great with some friends, but overall, ? was just an aftertaste of what we’ve come to appreciate about the series.
8. Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue
Released 2017; PS4
Fans love this “game.” I love this “game.” It’s a great “game.” So why is it ranked eighth? Because arguably, it’s not a game. It’s a really good, substance-heavy, three-to-five hour tech demo. It is so good I couldn’t leave it off the list, but in my right mind, it can’t go higher than the other full-fledged games with 30-to-80 hours of content. Playing as Aqua and experiencing the engine for Kingdom Hearts III, while getting some nice lore on how everything would connect, was wonderful. It also had some of the best boss battles and cutscenes in the series so far. If Nomura and friends ever wanted to build a full title out of this, I’d be all for it. But as it stands, it’s a glorified tech demo, in the best way.
7. Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance
Released 2012; Nintendo 3DS
This game gets a lot of hate—some deserved, and some because for some reason, when 2010 rolled around, the video game community and the Kingdom Hearts community all of the sudden decided they were gonna be hypercritical. It’s a solid game, with fun mechanics and a wonky story that felt like it was all going to be filler but actually featured some integral plot points. Dream Drop Distance brought the flomotion controls to the series as seen in Kingdom Hearts III, as well as smoother vertical platforming. It included characters from the absolutely phenomenal cult classic The World Ends With You, which was rad. DDD also showcased some of the coolest worlds in the series, including those based on Fantasia, The Three Musketeers, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and a return to a personal favorite, Traverse Town. While the writing was really not stellar here, the game gave Riku a lot of playtime, which is always a plus. The boss battles were awesome, and the way it helped fold together Xehanort’s “Master Plan” for Kingdom Hearts III was pretty goddamn cool. Admittedly, it plays much better on the PS4 than the 3DS, but that’s really no surprise.
6. Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days
Released 2009; Nintendo DS
This game is like subpar wine that somehow ages better and better over time. I was a fan of Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days when it was released, but really enjoyed the titles starring Sora. Now, over a decade later, myself and much of the community have more appreciation for the story told in this title. Focused on the inner workings and politics of those black-coated nobodies, Organization XIII, you got deeper insight into Roxas and Axel’s friendship, and a character who defied all odds, Xion. Xion quite literally started out being vastly disregarded by the community, and now he is one of the most fleshed-out, heartstring-pulling figures in the series. This game got better as the full, convoluted story came together.
5. Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories
Released 2004; Game Boy Advance
WTF, why are there cards in my action RPG? Nine-year-old me was so excited to get this game for Christmas, and then I had to put in so many painstaking hours to learn how to fight and play goddamn poker at the same time. This was one of those rare instances where a game completely changed its mechanics and stumbled upon something brilliant. I have never played a title quite like Chain of Memories since, well, Chain of Memories. Players built decks and strung together combos, micromanaging a number-based card battle. It was hard, but an absolute blast. I can’t honestly say I want Kingdom Hearts to take the series here again, but I would love some new spin-off titles. The game also set up the plot for Naminé, Castle Oblivion, and the Organization, making it a crucial title in the series, and one of the best story-driven games you could play on the Game Boy Advance.
4. Kingdom Hearts
Released 2002; PS2
The game that started it all—a relic of simpler times and a whole lot of sloppy retcon. “There can only be one Keyblade wielder,” it promised. Yeah, well, there are like 45 now and counting. Hell, I don’t know why they haven’t just given Goofy a fucking Keyblade yet. But that’s beside the point. This fever dream of a game felt like it marked a point where our timeline broke off from the others, and if string theory is true, I’m convinced we’re inhabiting the only timeline that has Kingdom Hearts. The idea that Final Fantasy and Disney could come together to make a semi-edgy story with inventive worlds, both original and Disney-based, and allow so many crossovers to happen, was unheard of, but nevertheless absolutely amazing. The first title gave us a new way of playing action RPGs, and everything hit just right (at the time), from the music to the graphics. I liked this game so much that I would constantly play through the beginning with my brother, over and over again, since we didn’t have a memory card to save. This is the title that started my blind obsession and the never-ending ordeal of trying to explain the twisty plot to my poor parents, who had to endure that shit for years. The first Kingdom Hearts opened a lot of our eyes to narrative gaming, and it remains a classic.
3. Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep
Released 2010; PSP
This is one of my most replayed titles in the series: three characters, three stories, and hands-down the darkest and most upsetting narrative of the series. Birth By Sleep takes place when Xehanort (the Big Bad) first puts his master plan into motion. Following Aqua, Terra, and Ventus, three younger Keyblade wielders, it tied up a lot of questions about the past and helped clarify some stuff for future games. Birth By Sleep showed the darker points of the series and, more importantly, revealed the true villain in a badass way. It helped develop the signature combo command system seen in the newer titles, along with some other great quality of life changes. Birth by Sleep also brought some fantastic modes, like online multiplayer with the mirage arena. It remains one of the most well-constructed titles in the series and really helped steer the narrative towards what we see now.
2. Kingdom Hearts III
Released 2019; PS4 and Xbox One
There are a lot of strong feelings about Kingdom Hearts III; that’s what happens when longtime fans are given nearly 15 years to wait—and theorize—between main franchise installment. To be completely honest, even with all the great 2019 games, this is the one that brought me the most joy. Whether that was because a young man’s dreams finally came true, or because I got to play while my brother watched and asked questions about the incoherent plot, just like old times, or the fact that it is genuinely a well-made and extremely polished game, I’m not sure, but I dig it. Kingdom Hearts III has some of the best combat in the series, even if it’s riddled with attraction commands. There are enough reunions that fans had been waiting to see for years that it is nearly impossible not to get the warm fuzzies. The story also feels like a satisfying end for Sora, with fingers crossed that the ReMind DLC will create a more satisfying finale for all the Keyblade crew. I know it has its problems, but so does the entirety of Kingdom Hearts, and we’re supposed to be the one fan base that ignores silly things like plot holes for the greater cause.
1. Kingdom Hearts II
Released 2005; PS2
This game fucking ruled. It did all of it right. The plot started to get convoluted, but still hadn’t completely gone off the deep end. The worlds all felt new. It added forms, Keyblades, and thrilling battles, from fighting with Cloud Strife, Leon, and Tifa to taking on the 1000 Heartless. It revealed Roxas and more about the Organization, all bundled in phenomenal gameplay. It was a truly complete title. With the game consistently getting delayed, this was 10-year-old Cam’s first major test in patience, but that made it so much sweeter when it finally came out. The memories I have of playing this game with my grade school and middle school friends are fantastic, and they prove how Kingdom Hearts swept my generation up in its charm and remarkably in-depth yet kid-friendly story. Kingdom Hearts II feels like the purest form of Kingdom Hearts that you can find to this day, and it remains one of the most replayed titles in the series for a reason.
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