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22 Years Ago, Kingdom Hearts Almost Got Me Grounded For Life

We could hear her flip-flops slapping the concrete steps that led to the basement before we saw her. “Shh!” we hissed at each other, both of us adopting casual, seated poses on the well-worn couch to exude an air of relaxation, of calm. My sister’s breathing betrayed us, however—her chest was rising and falling in big gulps as she tried to catch her breath.

“I know you two are being stupid down here,” our mother snapped from the landing. “Knock it off or I’m taking away the PlayStation.” She turned on her heel and went back up the steps, her flip-flops beating a rhythm like the beginnings of a boss battle score.

As soon as we heard the creaks of the floorboards upstairs, we resumed our activities. I unpaused and my sister picked her giant stuffed bear up off the ground and began singing and tossing him in the air. This was our ritual—at 11 and 8 years old, Kingdom Hearts was the first video game that challenged us: me, the gamer, and my sister, the viewer. I struggled with the tutorial. I struggled to make use of its systems. I struggled flying the Gummi Ship between locations. I struggled with every boss battle.

Kingdom Hearts, Square Enix’s Disney-themed RPG that also pulled from its Final Fantasy games, was released 22 years ago on March 28, 2002. It was the first game I almost quit, and it nearly drove my parents mad as well.

Goofy, Sora, and Donald Duck stand together in a bright white room.

Kingdom Hearts was my first big gaming challenge

Keep in mind that this was 2002, before I had access to the internet, before I knew of printed guidebooks. My parents bought me Kingdom Hearts because of the Disney connections, and because it looked fairly innocuous in a sea of guns, boobs, and petty crime. But I struggled with Square Enix’s RPG, as I was unaccustomed to its systems and its combat and still somewhat clunky with a controller.

In the face of these struggles, my sister, usually a passive viewer of my game endeavors, had resorted to doing bizarre dances while I played in an attempt to appease the gaming gods. If a fight was going poorly, I’d beseech her to “grab the bear!” and she’d begin twirling and jumping with as much grace as you’d expect from a slightly gangly third grader. The bear frequently hit the ceiling in the basement, or knocked over cups of water, or bounced off my dog’s head, all of which would send us into a fit of hysterics, which would summon my mother like Elden Ring’s Spirit Calling Bell.

For months, this routine consumed us: We’d get home from school at the same time on the same bus, drop our bags at the door, and sprint downstairs to boot up PlayStation and try to make some headway in Kingdom Hearts. At first, I thought I’d quit after struggling through Wonderland, but ultimately made it off of Alice in Wonderland’s world. Then, I thought Hercules’ planet would stonewall me, but the dancing bear ritual pulled me through. It was Clayton in the Deep Jungle of Tarzan’s world, however, that threatened to not only cause me to give up on Kingdom Hearts forever, but get me and my sister grounded for life.

You see, everything about the Deep Jungle was misbehavior fodder for me and my sister. Tarzan’s line delivery was the funniest thing in the world for two elementary school kids. And Kingdom Hearts didn’t let you skip cutscenes, so the final boss battle in the Deep Jungle sent us to the beginning of a several times a day. The dialogue seared itself onto our soft little brains. We’d yell “not Clayton” out of the school bus windows, groan “Noooo” in Sora’s exact intonation whenever something bad happened, or walk around like gorillas in the pew during Sunday service. We were Tarzan-pilled, and it was driving our parents crazy.

The difficulty of that final boss battle meant the dancing bear ritual was frequently deployed, its intensity consistently ratcheted up, until we got to a point where the dance would dislodge several of the basement’s ceiling tiles, or someone would get hurt running into the other person at a full sprint. When my mother would clip-clop downstairs to yell at us, she’d go nuclear every time she saw a black void where a tile used to be, my sister sheepishly grinning under the empty chasm, or one of us sitting on the floor, rubbing at a growing lump on our head. The disheartening failure of yet another attempt at the Clayton boss battle was eclipsed only by the punishment we’d endure for acting like two kids raised in the wild: 100 lines written in our spiral notebooks, or a playdate canceled, or, the worst: a PlayStation ban.

Eventually (I can’t remember when or how), I beat Clayton, and moved on to Aladdin’s Agrabah. Though I struggled less at this part of the game, and the bear ritual was no longer necessary, my sister and I still found ways to get rowdy—namely, loudly singing nonsense words to match the in-game score while belly dancing, our shirts flipped upwards and tucked into themselves to bare our midriffs. When I finally beat Kingdom Hearts, I don’t know who was more relieved: myself or my parents.