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Gaming

Kingdom Hearts, and when judging a book by its cover goes right

Commentary: Think of your favourite video game. How many stars aligned for you to enjoy it as much as you did?

Each of us has a game, film or album that, in spite of its flaws, transports us back to our youth. For me, it's the Kingdom Hearts games. And all of it, both my playing them and their very conception, happened on a whim.

Growing up, we all judge books by their covers -- and games by their box art. Most times these choices lend themselves to regrettable experiences (South Park Rally got me good) or, if we're lucky, forgettable ones. But when I was 11 and perusing my local EB Games, something young Daniel spent an embarrassing amount of time doing, I chanced on Kingdom Hearts.

Its cover depicts a sky of midnight blue with a bright, white, heart-shaped moon at the centre. In the foreground, I met the franchise's key characters for the first time. There's Sora, Keyblade in hand, staring courageously into the distance, and Riku, who with his antisocial, downward gaze would evidently be the angsty member of the group. Below them was Kairi, the figurative damsel in distress, and, for some reason I had to find out, Disney's Donald Duck and Goofy.

Square Enix

That day, with no previous exposure to or knowledge of the game, I concocted a complex plan -- including pleading with my parents, doing chores, trading in other games and using what small funds I already had -- to make Kingdom Hearts mine.

Thirteen years later, new footage of Kingdom Hearts III still fills me with the very same feelings of wonder and intrigue that I experienced that day. The type of unrestrained excitement that people generally lose the capacity for after puberty.

But my love-at-first-sight attachment to the series isn't the only stroke of fortune in our relationship, as the Kingdom Hearts franchise is itself a happy coincidence.

"Just as I was working on Final Fantasy VII, Super Mario 64 was released. The fully three-dimensional spaces and the freedom you had to run around them had a big impact on me," Kingdom Hearts' director, Tetsuya Nomura, told then-Nintendo President Satoru Iwata in 2012.

When Nomura told colleagues that he wanted to make a game to compete with Super Mario 64, they told him, "The only way you could do it is with characters that are as well known as Disney's."

At the time, Square Enix shared offices in Japan with Disney. A chance meeting in an elevator between a Disney executive and Shinji Hashimoto, a senior developer at Square Enix, would get the Kingdom Hearts ball rolling.

Nomura ended up making a presentation to Disney, with the American company liking the idea but initially wanting Mickey Mouse to be the lead character. As the discussions progressed, Nomura got more creative control thanks to the influence of one key Disney exec -- something he calls himself "very, very lucky" for -- and eventually, Sora was born.

Fun fact: Sora's outfit in the original Kingdom Hearts was a tribute to Mickey Mouse. Compare the two here and here.

It took Super Mario 64 influencing a Square Enix designer; a chance meeting in an elevator between that designer's superior and an open-minded Disney executive; strokes of luck in the creative process; and me happening to like the game's box art for my love affair with Kingdom Hearts to begin.

I have such fond memories of playing the series over the years. In 2006, Kingdom Hearts II was released and I finished it in a week -- and after the closing credits, I immediately re-started the game and played it just as vociferously over the following week. In 2010, Birth By Sleep came out a few weeks before my final high school exams began -- I stayed up until 4 and 5 AM on many a (weekend) night to finish it before the exams began. In 2014, Square Enix released a HD remake of Kingdom Hearts II on the PS3 -- I, a living-out-of-home "adult" working full time as a journalist, took a week off work to relive the Kingdom Hearts magic.

And they say fate doesn't exist. What stars had to align for you to play your favourite video game?