Video game reviewers have a tough job. They usually receive the latest games a few days before they are released in stores, forcing them to binge play the game, trying to get through as much content in as short a time as possible.
Video game reviews are also written for the general video game playing audience. They have to cover all the bases: game play, story, controls, graphics, sound, etc. To use the tired expression, they give readers a view of the forest, not the trees. Or to update the metaphor: video game reviews give readers a view of the world map, not the levels.
Well, I want to focus this retro review of Kingdom Hearts II (KHII) for the PS2 (2005) on a certain type of level: the gummi ship levels. I recently played KHII for the first time, and while the game was enjoyable in many respects (and frustrating in others), I found the gummi levels to be one of the most intriguing parts of the game, given their disastrous history in Kingdom Hearts I.
Poorly conceived and poorly executed
For those who are unfamiliar, here’s Kingdom Hearts in a nutshell:
The forces of evil are stealing peoples’ hearts. When enough hearts are gathered, they can open Kingdom Hearts, a sort of godlike energy source at the center of all worlds.
And what worlds are we talking about? The worlds of Disney and Final Fantasy, of course. The Kingdom Hearts series is one of the oddest universe cross-overs in any medium. You play as the stereotypical anime kid Sora, partnered with Donald Duck and Goofy, trying to save all worlds. Each game features a variety of Disney-themed levels (e.g., Little Mermaid, Lion King, Nightmare Before Christmas, and Alice in Wonderland), and Final Fantasy characters like Cloud, Yuna, and Leon stop in to help you out.
It’s a strange game, but I highly recommend it to action RPG fans.
Anyway, the first game connected the various Disney worlds with “gummi ship” levels. What’s a gummi ship? Ehh, just a blockly looking ship with a primary colors paint job. The gummi ship levels were basically a poor man’s Star Fox. You fly through space on rails, blasting away at easily destructible enemies until you get to the end of the space corridors, opening the passage to the next world. The gummi levels only take about 3 minutes to complete, and you only have to complete them once. You probably spend 30 minutes on them out of a total 25-30 hour play-through of the game.
So what’s the problem? Well, first let’s amend that sentence to “What are the problems”?
- The levels are too easy. In many of them, you literally just mash on the X button; you barely have to move the ship to avoid enemies or obstacles.
- The gummi levels have no explanation. Why do you need this ship to travel between worlds? Who are you killing, Heartless? Innocents? Nobody knows.
- The characters never acknowledge the gummi space, aside from the first time you get the ship. No cutscenes take place in the gummi space. Essentially, the game seems to have forgotten about this part of the world.
- The base gummi ship can be edited and customized, but the ship editing system is extremely complicated and lacks enjoyment. Throughout your adventures, you’ll collect hundreds of gummi parts to create your own ships (think of combining Lego bricks). Considering how easy the levels are to complete with the base ship, customizing the gummi ship is not needed. The game offers, then, a potentially deep ship creation system that has no purpose: hence, there’s no reason to use it.
Doubling down on a losing formula: Kingdom Hearts II makes significant improvements
When I learned that the gummi levels made a return in KHII, I was shocked. After their painful rollout in the first game, I felt sure that Square Enix would trim the fat of their KH game design and eliminate these mini-games.
I was wrong. And I’m glad I was wrong because the gummi levels were significantly improved in KHII.
It’s hard to really understand why these levels are so much better because nobody has really tackled this subject before. Like I said in the opening, video game reviews give you a gloss of the game, and then reviewers move on to the next game. Rarely do game journalists look back and really analyze what worked and what didn’t in a video game. I oftentimes wish that reviewers would write a “post game” review, something to be read after the game is completed. Then the review could include spoilers and everything.
But alas, these retrospectives rarely exist, so I write my own.
I checked out old KHII reviews, just out of curiosity to see what they said about the gummi levels in particular. Not surprisingly, not much.
Most of them devoted only a paragraph to the subject, and two-thirds of that paragraph is spent explaining how the levels work. Then a verdict is rendered. Here’s a sampling:
- There’s something distinctly unimpressive about the gummi ship levels, and it’s likely that after you play through each level once, thereby unlocking it, you won’t find reason to go through again. GameSpot
- Remember that pathetic attempt at a shoot ’em up … that was the Gummi Ship in Kingdom Hearts? It’s back, and it’s back with a vengeance. This time around, it passes as a decent Shmup, rivaling the latest titles from the genre’s hottest Japanese developer Cave. Okay, maybe not rivaling, but the point is that this is a really fun mini-game. RPGFan
- The gummi ship sequences are satisfying, can be enjoyed for dozens of hours, and are just more fully realized than they were in the original game. GameSpy
- This is the way the original title’s Gummi section should’ve been. IGN
- The Gummi Ship sections in the original game were most definitely broken, and they have been comprehensively fixed – gold stars all round. Eurogamer
In general, the gummi sequences in KHII were praised. The question I want to know, though, is why? What makes the gummi levels so much better the second time around? They still don’t fit with the rest of the game. There is still no story explanation for why these levels are needed, who you are shooting, or what the stakes are.
I’ll attempt to answer this question. Full disclosure: if you want to speedrun the gummi levels, you can–you’re only required to spend about 30 minutes on them to complete the 30+ hour game. I, though, spent a good five hours replaying the levels over and over again.
A break in the pacing
The gummi levels are essentially a mini-game, a game within a game. What’s the purpose of mini-games? Lots of video games have them. Their ultimate purpose, I believe, is to break up the monotony of an epic length game, which, this statement in and of itself should give you pause. If your game is getting monotonous, so much so that you need to concoct new games within your game to keep people from getting bored, then perhaps the main game is unfocused, bloated, and over-thought.
KHII, though, does get monotonous. The game play is simple. Each level in very linear: there’s nothing to explore. All of the platforming elements from the first game have been removed. And combat mostly consists of mashing on that X button. The levels themselves are varied, but many of the locations are repeated from KHI, so it feels like you’re playing the same game again (only this time around, the repeated levels, like the Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Hercules, and Nightmare Before Christmas levels, are shadows of their former selves, stripped of any charm they once held).
Most annoying, though, is that you can’t progress more than 3 minutes in a level before you are greeted with a cutscene. This game is FILLED with cutscenes. ATRileyProductions of YouTube fame stripped all the cutscenes from the game and put them together in three long movie files. How many cutscenes does this game have? Approximately 11 hours. I spent 35 hours on KHII, so subtracting the 11 for cutscenes and the 5 I spent on gummi levels, that leaves 19 hours of legitimate gameplay.
Wow. I know this is a Square Enix game, but common!
In short, the game starts and stops, starts and stops. Now, I don’t mind a lot of cutscenes. Final Fantasy XIII has about 9 hours of cutscenes, but that game takes 50 hours to complete, so the gameplay to cutscene ratio is over 4:1. For KHII, that ratio is more like 2:1. If you’re going to stuff the game with cutscenes, though, you have to tell an interesting story. The story of KHII is interesting, but it’s also so convoluted that it talks itself in circles, rarely explaining anything. Plus, half the cutscenes are simply quick retellings of the Disney movies each level is based off of, stories we’ve all heard before, making the cutscenes even more of a chore to get through.
The gummi levels, though, offer a reprieve from the frequent tedium of cutscenes, linear level design, and mindless combat (I’m making KH sound like a horrible series, but it’s really not! It’s the best “deeply flawed” game series I’ve ever played).
What’s great about the gummi levels this second time around is that, not only can they be replayed, but they can be replayed in different ways. Each level has three missions that involve 1) killing certain enemies to find prizes, 2) killing a certain number of enemies, or 3) attaining a certain score. Basically, they all involve blasting away mindlessly, but there’s some skill in completing the various missions.
At the end of each main level, you’re given the option of going wherever you want. You can go onto the next level or replay past levels. There’s no reason to replay past levels, for the most part. The gummi levels, likewise, can be replayed. When I got sick of the cutscene-2-minutes-of-gameplay-cutscene-2-minutes-of gameplay routine, I frequently departed from the main quest to play and play and play the gummi levels for about an hour at a time.
There’s no cutscenes in them. Each level takes about 5 minutes to complete, but it’s solid action, and when I’m finished, I can do it again with hardly a break in between.
Exquisite graphic and sound design
The gummi music was at least catchy in the first game, but in KHII, the music is far more varied. Even better: the graphics have been significantly improved since the first game. In KHI, it really felt like you were flying through an empty vacuum. There were a few floating boulders that sometimes got in your way, but that’s about it. In KHII, each world was constructed with an incredible amount of detail. This level design approaches the complexity of Star Fox now. These screenshots don’t really do justice to the beauty of these levels.
More than that, check out these levels in action through this short video from Cliochu:
Differential object speeds
Now, let me point out to you something interesting in these levels. Let me explain what to look for, then watch that above video again, just 30 seconds or so.
On the one hand, these levels are intense: lots of stuff flying around really fast. But not everything is flying past the screen at breakneck speed (as tends to happen in Star Fox 64, for instance). Rather, objects move at different spends, what I’m calling differential object speeds.
Here’s what I mean:
- Your ship moves very fast, but is not necessarily the fastest moving object on the screen.
- Lasers fly the fastest, both from you and the enemy.
- Some enemy ships fly slower than you, but some fly faster than you.
- In the background, objects close to you–like the ground, walls, and chunks of space rock–fly past you at a moderate rate. Slow and steady.
- In the far background, the psychedelic background, moves by pretty fast, but again, it’s not the fastest moving object on the screen.
So what’s the point? The point is this: the gummi levels are on the one hand fast-paced and intense, but on the other hand, slow and relaxing. Some objects move fast, but your overall pace through the level is slow and leisurely.
It’s like driving a car on the highway. You might be traveling fast, but relative to other cars around you, you aren’t going that fast. Some cars move a little quicker than you, some a little slower. The dotted center line whips by quickly, but objects in the distance, like hills and trees, approach slowly. That’s why, even though you drive very fast on the interstate, the actual motion of driving can seem slow and relaxing.
I played these gummi levels, then, to calm down, something I wouldn’t have suspected of these levels at first. In five minutes, on any given level, you destroy hundreds of enemies, and likely tens of thousands of lasers fly around the screen. The game seems frantic and intimidating, something likely to raise your blood pressure.
But the levels actually have the opposite effect on me. The combination of differential object speeds, lush graphics, and calming music gave me a peace that I didn’t have playing the rest of the game. I even tested my blood pressure and pulse about 20 times when playing the gummi levels just to make sure: they did not physically stimulate or excite me. I was completely calm when I played them.
More than mindless entertainment
These gummi levels, as I’ve just analyzed them, might leave you thinking, “They are nothing more than mindless entertainment!” And that’s true on some level. They are relatively easy (though require some skill to fully complete the missions), calming, and are nothing more than a cheap shoot ’em up. But I wouldn’t call these levels “mindless.” In fact, because the gummi levels require so little cognition to complete, my mind is actually free to think about all manner of things that I normally can’t think about when playing the regular game.
What I was thinking about isn’t so much important. It’s only important that I was thinking: about life, about what I need to accomplish that week, about school and work, about people I know. The gummi levels provided my eyes and ears visual and auditory stimulus so that I could clear out the accumulated gunk in my mind. I was free to reflect in ways I don’t normally do (Tetris has this same effect).
When I was a younger man, I used to think that having a “mindless” job that didn’t require thinking would be great during the summer between college semesters. So I worked at a print factory. And it was a mindless job involving simple, repetitive motions. Because the job required almost no cognition on my part, my mind was free to think about tons of stuff.
By the end of the summer, I found that job to be the most taxing job I’d ever had mentally.
KHII’s gummi levels allowed me to return to that state of “mindlessness,” but in a good way. The levels offered a much needed break in the game play, they gave my mind a safe space to think and reflect, and they were even quite a bit of fun to play in and of themselves.