That’s not to say it didn’t benefit from the tie-ins, though. Kingdom Hearts II was every bit the love letter to Disney films that the first one was, allowing gamers to explore the Pride Land, the world of Tron, and even the Timeless River – a level built to elicit nostalgic feelings of Mickey Mouse’s origins as Steamboat Willy. These, by themselves, would have been enough to force our easily-stimulated brains into overdrive, but the masterful inclusion of Final Fantasy characters provided an exponentially better experience.
The combination of the two completely disconnected licenses was handled perfectly, creating fanboy-pleasing team-ups we’d never even dreamed of. Every conversation had us smiling from ear-to-ear. Hades summoning Auron to fight Hercules is still one of our favorite moments in gaming history, with both original voice actors returning to create one of the most surreal gaming scenes in history. It somehow managed to have a comedic devil-figure meet a stoic Final Fantasy character without betraying either figure’s personalities. We still laugh thinking about that scene, and how amazed we were when it all came together.
Interactions with Mickey, too, were handled flawlessly. He was likely the character altered the most by the Kingdom Hearts series – turned from a smiling mascot of the Walt Disney company into a Yoda-like ninja who bounced around in a mysterious hooded trenchcoat – but the transformation was so wonderful that we couldn’t even pretend to be disappointed when we found out the cloaked warrior darting around the shadows was one of the most memorable icons of all time.
Square also found time, while expanding Kingdom Hearts into its own brand and including some of the best fan service in entertainment history, to improve the gameplay as well. The Gummi Ship segments were completely revamped to the point that we actually fell in love with them, and the combat had been improved dramatically, going from "serviceable" to "impeccable."
Dual-wielding Keyblades and wiping out hundreds of enemies at a time made Sora feel super powerful, and created some of the more entertaining action segments in all of the RPG genre, and being able to summon classic Disney characters to help in battle was a perfect marriage of Disney’s charm and Square’s gameplay style. You could summon Genie from Aladdin to fight against Final Fantasy VII's Sephiroth - do you need more of an excuse to smile today? No. You don't. Don't even pretend that you do.
Kingdom Hearts II is remarkably fun to play, with all the depth and intricacies expected from a Square title, but more importantly it was a fearless sequel in an industry that, all too often, plays things super by-the-books. Instead of throwing out a cameo of two, Square-Enix created one of the best mash-ups of all time. It’s filled to the brim with an undying love for everything it encompasses – which, obviously, is quite a lot – and absolutely earns its spot in our list of the 100 greatest games of all time.
"Why _____ is one of the best games ever made" is a weekly feature that goes through GamesRadar's list of the 100 best games of all time and highlights different titles, explaining why they're on the list, what makes them so amazing, and why we love them so much.