Kingdom Hearts history - One of gaming's most complicated stories explained

There once was a boy named Sora. His story seems simple at first: he is chosen by fate to save the world and goes on a great journey to fulfill his destiny. He faces many challenges along the way, but in the end his heroism rights the wrongs of the universe and saves all of existence from darkness. And then he gets his memory wiped and spends a few years inside a giant egg. And his best friend takes on the appearance of the big bad to fight Sora's doppelganger. But the big bad is really just a piece of a different big bad from way before Sora's time who stole another guy's body and he's connected to these three Keyblade warrior friends who radically altered Sora's future and Mickey was there and... so on.

As you've probably figured out, either from playing the games yourself or reading that synopsis (which I swear I didn't just make up), this series is difficult to keep track of. With seven major releases on a variety of consoles, Kingdom Hearts' storyline has become so convoluted that even loyal fans have given up trying to make sense of it. You'd need an extensive series of graphs, diagrams, and red string to explain it all properly. But I don't have that, I have a gallery-shaped hole in the internet and a love for challenges. Here, I will break down the insane tale of Kingdom Hearts into easily digestible chunks, so you can be ready when Kingdom Hearts 3 mania begins.

First there's a big ol' war

Some other important stuff happened before Sora came along, chief among them being the Keyblade War. Way, way back when there was only one world, people had ready access to a mythical source of all wisdom, light, and life, where the hearts of all living things joined together. They called that entity/place/whatever Kingdom Hearts, and it was protected by a key-sword called the -blade.

Things went seriously wrong, as they tend to in paradise creation myths, when people started fighting over Kingdom Hearts. They created weapons in the image of the -blade called Keyblades, and fought a war so bleak and awful that you wonder how Disney ever approved this, holy jeez. By the war's end, the -blade was shattered and Kingdom Hearts 'plunged into darkness', hidden away from everyone. Wow, thanks for ruining everything, Keyblade losers.

Explained in: Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep

A guy named Xehanort gets way too serious about the darkness

Fast-forward a good long while and you have the Kingdom Hearts universe as we know it, broken into a variety of whimsical Disney worlds with some Square-Enix brand weirdness mixed in. At this point some folks are still looking for a way to find and harness the power of Kingdom Hearts, and the most ambitious among them is a Keyblade Master named Xehanort.

While his original desire was to balance light and darkness in a universe that he saw as too light-sympathetic, he eventually went completely nuts and decided to pick up where the war left off and build the -blade for himself. He learned through extensive magical research that the weapon could be forged by a heart of pure light clashing with a heart of pure darkness (because the KH universe runs on heart fuel) and literally ripped his apprentice in half to create those two different hearts. Holy shit, this guy doesn't mess around.

Explained in: Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep

There's a trio of Keyblade wielders before Sora and friends...

That whole ripping-in-half thing led to the creation of Ventus, who got the heart of pure light, and his pure-darkness twin Vanitas. Xehanort separated them so that Vanitas' darkness wouldn't run Ventus' light before the time was right, and sent Ventus off to train with a fellow Keyblade master named Eraqus. There Ventus met Eraqus' apprentices, Aqua and Terra, and they became fast friends. Meanwhile back at the crazy ranch, Vanitas' pain and sorrow was so immense that it spawned an entire race of mook enemies called the Unversed, which are basically the destructive antithesis of humanity.

Together, Terra, Aqua, and Ventus train to pass the Mark of Mastery test and become true Keyblade Masters. However, the test is fixed by Master Xehanort for evil mastermind reasons, and Terra fails after he's deemed to have too much darkness in his heart. Tough break, dude. Xehanort's meddling prompts the trio to split, with Terra dashing off to (allegedly) seek guidance from Xehanort. Aqua and Ventus are left to clean up the Unversed mess and pursue Terra through a variety of Disney worlds.

Explained in: Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep

...and they mess everything up

Turns out going in search of Xehanort isn't the best decision for Terra's mental health. Once the evil genius has his claws in Terra, he tricks Terra into doing evil things, causing the kid to doubt his own intentions and make him more susceptible to manipulation. That has some pretty dark real-world parallels and I'm seriously curious how closely Disney's reps read the script.

At the same time, pursuing Terra gave Ventus all the training he needed to become as strong as Vanitas, and Xehanort successfully combined their souls into the -blade - for about five seconds anyway. Just long enough to use it against Terra, shoving aside the poor guy's weakened heart and taking its place, turning Terra into a soulless meatsuit. Uh, wow. But before he could cause any more heart-based destruction, Mickey and Aqua show up (after depositing Ventus' soulless, comatose body in the safest place they can find), defeat Terra-nort, and shatter the -blade again. That whole mess ends with Vanitas and the Unversed being destroyed, Ventus' heart and Terra-nort disappearing into the ether, and Aqua being pitched into a world in between light and darkness from which there was no return. Seriously, Disney approved this??

Explained in: Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep

Ventus, Terra, and Aqua find some familiar successors

You're probably wondering where the heck Sora, Riku, and Kairi are in all of this, because last you remembered they were the main characters. We're still in set-up land, so their part of the story doesn't start for quite a while, but something about them does need to be mentioned here: the only reason they're important is because of Terra, Ventus, and Aqua.

While going on his emotionally destructive universe tour, Terra stumbles upon a little place called Destiny Islands, where he meets Riku and Sora. Seeing potential in Riku, Terra chooses to make the boy his Keyblade successor, which apparently just involves handing someone the thing to see if it likes them. Riku passes with flying colors and becomes a Keyblade wielder. Sometime later on a planet called Radiant Garden, Aqua does the same thing with Kairi, though it was mostly an accident because Kairi had grabby hands as a child. Oddly enough Sora never got to go through this beloved childhood ritual, but he meets Ventus' heart as it drifts through the universe and agrees to act as its protector. Ventus' heart becomes one with Sora, giving the latter magic Keyblade powers and starting a trend of Sora having more hearts in his chest than is medically advisable.

Explained in: Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep

Xehanort continues to be awful and sets the heartless loose

Remember how I said Terra-nort went bouncing across the universe after Aqua and Mickey put the smackdown on him? Soon after that he lands in Radiant Garden and meets its ruler, scientist Ansem the Wise. While Terra-nort had completely lost his memory at that point, Ansem saw potential in him (a dangerous thing in this series) and took the guy on as his apprentice as they studied the effects of darkness on people's hearts. The procedures eventually reignite Xehanort's memories and he starts doing pretty messed-up experiments, trying once again to get access to Kingdom Hearts right under Ansem the Wise's nose. Ha, not so wise after all.

In the process of conducting all those affronts against science and wholesome family entertainment, Xehanort and his co-conspirators unleash the Heartless, which consume all of Radiant Garden. Ansem the Wise is plunged into the same in-between world as Aqua and all of Radiant Garden's residents are either turned into Heartless or slingshot across the universe. That includes Kairi, who ended up on Destiny Islands.

Explained in: Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep and Kingdom Hearts

Every bad guy in the whole series is created

In the midst of that specific madness, Xehanort (who by then had assumed Ansem's name, because why not) is split into two beings: a Heartless named Ansem and a Nobody (comprised of all the junk left over after a heart disappears) named Xemnas. Both are still pretty interested in the whole Kingdom Hearts thing. Ansem decides to collect the Princesses of Heart (Disney princesses with pure hearts created from pieces of the -blade who act as 'keys' to Kingdom Hearts - yeah, just go with it) to bust his way in, while Xemnas plans to release as many hearts as possible to get the realm to appear. Translation: kill a bunch of people. Nice.

While all that was going on, Ansem the Wise's other apprentices go through similar changes. Their bodies turn into Nobodies who swear allegiance to Xemnas and form Organization XIII. They set up shop at the Nobody spawn point, called The World That Never Was, with an outpost in Castle Oblivion. Oh, and remember how I said Aqua left Ventus' body in the safest place she could find? Yeah, it was Castle Oblivion, but Organization XIII starts in-fighting so fast that they don't really notice he's there.

Explained in: Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, Kingdom Hearts, Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories

Sora, Riku, and Kairi want to go on an adventure, see their home get destroyed

Okay! We are finally at the part where Sora, Riku, and Kairi show up. Growing up in a blissful paradise, these three enjoy perfectly normal childhoods and have no idea how screwed things will eventually get. Being dumb kids, they decided they want to leave and explore the world, and boy does the universe ever answer. Right then Ansem unlocks the 'heart' of Destiny Islands (represented by a keyhole, naturally), plunging it into darkness that breaks it apart like a neutron star while our intrepid heroes are still standing on it.

Lesser folks would have been swallowed up and turned into Heartless, but Sora and Riku turn out alright. Sora even gets a Keyblade out of the deal! Kairi wasn't so lucky, but thankfully she's a Princess of Heart, and her heart conveniently can't be overcome by darkness. Instead it latches onto Sora and gets cozy with his and Ventus' respective hearts. Meanwhile, Riku takes her comatose body so she doesn't misplace it, and tries to find a way to bring her back to life. Ah, friendship.

Explained in: Kingdom Hearts

Sora meets some new friends and Riku gets all dramatic

Some time later, Sora wakes up in a dark alleyway with someone licking his face, and thank God that someone's Pluto. He then meets a brand new duo of friends, Goofy and Donald Duck, who are searching for their wise king Mickey Mouse. Wow, he turned out well. Turns out His Majesty ditched his responsibilities to his kingdom to find out why so many planets are imploding recently. Because Sora has no place better to be, and because he now has a magic key-sword thing, he decides to accompany Goofy and Donald on their quest to find King Mickey.

Unfortunately, Riku chooses that very moment to show up, and doesn't like that Sora found a new set of quirky pals less than 24 hours after Kairi's soul was sucked out of her body which is a pretty good point, actually. Anyway, Riku is thoroughly unimpressed, peaces out, and meets up with the evil fairy Maleficent. Apparently she'd spent the last 23 hours convincing Riku that Sora was a jerk and only the Powers of Darkness could save Kairi. Finally buying into her argument after he sees Sora with his new pals, Riku agrees to go all dark side. Nice going Sora, you dip.

Explained in: Kingdom Hearts

Sora beats up Riku, saves Kairi, kinda kills himself

After spending some time gallivanting about various Disney worlds and having dramatic run-ins with Riku (ffft, teenagers), Sora and company show up at Hollow Bastion, the carved out husk of what used to be Radiant Garden. There he meets Riku for the jillionth time, but apparently the guy leveled up his nefarious bastard class and steals Sora's Keyblade right out of his hands. Sora chases him into the world, but apparently that's what Riku wanted all along, because Riku's spirit became so weak to the darkness that Heartless Ansem straight-up possessed him. Darkness: not even once.

He may be the victim of third-hand meat-puppetry, but Riku at least gets a badass new Keyblade that lets him rip people's hearts out. That's convenient, because Ansem apparently knows through crazy demon magic that Kairi's heart is in Sora's body, and he needs it to get into Kingdom Hearts. Sora defeats Ansem-iku, then decides to use the demon Keyblade to extract Kairi's heart from his body, because he's an idiot. That goes about as well as you'd expect, Sora loses his own heart, and then the worst possible thing happens

Explained in: Kingdom Hearts