“What is this strange video game with Disney characters and spiky-haired anime teens?” I recalled thinking to myself as I watched a teaser for Kingdom Hearts back in 2002 on my VHS copy of Disney’s House of Villains. Little did I know that would mark the beginning of my fascination with this uncanny mash-up between old Disney properties and Final Fantasy. To add to the backstory, I would be remiss if I didn’t admit it was Kingdom Hearts that ultimately made me fall in love with video games and was the chief (if not sole) reason I purchased a PlayStation 2. It’s not hard to imagine how this brightly colored and unabashedly cinematic video game could capture the imagination of a young boy, still graduating from the simple platforming found in titles like Super Mario Bros. 3.
Fast forward to 2017 and D23, when Tetsuya Nomura dropped the latest trailer for Kingdom Hearts III, and I fell in love all over again as waves of nostalgia came rushing back. In celebration of receiving a release window for the game in 2018, this article serves as an ode to something the Kingdom Hearts franchise gets right (most of the time): boss battles!
Playing Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep 0.2 – A Fragmentary Passage recently made me realize this series doesn’t get enough love in terms of the surprisingly memorable quality of its boss fights. Coupled with Yoko Shimomura’s cinematic orchestrations, the series manages to have more than enough fun and adventure to offer during major confrontations, so much so that I decided to make a list counting down The Top 10 Best Kingdom Hearts Boss Battles.
A series of factors were considered before the final list was published: the level of difficulty, overall enjoyment, impact towards the story, and the least important but the most selfish one of all, personal preference. And believe me, I’m still not happy about it, seeing as there are numerous other great bosses I’d love to mention. Alas, there can only be 10! There will also be no repeat bosses here (you make it once, and that’s it for you), and no optional bosses were chosen either, mainly because that’s a different list for another day. These are strictly the mandatory bosses you have to fight, no matter what.
Wait, wait! Hear me out before you click away from this article! On the surface, Pete never came across as much of a challenge; at best, he became an annoyance. But, it was at Timeless River where the fun side of Kingdom Hearts is accurately showcased. Pete’s attacks aren’t necessarily heavy hitters, and his difficulty is insanely low compared to the other fighters listed here. Yet, few things are more satisfying than landing a hit on Pete, with his comical grunts and exaggerated reactions. Couple this with a changing scenery in arguably one of the best worlds in the series, where the environment becomes just as much a part of the fight, and you have a boss battle that gives off a sense of lightheartedness that most bosses on this list lack. The fight itself runs from 3:00 to 8:33 in the video below.
Throughout Birth By Sleep, the prospect of Terra going full Anakin Skywalker and accepting the darkness was flirted with, all under the watchful gaze of the enigmatic Master Xehanort. Finally, in the Keyblade Graveyard, with his friends in danger and his “rage awakened,” Terra submits to the empowering darkness and faces Xehanort in a grueling battle. This one, again, isn’t the hardest, but the emotion behind it and the satisfaction of letting Terra demolish his old master make it so memorable. With a powerful array of elemental spells at his disposal, quick teleportation, and calm demeanor that allows him to blindside you with a barrage of swings, Master Xehanort is still no slouch when it comes to a story-driven boss battle. However, if you were wondering about the Terranort battle, all I can say is, patience. We will get there soon enough!8.
Is someone cutting onions here? No? Okay, then it must be me when “The Other Promise” starts to play. One of the most unconventional boss battle music pieces, “The Other Promise” doesn’t get your blood pumping like a lot of the other boss tracks. Instead, it’s a melancholic song that fits the character of Roxas and his inner struggle. I’m thrilled this was added into the Final Mix because it takes a rather abrupt scene in the original and adds more emotional heft to it. However, don’t let the somber notes fool you. Roxas dual-wields Oathkeeper and Oblivion with deadly efficiency. His power string of combos can deplete your health in a matter of seconds if you aren’t careful. And that’s not even taking into consideration the blinding beams of light he has at his disposal that can shoot across the map at various times. It also helps that the map you are dueling on is insanely beautiful and might be one of the best in the series. Overall, the fight serves as some fantastic closure for a beloved character.
Maleficent may have seemed like a pushover in your previous fight when she merely summoned Heartless to do her bidding, but when the darkness in her heart is truly unleashed, and she transforms into her iconic dragon form, things take a drastic turn for the player. After scouring countless worlds, this is where the final Disney villain makes her stand, and, boy, is this culmination taxing! But, it’s that taxation that requires you to think on your feet, using the stage to your advantage to avoid her attacks, which include seeking balls of green fire and frenzied bites from her fearsome jaw. Plus, it was at that moment when I had Beast and Donald in my party and Tinker Bell assisting me with my constant health depletion while fighting the Mistress of All Evil I thought to myself, “This is the game I wanted.” This is the Disney mash-up the 8-year-old me paid for!
With an ominous smile, Xaldin surprises unsuspecting players with a ferocious onslaught from a man who usually uses his honeyed words to win his battles. By cloaking himself in Aero magic, thus becoming invincible for a brief period of time and summoning a wind lance dragon to fight for him, Xaldin provides an immediate threat to the player. That’s something not many of the other bosses have done before. This is where you finally face the true power of Organization XIII. Xaldin is famous for being one of the hardest fights in the game up to that point. Yet, with this fresh challenge presented to you, coupled with the prospect of playing as King Mickey every time Sora is defeated, Xaldin continually proves to be an opponent players could never forget. Plus, having sweet revenge on the man who tried to turn Beast against you? Priceless.
First-time players were greeted with one more boss fight before Xehanort’s Heartless (then called Ansem, Seeker of Darkness). The trio of Sora, Donald, and Goofy float down into this empty abyss, and that’s when Yoko’s rendition of “A Night on Bald Mountain” slowly erupts, and the demonic Fantasia presence of Chernabog appears. Having previously fought Giant Ursula, the idea of facing a large creature while “floating” wasn’t new, but this time, it was perfected. With Super Glide, players were gifted with a truly entertaining open-world boss fight where they could fly across Chernabog’s hulking frame and dodge his various fire-based attacks. It was one of the few times in the original Kingdom Hearts where you were met with a perfect mix of challenge and excitement.
The penultimate boss fight of the Story of Roxas, aka Kingdom Hearts II’s Prologue, Axel went from cool side-character to menacing and conflicted villain with one simple line of dialogue: “You really do remember me this time? I’m so FLATTERED!” Similar to Xaldin, Axel’s revelation of his true power is given fantastic visual and story-driven fanfare that highlights the sense of betrayal from his former best friend. Although Axel isn’t the only one to get an upgrade, this is the one time in the game, before Valor-Form Sora, where you get to DUAL-WIELD KEYBLADES! Having these two battle at the height of their powers, taking into account the history between them, only promotes this fight as one of the best narrative-driven duels in the franchise’s history. Add Quinten Flynn’s phenomenal performance as Axel and memorable orchestration of The 13th Struggle, and you have a fight that merits being called one of the game’s best.
Whilst Sora’s battle with Roxas creates tears, Aqua fighting the Xehanort-possessed Terra (affectionately referred to as Terranort by the fan community) produces chills when “Dismiss” plays in its choral glory. It’s a tragedy that weighs upon not only Aqua but the player as well. When the ultimate fall of Terra was complete, Aqua was given the task to rescue her friend from the darkness, and if not, destroy him completely. (Anakin vs. Obi-Wan flashes, anyone?)
Acting as the true final boss in Birth By Sleep, Terranort houses a plethora of moves at his disposal that are an amalgamation of Terra, the Lingering Will, and Xehanort’s Heartless. To make matters more difficult, depending on your skill at using Aqua and her wonderful ability to cartwheel across the battlefield, he can easily end your fight within a matter of seconds with his devastating combos. It genuinely takes all the skills you’ve accumulated over the course of the game to take down this terrifying entity. And once the dust settles, at long last, Aqua’s victory can only be bittersweet.
Xehanort really likes taking over the bodies of young men, doesn’t he? That sounds weird… moving on! The rivalry between best friends Sora and Riku, ever since the beginning of the original game, was finally coming to a crescendo. Having surrendered to the darkness, Riku was given an immense power boost since your first confrontation with him, and this caused a subsequent difficulty spike that has haunted many players of the original Kingdom Hearts to this day. His lightning-fast reflexes work against you as you are forced to work on your own and play on the defensive in this match. The enclosed space you are given to fight in is possibly the smallest in the whole game, yet because of Riku’s command of the field, you are going to have to let patience and “Arcanum” be your allies this time around.
However, the highlight is the emotion behind this fight. Sora was just reunited with Kairi, and to save her, he is forced to make the hardest decision he will ever have to make. Even if you win, you ultimately lose (for the time being), and that was the tragic beauty behind it.
This was it. This was the end of the road for Kingdom Hearts fans until the next installment. Xemnas, the leader of Organization XIII, traps Sora and Riku in the Realm of Darkness to do battle one last time. This confrontation is still, without a doubt, the most cinematic fight in the entire Kingdom Hearts franchise. It touts a battlefield enveloped in a white abyss, having the two best friends and former enemies team up and the mind-blowing reaction commands and moves you are required to use in order to win.
Surprisingly, though, as epic as it is, it always carries this quiet melancholy in both its orchestration and the themes presented about the eternity of Light and Darkness. Somber notes aside, this fight not only lets Xemnas throw everything he has at you to create some stunning visuals with his “lightsabers,” but it also allows the player to take control of Riku, albeit briefly, to defend his friend. To top it all off, the fight ends with one of the best moments in the series’ history: Sora and Riku dodging and parrying lasers left and right, making the saying “going out with a bang” ring true. The fight itself can be seen from 12:20-19:35 in the video below.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read my ramblings about the top 10 Kingdom Hearts bosses! There were so many that barely missed my list; Xigbar, Darkside, The Demon Ride, Rinzler, etc. But remember, this is just my list, so feel free to discuss what fights YOU would consider the best Kingdom Hearts has to offer in the comments. I might change my mind tomorrow for all I know, in part due to what will be just around the river bend: Kingdom Hearts III. We may have been waiting longer than we all hoped we would have to, but I’m sure it will be worth it in the end.