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By Thomas Wheeler

Here's a group of toys I honestly thought would never see the light of day. They were supposed to ship last August, and finally turned up in early March. The second assortment of figures based on the Disney/Square-Enix video game KINGDOM HEARTS, recently re-released for the PlayStation 2 as part of their "Greatest Hits" division.

There are six two-packs, and the toys can be found, if you're lucky, at such specialty shops as Suncoast, Software Etc, GameStop, and Electronics Boutique. Some online stores may also be carrying them.

Even more than the first assortment, it is clear that these figures have been designed more for display than play. Many of the figures are very limited in their articulation. However, if you're looking for some superbly-detailed representations of popular characters from a fairly wide span across the Disney universe -- mixed in with some interesting Final Fantasy-ish characters, then you really can't go wrong with these. Let's take a look at the individual two-packs:

HEARTLESS RIKU & JAFAR: For a brief time in the video game, Sora's buddy Riku goes bad. Maybe he just got sick of wearing those ridiculous hip-waders he has in his "basic" form and decided to trade them in for some armor. In any case, the figure is nicely detailed, of not especially well articulated. Articulation includes head, arms, swivel elbows, and waist. Looks enough like the original Riku, although the hair is darker and looks matted down a bit. Riku comes with a nasty-looking Keyblade, as well.

Jafar is the real treat in this two-pack. Although only sightly better articulated than Riku, at the head, arms, wrists, waist, and feet, this last point being a little pointless, the well-known wizard from Aladdin looks appropriately menacing and is very nicely detailed. It's an excellent likeness of the character. He comes complete with his snake staff. The only thing that would've made this set a little bit better is if it had come with a little Iago for Jafar.

PETER PAN & HEARTLESS SOLDIER: A superb representation of Peter Pan. Again, not terribly well articulated, only at the head, arms, and waist, but Pan strikes his traditional, "hands-on-hips" defiant/bold stance, as if to say, "I took on Captain Hook and I can certainly take on a bunch of midget soldiers!" Interestingly, the Peter Pan figure has a much better likeness than the one marketed by Disney as part of their Disney Adventurers/Disney Heroes line. That Pan looks like he needs to switch to decaf or something. Looks just a little crazed somehow.

The Heartless Soldier that comes with Pan is an armored little freak with weird shoes and clawed hands. Looks like he could give someone a fair fight, and does have a fair amount of articulation. Of all the various Heartless characters that come with this second assortment, Riku aside, this one's probably the best of the lot.

GENIE & BANDIT: Something of a disappointment, unfortunately. The likeness of the Genie from Aladdin is excellent, but the toy is nothing but a lump of plastic. Articulation only at the head and waist. Worse, he doesn't even have legs. His lower body is the "wisp of smoke" form, and the figure is so top-heavy it cannot stand up on its own. The picture on the back of the packages of all the two-packs shows Genie with a display stand, which he really needs, but he doesn't come with one.

Bandit is a Heartless agent clearly defined specifically for the world of Aladdin. He's wearing a turban, has a distinctly Arabic-looking outfit, and is carrying a scimitar-like sword. Although rather pre-posed and not terribly well articulated, only at the head, arms, wrists, and waist, but the pre-posing is somewhat of a hindrance, he is nicely detailed, and is actually better than the Genie in that at least he'll stand up on his own.

SIMBA & REQUIEM: Another two-pack that's a slight disappointment. The Simba figure is a superb likeness, but as with Genie, there's almost no articulation whatsoever -- just the tail. At least Simba can stand up on his own, and it's nice to see an entry from Lion King in this group -- hey, the more movies, the cooler this collection is -- but really, there was abundant opportunity for them to articulate the legs on this toy or something. I cannot help but think that some pencil-pushing budget-buster really spoiled some of these toys.

Requiem is one of two Heartless agents, the other being Rhapsody (see next entry), that when put together would make a nice Heartless salt-and-pepper-shaker set. Not much more to them than that. Their heads and haits move. Whee.

BEAST & RHAPSODY: Beast is a superb version of the character from Beauty and the Beast, and it's a pretty menacing version of him, too. This is clearly the untamed version of the Beast, before Belle came into his life and calmed him down and got him to dress better. His basic stance is a decidedly menacing pose, ready to spring at any enemy, although he is a little top-heavy and not easily balanced. The figure does have some measure of articulation, at the arms, waist, and legs. Really, this figure is one of the few real Disney-based treats in this assortment.

Rhapsody is a recolored version of Requiem -- or vice-versa, I'm not sure which, Like I said, put them together and set them on your dining table. They look like a weird set of salt-and-pepper-shakers.

MER-SORA & ARIEL: I saved this one for last because it's going to take some more time, and not just because Sora is the core character of Kingdom Hearts. Based on earlier information, this assortment was actually a late addition. I distinctly recall hearing or reading that there was supposed to be a Tidus & Winnie-the-Pooh two-pack in this batch, and it didn't happen. I'm not sure if this is because of Disney's legal problems with Pooh, or because Tidus was not a major enough character in the game. I am hopeful of a third assortment of Kingdom Hearts figures that might yet see this two-pack, as both characters would be welcome.

But let's discuss Mer-Sora and Ariel. Interestingly, this is the only two-pack without any Heartless bad guys in it. In the game, when Sora, Donald, and Goofy enter the realm of the Little Mermaid, they are transformed into aquatic creatures. Sora becomes a mer-boy for lack of a better definition. The figure doesn't have a lot of articulation -- head and arms -- but really, what can you do articulation-wise with a half-human/half-fish? Here's the point, though -- the figure's head is such a better likeness of Sora than the original "all-human" Sora figure that it's not even funny. The original Sora figure was clearly based on concept sketches of Sora -- and not even very well. The Mer-Sora figure is very clearly based more closely on the actual character designs used in the game. One look at the Sora image on the back of the card is proof of that. Heck, Mer-Sora even has a healthier skin tone.

Ariel is an excellent likeness of the now-classic character who starred in the "Little Mermaid" movie which brought Disney back from the brink of mediocrity and gave them a series of blockbuster hits which also included Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Lion King. As with Mer-Sora, she's only articulated at the head and arms, but I don't think you could really do much more.

What's especially surprising is that you'd think these two figures would need display stands, but they really don't. It's entirely possible to pose their arms in such a way that they form a "tripod" with their fish-body half, and then can be placed on a display shelf and look perfectly reasonable, as if they're swimming across the surface of the shelf.

The status of Kingdom Hearts as a concept is a little up in the air right now. There is a sequel game being planned for the major systems, but no firm release date has been offered for either Japan or the United States, although rumors of sometime in 2005 are starting to crop up. There's a fair bit of speculation about that, anything from either Disney or Square-Enix dragging their heels for some reason, to Disney being concerned about the higher level of violence seen in trailers for Kingdom Hearts 2, with regards to Sora being disturbingly vicious and Mickey kicking no shortage of tail himself -- that might work in Japan but not the United States -- to any of a number of other reasons. For myself, I just plain don't like the Kingdom Hearts 2 version of Sora being dressed mostly in black. After a brief flurry of publicity in several magazines and online sites, I don't think there's been a peep about Kingdom Hearts 2 in months.

Now, in fairness, there's a game which might be described as "Kingdom Hearts 1-1/2" , although it's official name is "Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories", being planned for Nintendo's GameBoy Advanced -- an interesting sidestep away from the PlayStation 2 since there was no Nintendo console version of Kingdom Hearts. In this game, Sora is still dressed in his original outfit, and reportedly, this game will come with an extra chip so that the "cut scenes", the scenes between playable segments, will be of just as high quality as the PS2 console game. This game is expected out in Fall 2004.

There's no question in my mind that Disney failed to fully capitalize on this concept. They could have well had a movie or a TV series out by now. When it debuted, Kingdom Hearts shot to the top of the video game charts and stayed there for a generous period of time. In a world where games come and games go and only a very scant few are remembered, let alone expanded upon outside the video game realm itself, Kingdom Hearts is one of those rarities, which shouldn't've really been surprising given the vast Disney source material and the superior company making the game. And Disney just plain fumbled the ball for some incomprehensible reason.

As for the toys, I have no idea if there will be a third assortment. The second assortment certainly dragged its heels, and in some respects, is not as good as the first. Mer-Sora is a distinct exception to that. Granted, these figures may well be intended for display more than play, and they're excellent likenesses, but I felt a little let down in some regards. I'd like to think there would be a third assortment, although I would honestly be a bit surprised if there was. The time for a major influx of Kingdom Hearts merchandise may have passed, and initially, there was no shortage of it. Toys, books, stickers, wall-hangings. You can find a lot of this stuff on-line these days.

There's certainly potential for more toys. There's another version of Sora which, while I personally wouldn't welcome it, would probably be popular -- his rather horrific version from the "Nightmare Before Christmas" world. I also wouldn't mind seeing Tidus and Pooh get a decent chance as toys, either. And there's certainly plenty of Disney characters left to work with.

What I'd really like to see, though, is a decent basic Sora. The basic Sora figure in this line has two problems -- a bad facial likeness and extreme pre-posing. If they could replicate the likeness shown on the back of the package cards for this second assortment (although ironically, this image is posed just like the initial Sora figure), and then put it onto a Sora body that is not pre-posed, I'd be very pleased with such a figure. Of course, in a perfect world, I'd like a 12" scale version of this character with a cloth outfit and articulation on the level of G.I.Joe.

And unfortunately, I've been completely unable to track down an address for Mirage Toys to discuss the matter with them. (If anyone knows of one, e- or otherwise, preferably standard mail, please let me know.)

Bottom line -- do I recommend the second assortment of KINGDOM HEARTS? Yes, I do. It's a cool concept and a cool video game. The toys are excellent likenesses of the characters, and are well and sturdily made. But be advised, you're buying toys that will be mostly suitable for display more than anything else.