Greetings, old-school gamers, and welcome to Retro Rundown! Every other Friday, I pick a classic video game from my collection – I’m defining “classic” as “PS2 era and earlier” at this point (I know, it makes me feel old too) – and give it the Big Brother treatment, exploring the game’s history, themes, and legacy. I’ll even throw in a few personal memories with the game along the way, and see if I can touch on the shared experiences that make so many of us remember it fondly.
Like many others who have played a game for its plot or characterization, I’ve always had a particular fascination with stories about time travel. There’s a certain seductive quality in the simple question that drives most of these tales: “What if you could go back and change what happened?” Everyone has something in their past that they (at least on some level) wish they could put right, and the worse it is, the more powerful that drive. This has been at the heart of many great works across multiple media, all the way back to the 19th Century novel The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. Video games have tried their hand at time travel stories with mixed results (the most recent being Quantum Break, which couldn’t fully sustain an interesting premise) – but any gamer who’s been around a while will tell you that there’s only one title that deserves to be named king of this genre: Chrono Trigger.
Chrono Trigger was released in 1995, right in the middle of Squaresoft’s most successful era (which culminated with Final Fantasy VII in 1997). It came on the heels of Final Fantasy VI, and over two decades later these titles still contend for “Greatest RPG of All Time” honors. Chrono Trigger was developed by the “Dream Team” of Final Fantasy mastermind Hironobu Sakaguchi, Dragon Ball artist Akira Toriyama, and Dragon Quest designer/writer Yuji Horii. I’d argue that the fourth member of that fabled group was composer Nobuo Uematsu, who took over for the original music designer during the game’s production. While Sakaguchi was the original impetus for the project and putting the team together (he’d been researching computer graphics in the U.S. and made the vague resolution to do something “no one had done before”), Horii was the one who steered the game towards a time travel theme – and then the rest of the weighty staff fleshed out the plot from there.
I could list several more names of people who’d already accomplished a great deal, or would go on to… So I will!: Scenario writer Masato Kato (Xenogears, FF7); original composer Yasunori Mitsuda (Secret of Mana); producer Kazuhiko Aoki (a founding father of Square Enix); and directors Akihiko Matsui (FF11), Takashi Tokita (Parasite Eve, FF4), and Yoshinori Kitase (like, so many FF games). Undoubtedly, the experience and influence of the game’s development team set it up for success. They still had to put the work in, but Chrono Trigger was envisioned as a major hit by Square from the very beginning.
Gameplay in CT is probably the best of any 16-bit JRPG. Enemies are battled on the same screen the player encounters them on, an extreme rarity for the era that proves that the developers were still innovating in a genre where they could have easily rested on their laurels. Characters are arranged on the screen in a way that reflects the state of the battle they’re in, rather than the typical orderly line-up from early Final Fantasy games. Combat is fast-paced and chaotic under the “Active Time Battle 2.0” system, providing a certain level of challenge for a game of its ilk.
The best aspect of the combat system is the way it handles special abilities. Each of the three members of your party has a set lineup of battle skills to unlock as they level up, and the thrill of acquiring these new mystery “Techs” lends the usual level grind more of a reward system. The Tech system becomes even more intriguing when Double and Triple Techs are introduced, devastating skill combinations from multiple party members. The player doesn’t unlock full control of the party makeup until midway through the game, so each combination of characters that’s assigned to us feels like a unique segment of gameplay.
Exploration also plays a major role in the game, like virtually every other project Sakaguchi was involved in. We have the typical overworld-plus-locations setup of its Final Fantasy brethren, with the added wrinkle that we can explore the world across several different time periods and see how it has changed. In many cases, completing tasks in the past has an impact on the world in the future, which really makes for some neat digressions from the main plot, especially in the late game. And of course, the gorgeous locations are brought to life through an emotionally resonant soundtrack. This should come as no surprise, given that Squaresoft games at the time were basically putting out the best mood-evoking music, bar none – a testament to the ability of Uematsu and Mitsuda. It isn’t quite as good overall as the music in Final Fantasy VI due to a few weak tracks, but it’s right there, and a few of the tracks – most notably, the epic Battle With Magus and the adventurous To Far Away Times – show that these composers were at the very top of their game.
The plot of CT centers around Crono, an ordinary silent protagonist and player surrogate who extraordinary things keep happening to. He runs into a princess in disguise (Aladdin-style), who’s accidentally thrown back in time by his genius friend. The rescue mission ultimately leads to the trio discovering the existence of Lavos, an alien creature that will devastate humanity in the distant future. Harnessing the power of time gates, they recruit friends from across the eons to stop this otherworldly force.
Outside of its main character, who is basically a blank slate – seriously, there’s so little difference between Crono and a life-sized Crono doll that you’re literally able to switch them as a plot point – Chrono Trigger does a solid job with the characterization of its playable cast. Most of them can be painted in broad strokes – the rebellious princess, the genius inventor, the tragic swordsman, etc. – but despite their archetypal nature, they’re all brought to life through stellar dialogue, humor, and character animation. (The latter is so good that even Crono’s mute status rarely detracts from the immersion.)
The game is also extremely smart about throwing its characters into scenarios where we immediately care about them. Marle (the pseudonym of the princess in question) is fun and lively from the moment we encounter her, and after we go through the trouble of traveling 400 years into the past to catch up with her, she disappears due to time shenanigans (more on that in a bit); she only plays this “damsel in distress” role for the earliest parts of the game, but we are instantly made to empathize with her plight. We find out that Lucca the inventor’s mother was crippled when she was young, and late in the game, an optional side quest enables you to stop this from happening (butterfly effect be damned!).
Robo is a futuristic android who elicits a surprising amount of pathos when he realizes that the reason for his decency to the party is basically a programming error. Ayla is a chieftain from millions of years ago whose people struggle to stave off extinction in the growing threat of the Reptites. Even Crono himself loses his life during the game (he gets better), and this sacrificial act provides the character with some fans despite his blandness. And finally, Glenn, A.K.A. Frog, is a would-be hero cursed into animal form by Magus, the secondary villain of the game who, at the halfway point of the game, becomes an optional party member himself with his own difficult backstory.
So let’s talk about villains for a minute, because this is an area where Chrono Trigger stumbles. The main antagonist of the game is Lavos, more force of nature than evil entity. It has no personality and the only reason we want to defeat it is because its very existence poses a threat to the world as we know it. And yes, that’s a pretty good reason, but the longer the game goes on, the less emotionally invested we are. Contrast this with great Final Fantasy villains like Kefka and Sephiroth, who frequently show up to provide reasons for us to hate them. This game attempts that with a smattering of sub-bosses instead, to limited success.
In the beginning we have Magus, who’s certainly committed some heinous acts (including killing Frog’s mentor before hexing him) and taunts the party’s powerlessness before him – but then we meet him as a (creepy) child, and find out that his entire motivation is to save his sister’s life and defeat Lavos himself. Now, there’s a lot to be said for complex villains, and he’s actually a pretty excellent character, but the problem is that after he’s no longer our enemy (either because we kill him or he joins the party), nobody steps in to fill that role.
The closest we get to a substitute is Queen Zeal, who seeks to harness Lavos’s power and perpetrates some pretty severe classism – but she doesn’t appear enough for us to really loathe her, and ultimately, going after her is optional as one way to get to Lavos. We get a nice fun Goldfish Poop Gang in Ozzie, Slash, and Flea (named after rock icons in the U.S. localization, of course), but they aren’t especially fleshed out as characters. Perhaps this was a necessity of setting the game across different eras; Lavos is millions of years old, so he’s the only enemy that can be in every period. (The DS remake attempted to remedy this somewhat by sending Dalton, one of Zeal’s particularly annoying and ineffectual cronies, through time in such a way that he becomes responsible for turning magical creatures against humans in the first place. However, this is more of a cool story beat than the inception of a compelling end boss.)
Interestingly, despite its beloved status, some consider the plot of Chrono Trigger to be basic and not up to today’s standards – especially without the aid of a nostalgia filter. There are few major twists in the story, and most of the big moments (e.g., the introduction of time travel and its consequences) are expended early on. This is a ultimately a straightforward tale of a group of heroes (save Magus) who fight for a better world – not because they’ll benefit from it, but because it’s the right thing to do. And it’s true that we don’t see many critically lauded stories like that in the modern era, because the Superman-esque tale of good vs. evil (or in this case, oblivion) has been told, retold, twisted, inverted, contorted, and brought full circle, ad nauseum. Perhaps that’s a fair critique here, but at the very least we have to acknowledge CT‘s groundbreaking status at the time of its release. It truly was the first game to cover time travel with any serious measure of depth, and it still holds up as one of the better attempts to do so in any medium.
Considering its setting, Chrono Trigger plays fast and loose with a few of the rules of time travel. Early on, we’re introduced to what appears to be a version of the Bootstrap Paradox: Marle goes back in time and replaces her kidnapped ancestor in a case of mistaken identity, so the search is called off, apparently resulting in Marle disappearing into a time void of sorts. Lucca theorizes that this is because her actions caused her ancestor to get killed, resulting in her not existing in the first place. The paradox is that if Marle didn’t exist, what exactly are we doing here in the past trying to rescue her? This can be explained with a variation on Time Traveler’s Immunity, the kind shown in Back to the Future, where the travelers themselves gain some resistance to the timeline changes made. But the modern perspective on this story often claims that the Bootstrap Paradox wasn’t invoked here at all, and that Marle disappeared temporarily as a result of meddling from a godlike creature introduced in the sequel – with the goal of keeping Crono motivated to move forward on his crash course with Lavos. (By the way, depending on your interpretation of the events in that game, our main characters’ reward for saving the world may well be erasure from existence. Woof.)
…Whew, there’s a lot here to argue about and analyze. (If you’re as into that level of timeline analysis as I am, this is the best breakdown I’ve found.) Truthfully, that probably has a lot to do with why this game is as beloved as it is by at least some segment of the fan base, even with a few of the blemishes I’ve exposed here. Not enough games tackle subject matter this heady, even today, so the ones that do are rightfully placed on a pedestal. When a game gets this many things right, and was the first to do it, it’s easy to overlook its flaws!
In addition to everything else this game nailed, it’s notable for introducing the now-common “New Game+” to the lexicon, encouraging players to replay the game after beating it with two main motivators: First, picking this option allowed you to keep your levels and many of your items from your save file. Second, and more importantly, this is what gave players access to most of the game’s multiple endings – another area where Chrono Trigger excels by any standards. On the second playthrough, Lavos becomes directly accessible at almost any point in the game, and defeating him at various points in the plot leads to one of the 10 extra non-canon endings, all of which are satisfying in their own way.
Unsurprisingly, Chrono Trigger was a huge critical and commercial success for Squaresoft. Its original Super Nintendo release sold north of 2 million copies, mostly in Japan, and became a sought-after collectible even before the market exploded within the last few years. The game was given a few new cutscenes by Toriyama and packaged with Final Fantasy IV for a port to the PlayStation in 2001 entitled Final Fantasy Chronicles – but unfortunately, it was bogged down by technical issues, namely slow loading times before and after battle. In 2008, it was given a much higher quality port to the Nintendo DS, which featured those scenes in addition to a fair bit of new in-game content. That “complete” version of the game is also the most accessible, trading for around $20, but I’m partial to the original cartridge, currently worth five times as much.
I have a particular memory of attempting to purchase Chrono Trigger from Toys R Us with my mom on my 12th birthday. She gave me a limit on how much I could spend, and I found out to my dismay that the game was just over my budget. But as luck would have it, a man in the store overheard my plight, and had one of his own; he had returned a gift he’d bought for his daughter, but instead of cash, the store had only given him gift certificates. Through a little diplomacy, we were able to solve each other’s problems; I got enough value out of the store credit to buy the game, and he got most of his money back! I like to think that this encounter was engineered by the video game gods. Despite foolishly selling this cartridge (as well as EarthBound and a few others) for a comically cheap amount at a garage sale, I still have the original box and manual to accompany another copy of the game, and I’m not likely to let them go anytime soon.
Possibly the most surprising aspect of Chrono Trigger is the fact that it hasn’t had more of a commercial legacy. It had an “unfinished” sequel called Radical Dreamers (a visual novel in its final form), which evolved into the only legitimate sequel, Chrono Cross – a game I’d like to get to in this series at some point! The closest the Dream Team ever came to reuinting was 2007’s Blue Dragon, which featured Sakaguchi, Toriyama, and Uematsu, but not Horii; it had incredible hype, but ended up being more boiler-plate than anyone expected.
According to director Takashi Tokita, the success of the original game may be working against our chances of seeing more Chrono titles: “It’s probably considered sacred since the companies merged. It was essentially a dream mix between Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest; creating or exceeding what it was in its original form is a very difficult feat.” But even though that hope may go unfulfilled, we can at least be grateful that in this timeline, we got to experience the magic of this title.
That’s it for this issue of Retro Rundown! If you enjoyed it, please check out additional offerings from yours truly. If you have a strong opinion about other games I should revisit in this series, hit up the Dashing Nerds on Twitter or Facebook, or leave a comment below!
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