There is not really much that can be said about Chrono Trigger. Produced near the end of the SNES era, it still stands at the summit of RPGs. Yet it bears repeating: This game is a masterpiece. What made it so special? Was it the “Dream Team” talent behind it? The whimsical story? The superior game mechanics?
I said that there is not much to say. But if you will journey with me a bit further, I daresay you’ll find me full of observations.
Ready? Here we go!
Chrono Trigger starts about as cliche’ as an RPG can get. Your mother awakens you so that you don’t miss a county fair. One thing leads to another and the next thing you know you’re on an adventure through time. As far as stories go it’s nowhere near a magnum opus, but I don’t think it it is trying to be. One of the best things about Chrono Trigger is that it never takes itself too seriously, yet it Excels in tackling existential questions such as the consequences of actions in the grand scheme of things. I will never forget the first time I made it to the “future”. The barren world and hopeless music just made me … stop for a while to take it all in.
Getting further into why this narrative is so engaging requires a look at the game’s near perfect pacing. Just about the time you feel like something major should happen, it happens, and you will never feel bored as you trek through time. It also helps that throughout the game your goal remains the same. While each time period you visit all have minor villains and situations to deal with, the party’s eye is always on the prize. This gives the story a focus that many other RPGs lack. You will always feel like what you are doing matters because in the grand scheme it does.
This pacing also translates into the game’s brilliant battle system. You can see your enemies on the map, enabling you to avoid some encounters. Still, at least half of the battles are non-negotiable, but I find this to be a strength rather than a weakness since the enemy layout also results in one of the few RPG experiences that requires ZERO GRINDING. Enemies seem to be placed in just the right order and amount, so you should almost always be at the right level to tackle your current challenge. The result? A game that constantly makes the player feel like a badass.
Once your party has engaged the enemy, you will find that this battle system is FAST. Transitions are instant: You fight the enemy on the same screen you explore on! Each character has his own weapons and abilities that can be combined with other party members in order to hit the enemy where it hurts. It operates on a quasi-positional system where enemies move around freely on the battlefield. This is where Chrono begins to differentiate from its JRPG brethren. Placement of the enemy is important, both because enemies who find one another may be able to work in tandem, AND because depending on your method of attack you may be able to hit several of them at once if they are bunched together! One of my favorite examples of this mechanic at work is a battle where you are fighting a monkey and a “rock”. If you do not get rid of the rock fast, the monkey may walk up to it and throw it at you, causing huge damage. Likewise it is not just enemies who get this treatment as bosses are treated with the same tactical importance. Each boss has its own pattern and way of defeating it. All this adds up to Chrono Trigger having one of the most engaging combat systems ever implemented in an RPG, period. You will never feel bored, even through the multiple playthroughs.
Chrono Trigger’s cast is also one of its highlights. The game gives you six (and MAYBE seven) different personalities that are made distinct in several ways. Chrono is your classic silent protagonist, a vehicle for the player to explore the world. The rest are a diverse assortment of characters from different time periods and backgrounds, each bringing their own strength to the table. Think of it as a fraternity of the ages if you will.
And each one brings their own story. It is pretty interesting to watch as these characters change and grow over the course of the quest, for it is here and not in the intertwining narrative that Chrono Triggers’ most memorable moments occur. Whether you’re helping a young girl repair her relationship with her father or revisiting a friend’s regretted memory with the hopes of changing the future , these moments carry a surprising amount of emotional weight and lend the tale some gravity. The bond of friendship present in this crew is not often seen in RPGs, all the more powerful because we can feel it without hours of exposition needed to reinforce the idea.
The villains of the various eras are also very diverse with motivations all their own. One villain simply wants to aid in her people’s survival. Another sees itself as the planet’s salvation. And then there is Magus, one of the most memorable villains of the era, quietly manipulating his era toward his surprising goal. Then there is Lavos itself, a terrifying alien and ultimately incomprehensible to our heroes. I love this villain’s lack of exposition, and it hearkens back to a time when the bad guy was someone to be defeated, not understood. Why do I care why Lavos does the things he does? My salvation lies in stopping it, not in understanding it. The more we understand the less frightening the threat becomes. Chrono Trigger understands this and uses it to its maximum.
And even in the end the pacing remains at its perfect pitch, always allowing the player to be in control. Once you’ve reached the point where it’s time to save the future, you’ve got some decisions to make. It is only at the end that the game leaves the rails and opens up its wealth of sidequesting opportunities along with allowing you to see the changes to the future your actions will bring. It is in these “Sound of Thunder” moments that the game really begins to show you the depth of the time-travel mechanic, and it can be a lot of fun to point out the changes to future eras that decisions bring about.
Even then, you’re not done yet, since this is also the RPG that made the NEW GAME+ famous! Ever wanted to go back with all your godlike equipment and stomp through the main game? With Chrono Trigger that is exactly what you will do! With over a dozen different endings to play through depending on what point in the game you engage the final boss, you’ll be coming back for more just to see how the future changes based on when you beat the game!
As for the game’s presentation, it is polished to an insane degree. Toriyama’s artwork is functional beauty, and the world just has a vibrant feel to it that makes every era come to life. Sometimes it cuts to a sidescroll view for some screens, revealing some breathtaking vistas. The future is depressing. The present is joyful. The past is mysterious. It all comes together perfectly. Animation is also superbly done here, as almost EVERYTHING has an animation or two. A special note must also be made for the game’s music, which contains some of the most memorable pieces from the era and really sets the mood for the setpieces the story gives you. You’ll laugh, smile, feel hopeless, and do anything else that the music intends you to. Few games can tell a story through their soundtrack alone, and Chrono is one of them.
At the end of the day, it is often asked why we have not seen this franchise in so long. After all, neither this game nor its sequel really did that badly. Many people have asked Square to do a proper sequel, but I am of the mind that we should just leave well enough alone. I have become bitter with time as I have witnessed the destruction of all of Square’s great franchises (which is still continuing to this day). So I see no reason to entrust the modern Square with its greatest. Ultimately, Chrono Trigger may be the problem! It might just be too damn good! We are talking about a game that is the pinnacle of its genre. No grinding, perfect pacing, a sense of humor, strategic battle system, no random encounters, NG+… Is it any wonder that it seems like JRPG’s have gone backwards since the 16-bit era?
… And The Future Refused To Change …
5 Out Of 5 Stars
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