In my previous article, I had discussed how FromSoftware’s excellent Bloodborne served as a reminder why Fantasy RPGs need to step out of the Medieval era. On N4G, I read a comment which said that a great idea for an RPG would be a sci-fi/fantasy hybrid with time travel element in it. It could encompass all ages including Medieval, Stone Age, far future, near future and recent past. You could go from dinosaurs to sci-fi battles with aliens in a single game.
Well, obviously that’d be the outcome of asking games to step out of their comfort zone. That description right there sounds like an RPG fan’s wet dream. Wouldn’t that just be splendid? Imagine the possibilities, an epic adventure spanning across time where actions in the past would reset the future. Plant some seeds in the Medieval era and fast forward to see an entire terrain. Chaos Theory could be in full effect. You could have a party consisting of a holy knight, a cyborg and a barbarian with the enjoyment of watching them co-operate in unique ways while in a battle. Also, what would happen if you throw in both steampunk and cyberpunk elements? It would just be the greatest thing, ever.
But, how does one go about making such a game? The sheer amount of work that would go into making each world would be a daunting prospect. Not to mention the fact that changing the past could affect the future. What kind of overarching plot could one write? What kind of villain could justify the need for action? How high can the stakes be? Now, if possible, time travel back 25 years and ask yourself the same questions. All of a sudden, that vision doesn’t seem so pleasant anymore. Forget getting out of the medieval era, this shit is getting way out of hand!
This is pretty much why I smiled when I read such a comment, because all of this did already happened back in 1995. Considering my previous article, this one seemed like the only logical follow-up.
Back in 1992, Squaresoft (that’s what they were called before teaming up with Enix) was in a sort of dream run. None of their games needed any reviews to be sold off the shelves. Their games were so great and imaginative that it was equivalent to a movie passed down with the seal ‘Directed by Stanley Kubrick’ (Look, I know 2001: A Space Odyssey was a critical bust when it released, don’t question the analogy!). However, even they were able to see that it would be hard to outmatch their own quality products with the kind of run they were having. So, Squaresoft did what anyone that cares about creativity would do,i.e, lock up all your developers in the room and threaten to shoot all of them unless they came up with a revolutionary idea. Just kidding, Pretty sure it was a rather collaborative discussion with all the greatest developers in Japan with a single purpose – To make the greatest game ever.
And what a team it was, the Japan All-Stars club included the likes of Hironbu Sakaguchi – creator of Final Fantasy series, Kazuhiko Aoki.- event designer of several Final Fantasy titles, Nobuo Uematsu – music composer of all the JRPG soundtracks on your playlist, Yūji Horii – creater of Dragon Quest series,i.e, the game that taught every japanese kid that the word ‘slime’ refers to an incredibly weak onion monster, and finally Akira Toriyama – the guy who gave us hopes and dreams and a newly found respect for vegetables with his fantastic Dragonball series. Adding to the fact that the team would give rise to two great minds in the form of Masato Kato – scriptwriter who would later go on to write Xenogears, Final Fantasy VII & XI and Chrono Cross (which he would also serve as the director), and the great music composer Yasunori Mitsuda, there was already a lot of firepower in a single game, perhaps too much for it’s own good. It would have been way too easy for this scenario to go beyond control as egos clashed and shit hit the fan. But, surprisingly everything clicked. Maybe it’s due to the fact that there existed a completely collaborative environment with everybody pursuing the ambitious project with their heart and soul, giving it their sincerest efforts. So, let’s get into the reasons why this game is a force to be reckoned with.
STORY AND WORLD BUILDING
Apparently, all of the greatest RPG minds ended up with the conclusion that the greatest idea for a fresh RPG would be just that – Something that encompasses all ages including Medieval, Stone Age, far future, near future and recent past, which goes to show you that the greatest game developers do not think all that different from ardent fans of the genre. So, how does Chrono Trigger build its massive world, or rather a collection of worlds? By taking it one step at a time.
In an alternate timeline AD 1000, Our mute protagonist Crono (of course) bumps into a girl in a millenial fair called Marle (of course) and the two go check out Crono’s friend and inventor Lucca demonstrate the teleporter. Things go awry and Marle is transported into AD 600 with Crono and Lucca in pursuit. NOW HANG ON THERE! Don’t spew hate comments right away because I mentioned such a standard plot after all the build-up. This isn’t about a story about rescuing a princess from her castle. Infact, Crono and Lucca pretty much have no trouble finding Marle. What sets off the plot is a series of time travelling events that land them up in AD 2300, a cyberpunk post-apocalyptic dystopia which leads to a sudden depressing turn of events. Our heroes receive the knowledge that their civilization was pretty much wiped out by a giant monster known as Lavos in AD 1999 (when our world was predicted to end). So, our protagonists use the power of time-travelling to find out clues pertaining to the origins of Lavos and destroying the monster. Each clue further points towards a different time which our heroes must travel to figure out.
And with such simple mechanic and few delightful surprises we have a thread connecting all timelines without ever feeling out of place. There is always an overarching narrative and a reason for you to be in a particular period. The sheer astonishment that crossed my mind when the entire plot started coming together in a certain location is probably the single greatest experience I’ve had in gaming history.The incredible inter-connectivity of plot despite being separated by centuries or even millennium is just epic. Yes, epic, that’s the right word. Chrono Trigger is an epic.
Also, each period is given brilliant attention to detail. Crono’s era is some sort of hybrid between medieval era and the industrial period. You get too see some really cool steampunk enemies. It reminds you a bit of Final Fantasy VI but with the atmosphere being on the lighter side. Whereas the medieval period is something straight out of Dragon Quest and is filled with the typical goblins, ghosts, knights, ghosts of knights, ghosts of goblin knights, etc. Stone age period has an interesting setting with the dinosaurs ruling the land in a form of Monarchy and the far future is basically an expansion of the first five minutes of Terminator 2 complete with it’s own version of skynet in the form of Mother Brain. Fans of Columbia in Bioshock Infinte will absolutely eat up the Kingdom of Zeal. There is just so much going on that each era could spawn a spinoff series on its own.
Indeed, the game pulls a lot from classic literature. It also fits actual historical events like the giant meteorite that struck earth,ending dinosaurs, and predictions like the doomsday prophecy into its plot. According to a brilliant video by Game Theory, Chrono Trigger also borrows heavily from the Bible.
You pick up a character from each era to add to your roster. This characters are all unique in their own ways, ranging from a robot from future called “Robo” a holy knight turned into a frog called …. frog (yeah, guess they cheaped out on the names BUT CUT THEM SOME SLACK THIS IS A REVOLUTIONARY GAME WE’RE TALKING HERE). The world building is done through these characters as you see the world from their perspective. Each character has his/her own sidequest which, should you pursue, helps flesh out much of the time period.
This setting also allows for some really neat puzzles, often requiring you to hop eras. Finding a mayor of a town too annoying to deal with? Try going back to the past and learn of their harsh living conditions. Maybe helping them might reset the future and change the mindset of the mayor. Can’t go ahead in an area because of your lack of technology? Well maybe you only need to look to the future. That’s another great thing about this setting – it’s dynamic. All your actions will lead to drastic changes in the future, sometimes totally changing landscapes and people’s personalities. These puzzles give you plenty of reason to move back and forth between eras, exploring every nook and cranny, and appreciate each aspect of the world.
EXPLORATION AND COMBAT
“I’ve sick of these mother f***ing random encounters in these mother f***ing dungeons” yelled one developer at Hironbu Sakaguchi, so frustrated that he couldn’t take two steps ahead without stubbing his toe against some nasty predecessor of zubat. “Umbasa!” screamed the rest of the crew in the meeting. And so, random encounters were done away with and enemies were made clearly visible on the map. This makes it all the more easier to avoid them in case you’re low on supplies.
I’m putting exploration and combat together because the removal of random encounters largely affects one’s motivation to explore. Rather than finding the quickest way through the dungeon to minimize the number of random encounters, and missing out on key items in the process, you can now freely explore every nook and cranny as long as you avoid the monsters. There are no monsters on the world map, giving you plenty of freedom to move in any direction and backtrack too if you wish to. It also took a bite out of the Legend of Zelda series in terms of movement. Whereas other RPGs were stuck with four directions of possible movement, Chrono Trigger allowed full range of motion. This again made it all the more joyful to just go out and explore the fantastic world.
Despite there being a lot of freedom in exploring, there was a lot of linearity in the dungeons and this was used as the basis for the developers to put in packets of lore and side-stories. You could explore all of these places in any order and really stitch the story together as you move forward. But, what if people went way ahead and went to places critical to the story out of turn? Well, they’d have their balls kicked in through their teeth. Clever design and leveling choices were made to ensure people got back on track. (Gamasutra wrote an excellent article on Chrono Trigger’s game design which can be read here)
Coming back to the combat, Some rather interesting tweaks were made to the conventional method. Probably the same developer went on further with his rant and said “just why the f*** do we have battles take place in a different world? What do they warp into alternate reality all of a sudden? It looks like crapp” before being punched in the face by a robo arm. So now we have the entire battlefield on the same map. Not only this, the party would position themselves in several different formations with every different encounter as would happen in real life. The catch is, most of the spells used by the player are affected by the proximity of target. Certain spells have different alignment of damage. So, the characters being in different spots changed the effects of these spells. This meant that every encounter encouraged you to mix up your strategy and made each fight exciting.
You could have three characters at a certain time each possessing different magic type which includes spells unique to that magic type. What’s more interesting is that two or three characters could combine their magic to form a dual-tech or a triple-tech attack, basically combo attacks. It wasn’t the first to come up with this idea, but it pushed the concept to another limit. So, different combination of characters led to different types of combos. Add this to the different formations mentioned above, and you have a whole new set of options at your disposal. Why this system wasn’t picked on as a standard RPG method of combat is beyond me.
Boss battles too need to be mentioned. Chrono Trigger is never a difficult game, but the boss battles can be quite puzzling. Most bosses can be hard as nails if you try to take them head on. But, each one has a certain weakness that can be experienced through careful observation of the boss’s design and movement. There was one battle when I was up against a foe with two spheres which seemed to serve as the assist. I kept beating the main troublesome guy only to watch it respawn. It took me sometime to figure out that it was all a trick and the right sphere was the core, destroying which would kill the boss. This realization brought a smile across my face, tricked by an ancient game. So, despite not being all that difficult, figuring out an exploit against a boss gives an immense sense of satisfaction. (Does all of this sound like a certain From Software franchise to you?)
CHARACTERS, CHOICES AND HEROISM
“Boss, do we write it in text and convey to them that their actions will have consequences?” said a designer. “Nah! We’ll just let them behave like the ass****s they are and then punish them for it” came the reply. Honestly, Chrono Trigger has the single greatest way of driving that message in your mind. You start at a fair and goof around like a sack of sh*tbag that you are. There are many things to do in the fair, take some lunch that’s around. Beat the shit out of some cat,etc till you bump into Marle. Nothing ordinary there and a completely forgettable course of events. A couple of hours later when you return from saving your princess who was in another castle in another era, you’re immediately arrested by Kingdom authorities on the accusation of abducting her (of course). Crono is held on a trial where your character is judged on the basis of your actions in the fair as witnessed by the people around. Remember that food you ate? Yeah, that belonged to a poor hard-working man. Also, great job scaring some poor girl’s cat away. What you urged Marle to hurry the f*ck up while she was buying cotton candy? And they say chivalry is dead. Oh! Great job grabbing her pendant and selling it off. You’re a wretched person and off with your head. Well shit!
Chrono Trigger does not have a binary good or bad choice system. You don’t undergo any situation which gives the “Choose this for the good route you numbskull” impression. Everything flows organically. Every choice you make is, well, the choice you would make. And that is exactly what RPG is all about. Crono is a mute character who becomes a fictional avatar of you. Through such a brilliantly crafted choice system, you develop an intimate connection with Crono and, by extension, his crew.
And what a set of characters. Each character treated with equal care. Even the side characters stand out (SCHALA!!) Each of them ties brilliantly into the story. You can pursue each character’s sub-plot which is surprisingly lengthy. At the end of it, the character unlocks his/her special move. A terrific bonus, yes, but it’s something that flies under the feeling of attachment you’ve grown with the particular character. And this is where the choice system kicks in. Like Mass Effect 2, the events are built up to certain stakes where you’re unable to choose an option because of all that you’ve experienced. For example, we learn of Frog’s quest for vengeance and are totally on board right up to the point when it’s close to being achieved. However, certain revelations totally shatter you and change your perspective completely and going ahead with the initial plan isn’t as easy anymore. That’s what great characters and choice systems lead to, memorable events like these.
I’d also like to talk about the idea of heroism. When it comes to Chrono Trigger, you experience the most selfless act of heroism ever. Think about it, None of this affects Crono’s timeline. You could save the entire world from Lavos along with your friends and go tell your mom about it all and she’d just reply ” YOU HAVE NO FRIENDS YA TWAT! Now go feed your cat!”. It’s all too easy to just walk away and chill in your own time. That doesn’t happen though, and it’s these characters and their motivations that pulls Crono, Marle and Lucca into doing the deed. And you totally buy it. But that’s not all, everybody else has their own reason to fight Lavos. They all fall on different places on the scale of heroism. Some want justice while others want vengeance but all their ideals align.
Nobuo Uematsu did have a hand on Chrono Trigger’s music. However, it was Yasunori Mitsuda, who was previously a sound programmer, who did the major composing and he certainly was up to the challenge. The story, battle and characters of the game were memorable themselves. But, the music that Mitsuda composes elevates each situation to iconic status. Each track not only goes well with the situation, but embodies it whole. Separating a particular event from its music is almost impossible. If the characters are the heart of the game, Mitsuda’s score is definitely it’s soul. Listening to each track directly translates you back into that particular place as if you just explored it yesterday. The Battle theme something that will stick in your head long after the game’s finished and haunt you in your dreams. The final march towards Lavos is amped up by World Revolution, a tune which is basically a dance between the theme songs of the heroes and the villian and perfectly captures the stakes of the situation. The endgame bossfight is, should you put on your headphones, a brilliant use of stereo with the music circling you as if it has you trapped with no means to escape. Also, each character has a theme song which makes them all the more memorable. Heck, even the side characters have their own theme songs. My favourite thought is Schala’s theme, which is part of the reason why her character left a great impression on me as it will leave on you. It is one of the greatest soundtracks every created, one that would only be surpassed by it’s criminally underrated sequel. (which to this day has the greatest soundtrack in video games, period)
Akira Toriyama handled the artwork. That is all.
Chrono Trigger had, not one, not two.. but twelve endings overall (and a bonus one in the DS remaster). Each of these are drastically different and are based on what time era you actually beat the boss. What’d happen if you beat him in Stone Age? Well, now there’s no one to destroy the dinosaurs and they remain the ruling species on Earth. Just like that, each ending is a unique and rewarding experience. Heck, you can have endings without Crono making it (the tragedy!). However, they aren’t enough to warrant another game from the scratch. So, Chrono Trigger introduced one of the coolest mechanics in gaming – Newgame+. With this, you could start the new game with your characters at the same level as the end of the last game. You can now go back on all the side quests you missed and explore all you want. Also cool though, this being a game about time travel, is that you can take on Lavos anytime without having to progress through the same storyline again. All these features make this a game you keep coming back to.
Perhaps a bit too long an article for my liking, I still had to hold back a lot. Honestly, I can go on for hours about this game and the beautiful world that it sets up. With such an ambitious goal, it was very easy to mess all of this up. There were so many ways this game could have gone wrong, yet it did not. It’s almost criminal that a game like this exists, yet it does. And I’m grateful that such a thing happened. Chrono Trigger is the best game I’ve ever played. This isn’t just a glorious antique in gaming. Chrono Trigger is every bit as good now as it was back then, perhaps proving how well ahead of time (heh) it was. I can safely say this because I’ve only played this game last year and it was still enough to have me in awe. It’s a proud landmark in gaming that everyone should experience. So to you reader, if you’ve not yet played this game, I implore you to pick it up right now and join me in fawning over this glorious world. Chrono Trigger is currently available on PlayStation, Nintendo DS, Android and iOS. It is strongly recommended that you get the DS version unless you have an SNES somewhere down in your basement in which case play it legit! Chrono Trigger also teaches us all a very important lesson when it comes to life. It IS possible to create a floating city of dreams. It IS good to dream big. It’s not wrong to want everything and it’s definitely not out of hand to get it. This is what happens when people think big and put their sincerest efforts in achieving their goals.