Have you noticed that my rants just keep getting longer and longer, on average? I have. I wonder if it annoys you as much as it annoys me.
Chrono Trigger is, to me, The RPG. The now and forever. I had enjoyed RPGs up until I played CT, but this game is the one that got me obsessively hooked on the genre for life. In many ways it’s the standard against which I measure the worth of all RPGs. In many ways it’s forever my favorite game. It took somewhere around a decade before I played a better RPG than Chrono Trigger (it was Suikoden 2), and it was only with the greatest reluctance that I admitted to myself that the game could be surpassed.
But WHY was it so good? What parts of it were so good? What made CT such an experience? These are questions I’ve considered for a while. It’s hard, after all, to separate true value from the value our nostalgia and childhood impressions give to the things we loved in our youth. It’s also difficult to extract and organize all the good qualities of a game which blended so expertly so many different positive aspects. But after some contemplation, and the occasional moronic accusation from individuals with poor taste that CT wasn’t actually very good and it’s just nostalgia-goggles that make me think it was, I think I’m about ready to really explain just why Chrono Trigger is such a great RPG.
This one is for you, Trippy.
I think I’ve said this before, but when you use it effectively, time travel makes for a really cool storytelling device in an RPG. Sadly it’s NOT always used effectively, and you can easily get games where it’s almost irrelevant to the storytelling process (Star Ocean 1, Dark Cloud 2), where it comes out of the blue and doesn’t seem to mesh very well with the rest of it (Final Fantasy 9, Valkyrie Profile 2), and games where it’s tossed carelessly around and makes no damn sense (Robotrek, Final Fantasy 8). But when it’s done well, time travel really allows for some great potential in storytelling. For example, The Magic of Scheherazade and The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask both have some pretty neat ideas using the concept, and Radiant Historia’s plot based on time travel is, simply put, great.
Chrono Trigger does time travel well. Quite well. I’m not going to say it explores the potential of time travel as well as Radiant Historia does, and of course it raises the idea of paradoxes like most time travel stories must, but overall, the hops between past, present, and future in CT are interesting, and allow for a creative story that not only shows an adventure across time to save a world’s future, combining robots and dinosaurs, medieval knights and high-tech sorcery, but also shows the history of a planet, which by itself becomes fairly interesting once you start seeing its forgotten ages and historical misconceptions. And the time travel is always present--going from one period to the next is a frequent necessity, as tracking down the best way and time to save the world of Chrono Trigger is a clue-driven hunt across the ages. There’s never a time you forget you’re time-traveling in this game, which, VERY strangely to me, is often a problem with time-travel RPGs--Star Ocean 1 and Tales of Phantasia, as examples, are games where the long stretches of gameplay in a single time period makes you forget that the characters aren’t supposed to be in this time period to begin with.
In addition, when you got to a new time period, the game really sells it, which, also surprisingly to me, doesn’t always happen with games using time travel. Tales of Phantasia’s events, for example, occur in the past, present, and future of a single world, but you’d barely know the difference between one time period and the next if the plot didn’t tell you. What’s the point of having one’s characters go to different periods in their world’s history if those periods are all highly similar? With Chrono Trigger, you go to the past, you KNOW you’re in a very different time, because there’s dinosaurs and cave people running through the jungle. You go from there to a different period in the past, and the frozen planet with a sky-based magical empire hovering over it tells you that you ain’t in Kansas any more. And the future? Few post-apocalyptic futures I’ve seen are quite as...well, post-apocalyptic as Chrono Trigger’s. You see the post apocalypse of a lot of movies, shows, games, etc, and, well, things look bad, yeah. The world’s been socked a good one. But you walk around in 2300 AD of Chrono Trigger, and you see a world that has been ruined.
I’d like to also note that the game’s handling of time travel in this is somewhat unique as it’s hard to determine where it’s grounded--science, magic, or the spiritual? Machines like the Gate Key and the Epoch are used to open the holes in time, making it science fiction, and yet, the time gates seem to be a result of incredibly powerful magics having reactions so powerful that time’s fabric is torn, as shown by the first gate appearing from a reaction to the magic pendant, or Lavos’s powerful presence causing the one at Magus’s summoning ceremony. And yet! There is a deliberate sprinkling of the spiritual in there, as well--the CT party theorizes one evening that the true origin of these time portals comes from a regretful deity-like Entity, looking back in sorrow at the world’s history, and through its regret causing the time gates that allow for history to be changed for the better. Sounds like hogwash, I suppose, but then the theory is born out to a certain extent by the inexplicable, single-use gate that takes Lucca back to the moment of her life she regrets the most, giving her an opportunity to put it right--time travel by sheer will of the spirit, it seems, or perhaps the mercy of this Entity, which is still spiritual. And the time freeze performed to save Crono, arguably the most important act of time-warping in the entire game, seems as rooted in spirit (requiring the intense desire of his friends to return him to life) as it is in magic (requiring a magically-created clone)* or science (the Chrono Trigger device itself). Chrono Trigger has a level of ambiguity to its time travel’s basis, which is fairly unique, and quite interesting.
TL;DR Version: Chrono Trigger’s use of time travel was really cool.
Ultimately, Chrono Trigger’s plot is somewhat conventional: the smaller, personal events of the main characters eventually rope them into a quest to save the world from a huge, super powerful enemy. At its foundation, it’s not incredibly different or creative.
But you know, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: it’s all in the execution. There’s nothing wrong with a conventional idea if you execute it really well. And like I always do when I say this, I bring up the example of Grandia 2, the top game on my Best RPGs list. Grandia 2 is a game built on plot cliches and driven by cliche character archetypes, but it’s amazingly deep, engaging, and invokes tremendous emotional response, because its writers take common ideas, and use them with extraordinary skill to tell a story that blows your socks off.
And the same is true (though not as strongly) with Chrono Trigger. The characters are engaging, the plot twists are often very unexpected (more on that below), and the creative way the game’s conventional goals are pursued keeps you engrossed in it. The accidental way Crono and company find out about the main bad guy Lavos, the ways they try to get rid of Lavos to avoid direct confrontation with him, the way the characters and time periods are subtly linked as the adventure continues, finding a hidden, forgotten chapter in the planet’s history when a magical empire ruled the world and seeing its fall...there’s excitement and surprise all the way through. CT’s plot is simple, but it’s complex, and it’s standard, but unique.
One of the most memorable parts of Chrono Trigger is its collection of characters, and there’s good reason for this--or rather, a few good reasons for this. Some games’ casts are very visually diverse and colorful, but ultimately have very few noteworthy traits or very little dedicated character development to set one character apart from the next. I noted that The Magic of Scheherazade, despite its many other good traits, suffered from this problem, and there are many other RPGs that also do, most notably Chrono Trigger’s own sequel, Chrono Cross.
That’s definitely not the case with CT, though. The characters’ personalities and development are as individualized as their physical appearances. The main characters are often tied very strongly to the events of the plot, allowing the story itself to develop the cast members. There are comparatively few parts of the game where the plot’s course and events do not have strong personal importance to at least one character, and this cohesion between the most important elements of RPG storytelling keeps the characters in focus, as they should be, and makes the plot seem constantly relevant to the cast, which is also important. Too often, RPG plots go through long stretches (sometimes almost the length of the entire game) without really involving the game’s characters past minimal necessity, and as a result you don’t feel as strong a connection to those characters, because their characterization only occurs at short moments, ones that are often more aside from the story than a part of it. Not so with Chrono Trigger, not by a long shot.
The game also takes enough time to go for character development in the small ways, too, which, I’ve found, can be just as important for establishing and endearing a character to the player as the major parts of that character’s development. What I mean by this is that Chrono Trigger has the individuals in the party interact with plot-important conversations (and even sometimes a few unimportant NPC text boxes) and react to events as they happen. This is a fairly common thing in RPGs, of course, but CT did it a little better than the norm, I think, really getting their cast involved with what was going on. And more importantly, when it was time for party members to speak, the characters themselves spoke--the text for the character would be tailored to suit that character’s personality and beliefs. When it was time for a party member to weigh in on something, it wasn’t just a single reaction/line of dialogue that wouldn’t really change regardless of who spoke it, like the later Chrono Cross and its stupid translation system would do, it was THAT person’s reaction to the situation. Even for the many occasions that called for uniform reaction (such as the entire party expressing surprise at something), each character still expresses the thought in their own words. It’s a small thing, I know, but y’know, it may be the major things that develop a character the most in a game, but it’s often the small stuff that really tell you who the character is, and make them memorable to you. For example, the Tales of the Abyss cast would be half as fleshed out and memorable without the constant conversation skits the game provides--those little, optional, and seemingly unimportant talks did wonders to solidify the characters in the player’s mind. Same thing here. And while this idea wasn’t unknown to RPGs by any means by Chrono Trigger’s time, CT still did more with it than was the norm, and thus provided their characters with constant growth and personality confirmation.
And hey, I might want to mention that these characters that were developed so well are, indeed, good and likeable characters. Lucca plays the Team Scientist and Protagonist’s BFF roles remarkably well--she’s obviously very into the scientific aspects of all they do, and does all the requisite sciencing-around (making new devices, explaining some of the weird shit going on, etc), but never falls into the trap that so many other RPG Team Scientists do of being TOO obsessive about it (example: Lexis in the unspeakably horrible Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals remake)--it’s not the ONLY thing going on with her, she’s not just about the one thing. And even better, Lucca very believably portrays a female best friend to Chrono, hitting on a perfect mix of deep affection and intimate familiarity without ever giving the impression of romantic interest (I feel that’s a major problem with characters in stories who are best friends of opposite genders--it always seems like writers feel there HAS to be underlying romantic tensions between them or something). And I like Lucca’s down-to-Earth attitude; she comes off as a very normal person overall, someone you can imagine having as a friend yourself. Marle is surprising to me for how non-annoying she is--she’s basically the Team Cheerleader and Rambunctious Princess, but while she clearly provides moral support for her teammates and yells about not wanting to be defined by her princess-ness, she’s never actually been annoying to me, though those roles usually bug me a little bit. But while Marle’s cheerful and simple, she’s not vapid or brainless, and her pure, good, and helpful nature is actually something of a motivating force for the team. When the team learns of the impending destruction of their world, it’s Marle who, after collapsing from the sheer horror of the situation, first recovers, picks herself up, and proclaims that they need to stop it, to save their world--she even beats protagonist Crono to the punch there. As much as any physical effort the party makes, it’s Marle’s unyielding energy, morality, and faith that a situation can be bettered that gets the party through its journey. Frog is noble and tragic, and seeing him grow past his history is great. And Robo’s search for purpose, and finding it in his friends, is great, as well (though I do think they could have done more with him on that). I suppose Ayla, Crono, and Magus are the low points in the cast--Ayla’s and Magus’s character development are comparatively short and not incredibly compelling, and Crono’s a Silent Protagonist (man do I hate those). But Ayla and Magus are certainly not bad characters, and between Ayla’s amusing comic relief and Magus’s coolness (he’s basically the original RPG badass), they’ve got plenty of appeal. And I have to admit, Crono’s just expressive enough in his actions and reactions that his silence isn’t all that bad, and doesn’t actually detract from the storytelling process.
I will admit, once you get past the main cast, the characters of Chrono Trigger aren’t as interesting. Oh, sure, there are plenty of decent NPCs related to the plot, such as Cyrus, the Gurus, and Schala, but overall, you don’t encounter many that make any strong impact. They mostly just do what they need to for the story and main characters, and that’s it. But when you have a strong set of main characters, as Chrono Trigger does, I suppose that’s really all you NEED NPCs to do. It’s great when you can get a really compelling non-party character, like, say, Joker from the Mass Effect series, or Irving from Wild Arms 2, but as long as the main cast is pulling its weight, nothing will seem noticeably missing, so CT is fine.
As far as villains go, Chrono Trigger is interesting because it’s lacking, but it knows this and takes steps to fix this. The main villain of CT is Lavos, who is only ever encountered a couple times in the entire game, and is an RPG Giant Apocalyptic Monster villain, so there’s no character depth or ability to reflect and through that reflection develop the protagonist with Lavos. In addition, a villain’s rarely having an actual physical presence usually means that a plot is going to suffer from it. The game solves this by having each major arc of the story have a smaller villain whose machinations involve the party and player strongly enough that Lavos’s absence goes unnoticed as we’re caught up with current events. But at the same time, Lavos is never forgotten (which would be just as bad as his presence being missed, since it would lessen his overall dramatic power), as the need to oppose each smaller villain always has its relevance to ultimately stopping Lavos explained. In addition, each of these smaller villains of importance (Magus, Azala, and Zeal--there are others, but they’re more side villains and lackeys, and aren’t really the head of any major story arcs) winds up having significant relevance to Lavos and the role Lavos plays in the course of the planet’s history. This way, Lavos can stay out of the limelight, but is never absent.
I’d also like to note that as a villain, Lavos is about as interesting as he reasonably could be. Big, catastrophe-style villain monsters in RPGs aren’t usually afforded an opportunity for character development (and if Grandia 3’s lame main villain was any indication, maybe they shouldn’t be), but Lavos is, at least, pretty unique. I already went over what I like about Lavos in my Greatest Villains List, so I’ll just let you check that out if you’re interested in the details, and paraphrase here--Lavos is a city-sized alien planet-parasite that seems to feed on the forces of evolution over the course of millions of years which eventually (perhaps at a point where evolution seems to be slowing down without outside influence?) surfaces and rains destruction on the planet. Can’t tell me that’s not fairly cool and unique.
Chrono Trigger’s soundtrack is absolutely fantastic, twice over. The first way it’s great is, of course, obvious. It sounds terrific! There are many wonderful tunes in Chrono Trigger that are just great to listen to. The song that plays when battling Magus is a terrific tune for an epic struggle. The world map music for 1000 AD is lovely, quiet and sweet. And the music associated with forest areas? I’ve heard few more hauntingly beautiful backgrounds.
The other way, and perhaps more important way, that CT’s soundtrack is great is how well it works with the game to set a mood, to portray through sound the feeling of events and places. Of course most RPG music is meant first and foremost to set the mood of the situations and dungeons and such that it plays for, and I’d actually say that most of it succeeds in adequately doing this. But CT’s music is a step above. The desolate music that plays on the world map of the post-apocalyptic 2300 AD is perfect for setting the tone of a ruined world. The simple, throbbing rhythms of locations in the prehistoric age convey the primitive energy of a simple, savage world where humankind is only just beginning its forays into culture (not to mention that the simplistic nature of the music rather neatly reflects the idea of a time before there really would be anything more to music than just that). And then there’s the sinister, quiet background of Magus’s castle which, more than anything else there, gives the dark fortress an epically creepy personality. Chrono Trigger’s music will, more often than not, do more than its part to communicate the atmosphere and emotion of each place and scene of the adventure, and give the game real personality.
I really enjoy the general presentation Chrono Trigger gives. In general, the game has a lot of energy and zeal to it, with action, excitement, and a can-do attitude to its cast that carry you along and keep you interested. But at the same time, it doesn’t lack for a quieter side, a darker side, a spiritual side, and an emotional side. The world after Lavos’s day of destruction, the events of the Ocean Palace, they throw a strongly sobering effect into the mix, just as the personal issues of the cast, the plight of Scala, and the effort to save Crono integrate poignant feeling into the narrative. The talk of the Entity and the magnitude of Crono’s resurrection add the touch of the spiritual to the mix, as does the Game Over Ending’s somber final message, telling us that, despite the best efforts of the game’s heroes, “the future refused to change,” which serves to remind the player of what a monumental and grand task this truly is--a quest to change destiny itself. There’s little more to say here, really--CT is a very enjoyable mix of the bright energy of adventure and the soft layers of drama, and few games feel as natural in their own skin as this one. If that makes any sense.
There were some surprisingly good and original plot twists and unexpected occurrences in Chrono Trigger. I find that the twists of CT’s story can seem to come out of nowhere, but rarely feel like they’re being forced, which is a problem with a lot of story twists I’ve seen--it often seems like the writer/writers is/are trying too hard to surprise in games, shows, movies, books, and so on. With CT, it’s unexpected, but natural.
Take the trial, for instance. Now, I have to say, I don’t think ANY player expected Crono to be arrested and put on trial when he brought Princess Nadia back to her home after their initial time-travel adventure at the beginning of the game. The mindset of RPGs in regards to returning lost royalty, politicians, and other important persons to their home is a lot like the mindset of returning a book to the library--walk in, give it over to the nearest person of authority, and that’s done with. Hell, if an RPG castle set up an after-hours Princess Return Slot over to the side of the main gates, I’m pretty sure most adventurers wouldn’t think twice about just dumping their rescued damsels in it and taking off. But in Chrono Trigger, the guy bringing the recently vanished princess back is actually detained, and required to prove that he didn’t kidnap her to begin with. Totally unexpected in an RPG, but it feels natural, because, hey, it’s kind of similar to how that sort of scenario would actually go down. There SHOULDN’T be a no-consequences drop-off of missing royalty, and there SHOULD be some suspicion cast on the guy who just happened to stroll in unannounced with her days after she’s vanished. Granted it all gets a little out of control for Crono after that, but that’s beside the point. It’s a cool twist.
The more important plot points tend to also have some pretty great twists. For example, who can forget the shock of first seeing the Kingdom of Zeal? Out of nowhere, the game throws the party headfirst into a secret era of their planet’s history when there was a highly advanced magical civilization. It comes out of nowhere! Now let’s face it, Ancient Advanced Civilizations are about as common in RPGs as, say, swords, but how many of them are as surprising as Zeal? I mean, every other time an RPG has ancient cultures that tie relevantly into the plot, those things are completely out in the open and well-established as being a huge part of the planet’s history and the story of the game’s current events. With Zeal, though, the game has, to my recollection, only ONCE ever referenced it before, and that was just a casual, cryptic, vague reference by Spekkio that a long while back everyone had magical powers. This entire age of magical advanced super-society is a complete blank spot in the world’s history, and that, to me, is one hell of a twist. And again, it’s a logic-supported plot twist, as the fall of Zeal that the main party witnesses explains why this piece of history, though a hugely essential part of the past and relating greatly to Lavos, is unknown in any time period in the future. It’s not just a twist for the hell of it, it fits in with everything else.
And oh, yeah, how about that plot twist where the main character dies? There’s an idea that I don’t think many people saw coming. Not a whole lot of games try that one, and even if they did, I doubt they could maintain narrative cohesion and make it seem as natural as CT does.
So yeah. In the end, Chrono Trigger has a heck of a lot of plot twists that are fresh, unique, and unexpected, even 20 years of game storytelling later, and its writers had the skill and instinct to make the twists fit into the plot and seem natural.
The Minor Details
It’s of lesser importance, but I’d nonetheless like to note that the more trivial aspects of Chrono Trigger are solid, as well. The battle system is simple but effective, and I daresay a little less non-fun than most of its turn-based peers. The graphics, for the time, were very impressive, and even if they’re as dated as any other 16-bit game, it’s still quite easy to see and understand everything you need to from the visuals--far more so than with most other RPGs of the era, for that matter. And the special effects are pretty decent, all things considered--there are a lot of different spells and attacks in the game, and they’re often impressively flashy considering how simplistic they are. Lastly, the controls are generally smooth--not Nintendo-level, but more than functional.
The creativity and skill behind Chrono Trigger really shows in its many quirks. The most obvious of these innovations, of course, regard the endings and replay value. While variations in endings were not a completely new concept by Chrono Trigger’s time, CT was, I’m pretty sure, the first RPG to have several clearly defined endings, and it was definitely the first to have a bunch of extra alternate endings ranging from jokes to alternate realities, which could be seen by beating the final boss at various different points in the game. That’s a heck of a neat little feature right there, particularly when one of the special extra endings has the player meet the game’s developers. Another related major innovative quirk was the New Game+ feature. I did a whole rant about what a good idea it was, so that’s another major point in its favor there.
But even beyond the big instances of RPG innovation that Chrono Trigger featured, the little details still make it a fun and unique ride. Moments like the trial, where your seemingly innocent actions in the beginning of the game can suddenly come back to haunt you (an RPG where there are repercussions for just taking an NPC’s lunch right before his eyes? Madness!), or what I can only assume is the first ever Game Over Ending, a sequence that actually plays out if you lose to the final boss that’s extensive and dramatic enough that it’s practically an ending in itself. And speaking of that, the presence of a Bad Ending (the one that plays if you beat the game without resurrecting Crono) is worth mentioning, too. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the first Bad Ending in RPG history--Breath of Fire 1, I remember, had a lesser ending, as well--but it certainly was impressive. There’s more emotion and player impact in CT’s Bad Ending than there is in the best possible ending of the vast majority of RPGs I’ve played!
And also, I really liked the moment in CT where the game actually provides an explanation for why party size is limited to 3 characters, instead of allowing for every character to participate in the adventure at the same time. I mean, come on, how cool is that, really? How many other RPGs even try to give a story-related reason for the seemingly arbitrary limit on party size? A few of them sometimes try a stalling explanation, but that usually falls through sooner or later (example: Final Fantasy 6--once you’ve got more than 4 characters in the party, the game attempts at first to explain that you need to split forces so that there’s at least a couple people guarding Narshe while your party’s running around on adventures, but eventually, once the party gains an airship HQ, the game just stops trying to explain why only 4 of them ever leave it at the same time). With Chrono Trigger, not only is it addressed (any more than 3 people going through a time portal at once will be sent to The End of Time instead of their destination--yes, I know that’s kind of a weak “Because...Magic!” explanation, but at least it’s THERE), but it’s actually worked into the course of the game’s events--the entire reason the party gains access to The End of Time and meets Gaspar (who is plot-relevant later) is because it tried to go forward with too many individuals at once. Yeah, I know it’s a very small thing, but that’s just it--it’s the little details and quirks throughout a game that really show when the game’s developers have gone the extra mile to provide a great product. The innovation in Chrono Trigger is constant, and it proves that the game’s great not just when it needs to be, but through and through.
So there you have it. In the end, Chrono Trigger succeeds wonderfully in every important category, and it introduced countless ideas, big and small, to the RPG genre, and with each one did so with streamlined skill that even today is rarely duplicated, let alone surpassed. This is the sort of game that stays with you for good, that wins your heart with its skill and imagination.
* Well, you can say that it might not be magically created, but the game does note that its creator is a magician, so it seems reasonable to assume magic has something to do with it.