In the mid-nineties, at the approach of the millennium, the creators of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest combined their considerable talents in the hopes of creating the ultimate Japanese role-playing game. What resulted was Chrono Trigger, considered not only one of the best games of the era but also one of the high-water marks for the genre even today. Part of the reason for that endurance, I think, is that Chrono Trigger turned out to be an evolutionary dead end.
This review contains significant Chrono Trigger story spoilers.
Originally released for the Super NES in 1995, Chrono Trigger is a time travel story, a quest that starts out (as so many JRPGs on the Super Nintendo did) in a quaint village, but ends up spanning the entire history of the human race as the player’s party jumps between eras.
In theory, video games should provide a uniquely suitable platform for telling stories about time travel: If we’re exploring the idea of altering the future by changing the past, why not do that in a medium where the player can take control of the flow of the narrative, jumping back and forth to see the results? But very few games prior to Chrono Trigger had actually used time travel as a play mechanic—likely because such a system would be as difficult to design as it is easy to daydream about.
Perhaps it was the difficulty of creating a time-travel game that attracted these seasoned creators to the idea? Chrono Trigger was the result of a collaboration between Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, Dragon Quest creator Yuji Horii, and the well-known illustrator Akira Toriyama, who designed the characters for Dragon Quest but was best known for the Dragon Ball manga and anime. From interviews conducted at the time, we know that even though it took quite a while for this game to come to fruition after Horii and Sakaguchi first began discussing the collaboration, the idea of traveling back and forth between different eras was part of those discussions very early on.
Chrono Trigger doesn’t take long to get to the good stuff. A boy named Crono wakes up and heads to the town square for the once-every-thousand-years Millennial Fair. He meets a girl named Marle. A demonstration of some new technology goes wrong and the two of them end up sent back in time from 1000 A.D. to the year 600, where Marle is mistaken for her distant ancestor, the kingdom’s queen.
When Marle is rescued, the kingdom calls off their search for the missing queen, which alters time. Since the queen doesn’t get rescued, she never has kids, and thus Marle never exists, and indeed, she then vanishes in front of Crono. It’s Crono’s job to find the queen and set the timeline right. The game breaks all this logic down into a little tutorial-style vignette, leading you to believe that creating, then fixing, these time paradoxes will be a major part of Chrono Trigger’s gameplay. But it’s not. This is actually the only time the game does something like this.
In fact, for a time-travel game, Chrono Trigger starts off awfully linear in its structure. There’s little bouncing back and forth and tweaking things to see what happens, and more just progressing from era to era, figuring out more about the world’s history and the nature of the cataclysmic event that destroyed most of humanity. But that’s really what the JRPG audience wanted out of its games, after all—to use the role-playing genre to tell an intricate, if linear, story, rather than an open-ended game in which you chart your own path.
When I recently decided to pick Chrono Trigger up again, using the best version of the game (that’s the 2008 Nintendo DS edition), I wanted to take my time. No rushing to see the next plot point; I wanted to see if there were meaningful things I could do to extend my gameplay experience. So after I met Marle at the fair, I didn’t head straight into the malfunctioning machine but instead took her over to the nearby forest to fight mobs of enemies.
Battles in Chrono Trigger are similar to the turn-based combat of the contemporaneous Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games. They’re fairly simple in their scope: You can use physical attacks, a few magic spells, and a small selection of healing items. Some battles require you to be somewhat tactical with what attacks you use and on whom you use them, but they’re mostly simple in that old-school way. There are some interesting design twists: Instead of random encounters where the map screen fades out and a battle fades in, the enemies are all present on the screen as you navigate through the forest. When you get close enough to the enemies, the fight takes place then and there, in the same exact map you’re exploring—there’s no new screen meant to be a facsimile of the battlefield, as there is in Chrono Trigger’s peers. This doesn’t greatly affect how the battles play out, but it has a tremendous effect on the feel of the game overall—it makes everything more cohesive, makes the dungeons feel like living places full of activity and charm, versus sterile, empty places that warp you out to a disconnected battle scene every few paces.
Playing around in the forest while raising Crono and Marle’s levels, I re-acquainted myself with the battle system. How you can carefully skirt around enemies and not trigger battles, or how battles might have different groups of enemies depending how you approach them. Enemies might pop out of suspiciously vibrating bushes, sound alarms to call backup, or set traps to lure you into combat.
You might think that designing an entire game’s worth of situations like this, hand-animating every frame with pixel art, would be a laborious task, and you’d be right. The game’s developers later commented that creating each battle scene took nearly as much effort as creating the storyline cut scenes, not only in terms of having to animate each enemy entrance individually but having to conceive of hundreds of different surprising ways that a battle could begin.
This may be something to keep in mind when you wonder why there aren’t any other games like Chrono Trigger.
Back to the forest. Having raised Crono and Marle’s levels some, and unlocked some new battle abilities, I set out to see how much of the continent I could explore before being forced to move on. Far south of my starting point, there was a whole other town, where I could scoop up a few extra items and even upgrade my gear, trading in Marle’s starting crossbow for a better model. Chrono Trigger’s designers clearly understood the importance, in an otherwise linear RPG, of giving the player some wiggle room to move around on that line. Less of a rope, and more of a string of pearls in which you can play around a little bit at each junction before progressing to the next. When you play a linear RPG that does not let you stray at all from the path and poke around at the edges, you know it. It constricts in a way that Chrono Trigger, despite its obvious linearity, does not.
As I’d hoped, the extra time I spent battling monsters and searching for treasure paid off in the end. Once I found myself in the time period of the ruined, post-cataclysmic future, the NPCs told me to stay out of the abandoned sewers, saying I’d get destroyed by the monsters in there. But they didn’t know I’d been secretly powering up! It turns out I was able to tackle the sewers early, nabbing some excellent treasure that would make things even more fun later on.
It does make sense that Chrono Trigger needs to be linear, given the complexity of the story the designers are attempting to tell. Everything’s actually just fine in Crono’s home era, and the apocalypse—caused by a demon named Lavos that burrows up from the earth and sets everything on fire—doesn’t happen until the year 1999, a good 900 years after Crono and Marle would have presumably died of old age. We don’t find this out until we land in the ruined future, and even then it’s not even initially clear where—excuse me, when—we are.
As we jump through more time periods, the game carefully doles out bits of story (out of chronological order!) until we can fully piece together what happened with Lavos. By far the most intriguing era we travel to (and the final one that we unlock) is the kingdom of Zeal, a magical civilization that built itself above the clouds after the earth below was destroyed. It’s much more unique than the standard time-travel tropes of prehistory and the ruined future, and as one might therefore expect, it’s also critical to the main storyline.
As befits a game about time travel, you can actually go fight Lavos whenever you like, starting from very early in the game. Doing so is exactly like entering in 007-373-5963 to go straight to Mike Tyson in Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out: Sure, you can do it, but unless you’ve been grinding like hell beforehand, you’re just going to get wrecked. In both cases, it’s like a preview of a battle to come.
So the adventure continues. Along the way, we add new friends—exactly one from each era, of course—to the party. Coming off of Square’s previous game Final Fantasy VI with its 14 playable characters, Chrono Trigger cuts the cast down to a more manageable 7. You’ve got Frog, the devoted knight who just happens to be an amphibian. Or Ayla, the take-zero-shit cavewoman who leads a tribe of warriors. They’re all distinct enough, written well enough, and get enough screen time to endear themselves to players. Everybody has their share of great lines—except Crono, who atypically for Final Fantasy but quite typically for Dragon Quest is a “silent protagonist” who utters not a word. Not even when he dies.
Final Fantasy games were notorious for killing off characters, sometimes even members of the player’s party. But none had ever dared to murder the main character. The death of Crono at the hands of Lavos is in a sense the climax of the story—one gets the sense that this is what everything was leading up to, somehow, a self-sacrifice for the good of the world. This is where the story, and the game, turns on a dime. You’ve always had Crono in your party, and you were just choosing which support characters would accompany him. Now the support is the party, and they’re just as adrift as you the player feel at this moment.
As you might expect for a game about time travel, death is not final. The party soon learns that it is possible to revive Crono through means of a device called a Time Egg, aka the Chrono Trigger. (Note that the game is not titled after its protagonist but after this device, underscoring the importance of Crono’s death and revival in the story.) But they don’t actually have to revive him. At this point in the game, the linear story becomes resoundingly non-linear. The final dungeon becomes available (in the form of the Black Omen, a massive fortress that straddles every era), but you also find out that many other sidequests that wrap up stories that were begun in the game’s first half are now out there to be found.
In this back half of the game, now that the player fully understands the mystery of the story and can therefore be let off the leash, we start to see the game play around a little bit more with the possibilities of time travel in storytelling. At one point, we must leave Robo, our robotic companion, behind to labor for 400 years. We jump forward in time—experiencing it as an instant—to find Robo, rusted and broken down after centuries of waiting. In another vignette, we find out that a greedy town mayor has stolen something, and must return to his ancestors to give them a gift so that the spirit of generosity can be passed down through the generations. Chrono Trigger in no way attempts to reckon with concept of the “butterfly effect,” the idea that the tiniest of changes could have massive ripple effects that alter the entire face of the world. Change one thing about the past, and exactly one thing changes about the future. Neat and tidy.
Square’s promotion of the “dream team” of Sakaguchi, Horii, and Toriyama aside, no game this rich in detail could be made by only three people. Sakaguchi and Horii were credited as “supervisors,” while the game had its own separate producer and three directors. (It’s also not clear exactly how much work the famously busy Toriyama put in. In one interview, it was said that he only designed the fronts of each characters, leading Square’s artists to have to guess at what they looked like from the back.)
Many Final Fantasy veterans played key roles, but the game was also a breakthrough opportunity for two newbies in particular: Masato Kato, who was the lead writer of the game’s story, and Yasunori Mitsuda, a sound-effects guy on Final Fantasy V who requested that the company let him compose music. Chrono Trigger was his debut, and even though he was a total unknown at the time, it’s arguable that he had the greatest influence on the game of any individual who worked on it.
Especially for a debut soundtrack, what Mitsuda turned in was astonishingly good. Stylistically, it broke away from Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest both, with a jazz-influenced flavor that could complement the free-spirited action moments and the quiet, contemplative moments both. But perfection came at a price; Mitsuda put himself in the hospital with ulcers crunching on Chrono Trigger, and Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu had to step in and write a few tracks to help finish the game while Mitsuda was convalescing.
Eventually, probably after clearing out every last side quest, you fight Lavos. This is where Chrono Trigger starts to play a fun game I like to call “That’s Not Lavos!” When you first see the big boss, he looks like a giant hedgehog that burrows up from the earth. But that’s just a vessel! That’s not Lavos. Get inside the shell, and you meet a towering, leering Gigeresque giant that smashes you with powerful attacks and is called “Lavos.” That’s not Lavos.
Once you’ve destroyed the giant, you get to the inner core of whatever this massive structure is, and you see a lumbering humanoid alien at its center. It’s gross-looking and dumpy. It summons two tiny pods to its sides that cast healing magic, and the final battle is on. But that’s not Lavos! As the battle goes on, you the player must come to a realization that not even the game’s characters speak: The thing you have to destroy to win the battle is the tiny little blob that’s hovering over the humanoid’s left shoulder.
That’s Lavos. That’s the thing that destroys the Earth. The nondescript pulsing blob. All the rest of it is for show. It’s a great moment. You wipe it out, and the humanoid thing dies too, and you’re done, and you get a beautiful tearjerker of an ending scene (totally different, of course, depending on whether you revived Crono). But you’re not done, because now there’s…
It’s easy to forget that many terms we use to describe game features had their origins in specific games. The Quick Time Event was created for Shenmue, for example. And New Game +, that specific appellation, originated here in Chrono Trigger. Completing the game once, you can now begin anew with the vast majority of the powers and items that you accumulated your first time through.
What’s the point of this, besides seeing what happens when you cast the game’s most powerful spell on the game’s weakest enemy (it dies)? I think of it as kind of like a victory lap—you just finished this amazing game full of beautiful character and monster designs, intricately crafted monster encounters, witty writing, and entrancing music. Now you can go back and experience it all again at lightning speed, ripping through formerly difficult boss encounters in a few hits, just soaking it all in, not worried about your HP.
You can also use New Game + to finish all of your characters’ growth. Even if you did all the sidequests, it’s unlikely that you unlocked every battle ability for all 7 characters. And you probably didn’t use many of the cool Double Techs and Triple Techs that characters can unlock, allowing two or three characters to combine their turns in battle to pull off a powerful move.
Most importantly, it lets you discover more endings. Whereas most games of the time made do with one ending sequence, Chrono Trigger had a dozen. This was another way of playing around with the idea of changing the past. Depending on what point in the first half of the game you travel to the Lavos fight, the story is stopped there and we see what would happen from then on. For example, there’s one ending in which the character Frog apparently creates a race of human-frog hybrids with the Queen in the year 600, and Marle, in the present, is a frog-person. In others, we see futures in which reptiles, or robots, take over the world, depending where you left things when you finished the adventure.
The only thing I find annoying about this—maybe the only thing I find lacking with the game?—is that you never know when a new ending has been triggered, and they’re very easy to miss. You’ve either got to go through the whole lengthy final boss fight in between every little story beat, or just look it all up in a strategy guide. I did the latter. I still got really, really good at beating Lavos, by the end of it.
Although the game has since been re-released on numerous platforms, there’s only one era in which Chrono Trigger could have been created. Although the lifespan of the Super Nintendo seemed like a long, long time when it was happening, in terms of the history of video game design, it is just a blip, just a brief five-year period when the design skills of almost the entire Japanese game industry were focused like a laser on getting the most out of this capable 2D hardware.
In the genre of RPGs and maybe even for the platform at large, Chrono Trigger is perhaps the ultimate expression of all this effort, the culmination of years of institutional knowledge. There’s a reason why, when someone asks me what old-school Final Fantasy they should try first if they’ve never played one before, I recommend Chrono Trigger. It absorbs all of the best parts of a 16-bit Final Fantasy but pulls them off with a masterful aplomb that even the actual games in the series fall short of.
Chrono Trigger is an enduring game in part because you cannot make another one. It was the pinnacle of the 2D, 16-bit role-playing game, created with a generation’s worth of knowledge, shared across two rival production teams, about the process for creating the perfect 2D game. And it was produced just as the triple-A Japanese RPG industry was about to shift almost entirely from 2D to 3D. The team’s next project after Chrono Trigger was Final Fantasy VII, which dragged RPGs kicking and screaming into the world of polygons, and the new development processes pressed the Reset button on so much of the expertise that the teams had learned on previous games.
How could you make another Chrono Trigger, in 2018? How could you assemble a team of some of the best game creators in the world, top it off with a famous manga artist, then convince them to crunch day and night for two years to produce a two-dimensional game made of pixel art and sampled sounds? This is not to say that it is impossible to produce an acclaimed JRPG of stunning quality, but not one that evokes the particular feeling of the era in which Chrono Trigger was made. There’s no turning back the clock.