Chrono Trigger
by Pitchfork



Over the last year or so, we've spent so much time gawking and tossing sand lumps at the bloated beached whale that was once video game industry dynamo SquareSoft that it's almost stopped being fun. Almost. But since the "Square" division of Square Enix doesn't need any more help tarnishing its own reputation, and because it's been a while since I've written something for SMPS that wasn't just a few thousand words of trolling and nitpicking, we're going to shift gears a little.

So now Final Fantasy and Square are, for the most part, boring and useless and smell overpoweringly of dead fish. That much we already know. But just like Weezer will always be fondly remembered for Pinkerton and The Blue Album and Frank Miller will never lose his place in comic book fans' hearts for the work he did before going balls insane, Square has a golden quartet of games that remain untarnished by time and are still popularly and crtically vaunted as being among the best games of all time. We've already discussed numbers one and three -- Final Fantasy VI and VII from 1994 and 1997 -- and today we will be looking at number two: 1995's Chrono Trigger.

Chrono Trigger is a difficult game to write about, since it's already been so thoroughly reviewed, praised, and picked apart in the fifteen years since its release that I'm frankly not even sure if all the incoming verbiage is even necessary -- but I lost a bet to Polly and still owe her another seven articles before I get my life back. Finding anything new or interesting to say about Trigger at this point isn't easy. Maybe it's fortunate, then, that when I sat down to play Trigger a couple of months ago, the echoes of the fathomless existential void that is Final Fantasy XIII were still ringing in my consciousness. Returning to one of your favorite JRPGs after taking in such an acute argument for the whole genre's having been a busted piece of shit since 1986 certainly does compel you to approach it with a mood of wary skepticism rather than the kind of varnished, uncritical enthusiasm that leads to muddled perception and lousy writing.


From the Beginning: Project Dream


Chrono Trigger was first conceived in 1992, when Yuuji Horii (creator of Dragon Quest), Hironobu Sakaguchi (creator of Final Fantasy), and Akira Toriyama (creator of Dragon Ball) went to the United States together to attend a computer graphics convention. As you might expect, he three of them got to talking, and the conversation naturally carried them towards their work in designing console RPGs. Before long, they were shooting ideas back and forth. "If the three of us were to design a brand new game together -- free from the constraints of a Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy sequel -- how would we go about doing it?" they asked themselves. "What is the game we all want to make?"

While the other convention attendees spent their nights out at the restaurants, clubs, and roller rinks, Horii, Sakaguchi, and Toryiama sequestered themselves in their hotel room with a case of beer, a carton of cigarettes, and an overworked Mr. Coffee machine until five in the morning. Yuuji took down notes on hotel stationary. Akira taped sketchbook pages to the wall. Hironobu paced back and forth and shouted out ideas between gulps of beer and puffs of smoke. By the time it was time for them to catch their flight back to Japan, they had established the rough beginnings of an original RPG title about a band of youths who inadvertently stumble upon the secret of time travel and use their discovery to save the world from destruction at the mandibles of an immense planet-leeching parasite by altering history.

Okay, I made up the part about the hotel room and binge drinking, but the real story behind Chrono Trigger's genesis (according to interviews with the creators) really doesn't seem much more complicated than that. It's a beautiful way of kicking off a new project, and I'd imagine it's an increasingly rare thing in the mainstream video game industry. Chrono Trigger basically began as a jam session -- a couple of star designers and a manga artist getting together to brainstorm and seeing what they might produce. No pressure. No cynicism. No stockholders wringing their hands over whether having so-and-so as a hero instead of such-and-such might have a negative impact on profitability, or insisting the graphics and story be changed midway through development to fit into an already-existing series rather than taking a chance on a new franchise.

Founded by Horii, Sakaguchi, and Toriyama, and produced by Kazuhiko Aoki (who had worked on Final Fantasy III and IV), "Project Dream" entered developement around 1993. Though much of the hype surrounding the project was inspired by the three high profile figures at its helm, the developers putting in all the ground work were no less impressive or indispensible. Directorial duties were assigned to the triad of Yoshinori Kitase (who had recently co-directed Final Fantasy VI), Akihiko Matsui (previously did battle design work on Final Fantasy IV and V), and Takashi Tokita (who filled a number of design roles in Makai Tooshi SaGa/The Final Fantasy Legend and the SaGa-similar Live a Live, and is credited as the lead designer of Final Fantasy IV). In charge of graphics development was Yasuhiko Kamata, who had previously worked as the lead graphics designer of Secret of Mana.The battle system was co-designed by Kiyoshi Yoshii (who had previously done battle system work on Final Fantasy III through VI) and Toshio Endo, who doesn't seem to have done any work in video games before or since.

But the most noteworthy members of the Project Dream team were a pair of relative newcomers. Horii may have conceived of Chrono Trigger's basic plot, but the task of coming up with an actual script was delegated to Masato Kato, a fairly new SquareSoft hire whose previous design credits included the cinematic sequences from the Ninja Gaiden series (under the psuedonym Runmal) and a stint with Gainax, during which hefulfilled various development roles on a Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water game and co-designed a daughter-raising sim called Princess Maker 2. Yasunori Mitsuda, meanwhile, had previously worked on sound effects for Final Fantasy V, Romancing SaGa 2, and Secret of Mana, but was promoted to a soundtrack composer by Sakaguchi after threatening to leave the company unless he was assigned composition work.

The rest is history. Chrono Trigger was a soaring success on both sides of the Pacific. Finding specific sales figures from fifteen years ago isn't easy, but the public (i.e. Wikipedia) figures indicate that it sold a million copies in Japan during its first two months, and a total of 2.31 millions copies overseas. If these numbers seem relatively small, bear in mind that the game console market wasn't as large in 1995 than it is today, and that a million copies in two months is damn impressive for a Japanese RPG without Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy in the title. (The average video game fan, then and now, is like any other consumer in that he pays much closer attention to brand names than the creator credits.)

So much for 1995, though. How does Chrono Trigger stack up in 2010?


The A/V Department


When I first played Chrono Trigger in 1996, what initially struck me were the graphics. Measured by the standards of the time and of the SNES hardware, Trigger's visuals were nothing short of staggering. As a middle school-age Final Fantasy VI fanboy with a lot of Chrono Trigger fanboys for classmates, this drove me crazy. For a long while I refused to admit the possibility that Trigger might have looked better than VI, since this was during a period when the popular assumption was that the game with the better graphics was by default the better game. (See also: reasons why EarthBound flopped when it was released in North America.)

Playing Chrono Trigger in 2010 was no diferent. From the instant I began a new game and started guiding Crono towards the Millennial Fair, the graphics had me entranced. Now that it's been fifteen years since Trigger's release, and nearly as long since the SNES ossified and sank into the obsolete video game hardware strate, Chrono Trigger's graphics are actually even more stunning than they were during its heyday. Two-dimensional pixel graphics were taken for granted during the pre-CD ROM days (since there musn't much of a viable alternative in most cases), but now that they've been reduced to a dying art, it's that much easier to appreciate what an achievement Chrono Trigger's visuals truly are. While the big set pieces -- the courtroom, the solar eclipse at Death's Peak, the moon over Magus's Keep -- are impressive, the real eye candy is in everything else: the particular visual textures of each time period, from 12000 B.C.'s resplendant golds, bronzes, and purples to 2300 A.D.'s rust, filth, and grit; the characters' physical mannerisms, such as Marle's folding her hands behind her back, Magus's fidgeting with his gloves, the Black Tyrano narrowing its eyes and flaring its nostrils; and the consistent, fastidious attention paid to details and minutiae that a less dedicated developer might not have even bothered with, such as the objects in Crono's bloody kitchen. (When looking at these screenshots, do bear in mind that Square's games looked like this only four years earlier.)

Designing pixelated software graphics for a relatively basic piece of hardware like the SNES is all about abiding and working around constraints. Contrary to what you might expect, there is almost nothing that facilitates creativity like a set of obstacles to work around. Instead of inhibiting the process and dampening the result, they more often lead to a stronger product. The best illustration of this principle that I can think of -- and I apologize if this comes off as nerdy and snotty -- is in poetic forms. (As you can see, my English degree continues to pay for itself.)

Take, for instance, the Shakespearean sonnet. If you have an idea to convey or a sentiment to express and want to communicate it through a sonnet, there is a set of rules you must obey -- otherwise, you won't have a sonnet. First of all, you have to condense the entire message into fourteen lines consisting of (ideally) ten syllables each. The whole thing has to be in iambic pentameter, which means each line must adhere to a STRESSED unstressed STRESSED unstressed rhythm. The final sounds in lines one, three, five, and seven must all rhyme with each other. The final sounds in lines two, four, six, and eight must all rhyme with each other. Lines one through eight must establish an argument or premise that is either answered, clarified, or approached from a different perspective in lines nine through twelve, in which the last sounds of lines nine and twelve and ten and eleven rhyme with each other. Finally, lines thirteen and fourteen should simultaneously resolve and encapsulate the whole shebang, and both must end on the same rhyme.

So why the hell would anyone choose to use such a restrictive format to get a point across? Precisely because it is so restrictive. Being forced to process your message through such a form forces you to be clever and artful in how you go about doing it. By necessity, you usually end up making a much more eloquent and deeper statement than you would have if you weren't forced to consider your every word choice so carefully.

The same principle applies to designing graphics and animation sequences on old video game hardware. When the developers sat down to make Chrono Trigger, they had a very binding set of limitations they were forced to work within: namely, space. Low-res pixel art is tiny. What the graphics staff basically had to do was take this piece of Toriyama artwork --




-- and condense it into a 22 x 32-pixel figure with the visual potency to bring a thirteen-year-old to a state of arousal.



It's like writing words on a grain of rice. Since the canvas is so tiny, there is very little room for sloppiness or error. Making good-looking pixel art requires precision and deliberation. All it takes is one out of place or miscolored square to throw the whole figure or object out of whack.

Proceeding along with our metaphor, it wasn't until enrolling in a college course in formal poetry and learning what it took to compose thoughts in meter and rhyme that I began to enjoy poetry (believe me, I used to hate it just as much as you). Likewise, I was never really appreciative of pixel graphics until I attempted rendering the human form pixel by pixel in MS Paint. (Hey, I did a sprite comic.) After tinkering with FCEU screenshots and Paint Shop for a few years, I have nothing but prostrate admiration for the pixel artists whose work formed the foundation of the video game industry.

Do an image search for "tree" and pick a photograph to use as a reference. Now open up MS Paint and see how well you can reproduce it within, say, a 65 x 115 pixel grid, using only twelve colors. Or better yet -- take a photograph of your kitchen, create a blank 98 x 65 pixel canvas in MS Paint, and try to assemble a reasonably decent-looking reproduction of the image from scratch. Bet yours won't look as good as this:



And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Other restrctions: all moving characters or objects require drafting a sprite sheet, which is like a flip book containing every single frame of animation of which that character or object is capable. Most environments have to be constructed by tile sets -- pre-rendered "pieces" that function a lot like graphical movable type. The camera angle is always fixed. There is a limit to the number of colors onscreen at any time. (Granted, the SNES featured a broader pallete than its competiors, but a cap is a cap.) FMV sequences are impossible; every scene has to be rendered in-game. Then there's the matter of working within the hardware's processing capabilities. There can only be a certain "safe" number of moving parts on the screen at once. There is a limit to how large, detailed, and articulate a moving sprite can be. (Which is why the last boss of Secret of Mana looks so distractingly blocky.)

Not to sound like a pissy old curmudgeon or nostalgia-tard, but these limitations -- or, rather, their being lifted -- are one of the reasons why video games don't look as interesting as they used to. This isn't true in all cases, but from where I'm sitting, modelled graphics tend to look flat, washed out, and sterile compared to their pixelated counterparts. 3D modelling is easier and cheaper and can do many things that pixel graphics can't, but it also means the developers aren't necessarily compelled to put in the same kind of effort and care into making their games look presentable. Since less innovation is demanded of them, less innovation is put forth. (It should also be noted that When afforded the opportunity to write in free verse, most undergraduate poets will produce tangled prose with line breaks thrown in.)

Incidentally, this is sort of the same reason I've lately been so intrigued by the graphics in low-budget games. Now that the hardware is so powerful that the only graphical limitations pertain to the funds at the developers' disposal, is it any wonder that the folks with less money to to throw around are the ones making the visually clever and compelling games?

My apologies for veering off topic. All I'm getting at is that I wish more games today looked as good as Chrono Trigger.

In any event, it is pointless talking about how a game looks without also touching upon how it sounds. After all, playing a game on mute is like -- first simile I think of don't fail me now -- eating a hamburger patty by itself. The meat is there, but most of what gives it is flavor and makes it a pleasurable experience is missing. A game that looks good and is fun to play, but bland or annoying to listen to isn't going to allow the player to take much pleasure from its better qualities.

Making a video game that's cartoony, glitzy, gory, flashy, funny, or creepy is simple enough -- but making one that is graceful is a remarkable feat. Lately, with video games being taken more seriously than they used to (as illustrated by the whole Internet losing its shit over recent remarks by Roger Ebert), you do see this somewhat more often today than in 1995, which makes Trigger's elegance all the more commendable. Chrono Trigger owes the greatest constituent of its aesthetic grace to Yasunori Mitsuda and the stomach ulcers he gave himself during the composition process.

I am not a music critic. I don't have the right kind of vocabulary to describe or praise Mitsuda's soundtrack without falling back upon a cache of tired old adjectives -- great, good, appropriate, haunting, vigorous, etc. All I can offer is an anecdote. In 1996 I approached Chrono Trigger skeptically, certain that my classmates' far-flung praises of the game were as exaggerated as their claims of pubic hair growth. My reservations only held out for about thirty minutes, until I took Crono out of Truce Canyon and stepped onto the 600 A.D. world map for the first time. That was the precise moment -- when I first glimpsed the semiopaque clouds undulating to the first notes of "Wind Scene" -- that I realized Chrono Trigger was something truly special. Again: the mark of good art is its capacity to achieve great effect through seemingly small means.


The Kato Kontribution


What struck me most about Chrono Trigger when I was about halfway through was how derivative a game it is. There's not much in Trigger that hadn't already been done elsewhere in 1995. Time travel certainly wasn't new to computer/console RPGs -- Ultima II, Magic of Scheherazade, Final Fantasy Legend III (aka SaGa 3), Live-a-Live, and Robotrek all include skipping and jumping through different time periods. The idea of having an overarching plot consisting of several vaguely, but significantly connected mini-scenarios had already been done in Live-a-Live, Romancing SaGa 2, and Phantasy Star III. The dual and triple techs for which Chrono Trigger's battle system is renowned? Phantasy Star IV did it first. The mulitple endings everyone made such a big deal about? Already done in Sweet Home, Phantasy Star I through III, Ogre Battle, Final Fantasy VI, and the Shin Megami Tensei games.

Heck -- as long as we're at it, let's see how many RPG story cliches we can think of in a minute. Let's put sixty seconds up on the clock, and...

GO!

  • A girl carrying a mysterious pendant that holds the key to a grand mystery!
  • An ancient civilization that achieves an unsurpassed granduer and is brought to ruin by its hubris!
  • A quest for the mythical sword that can defeat the demon lord!
  • A world where humans can no longer use magic because of some catacylsmic event in the past!
  • An evil monarch who tries to take control of a dark primeival force, only to become its living instrument!
  • Party members: The silent swordsman! The healer girl! The offensive magic-user chick! The older, more experienced knight! The feral physical fighter! The stalwart and courteous robot! The taciturn bad ass with a mean streak!
  • A stunning jailbreak, an intercontinental voyage via underwater currents, and a showdown on a big bridge!


Anyone who praises Chrono Trigger on the basis of its originality cannot have played more than one or two other console RPGs, because most of its building blocks were ganked from other games. Polly and Rhete are both of the opinion that SquareSoft actually did its North American fans a favor by choosing only to export certain select titles, and they may have a point -- especially where something like Chrono Trigger concerned. With such a large percentage of Japanese console RPGs not making it over to North America, English-speaking players had a much narrower basis for comparison, and all of Trigger's old hat appeared startchy and new.

The American player (circa 1995), then, might not have picked up on how Chrono Trigger barely falls short of being a homage to the Japanese console RPG. It's a celebration of all the tropes, themes, and cliches that came to define the JRPG between 1987 and 1995, but unlike most homages -- which are content to simply emulate or riff on their source material -- Chrono Trigger does one better. If Square Enix and their products are anagolous to 21st Century George Lucas (and we need not reiterate the basis for comparison), the SquareSoft team that developed Trigger is more like the George Lucas who produced A New Hope and Raiders of the Lost Ark, which were both inspired by the science fiction and adventure pulp films, comics, and fiction of the first half of the Twentieth Century. The younger Lucas and Project Dream team draw from the conventions of an established genres, using them to create something that not only follows earnestly in the tradition of their predeccesors, but and surpasses them.

And this is why Masto Kato is Chrono Trigger's most important contributor. It is his writing that takes what could have been a cut-and-dry Japanese RPG with a cut-and-dry Japanese RPG plot and characters, and makes it into something much more interesting. As an agglutination of genre cliches, Chrono Trigger could have very easily turned out a very pretty, very fast-paced and user-friendly game with a flimsy plot full of characters we already know, curveballs we've already caught, and drama we've already yawned at. Most of what is so memorable about Chrono Trigger -- what makes it such an exceptional piece of work -- is a direct result of Kato's writing. The authenticism of the main cast; the otherworldly richness of Zeal's cultural splendor and the historical echoes of its imperial hubris; Belthazar's melancholy madness; Azala's fatalistic despair; Magus's brief, icy soliloquy upon witnessing the destruction of his childhood home; the impish sword spirit Mune's dream in life: "I wanna be the wind, Masa!" -- all these things bear Kato's signature. He is the kind of thinker and writer that video games deserve, and one of the causes of Square's regression to cosmetic swamp muck is its alienation of people like him. (An interview with Mitsuda suggests that there are some messy politics and bad blood between Kato and Square, citing it as one of the reasons that a new Chrono game remains such a dicey prospect.)

There is an excellent series of articles that gives a very thorough existentialist examination of Chrono Trigger's story and is an absolute must-read. There's a chance you might be compelled to say the author is stretching a bit -- imposing certain meanings on Trigger where none were intended -- but Kato's sensibilities are, in fact, very much rooted in a kind of existentialism. It's much more subdued in Trigger than its sequel, but it is still nevertheless evident that Kato prefers to tell a story whose "save the princess, defeat the dinosaur people, fight the evil queen" episodes have intellectual and philosophical underpinings in addition to their entertainment value, which demonstrates how ahead of his time he was. (Side note: the one Final Fantasy game Kato worked on happened to be VII. Explain much?) Chrono Trigger is much smarter than most console RPGS (or games, period) of the period. Compared to Trigger's intimations of history, humanity, and perception, the "hey, don't trust Christianity," "protect the environment," "war and empire bad, peace good" and "oh hey Kefka is a nihilist" messages of its contemporaries are really rather sophomoric by comparison.

But to return to Kato's existentialism, I'd like to point out one of my favorite bits of dialogue in the entire game. It isn't even from one of the important scenes; it's just a throwaway line spoken by Crono's mother if you visit her after getting Crono back at Death's Peak:

What a beautiful day! The Black Omen sure sparkles in the sun! What a great day for laundry!

The Black Omen is a mountain-sized nightmare fortress floating in the sky to the east -- a consequence of Queen Zeal's twisted designs and Crono and friends' tampering with the timestream. It appears in the sky in the 12,000 BC period at the end of the second act, and menacingly looms in the same spot on the map in every era afterward. The engaged player, aware of its origins and having known a world where it never existed, will regard it with dread and loathing. But to Crono's mother, who has lived in an altered timeline in which the Black Omen has been there as long as anyone can remember, it is simply part of the scenery -- as natural a thing as the tremendous churning mass of saline liquid beyond the shoreline and the blinding orb of nuclear flame crossing the daytime sky. It's a delightful little touch, and exemplary of the thoughtfulness and charm pervading all of Trigger's script.

About the wider plot, a couple of things should be added. I've played a few console RPGs in my day, and more often than not I get the sense that the writers were flying by the seats of their pants after a certain point in the story. For the first few hours, everything progresses cleanly and coherently -- and then all of a sudden the people in charge of the scenario and script are clearly just making shit up as they go. Final Fantasy IV is a great example -- how the hell did they end up on the moon, anyway? Where did that come from? Not that it wasn't a fun ride, but I'm of the opinion that the best writing is the kind that begins with an inevitable destination in mind, and in which everything between the beginning and end exists for the sole purpose of bringing it to that end.

Perhaps it's because of how the the plot is structured -- writing a story about time travel pretty much necessitates knowing exactly what's going to happen in advance -- but Chrono Trigger doesn't suffer from the seat-of-the-pants problem. It's one of the most precise, succinct, and effective stories in video games.

Pitchfork's Writing tips 101: One of the advantages of knowing your plot in advance is being able to properly lay the groundwork for important events. Let's talk about the Big Reveals in a couple of games we've already covered: Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy VI. In IV, we discover, out of nowhere, that the person we thought was the villain is actually being mind-controlled by another person who lives on the moon. In VI, it is revealed that Kefka is actually after the all-powerful Goddess Statues, which, despite their legendary status, are only referred to once before they're just about ready to roll out and blow up the planet. Contrast this with how Trigger introduces Zeal, the plot's central and most crucial thread. The player's arrival in the Dark Ages is when everything starts beginning to add up -- that the mysteries ofLavos, Marle's pendant, the Melchoir/Masamune link, and the sealed doors are all connected. As far as plot twists go, the first two specimens are rather weak. They come across less as grand revelations than answers to questions that nobody asked. The discoveries the player makes in Zeal are so compelling precisely because the player has been aware of an x-factor all along, and the solution is nothing like what he expected it to be.

(It is worth mentioning, on that note, that the Zeal scenario was entirely Kato's creation. Chrono Trigger without Kato would have been Chrono Trigger without Zeal. Try to imagine that for a moment.)



Ted Does It Again


If we want to be sticklers about it, I shouldn't be saying a word about Kato's script, since I've never actually read it. Kato wrote in Japanese. I've only read Chrono Trigger's English script, as translated by the (in)famous Ted Woolsey.

All the usual greivances apply to Woolsey's Chrono Trigger translation. No, not everything is included. Yes, some things are changed and/or censored. And yes, some things are simply incorrect. You can find a full list of the atrocities Woolsey inflicted upon Kato's script right here, if you are curious.

You have to give Mr. Woolsey one thing, though: he is solely responsible for one of Chrono Trigger's most famous and enigmatic lines. After the player acquires the Epoch and the game "opens up," speaking to Gaspar at The End of Time will cause the old man to drop several clues about the places and people linked to optional quests. One of the last things he says in the original version translates to something like:

I expect that there are those among you, as well, who know about things where their own eras are concerned. You should try asking......

Gaspar's message is simple: "talk to your sidelined party members for sidequest clues." But for some reason, this appears in the English version as:

One of you is close to someone who needs help...Find this person...fast.

This means something much different from the original line, and it confused the hell out of American players. Since it appears after a series of "hey go to this time period and have a look at this" or "go here and check this person out" clues, players had no reason to suspect that the English Gaspar was unintentionally tossing them a kind of Simon's Quest dummy hint. The game hasn't lied about anything before -- why would it start now? Surely it was a case of us not looking hard enough for this person who needs help. Maybe we just need to do something somewhere to trigger an event somewhere else. But everything else has already been done! WHAT GIVES, OLD MAN?

Gaspar stops saying the line after you defeat Queen Zeal in the Black Omen, but I always thought it unlikely that Zeal was the person he had in mind. Instead I was convinced that Gaspar was referring to Schala, the meek little princess who gets the rawest deal of any female RPG character I can think of. From my perspective, the game seemed to be hinting it was possible to take Magus to a location on certain map in a certain time period, hop through a gate, and rescue Schala from the Ocean Palace. (Granted, Gaspar says the line even if you don't recruit Magus -- who would be the only "one among you" who is close to Schala -- but since I always took him along instead of allowing Frog to cut him down, I had no way of knowing this.) I searched high and low for some kind of lead, and finally gave up after flipping through the strategy guide at a friend's house and discovering that this hidden sidequest didn't actually exist.

At first I was annoyed that the game got me to spend so much time chasing something that wasn't actually there. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt that this was actually a deliberate stroke of genius on Square's part. They were intentionally compounding the Schala scenario's tragedy by baiting the player with the possibilty that she might be saved through time travel -- which he has no reason to doubt, since he's already pulled similar feats where Marle, Crono, and Lara are concerned. But it's ultimately a futile hope. Rescuing or finding the slightest trace of Schala after the Ocean Palace disaster is simply impossible, and no reason for this is ever given. Despite all the good Crono and his pals have been able to do for the world, they remain powerless to save the person who needs and deserves it the most. If the player cares to, he can spend the rest of his life looking for her, partaking for himself in the fate awaiting Magus.

Of course, none of this was actually intended by Chrono Trigger's designers. Now we know the whole thing was just a mistake in the script that turned an idle piece of advice into a cryptic urge. Props to Woolsey, though -- how many translators can say they've improved an original text by screwing up part of its translation?


Time is Money


Of course, an RPG's graphics, soundtrack, and story aren't nearly everything (as we'll see when we take a look at Chrono Cross). Chrono Trigger is not only gorgeous-looking, great-sounding, and well-written, but it's also one of the sleekest console RPGs ever designed. Its main virtues, in a nutshell:

1.) No random encounters.

2.) The ubiquitous console RPG combat system is streamlined without being dumbed down (at least not too much). Battle tactics are much more important than customization choices.

3.) There is no separate battle screen. Fights are carried out on the field map.

4.) Its characters are more evenly balanced than those of almost any other JRPG I can think of. Not a single one is extraneous, and there are none who are either totally useless or blatantly overpowered (though Crono and Ayla come pretty close).

5.) The dual/triple techs contribute an additional level of combat depth by making the player consider his party's team-up attacks in addition to their individual attributes when choosing a team.

We could spend a while zooming in and picking apart Chrono Trigger's mechanics, but what's most important about them is their contribution to one of the game's most crucial assets: its speed. It is fitting that a game about time travel should demonstrate how important it is for this sort of game to waste as little time as possible. Chrono Trigger doesn't stall the player's progress by tossing random battles at him every few steps. Fights begin almost instantaneously and transition back to field exploration just as quickly. There are no field-to-battle screen transitions, long series of post-battle item/stat messages, nor drawn-out attack animations. Combat is so fast that it makes it hard to go back and play other pre-PSX RPGs -- and even harder to play PSX RPGs. (Nobody will ever miss load times.)

Beyond making Chrono Trigger one of the earliest RPGs that action-game attuned players could sit through, the focus on economizing play time enviced by its battle system demonstrates the broader design theme that makes Chrono Trigger stand out among other console RPGs: concision. By RPG standards, Trigger is on the short side. It should only take about twenty to thirty hours to complete, unless the player is doing a lot of grinding and aimless wandering between quests. And yet, you're not likely to hear very many people complaing that it lacks the epic scope they've come to appreciate and expect from an RPG. It remains a more satisfying experience than majority of new console RPGs I've played over the last five years, even though most of them are two or three times as long.

This makes me wonder: since when did the length of a game become so closely tied to its value? I played Disgaea 2 for seventy-something hours in 2006, and don't remember a bloody thing about it. I sunk sixty hours into Final Fantasy XII just last year, and most of it has become a vague blur (except for the parts I took notes on). I'm guessing I put at least forty hours into Shadow Hearts Covenant a couple years ago (I deleted the memory card file) and all I remember about that one is an indistinct smear of histrionic cutscenes and the damn Judgment Ring. The three volumes of .hack//G.U. add up to a single game of about sixty to eighty hours, most of which is filler.

On the other hand, my final save file from this last run through Chrono Trigger clocks in at seventeen hours, twenty-three minutes -- and believe me, I wasn't rushing through it. How about Mother 3? My last save file is timed at twenty-three hours, thirteen minutes. It was the only time I ever played the game, and I still have a better, stronger impression of the twenty-something-hour Mother 3 than of the sixty-something-hour games mentioned above. I faintly recall racking up thirty hours or so during my first Grandia 2 playthrough -- which is a relatively low number for an RPG released in 2000 -- and I still hold the game in much higher regard than the forty-something-hour Final Fantasy IX (released the same year) and the fifty-something hour Final Fantasy X released one year later).

More advice to aspiring game designers, should any be reading this: if you're making a game that wants to tell a story, it is best to be concise. Offer players a consistently engaging and memorable thirty hours rather than sixty hours of level grinding, repetitive battles, self-indulgent CG action sequences, conversations that say nothing and go nowhere, and the same drawn-out battle animations repeated every five minutes. Chrono Trigger didn't have any use for these things. Why should any game?


On History Repeating


When I was about wrapping up Chrono Trigger, what I was most aware of was a sense of -- well, boredom. I hit a point where all the enemies were recolors, most of environments and BGMs were recycled, and nearly all the plot threads had been tied up. All that was left was the Black Omen, the showdown with Zeal and Lavos, and the ending sequence, and I already knew how they would all go. Progressing through the Black Omen was a drag: Luminaire, Antipode 3, Luminaire, Antipode 3, Luminaire, Antipode 3, win. It would definitely have been more fun if I didn't know what exactly what lay beyond, but it still somewhat seemed to me as though the experience had switched over to reruns before airing the big climax.

Like virtually any JRPG, Trigger is only really good the first or second time through. This is a genre that thrives on novelty. The greatest pleasure in playing a game like this is in exploring something new: visiting an unfamiliar world, meeting and getting to know unfamiliar people, following a story with an unclear ending, and learning the ins and outs of of a combat system that (let's face it) isn't that interesting or challenging once you understand what to do and when to do it, and hinges more on how many minutes and hours you've dedicated to amassing EXP, TP, and tracking down the best equipment than on tactics or skill.

Replaying most console RPGs isn't quite like going back and rereading an excellent novel or watching a classic film again, because chances are, you won't be learning anything new. Maybe you'll get a different ending or choose different party members for variations in the dialogue, but these really don't amount to much unless you are a rabid completionist. And it isn't quite like going back and replaying a game like Super Mario Bros. or Contra, either. The long-winded reason for this is that everything in an action game is in a constant state of kinetic flux, and every minute difference in the player's performance changes everything that occurs afterwards. The shorter answer is that action games are, well, action games. As a rule, RPGs put an equal or greater emphasis on observation as participation, while action games are 90-100% participation. They are much more involved, dynamic, and demanding. I've been on a Metal Slug 3 binge lately (I am determined to finish the game on the five-credit console mode budget), which means I've probably played through the same set of stages about two dozen times in the last month. It has yet to get old. Playing through the Reptite Lair in Chrono Trigger as many times in as many days wouldn't be fun -- it would be a chore. This is not without meaning. Nor is the way an RPG player who gets a premature Game Over screen or forgets to save his game will gripe how much of his work went to waste.

On the face of it, the original Final Fantasy has more replay value than Chrono Trigger. Final Fantasy is a member of that early breed of console RPG that focuses more on participation than observation. Running through its dungeons presents a different challenge every time, thanks to the element of randomness, the emphasis on resource management, the lack of save/recovery points, and the greater number of party members and classes to choose from. Chrono Trigger's relatively brief dungeons, with their scripted or otherwise easily avoided enemy encounters, make for an experience that really doesn't change much from play to play, apart from the difference in Tech sets the player packs during the boss fights -- which are usually either scripted ("I AM ANNOUNCING NOW THAT YOU HAVE FOUR TURNS TO ACT BEFORE I USE SUPER ATTACK OMEGA") or reduced to child's play once he deduces the operative gimmick (don't target the shell, don't waste time healing, time magic attacks so as to reset the counterattack "program," and so forth).

Playing through Chrono Trigger multiple times is like erasing a crossword puzzle you've already completed and doing it again, or watching the same episode of The Simpsons on DVD for the seventeenth time, even though you can recite the script by heart. You're not laughing anymore, and you're not learning anything new. At this point, it has become audiovisual comfort food. Granted, I'm as guilty of watching the same Simpsons episode a dozen times as anyone else -- but when something ceases to be new and challenging, it's probably best to move on.

This wouldn't really be worth complaining about if it didn't pertain to the entire genre to which Chrono Trigger belongs. Maybe I'm just really burned out on console RPGs, but you can't argue that they're not some of the most undeviatingly forumulaic games on the market. When you've played over a dozen of them, you reach a point where they stop surprising or impressing you. The characters and plots are overwhelmingly similar. The combat engines are all (still) modifications of 1986's Dragon Quest. It's less and less time before you figure out what's going on, deduce where the plot is going, and start learning which actions and spells are the easiest to bork. Then it's just a matter of going through the motions. I've hit a point where I can't even finish console RPGs anymore. I'll pick one up I've never played before, put in two to five hours, and then lose interest once the sense of familiarity creeps in. There a lot of games out there, and I have less time to play them than ever. If I have to choose one, it ain't gonna be the one that only offers me more of the same.

So what, you say; it's not like Street Figher hasn't been the same game for the last twenty years, and you never complain about that. Maybe, but Street Fighter is an entirely different animal. It's built to be played over and over again, and against human opponents that ensure the virtual impossibility of two identical matches. (Besides: recall how Street Fighter very nearly did itself in by releasing too many rehashes of itself between 1995 - 2001.) Action games are always going to be fun to play repeatedly because they're action games. You hit buttons, wiggle joystick, blow things up, power off after thirty minutes. Console RPGs are different. Their purpose is to immerse the player in interactive narratives -- an act that can only be sustained in the long term by offering players something new with each successive game. But how is it possible for these games to keep delivering novel experiences when, for the most part, they never really change?

When you develop and sell a product designed to offer consumers something original, it probably isn't in the interest of your business to make a habit of building each new iteration from the blueprints of the last. These games all have the same structure, same personalities, same tropes, same endings, same modified Dragon Quest mechanics. How can this be reconciled with the business angle of commercial entertainment, which demands minimizing risks, keeping to what's proven to work, and giving the fan base what it expects? When it costs several million dollars and a least a couple years to develop a single console game, taking chances simply isn't feasible unless you're comfortable with the idea of failing to so much as break even. Under such circumstances, how is a creative rut anything but inevitable?

But I suppose this doesn't amount to anything more than needless harping and complaining. Like the coin-op action game and the flight simulator, the console RPG's time has come and gone. Why dwell on the stagnation of one particular spring of gaming when the industry as a whole remains as vibrant and varied as ever? After all, it's not like the all the major video game companies are making hundreds of millions of dollars repainting, repackaging, and reselling all their old products and ideas as brand new ones, right?



Oh.


"This is the truth! This is my belief! At least for now."


Obviously if all I can criticize Chrono Trigger for is its not being as fun to play over and over and over again as Street Fighter (which is like complaining that Street Fighter doesn't have an interesting story or enough power-ups), Chrono Trigger is a game that doesn't expose itself to much criticism. It is also unneccesary to judge it in terms of how well it "holds up" today," since it's so streamlined and well-designed that its only aspect that might be considered dated is the graphics (which are gorgeous by any standard).

Ultimately, the best thing about Chrono Trigger is something that can't quite be quantified in terms of mechanics, aesthetics, or plot. It's impossible to play without getting the sense that that its designers really had a lot of fun in conceiving it (barring a stomach ulcer or two) and were wholly dedicated to making sure they got it right. Chrono Trigger is a labor of love effected by a group of very talented game designers, and their enthusiasm for the project permeates every aspect of the experience.

Chrono Trigger remains the definitive Japanese RPG. It encapsulaes everything about the genre that ever made it worthwhile and sidesteps the excesses, identity crises, and creative congealment that have come to stigmatize console RPGs as some of the most maligned and stagnant games of recent years. If I were to recommend a single console RPG for the most casual or novice gamer I knew, the words "Final Fantasy" wouldn't cross my mind for even a second.





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