A Link to the Past: Chrono Trigger
Chrono Trigger, released today on Virtual Console, is perhaps the most perfect game in existence. In light of the fact that some people may be playing it for the first time, this piece contains no spoilers. At all. That’s how perfect it is: I don’t want to ruin it for those unfortunates of you who’ve never played it.
It was developed by the second Dream Team, and they might have had more density of talent than the original 1992 American Basketball edition. I mean, Christ, look at the people who worked on this game: Hironobu Sakaguchi, creator of Final Fantasy; Yuji Horii, creator of Dragon Quest; Akira Toriyama, artist behind Dragon Ball. And that’s just the stars. These three guys are Jordan, Magic, and Charles Barkley. The story made Masato Kato, who would go on to write Xenogears. Yasunori Mitsuda’s career began by scoring the game, and when he got sick Nobou Uematsu replaced him; together, they assembled perhaps the most memorable score in gaming. The game was directed by FFVI, VII, and VIII director Yoshinori Kitase, FFIV lead designer Takashi Tokita, and Akihiko Matsui, who designed the battles in that game. The end of the proverbial bench was Tetsuya Takahashi, who’d done graphics on pretty much every Squaresoft SNES game, as well as Yusuke Naora, who went on to do art direction in pretty much every Squaresoft PSOne game, and Baten Kaitos director Yasuyuki Honne. The last guy on the bench, Chrono Trigger’s Brian Scalabrine? Why, that would be Kingdom Hearts creator and modern FF character designer Tetsuya Nomura.
Read that paragraph again. I can’t even imagine a similar crew from Western game developers of any era. It’s too ludicrous to imagine. Hell, just Sakaguchi and Horii together would be like Valve and Epic making a game together. It’s absolutely bonkers.
And the game they made? Perfect. Still ahead of its time. When I play Chrono Trigger today, for the dozenth time, it does things that modern RPGs don’t do. If Final Fantasy VII is the triumphant king of the Japanese RPG, then Chrono Trigger is its benevolent queen.
If you asked me what it did best, though, I’d say its crown jewel is its friction. The true joy of Chrono Trigger is that it is fun to play, and it is not fun to play because of the plot, or the mechanics. It is fun because that Dream Team up there made sure the game itself, the battles, the conversations, even the menus would be killer. No one thinks about the menus, but there it is. Chrono Trigger is still eminently playable because of its menu noise, perhaps the most exceptional, satisfying sound in the history of gaming. It is playable because pressing the attack button creates an immensely pleasurable response, a character slicing, whacking, or shooting something with force you can feel without the controller rumbling to remind you you just hit something. It’s a joy because while I love complicated, intense systems like the Materia or Junction system, Chrono Trigger stays significantly simpler: the only real new mechanic is the combo system, and I’m surprised so few developers have ripped it off since.
The combo system is brilliant in its simplicity and its function. In effect, each pair of two characters have three combo moves with each other party member. Except for the secret character, who hates the party and therefore doesn’t have any with anyone. These moves are the strongest in your arsenal, and they are each chock full of personality. Besides just being a cool structural element to combat, they make you believe the party’s working together to defeat these enemies, instead of just working separately to deal as much damage as possible (as JRPGs are wont to make it seem). There’s collaboration, and this makes the game flow brilliantly, but it also serves to place characters not as islands but rather as individuals who interrelate. In most RPGs, Final Fantasy VII to use the most powerful example, I cannot think of Cid and Red XIII in the same room. They do not exist together, because there’s no situation where they have to interact. Here, in Chrono Trigger, your characters are interacting all the time, working together to kill bosses. This serves to give them weight free of the narrative, and makes them into real people.
The narrative itself is interesting. In many ways it’s a forgotten hero. Few of Chrono Triggers’ scenes are world beating; sure, some scenes towards the end of the game are exceptionally well written, poignant, and everything right with Japanese RPGs, and there’s one specifically memorable scene in the introduction, but all told the game itself isn’t defined by its moments. Rather, it’s defined by its intensely tight writing and by, surprisingly, choice. The writing in the game is fantastic: it foreshadows with a deftness rarely approached in games, it hints, and it links everything together beautifully. It’s a short game, clocking in under thirty hours for everyone but the completionist (side note: remember when thirty hours was short? The longest games nowadays are thirty hours long), but every scene, every moment is designed to forward the plot. There’s absolutely no filler, which is tremendously rare for a Japanese game, where design principles say to throw everything that’s been made in. Chrono Trigger is a game respectful of your time, and even the encounters feel like they’re forwarding the plot. There’s so little filler, it’s amazing.
If there’s a word for Chrono Trigger, it’s respect. It respects your desire to go poking around by putting completely unnecessary places in the game, just for flavor, from square one: the town of Porre, for instance, isn’t one you ever have to go to in 1000 AD, and you can go there when you step out of Crono’s front door. Should you desire to, in the future you can go through a completely unnecessary arcology, fighting enemies, and get to a place you don’t have to go for fifteen game hours. It’s there. You can choose to go there, and there will be unique dialog because you decided to make that choice.
And characters respond differently depending on how you do things. How you do things matters, and while the game is completely linear, characters react to you in different ways depending on how you go about actions and how you interacted with their ancestors. The plot is linear, but you feel a sense of agency, like the game is respectful enough of you to let you try to do your own thing instead of just leaving you slave to how it thinks you should act.
In a lot of ways, Chrono Trigger is a forgotten game, which is a shame. It was overshadowed by Final Fantasy VII, which was in development at the same time, and as such it hasn’t been a major influence to Japanese RPGs over the years. It was re-released on the PS1 as part of the Final Fantasy Anthology, paired with Final Fantasy VI, not even meritorious of its own game, its own release (to be fair, though, that’s a package of two of the three best RPGs of all time, so it’s hard to complain). Unlike VII, Chrono Trigger’s influence has not reached very far, and those who have taken it have never really made it felt. In a lot of ways, it’s the anti-VII, because it represents the maturation, the modernization of older JRPG tropes, a perfection of them, instead of bloating up with long cut scenes and absurd mini games.
Chrono Trigger is neither bloated or modern. Chrono Trigger is old school. It is the peak of the old school, and the high water mark of the Japanese RPG.