Chrono Cross is the Led Zeppelin of video games. When it first arrived on scene, it was one of the highest rated games ever: I remember reading countless perfect score reviews, psyching myself up for launch. Of course, the hype was a little much, and this was followed by tremendous backlash.
Since then, Chrono Cross has been stuck in a critical loop, oscillating between “this game is one of the best PSX Squaresoft releases” and “this is everything wrong with Japanese RPGs”. What causes these reactions, of course, is Cross’ status as sequel to most ridiculously lucky game of all time, Chrono Trigger.
What makes its introduction worth analyzing is how it sets itself up so similar to, and different from, Chrono Trigger.
It creates a sense of safety and of a world you want to save. When the game begins, when Marle is sucked back in time, you follow her because this life, the fair and her, is worth saving. When, a few hours later, you discover the fate of the world (nearly a millennium off), you’re inspired to save it, not just because of the suffering of the people of the future, but because you want to save the status quo.
Connecting these two things (a distant cataclysm and a happy present) is difficult, but Chrono Trigger gets you to do it without too much question. It does so by making your experience a happy one, by making sure that your happy world is first truly broken by the Lavos reveal.
In short, the introduction does what good heroic stories do: they create a sense of normalcy, they threaten it, and they let you save it. Who your hero is is almost immaterial, even after the occasionally personal events of the second half. Crono, for all intents and purposes, is a faceless hero, the most powerful party member, our porthole into the world. Chrono Trigger efficiently establishes its heroism and lets you go off and be a hero.
Chrono Cross does not do this. In many ways, this is why most people find it to be a poor sequel. It doesn’t establish the heroic touchstones, however, because it is not a game about heroism.
It’s a game about self discovery.
Even more than that, it’s a game about self-discovery that uses almost the same pieces. A boy is placed into a status quo where he is trying to amuse an obvious love interest. After this, Something Important happens, and it changes the status quo. Both end up with the protagonist in a strange land, trying to find a way back to normalcy. Serge, though, is a very differently framed character than Crono. Despite both being silent protagonists, they are extremely different individuals.
Chrono Cross begins in a dream. It begins with Serge, female protagonist Kid (whose image adorns the promotional material), and a third, random character—in my case, usually rogue chef Orcha—exploring a creepy tower that reminds us, the Trigger player, of Magus’ Castle, the midpoint of that game. We fight some battles, we’re told we’re going after some evil guy named Lynx, and, eventually, we reach the top, where we see a montage: Serge, a bloody knife in his hand, and Kid, dead on the ground.
When we wake up, though, to the a callback to Chrono Trigger’s introduction (wake up, Serge!), we find a much different world from this dream. We find a pastoral, seaside village. We find a girlfriend demanding you go collect her komodo dragon scales from a beach. We find a horrible, pastel colored dog. We find normalcy.
The juxtaposition frames things differently. In Trigger, you want to wander the Millennial Fair with Marle forever. It’s peaceful. The game invites you by presenting you with strange oddities like Gato the Singing Robot and the weird mini games: button mashing, dancing, betting on foot races, and the spooky tent that for no reason becomes incredibly important to the late game narrative. Everything is lovely. The people are friendly, the music is pleasant, and even though nothing excites you, you feel calm.
Cross does the exact opposite. By leading with intensity, with action and darkness, your home village feels incredibly out of place. The townsfolk are friendly, but they talk at length about boring topics you have no interest in. You just murdered someone you never met in a dream. How can some guy catching a shark be important? The komodo dragon scales are the final straw: you feel put upon, like your wasting your time, when there’s a game out there, ready to be played.
You also acquire the worst party member, the lisping, self-obsessed, posh pooch Poshul. As a pink talking dog, she represents everything wrong with where you live. She doesn’t care about you. She joins your party because you fed her, and she proves to be almost entirely useless: she does little damage, she can’t cast spells very well. By the time you’ve collected the scales, by the time you end up on the beach outside of town waiting for Leena, you’re fed up with this world.
So when you’re taken across the boundary to another world, it’s almost a relief. Instead of a heroic quest, it’s an escape, a way to leave the monotony of everyday life and find ourselves somewhere else. Instead of a plucky hero snatched from Dragon Ball and thrown into an epic quest, Serge is a video game hipster, terminally bored, looking for the next big thing. Ensconced in a life of fishing, boredom, and obsolescence, Serge finds a fascinating new adventure. In the other world’s hometown, the characters speak quicker. They’re more exciting, because they’re different. Sure, it feels a little awkward, but you’re thrilled to be around different people (even if, technically, they are the same people).
It creates a very different feeling game. Heroism has given way to cynicism. And while Chrono Trigger is a game about saving the world, Chrono Cross doesn’t go that direction until the very end, and then does it more out of obligation than anything else. You do things in Chrono Trigger to try to save the future: you act in Chrono Cross to try to save yourself, at first metaphorically, by escaping boredom, and then literally, when you are body swapped with the main antagonist. You travel to terrifying places like the future’s seas frozen in time not out of heroic impulse but instead because that’s where you’ll learn more about yourself.
It’s where you have to go to grow. Personal growth becomes the motif, and as such Chrono Cross is self-obsessed. It violates the early JRPG’s principle trope (heroism), which drove a wedge between it and its target audience. That said, it’s also why the game holds up today: despite its relatively lackluster combat, the game’s themes resonate now more than ever.