Chrono Trigger is one of those games a website has to wait a while before reviewing. Build up a body of work and show that it’s capable of formulating an honest opinion before tackling it. It would be easy to gush all over this game, but instead MBU is taking a direct on honest fresh look at the title that many believe broke the JRPG mould.
Developed by Square, Chrono Trigger was a master project that gathered some of the JRPG scenes biggest names to produce one title. They dubbed it the ‘Dream Team’ and with names such as Sakaguchi, Horii, Toriyama, Aoki, Kato and Mitsuda all attached to the project it certainly was. Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy were seen as rivals for the JRPG crown back in the day, and for both sides to come together and produce a stand-alone title of this kind was unheard of. Nintendo’s SNES was about to get a treat.
Graphically the game draws on a wide colour palette to bring life to large, chunky 2D sprites that are brimming with detail. Unlike other RPGs of the time, that featured smaller characters in order to cram more of the available location on-screen at any given time, Chrono Trigger uses characters double the scale of those seen in Final Fantasy 5. What this means is that the cast are instantly recognisable and possess character traits for the player to latch on to. Even Chrono himself, a silent protagonist by his very nature, has a strong definition to him. Locations are a little smaller than those usually explored in a JRPG, with massive labyrinth-like dungeons giving way to more complicated, smaller zones crammed with points of interest. The world map itself if extremely small, but encountered multiple times throughout the game in different time periods to give in variation. Some of the special effects in combat haven’t aged as well as those in other titles of the same era, relying on Mode 7 or quick images, but seeing a giant toad stomp on the battlefield will stick with you. Some locations are drawn with a sense of perspective and only encountered briefly in-game, giving them the feel of a pixel-based precursor to the screen-to-screen sprites over background illustrations that would later be used in titles throughout the Playstation era. The games UI is clean and cleverly integrated, with the smartest decision being to integrate combat into each area rather than transition to a different screen. Akira Toriyama, the artist behind Dragon Ball and much of the Dragon Quest series leaves a solid stamp on this games identity.
The music in Chrono Trigger sets a standard that is close to perfection for the time. Each track is integral to the feel of a location and compliments the graphics and emotional pitch of the game perfectly. The opening theme, starting with the ticking of a clock before drawing together elements of the game into a fast-paced orchestral number is iconic. What stands out replaying it now is the energy many of the tracks possess, as if the character’s motivations and drive were pushed to the fore with the score. Sound effects vary between those seen in other titles (Kefka’s laugh is hard to separate from Final Fantasy VI, although there’s no denying that the boys as Square know how to get the most out of a SNES’ sound card) and original pieces. They’re nothing to write home about but as functional pieces of the background they stand up well. The UI, with its beeps and clicks feels particularly solid because of them.
Story is where Chrono Trigger begins to think outside the box. Square had tested the waters for a time travel game a number of times, involving elements of the subject in games as far back as their first Final Fantasy title, but never had it been approached in such a serious manner. Cause and effect is the name of the game here and in a manner similar to Back to the Future, actions in the past have very real consequences in the present or future. The game opens with the dawn of the Millennium Fair, a young man by the name of Chrono is awoken by his mother and told to go enjoy himself before meeting up with his inventor friend Lucca to help her with her latest machine. Upon arriving he bumps into Marle, a young girl who’s lost her pendant and together the two explore what’s available and get it back. Unknown to him, Marle is the princess of this kingdom, and when Lucca’s teleportation machine accidentally goes haywire when Marle’s pendant comes into contact with it she vanishes into the past. Chrono quickly steps up to get her back, and from there the story only gets deeper and more interesting. Concepts such as removing an earlier member of a family line wiping out their lineage are dealt with and explained in easy to understand examples. New characters are all vibrant and come with their own backstory, drawing from across the length of the timeline. Of these Ayla comes off a little worse for wear, being something of a one-trick wonder and once her section of the game is complete her development stops short. Comparatively Frog and Robo both get excellent back stories with additional plot threads to keep them constantly interesting. One of the game’s best sequences sees Robo left in the past by the party, entrusted with a task and then encountered again almost immediately by the player in the future, at which point he needs repairing because it’s been a lot longer for him. The script itself is well translated for the English speaking market and only had some minor changes when it was re-released onto the DS, a port used as the basis of the iOS and Android versions. Sadly the PSOne version, though unchanged, suffered from loading issues and slowed the games speed down dramatically. Speed plays a big part in this title, with the script bouncing along at a fast pace.
Gameplay is a mixture of tried and true JRPG exploration and combat with some new features that help it to feel surprisingly fresh. Combat takes place on the field where enemies are encountered without the transition to a special screen, which makes things feel abrupt and immediate. ATB counters tick away but allowing the whole party to charge together lets you trigger 2 and even 3 party member joined attacks that the player must discover for themselves by using different combinations of characters. Magic and Skills are separate, with Magic bestowed upon the group in the second half of the game, but skills are always kept interesting and relevant to make up for this. Encountering elements in the field also spices up exploration, with object interaction often important. Early in the game the player is asked to make choices at the fair that play out in or against Chrono’s favour at a later point. Minigames are also abundant with everything from mirroring a dummy to racing a transforming super-car mutant included. Time travel between areas is handled at first through the whims of the plot, but later through a space-ship-like time machine that the party use to get around in. The game offers multiple endings, which was a rarity at the time in the JRPG scene, with multiple ways to challenge and approach the end boss as well as altered timelines for dying at certain stages in the game. Where Chrono Trigger works best is in the use of time travel as a gameplay element. Leave a chest unopened in the past and in the future revisit its location to find it still sealed but containing a more powerful item, or speak to somebody in the past and see their life change in some way in the future. These small additions really help the game feel clever and optional quests late in the game only add to that fun.
Overall Chrono Trigger is a masterpiece. It’s not without its flaws and there are elements of the game that don’t hold up as well today as they did upon release, but the overall package is of such a high quality it’s impossible to argue its genius. If you’ve never played this title I highly recommend that you go out and do so immediately, it’s available on multiple devices but I recommend you play it with a controller as the original games creators intended rather than seeking it out on a touchscreen device.