I’ve been looking forward to this one! Today we’re taking a look back through one of the most enduring, beloved JRPGs of all time. Frequently cited in greatest of all time lists, Chrono Trigger stands apart from many of its contemporaries purely for not already being part of a long-established series like Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest; instead we’re treated to a completely new, stand-alone adventure. It was part of a golden age for JRPGs; in the 90s the SNES was riding high with a plethora of genre-defining games, including Final Fantasy IV, V (at least in Japan anyway), and VI, Dragon Quest V, and Super Mario RPG. To be remembered as part of company like that takes some doing, yet Chrono Trigger retains a vociferously loyal fanbase. We can put part of that down to nostalgia but it’s equally important to remember that as the industry (and writing about the industry) grew in popularity, those people making content were often adults who had grown up with the NES and SNES, so naturally the games from their childhood would have important roles when they shared their opinions. As always, the questions I’m interested in are whether a game remains fun outside of its original context as well as whether I thought it was fun at all.
Chrono Trigger (Android, iOS, NDS [reviewed], PC, PS1, SNES)
Released Mar 1995 | Developed / Published: Square
Genre: JRPG | HLTB: 23 hours
I think the thing that helped Chrono Trigger stand out in an age of amazing JRPGs (and certainly one of the things which I find most compelling about it) is the ambition inherent in the narrative. Y’see, Chrono Trigger is a story about time travel. It begins innocuously enough, as main protagonist Crono (or, as is tradition in JRPGs, whatever amusing or rude name you’d like to give him) is woken by his mother pulling the curtains apart to let the morning light stream in. He sets off to the local fair where, amidst the hubbub and colour, he bumps into a young woman named Marle. Together they go to see a new invention created by Crono’s friend, Lucca – a teleporter! It’s the highlight of the fair, especially when it spectacularly transports Crono across the square, but when Marle eagerly leaps in, things all go wrong. A violent reaction opens up a rift which swallows Marle, and Crono, ever the hero, dives in after her.
On the other side, he finds himself hundreds of years in the past, back when humanity was locked in a vicious conflict with a horde of monsters led by the fearsome Fiendlord Magus. Although Crono and Lucca quickly rescue Marle, when they try and return to their own time, a temporal instability flings them into the far future. Emerging into a desolate apocalyptic wasteland, the trio learn that their planet has long since been destroyed by an entity known only as Lavos, which emerged in 1999 to consume the lifeforce of the world. Horrified, our heroes resolve to stop Lavos and save the future, and so begins an adventure which sends our party all across time in a bid to avert the end of the world.
One of the things I love about this plot is that it can only happen due to the innate selflessness of its cast – there really is nothing stopping Crono, Lucca, Marle, or indeed any of the party from simply returning to their own time periods and living out their lives, free in the knowledge that Lavos’ emergence is well beyond any of their lifetimes. And yet, not one of them expresses even the faintest qualm about trying to fight a being of world-ending power to save a future none of them will see. Even the one party member who comes from the post-apocalypse, the portly robot Robo, never demands or pleads for the salvation of his future; he trundles alongside the, ready to save the world even if it means the end of his timeline. It’s all a bit Doctor Who-esque, with people acting regardless of their own investment for the collective good of humanity. It’s also the sort of narrative that would have struggled to exist after this era of JRPGs, devoid as it is of any cynicism.
The game is also helped along by some razor-sharp scenario writing, brilliantly constructed characters, and excellent world-building. Chrono Trigger really pushed the boat out in terms of pixel art on the SNES. Each overworld looks utterly unique, from the howling wasteland of the future, to the mist-covered forests of Guardia’s past, and there’s also massive effort put into the detailing in each dungeon you go through. The end result sits in stark contrast to the design on show in contemporary franchises, even including some of the most famous ones, such as Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. Chrono Trigger eschews longer, plain dungeons in favour of shorter, more densely packed challenges, and as a result, the places we go are distinct and memorable, tied to the events we experience, such as the black stone and bone-lined halls of the prehistoric Reptites, from which descend hordes of pteradons, or the dank dungeons of modern-day Guardia, with their vertiginous bridges overlooking the distant mountains, across which Crono makes a daring escape after a brutal rigged trial conducted by a corrupt chancellor. Chrono Trigger excels in linking both event and place together in a way which few JRPGs manage; dungeons aren’t treated merely as blank or bland corridors of enemies to chug on through, but as real, living places, an effect aided by the game’s complete lack of random encounters as mooks and bosses alike all patrol ahead of you in real-time waiting for you to instigate a battle.
As for the combat, Chrono Trigger employs a variation of ATB, the system first introduced to us in Final Fantasy IV. In short, characters wait around until their action gauges are filled, at which point you can input a command for them. Chrono Trigger features the option to switch the combat between “Active” and “Wait” modes, depending on your preference. The latter makes all activity pause while you select a command, making it feel a little less hectic and stressful compared to the Active mode, in which enemies will happily carry on attacking even while you’re thumbing through menus. Party members learn spells and skills (here called Techs) as they level up, and one of the coolest features of Chrono Trigger’s combat is that many of these can be combined in Double or even Triple techs which see 2 or 3 party members team up to unleash a devastating and visually striking attack. However, these cannot be used unless all of the required party members have a full action gauge, meaning you have to have faster characters wait around for their slower partners before taking their action, leaving you open to an attack without response.
Outside of combat, Chrono Trigger also has a fantastic approach to exploring its world, and it’s all expertly tied into the central time travel theme. I don’t just mean that you travel through time, although obviously you do, but it does some enjoyable and creative things with the concept. Occasionally, games of this ilk like to radically change the world as you do stuff in the past in order to demonstrate the effect your actions have had, but Chrono Trigger isn’t quite that dramatic. There aren’t many moments where you can see obvious visual effects of your meddling, so the time zones exist almost independently – but not quite entirely. There’s a couple of late-game sidequests which can have an exciting change on the modern day time period, and often there are treasure chests which you have to open sequentially moving back in time because if you open one in the past, obviously it can’t have treasure in the future as you’ve already pilfered it! They’re small features, but ones which help to sell the vast time-skipping feel of the story.
The biggest move the game takes however is perhaps one of Chrono Trigger’s most renowned and dramatic moments. It comes very late on so I shan’t spoil it but it can have a significant and unprecedented effect on your final party, and requires a lengthy quest to address, but such is the freedom this game affords you that you can genuinely not bother with it and carry on, taking on the final boss regardless. It also has an effect on the ending you achieve; in fact, the sheer volume of endings available to you is one of the game’s more enduring and ambitious elements, as depending on when you decide to confront Lavos can result in a bevy of different resolutions for Chrono Trigger’s world and future.
And of course, no discussion of Chrono Trigger would be complete without mentioning its music. One of the shining gems of the SNES, Yasunori Mitsuda’s work here is utterly impeccable. I haven’t really written about an entire soundtrack in these reviews for quite a long time, really; often it requires a full re-listen of the game’s soundtrack, and it’s a hefty task to pick things apart and try and explain precisely why these songs are so good. So, I shan’t do that for Chrono Trigger. Instead, I’ll leave you with a simple few thoughts. For a start, Mitsuda’s compositions are, to put it bluntly, perfect; he, along with the few tracks contributed by Final Fantasy veteran Nobuo Uematsu, exhibits a masterful control of genre, effortlessly switching to whatever is necessary to convey the emotion of the scene. Many tracks employ lilting melodies and echoing arpeggios to try and capture the timelessness and sense of being lost amidst the flow of the years, and in turn they highlight the extraordinary beauty of Chrono Trigger’s world. We move through howling, shattered soundscapes and nervy, tense basslines when we fall into the apocalyptic future, into pulsing tribal drumbeats and sharp brass when we run through prehistory, and finally into otherworldly strings and harsh synths when our party runs into the inevitable inexplicably advanced ancient civilisation that all JRPGs are contractually obligated to feature.
A few particular pieces are worth sharing with you though. Robo’s Theme, an old internet darling for its uncanny resemblance to Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up, remains a sprightly, fun song, at odds with the grim and hopeless future to which he belongs. It stays unique among the soundtrack from that time period; although industrial drums pound and crunch at the edge of hearing throughout the song, the joy and whimsy overshadows it without ever once relenting, much as Robo himself stands as one of the only hope-fuelled individuals from the apocalypse. Schala’s Theme is another which forces itself to stand out from the rest of the tracks from its time period, while still carrying enough elements to ground itself within it. The tinny, echoing crystal chimes which play an unchanging arpeggio link to the track to the age of magic to which it belongs, ethereal and fragile; however, the melody which comes in is clear and mournful, just as Schala herself cuts a morose figure as she finds herself directed to use her magic against her wishes.
Battle with Magus is probably the most intense of the battle themes in the game, which makes it all the more incredible that it isn’t anywhere near as heavy or pulsing as others. The intro is pure atmosphere; an ominous organ plays a tense progression, while a single high-pitched accompaniment is played, almost Psycho-like. Behind them, the wind howls, ebbing and flowing, but never letting the track go. The song speeds up with the introduction of the drums in order to give it a bit of impetus for the fight, but it never builds up to a massive wall of sound; instead it uses its instrumentation smartly and sparingly, the brass and strings each alternating in and out, aurally knocking you about. The break in which we can just hear Magus’ deranged laughter is the icing on the cake. Chrono Trigger in general really gets just how to do unsettling music. Undersea Palace is the other great example of the craft in the soundtrack, melding sharp 80s saw synths into a background melange of melodies as each one falls over the other, coalescing into a single, eerie wail.
I couldn’t let this brief chat about Chrono Trigger’s music go by without talking at least a tiny bit about Frog’s Theme. I say this without hyperbole: Frog’s Theme is my single favourite piece of game music I have ever heard. Oh, sure, lots of others come close for me, but none top it. It is a perfect composition in my mind, utterly and inextricably tied to its character, and one which matches its character so flawlessly that I simply couldn’t imagine one without the other. Frog himself is already great fun as a character, carrying equal parts hilarity (I mean, he’s a medieval knight turned frog, complete still with a penchant for wielding broadswords to great effect, plus he still croaks during his dialogue! Adorable.), high-minded heroics, and, most importantly, a healthy dose of crippling tragedy. He’s brilliantly grounded in the world of Chrono Trigger; it’s easy to share in his insecurities, but impossible to not cheer at his gallant heroism. Frog’s Theme helps that along expertly. It’s bouncing rhythm and melody, the marching drums, the power imparted by the brass and whistling melody all feel suitably militaristic, but with a light fantasy flightiness that is beautifully suited for the absurdity of, well… Frog.
It doesn’t take a genius to parse what I think of Chrono Trigger. I came to it quite late, really; it didn’t see a UK release until the DS in 2009, and by that point I was deep into a teenage JRPG fandom and knew about how well-loved it was. I can remember importing a copy at great expense (it must be said, without realizing I’d bought a US copy – thank goodness for the DS’ region free software) and utterly losing myself in this wondrous adventure. It had been many years since I last had the pleasure of playing it, but Chrono Trigger hasn’t lost a single iota of its majesty and grandeur over the years, and replaying it for review I still found myself in awe of what the team at Square had managed to produce.
7/7 – TOP TIER.
As close to perfect as it gets, a game that surpasses any faults it might have and comes with the highest of recommendations. A must-play.