Who here remembers those old “Choose Your Own Adventure” books from the 1980s? I certainly do, and I remember them fondly. I loved how my choices affected the story’s progression and led me to one of many endings. Squaresoft’s Super Nintendo masterpiece Chrono Trigger recaptures the magic I felt with those books and enhances it with beautiful graphics, wonderful music, and the interactivity that only a video game can provide.
The tale begins innocently enough. Mom wakes our main character Crono, who you can rename, from his slumber. Today is the day of the Millenial Fair, a day filled with fun and games, and the unveiling of Crono’s friend Lucca’s latest invention! An excited Crono hurries over to the fairgrounds and in his excitement bumps into a pretty blonde girl named Marle. Following the introductions, Marle and Crono then walk around the fairgrounds until the unveiling of Lucca’s invention is announced. It seems Lucca has invented a matter transporter with two pads. If you stand on one pad, you will get instantly transported to the other pad.
After seeing Crono try it out, an enthusiastic Marle wants a go. However, her pendant reacts with the machine’s energy signal, a portal of some sort is opened up, and poor Marle is sucked into it. Crono, being the brave guy that he is, decides to follow her and attempt a rescue. As it turns out, this portal (later referred to as a Gate) is a time portal that sent our friends into the past. Thus, the stage is set for a fast-paced, wild, and wacky adventure through time. Crono, Marle, and Lucca will find themselves in a plethora of time periods from the prehistoric era to a post-apocalyptic future.
Our intrepid trio and the many friends they meet along the way in those eras will need all strength they can muster to stop Lavos- a mighty beast who does naughty naughty things to the space-time continuum, thus endangering the world.
Some examples of these friends are the noble Frog knight, the hopeful robot who wants to change the world for the better, and the fun-loving cave woman with a mighty sucker punch, among others. Each character is likable and chock full of personality. Their dialogue is well written, never stale, and none of the characters ever break character.
Frog, for example, is a knight from the middle ages and thus speaks in such a tongue using phrases such as “thou hath.” Also, there are no glaring technical errors that I found, and the script reads smoothly. The only character who does not speak is our protagonist Crono. Chrono Trigger is the only RPG I’ve played where this ‘mute lead’ technique works well. Crono’s expressiveness and mannerisms give him all the personality he needs and somehow one never notices that he is silent. In a way, he becomes ‘you’ in the game.
The best part of the story is the choices. Oftentimes in the story, you are presented with choices or variable courses of action you can take. For example, let’s take a scenario from the beginning - where Crono bumps into Marle and she loses her pendant. The nice thing to do is give it back to her once you find it, but Crono could also opt to take the pendant, not give it back to Marle, and sell it to one of the fair’s merchants. There will be repercussions for your actions, but that’s part of the fun of “Choose Your Own Adventure.”
There is also a location in the game where you can initiate the final battle whenever you want, once you reach it. So depending on what choices you make throughout the game and at what point you decide to initiate the final battle you can get one of many different endings. Your objectives are well defined and the game is somewhat linear, but the freedom to do things differently sometimes is nice. Chrono Trigger strikes a very nice balance between linearity and freedom.
The tale is not without flaws, however. Science fiction and time travel aficionados will definitely find logic holes and paradoxes in the storytelling. And the simple, lighthearted storyline and amiable, fun protagonists will definitely disappoint those people who favor deep, complex storylines with tragic heroes. Personally, I loved it. I loved that the storyline was straightforward, easy to follow, and not shackled down by the needless complexities that have turned some of the nicest little stories sour. Also, it’s paced quickly with no lulls and keeps one’s interest throughout its course.
Like any Squaresoft production, the visuals are a treat. Sure in 2002 Chrono Trigger’s 2D sprite-based graphics are technologically archaic compared to the polygon pushing games of today, but from an artistic standpoint, they stand the test of time. The character sprites are large, have terrific detailing in the outfits and faces, and have some wonderfully expressive animations. Marle’s sprite in particular has some very cute animations such as her wide-eyed ‘surprise’ animation and her ponytail spinning upwards when she casts a spell. I often kept her in my party because her sprite animations were so amusing. The NPC and enemy sprites also have wonderful detailing. The enemy sprites, such as the imps, have very detailed facial animations that are amusing.
Also of note are the animations the characters do when casting special moves or magic spells. They are short, sweet, and graphically compelling nonetheless. My personal favorite is the Dark Matter spell with its layered effects and almost polygon like smoothness in its animation.
Akira Toriyama, of Dragonball Z fame, did Chrono Trigger’s character designs. His style is a love it/hate it style, but I think his character designs for the Chrono Trigger cast were very well done and quite energetic. The characters’ facial portraits are in the menu, and I liked what I saw.
The hand drawn locales are a sight to behold and all fit their intended locales. The futuristic ruins are heaped with broken machinery while the working factories are alive with conveyor belts and the lights of active machinery. The more natural locales like the Denadoro Mountains are less busy, but have terrific looking water effects.
The graphics look the worst on the overland. The character sprites are small, super-deformed versions of themselves (they’re realistically proportioned everywhere else) with very little detailing. However, it is cute when you don’t press the controller for a while and they throw their arms up.
The overland towns look like they have many houses and buildings in their clusters, but you can only visit one or two places in each town cluster. A place you can visit on the overland is labeled in white letters once you step on it. It doesn’t look bad, but compared to the detailing present in the non-overland locales (such as dungeons or the interiors of peoples’ houses) it is a step down. However, that simplicity is a blessing in that overland navigation is very easy.
The soundtrack was composed by heavyweight composers Yasunori Mitsuda and Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fanasy) with a few tracks by Noriko Matsueda (Bahamut Lagoon.) Mitsuda composed the lion’s share of Chrono Trigger’s soundtrack and has gone on to score soundtracks for such high profile RPGs as Xenogears, Chrono Cross, Xenosaga, and others. He is one of the most beloved composers among RPG aficionados, and for good reason.
Chrono Trigger has an unparalleled soundtrack. Each and every theme from the dungeon themes, to the boss themes, to the various overland themes, to the wonderful character themes is all well composed and very memorable. There is a surprisingly wide array of instrumentation to be heard on the soundtrack and the various stylistic differences are wonderful. The music for the post-apocalyptic future sounds bleak while the music for the prehistoric era is very percussive. My favorites are the character themes, the Black Omen dungeon theme, and the bass-driven themes of the prehistoric dungeons. I find myself whistling Chrono Trigger music as a walk to class.
Another great thing about Chrono Trigger’s soundtrack is that all the music meshes so well together as one cohesive unit. Oftentimes when multiple composers work on a soundtrack the individual styles don’t always gel together nicely. In this case, it did. Perhaps this is so because the soundtrack is mostly Mitsuda’s work. It never ceases to amaze me how composers are able to craft such memorable music using such a limiting format such as the SNES’s MIDI sound chip.
Sound effects are the usual fare of slashes, beeps, etc. However, they are well done and never grating. Each character has an individual sound when they use their weapon, and some have multiple sounds. For example, Marle and Lucca make a nice ‘bonk’ sound when they bean a nearby monster over the head with their weapons, rather than fire them at a distance- which yields different sounds. The digitized roars of the monsters before a battle commences are great too and the various spell sound effects are nice. I wouldn’t call the sound effects realistic, but they sound ‘right.’
But a game is nothing without gameplay, and Chrono Trigger is a very fun game to play. Exploration is standard fare for RPGs. And the basics are there such as a menu driven interface; equipping weapons, armor, and accessories; and party-based combat. The main menu strikes a happy balance between its use of icons and text. They are easy to navigate and use.
Combat makes use of Final Fantasy’s ATB system, but adds its own spin to it. Characters can use combo attacks called Double or Triple techs. A Double Tech is a combat maneuver used by two party members- for example, Crono and Frog’s X-strike. When X-strike is selected from Crono or Frog’s (whoever gets his turn first) list of commands, the two slash an enemy from two different directions in an X formation. Triple techs are moves that three people can do in battle. Only three people are allowed in an active party, however.
Techs are non-magic skills that can be used, and magic is magic. Some Double or Triple techs utilize either techs only, magic only, or a combination of the two. With the myriad number of combo moves out there, no character in Chrono Trigger is useless, as all are capable of powerful single or combination attacks. The best part of battling is that Chrono Trigger eschews the oh-so-annoying paradigm of random battles and instead allows you to see your enemies on the field before engaging them in combat. And the overland has no battles, so exploration and progression are smooth.
The magic system is simple but effective. Magic is divided into four elements: Lightning, Fire, Water, and Shadow. Only certain party members can use magic, and only from one element. Crono, for example, uses lightning. When you access the menu, the character’s magic affiliation is prominently displayed above the portrait. Only when you meet a particular NPC named Spekkio can your characters first learn magic. New spells and techs are learned as you gain levels in the tried and true fashion.
Again, the general gameplay interface is simple, intuitive, and not hampered by needless complications that only serve to frustrate gamers and/or slow the game down. The interface is the tried-and-true RPG interface polished to beautiful shine and executed with smoothness and aplomb.
The dungeon design is terrific. They are neither too short nor too long. Like the baby bear’s porridge in Goldilocks, they are just right. They aren’t the tedious sprawling behemoth dungeons like in Phantasy Star 2, nor are they tiny, insultingly linear 2-3 screen dungeons like in Revelations: The Demon Slayer. You never get that “ugh, when is the dungeon ever going to end?” feeling, and save points come up at decent intervals. You never feel like there’s a lack of saving opportunities and ‘Dungeon Fatigue’ doesn’t creep in. At the same time, the dungeons aren’t so small that you write them off. The dungeons were sized nicely so that they didn’t impede the story’s progression in any way. A nice balance between time spent in dungeons and time spent out of dungeons was achieved.
I mentioned the various choices one can make en route to one of many endings. The first time one plays the game, however, he/she will likely get the standard ending in about 25-30 hours. But once the game is over, one need not start from scratch to do things differently. One can start a “New Game +” (New Game Plus) game and start anew with their previous game’s stats all in tact. Crono and company retain their previous game’s levels and equipment. Granted, this makes the early going very easy, but you now have the flexibility to fight the final battle at an earlier stage than before. You have more freedom to play with the story and find new endings. In my saved game I have all my characters with levels in the low 80s and the game is still as fun as it ever was.
Because of New Game + the replay value is very high and you have a higher incentive to replay because you do not have to start from scratch as you do in, say, Star Ocean: The Second Story. Like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, I am able to read and reread the story and experiment with different things to get various endings.
If there is any flaw with the gameplay, it is that in typical Squaresoft fashion, some of the major bosses can be cheap. This isn’t a problem if your levels are decent and you have a good strategy, but you can’t just unintelligently bulldoze your way through every boss battle (unless your levels are really high like mine). RPG veterans would find this game very easy, but for more casual RPGers, I’d call it optimally challenging. It’s not so frustrating or difficult that you break your controller in disgust, nor is it so easy that you feel no sense of accomplishment.
As I’m sure you can tell, I, like ninety-something percent of the RPGing population, loved Chrono Trigger. While it may not be the RPG that gives you the ‘Zen’ like experience that will forever change the way you think about life, the universe, and everything else, it is a very entertaining RPG and a definite must-play for anyone interested in the genre. Sure “Choose Your Own Adventure” books can’t stand up to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick in terms of literary greatness, but I find them much more fun to read due to their interactivity and your ability to influence the storyline. In the same way, Chrono Trigger cannot compare to Xenogears as far as poignant storylines are concerned, but I found it to be an overall more ‘fun’ experience.