∞ Play Time
Out of all Chrono Trigger’s significant contributions, New Game+ most epitomizes its soul. Not only does it recognize the player’s hard work, allowing them to return to the beginning of its story with all their experience and rewards, it’s consistent with its time-travelling premise. Of course, NG+ would be pointless if the games core wasn’t worth returning to, but it’s a wondrous adventure, stocked with a great cast of characters full of personality. Fitting a premise that can have small moments have big ramifications, it starts with a fateful encounter.
It’s the morning of the Millennial Fair, circa 1000 A.D. The fair is a celebration of the worlds history, a condensed collection of its past and people. Among the festivities, we hear of a war that ravaged the land several hundred years prior, see cosplayer’s dressed as armored knights and humanoid reptiles and see a dance inspired by primitive humans. Functionally, the fair is an advanced peek at everything the game has to offer. Our red-headed hero Crono bumps into the plucky Marle, the pair visiting his friend Lucca’s newest science project. Since our groups never researched the myriad dangers of teleportation, Marle gets sucked into a warp. More to save the girl than to stop the Grandfather paradox that will result, Crono heroically plunges in to save her.
It’s been called a ‘dream team’ of JRPG minds. Final Fantasy’s Hironobu Sakaguchi, Dragon Quest’s Yuji Horii and Dragon Ball (Z) mangaka Akira Toriyama pooled their efforts into one powerhouse title that combined their respective strengths and eliminated their weaknesses. The gameplay was largely informed by Sakaguchi’s sensibilities while Horii’s scenario was scripted by Masato Kato, who would pen other Square games with vocal fan bases. After almost a decade contributing designs to DQ, Toriyama was able to flex his creative muscles, moving away from the subdued fantasy style he’d used in those first five games to sketch a diverse cast just similar enough to DBZ to satisfy the fans, just different enough to appease the haters. This high-profile pedigree manifests in every line of its code.
The epoch-spanning framework justifies a multitude of genres, giving it the flexibility to be fantasy in one section and sci-fi the next, each comprising a complete aesthetic treatment and complimentary bestiary. The underlying foundation isn’t that dissimilar to what Horii did with Dragon Quest IV, a game that alternates between personal stories with a central character that reveals an underlying thread. Though Chrono Trigger shortened up the story beats, it implements DQIV’s concept on a much larger, much more comprehensive scale. Looking at it from the top down, it’s easy to track a progression of human growth through Prehistory to the Future and how landmasses have shifted across the globe. In scope and ambition, Chrono Trigger is a sprawling epic.
Living In The Moment
At the other end of that first portal, Crono is ambushed by three Blue Imps. It’s here that one of Chrono Triggers most amazing gameplay constructs appears. Instead of warping us to The Combat Dimension so many traditional JRPG’s share, our HP and MP meters overlay onto the screen we’re already traversing and our hero unsheathes his katana. The gameplay seamlessly transitions from exploration to combat.
Why is Chrono Trigger more Sakaguchi’s Final Fantasy than Horii’s Dragon Quest, when both franchises gameplay consists of combat and exploration across an overworld and local maps? The answer is literally one of perspective: Dragon Quest’s design is too disjointed. Despite how simple and solid both its first-person combat and third-person exploration are, the changes in POV between the two modes distinctly separate them, so there’s no way to streamline its construction without implementing massive structural renovations to one of its parts. Though Final Fantasy’s compartmentalized combat and exploration modes break immersion, its third-person view could be modified to layer them on top of each other, uniting them into one integrated whole. Two locations become one setting.
Unrelated to this but of incredible impact in its own right is the combat system that allows characters to combine their magic and skills to unleash attacks with higher damage output or greater range when they’ve each readied up. To support it, the dream team made several very wise choices about character’s magic and skills. Firstly, they have their own unique effects and their own elemental affinities with very little, and even then very specific, overlap. Secondly, no character has a large list of moves on their own, relying instead on Combo Techs to fill out the available list. This kept the total manageable and limited redundancy.
Though you could technically design a similar combat system with the sort of turn-based structure found in Dragon Quest that would only break the immersion the game has worked so valiantly to construct. Final Fantasy’s ubiquitous Active Time Battle system, on the other hand, is fully consistent with it, extending the passage of time into the otherwise static menu navigation. The combo system also adds to the drama that inherently comes with the ATB, as the tension of awaiting your chance to input a command is only amplified with every character that needs to be ready simultaneously. Techs have positional advantages including attacks that inflict area of effect damage or cut in straight lines, making target selection vital to the offense. Since enemies are allowed to meander around the environment like wild animals, proper use of the ATB becomes that much more important.
There are many reasons why Chrono Trigger’s cast is so memorable but it’s harder to nail down why they work so well as a group. The secret lies in the cumulative effect of every facet of the gameplay. In combat, the combo system provides the mechanical means for the characters to work in coordination while the POV provides the visual proof. Because your entire party has to all appear travelling on screen rather than the single avatar that gets whisked away and replaced by The Party, there is a sense of camaraderie and solidarity. Whether crossing a post-apocalyptic wasteland or plunging into a prehistoric cave, your friends are always with you.
Since CT’s maps are small ecosystems where enemies can exist explicitly in view or pop out of rustling bushes, exploration becomes crafted. Not only does that control allow the devs to create mini scripted events, but they theoretically know the base number of battles that you’ll get into and how much experience you’ll accumulate leading up to a boss. A byproduct of the design is that there is no combat on the overworld map, minimizing frustration during the times when you just want to get to the next area quickly.
Why is all this so important? Because by keeping all the elements of the narrative and gameplay simulating real-time, the game stays consistent with the way our minds already perceive reality. The events remain tangible, increasing your connection to the story and stacking its potential impact in its favor. The gameplay is so snappy that before you realize it, your party is re-sheathing their weapons, receiving their experience points and effortlessly transitioning back into exploring. Chrono Trigger elegantly draws you into a history-sprawling adventure as it’s terrific cast of characters fight to put time back on course.
Fun With Teleporter’s
For saving the royal bloodline, you’re promptly thrown into the royal jail. Crono’s trial is probably Trigger’s most famous single scene and it catches you completely off guard. One by one, witnesses are called, all of them recalling your actions at the Millennial Fair. They’ll say whether or not it looked like you purposefully set up the encounter with Marle, whether you tried to swindle her out of her necklace, and testify to your character if you helped a girl find her cat or swiped an old man’s lunch. The vote can absolutely go in your favor, but the corrupt chancellor holds Crono regardless and quietly sentences him to death. With the help of Marle and Lucca, Crono escapes, jumping into a random portal and disappearing.
As the Millennial Fair primes your trip into the past, the trial is brilliant for how it’s the story’s way of presenting time-travel’s classic actions-have-consequences moral. It’s a truly mind-blowing scene to behold, especially for a genre where the standard practice is to walk into people’s houses, open their treasure chests and steal their vacation money. As great as the trial is, it’s unfortunate that its lesson doesn’t foreshadow future gameplay, as that sort of meta scorekeeping won’t happen again afterward (so feel free to walk into someone’s place and loot their kid’s college fund). Instead, the scene’s gameplay is meant as a cautionary tale for the rest of the narrative and to instill a sense of responsibility for future jumps through time.
The trio lands smack dab in the destroyed wreckage of 2300 A.D, the landscape littered with crumbling buildings beneath a lightning-cracked sky. If The Present had high technology starting to be adopted into modern life, The Future is the world built on it. It stands in stark contrast to what had come before, the knights and goblins replaced with robots and mutants. But where the Middle Ages allowed you to observe a well-documented past to ease you into its time-travelling escapades, the future is completely mysterious. The light and playful tone has become bleak and hopeless, the few humans left huddling together in poverty and malnourishment. Act one ends with a large revelation. 1999 ended with a powerful being named Lavos waking from a long slumber beneath the earth and nuking the planet.
Despite the complexity of its underlying premise, Chrono Trigger’s script is immaculately simple. For a story set across five separate eras, act two doesn’t bog itself down with irrelevant plot: The War of the Mystics in the Middle Ages; the subordination of the humans by the Reptites in Prehistory; Magus summoning Lavos, only to discover it was to enact his own unknown revenge rather than to destroy; Saving Ayla’s tribe and witnessing Lavos’ fall from the sky, his impact destroying the Reptite civilization, allowing the humans to rise up; and humans using the power he granted them to discover magic and technology in Antiquity. By smartly pacing out the plot, the story manages to slowly roll out its secrets. That’s really quite a difficult feat to accomplish, especially when the beats are couched in scenarios specific to its own place in time. You go to each of these places several times, going from an observer of its drama to being a central participant.
Lavos is a fascinating antagonistic force for how it eschews typical clichés. Rather than a person pursuing its desires, Lavos is a wild beast whose hibernation places it over Chrono Triggers entire narrative. The very real way it impacts the course of humanity isn’t limited to its annihilation of the Reptites, as time and time again it has a major influence on human development, the Alpha and Omega. Though Trigger is about controlling fate, it’s interesting to see the hubris exhibited by so many thinking that they can control nature, with Lavos as its chaotic symbol.
Free of a central villain looking for personal gain, no character in Chrono Trigger that pursues redemption is beyond it. The story had proven that Magus, the perceived source of conflict for much of it, was twisted by pain and anger and seeking to right an ancient wrong, so he is in a position to, if not reach atonement, at least be forgiven. This applies to the entire cast. Unlike the paper-thin side quests that have appeared in too many JRPG’s over the years, these optional scenes are poignant, bringing emotional closure for our heroes. The reason they work is that they were a part of the events of their respective times in the first place, their personal threads staying open even though the main one had closed. Marle repairing her relationship with her father, Frog laying Cyrus’ soul to rest, and Lucca saving her mother’s use of her legs- these are tremendous moments that dwarf what’s found elsewhere and offer genuine salvation.
For a game about time, Chrono Triggers greatest accomplishment is how it never wastes yours. It’s tight and fast and soon after you’ve started, you’re taking Lavos’ last Hit Point. And so we’re back to New Game+. Many games have used it since, but they’ve never made as much sense, since CT was built from the beginning to have multiple endings depending on when in the progression you beat it. Chrono Trigger is a timeless classic about life, friends, hope and the human will. It’s about having another chance to make things right, or seeing how things could have been different.
Dane Thomsen is the author of ZIGZAG, a sport-punk adventure in a world of electrifying mystery. With the voice of her people as her guide, Alex walks neon purple streets thrown into chaos, wielding the concussive force of her baseball bat the mighty ‘.357’ against the forces of evil. Print and kindle editions are available on Amazon. For sample chapters and to see his other works please check out his blog.