Article by Jeremy Parish | November 25, 2009
What's so great about Chrono Trigger, anyway?
It's not like it's the biggest role-playing game ever. It doesn't have the shiniest graphics, the most symphonic music, or the most intricate mechanics. Its characters are simple, its plot far from complicated (despite the innately complex subject matter), and its combat rarely poses a challenge. I certainly wouldn't go so far as to say it's the best RPG ever. Clearly, though, it's the most beloved RPG, rivaled only by a handful of contenders in the scope of its nostalgic power over hundreds of thousands of gamers.
The secret of Chrono Trigger's success, in fact, is that it isn't the most, or the best, or the biggest. It foregoes all those other superlatives in service of a single claim: It is the most accessible RPG ever. Where other entries in the genre (especially those that have followed in its wake) pad their length with a day's worth time-eating filler, Trigger is content to offer 15-20 hours of lean, satisfying structured story, with another ten hours of optional (but meaningful) sidequests for those who want to spend more time with the game's characters and world. Its graphics were excellent, though hardly the best seen on Super NES; and while its music was memorable, Yasunori Mitsuda dodged the bombastic Nobuo Uematsu style in favor of something more subdued. In a genre characterized by bloat and padding and excess, Chrono Trigger is a study in economy of design.
By all rights, the game should have been this kind of rousing success: It was a collaborative effort between Japan's two top RPG minds, Final Fantasy's Hironobu Sakaguchi and Dragon Quest?'s Yuji Horii. But as such things go, team-ups like this are the sort that most often end in disaster and recrimination as two creative superstar egos bump and bruise against one another before splintering in their own separate directions. The galaxies aligned for Trigger, however briefly. Through some miracle, or just a shared determination to create a great game, Sakaguchi and Horii's creative impulses and habits complemented rather than compromised one another.
Here you can see the Final Fantasy ethos in the world-shattering storyline, the misdirection around an opponent who initially seems the evil mastermind, the bonus super-bosses. Here's Dragon Quest's determination to keep mechanics manageable by offering a limited palette of combat options, to ease players into the action by making certain things are never too unmanageable, to offer freedom to explore outside the strictly linear bounds of plot. Sakaguchi's crew was surely responsible for the hero's dramatic mid-game self-sacrifice; and you can be just as certain that Horii's fingerprints are all over the game's innate premise that everyone can be made good, and in the way the time-travel elements offer multiple perspectives on a single world (a concept similarly explored in Dragon Quest VI).
In other words, it's best best parts of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, with none of the bad. It's hard to imagine a more compelling combination. Sure, it's a long way from the original definition of RPG, but who cares? That's all just semantics, and splitting hairs is pointless in the face of such a brilliant game.
Nowhere is the Trigger design ethos more obvious than in its battle system. The game makes a point of noting that battles run on the Active Time Battle 2.0 system, positioning it as the successor to the 16-bit Final Fantasy games, whose ATB was nothing short of revolutionary at the time. The concept behind ATB was to lend a real-time feel to turn-based combat, translating every combatants' speed stat into something tangible and allowing characters to act without conspicuous pauses for turns in the traditional sense. ATB 2.0 was a further iteration of this concept, building on the underpinnings of Final Fantasy's battle mechanics and adding an additional factor in the form of combo techs, which allowed two or three characters to unite for joint actions.
Yet any complications that could have arisen from this added layer of depth were mitigated by Dragon Quest's influence. While ATB 2.0 was a far cry from the text-driven, turn-based style the series continues to use to this day, Trigger was strongly influenced by Dragon Quest's character growth system. Unlike the Final Fantasy titles that had immediately proceeded Trigger -- FFV with its intricate Job system and FFVI? with its field-leveling Magicite -- each party member was limited to learning a mere eight skills apiece throughout the entire adventure. Moreover, those skills were predetermined at the very beginning, with no means for anyone to learn abilities outside their innate specialties. Crono can never learn anything besides his set of light- and sword-based powers, and Marle is forever an ice-casting healer. Like the casts of Dragon Quest IV and V?, the skills available to Trigger's party members are inherently constrained.
That's why Trigger's combat works. Players have a limited palette of abilities to work with, but by employing combo techs they can combine those skills in myriad ways. Every possible three-member party combination has completely different strengths and weaknesses, and players are forced to change their strategies accordingly. Crono, Marle, and Lucca are the well-rounded core trio, but those who prefer power at the expense of balance (i.e. elemental variety and healing) may wish to go with Robo, Ayla, and the secret optional character instead. Said secret character, incidentally, is incredibly powerful, yet he's incapable of performing any combo techs under most circumstances, requiring another strategic tradeoff.
And strategies are situational, too; players are forced to make value judgments as to whether it's more effective to wait for two characters' ATB meters to fill up so they can perform a combo, or if there's more efficacy in acting quickly with solo abilities. An enemy may be weak to Crono and Marle's Ice Sword, but if it dishes out damage quickly enough Marle's skills are probably put to better use keeping the party's hit points up. Battlefield positioning is also important, although it's a seamless consideration that the player has no control over. Certain skills are limited in range, or work along a tangent, and are only useful when enemies happen to be in specific relative locations. Crono and Ayla's Falcon Hit is crushingly powerful... but only useful when multiple enemies are along the same horizontal line. All told, the seven playable characters' 56 innate skills are augmented by more than 60 different combination attacks, all of which are useful from start to finish -- depending on the situation, of course.
Trigger constantly keeps things interesting by giving players lots of different options -- but never too many, and definitely not too many at once. And it goes about it so seamlessly that most players never really think about the limitations, because there's never a lack of strategies available for any given situation. It helps, too, that the game is so perfectly balanced: It has difficult moments, but it's neither impossible nor a cakewalk. The trickiest battles simply require creative use of the game's fairly limited resources: The Twin Golem encounter, for example, tends to annihilate players until they start paying attention to how the golems counterattack. Son of the Sun seems insurmountable until you cobble together a few sets of fire-absorbing armor. Even if you undertake all the game's various sidequests and earn the team's best weapons, the final battle is still a test of endurance; there's simply no way to break Trigger like you can a Final Fantasy. Again, the Square-like tendencies are leavened with the restraint and simplicity of Dragon Quest.
Well, until you get to New Game +, anyway, a particularly brilliant innovation that lets players explore the world again from the very beginning with all their end-game levels, skills, and equipment intact. Here Trigger ceases to be about challenge and simply lets fans play around in its world, breezing through battles and experimenting with different ideas. Better yet, the game rewards players who go to the trouble of trying to see what they can get away with by offering all sorts of alternate endings -- including special endings if you can destroy the final boss at the very beginning of the game or win the seemingly impossible fight against Lavos in the Ocean Palace. Lots of games promise endless replay value, but with Trigger it actually means something. It remains to this day the only RPG in which I've ever maxed out my party -- and it wasn't accomplished through tedious grinding, but by simply replaying the game with the same party until I'd found every possible ending. That includes trying for as many cats as possible, transforming Frog back into his true form, and seeing how things played out with the Epoch crashed or not. The fact that the developers accounted for each of these possibilities speaks highly of just how much attention was lavished on the game.
I'd never have bothered with New Game+ if the game didn't have such a great story, though. High literature it ain't, but it's a fast-paced tale whose rustic beginning belies its sci-fi substance. A series of seemingly random time-travel incidents launches the hero and his friends upon a journey to save the future that spans the full expanse of time, from millions of years in the past to a far-flung future dystopia in which the last remnants of humanity eke out a desperate existence in a world ravaged by an alien invader and dominated by a Skynet-like AI. Beyond the opening hours of the game, players are largely free to travel across the span of time, trying to change humanity's bleak outcome. The plot plays fast and loose with causality; while much of the game revolves around performing events in the past to affect situations in the future, it's all handled in a breezy style that doesn't really invite you to think too carefully about it. After all, that wouldn't be very fun. (Case in point: Trigger's sequel, Chrono Cross?, actually did focus on the repercussions of changing history, and it was downright dreary.)
The characters who populate the game are likewise simple but likable. The laconic hero has no personality to speak of besides an aura of plucky nobility, and he surrounds himself with archetypes straight from boys manga—which makes perfect sense, seeing as the king of Japanese adventure comics, Akira Toriyama, provided the character designs. Chrono Trigger ranks among his best work, with detailed characters that translated perfectly into tiny sprites packed with charm. The character and monster designs go a long way toward creating an interesting and memorable world thanks to the non-random nature of enemy encounters. Toriyama's creatures here are just as interesting as his iconic designs for the Dragon Quest games, but now in Trigger they're more than static sprites staring at you in a first-person view. They roam the world, respond to the players' presence, leap into battle, execute attacks, and engage in comical exchanges, all in the same point of view. The heroes give as good as they get, too, with unique battle animations that perfectly complement their personalities. Feral Ayla leaps and scratches and bites her foes, while brainy Lucca prefers to stand back and fire at them from a safe distance (though she's not above clubbing them with a mallet if they get too close). Ditzy Marle giggles when she misses a target, while the ill-tempered optional character remains detached and aloof, preferring to dispatch targets with graceful economy.
More than any other RPG I can think of, Chrono Trigger feels truly complete. Nothing is missing -- no, Schala's fate was never really meant to be addressed here -- and there's no excess. It's a tightly designed masterpiece. Every dungeon is perfectly crafted, every time-traveling alternate outcome is accounted for, every iteration of combat thoughtfully implemented. It's no coincidence that the new content grafted onto last year's DS remake of the game felt so superfluous, because what could one possibly add to improve it? New weapons were unnecessary, new spells would have been pointless, new characters or story twists would have seemed preposterous. Trigger stands as one of history's tiny, elite cadre of videogames that simply got it right the first time. Gamers still decry Chrono Cross for straying so far from Trigger's style, but its creators had the right idea: Trigger was so finely tuned that it could never be surpassed through mere mimicry. Better to simply go in another direction altogether.
So no, maybe Trigger isn't the best RPG, or the best-looking, or whatever. But it's a perfectly realized work, and that's something rare and precious in this medium. Nowhere else will you find a more beautiful summation of everything good about Japanese RPGs, making Chrono Trigger one for the ages.