GameSpite Journal 10 | Chrono Trigger

Chrono Trigger | Dev.: Square | Pub: Square | Genre: RPG | Release: Aug. 1995

People often wonder, what’s the big deal about Chrono Trigger? Why does it remain so incredibly popular year after year, constantly ranking among people’s favorite games of all time? Fans, critics, and pundits are always happy to weigh in on Trigger’s longevity, extemporizing at length on its graphics, its characters, its endings, its status as the sole collaboration between the creators of both Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, and what have you. The real answer, however, is much simpler: It’s fun.

At the risk of sounding overly glib, Trigger’s pure sense of lightheared fun ultimately is the heart of its appeal. It’s not just that the story and characters give off a breezy sense of derring-do, even when the future is revealed to be a grim ruin in which humanity itself teeters on the brink of extinction. No, the great thing about Chrono Trigger is that the game itself is a load of fun.

The Square/Enix “Dream Team” -- so called in the days when a team-up between rival RPG giants was a surprise rather than a daily reality—created the perfect streamlined RPG in Trigger. Its mechanics aren’t excessively reductive in the way that modern BioWare RPGs are; there’s still gear to manage and stats to massage. It still features a discrete battle system, a menu screen, party members to select, and quests to fulfill. However, all of these elements were refined and revamped until the fat was completely stripped away.

Combat offers only the options necessary to take on foes, and each hero’s minimal palette of commands is supplemented by the ability to combine their skills with those of their allies. For once, building a party of three feels like a buffet of choices rather than a limiting restriction, because each and every different lineup has its own unique set of abilities and combos that in turn offers distinct strategic options. The characters themselves are simple cartoons, just enough to keep the story going, but their powers perfectly match their one-dimensional personalities and help define your team as much through action as through words.

Really, “cartoon” is the best way to describe Chrono Trigger. Prolific manga and anime creator Akira Toriyama designed Trigger’s cast, and whether or not he took an active role in the game’s development the spirit of his work looms throughout the proceedings. The game is structured almost exactly like a season of television, with each little story splinter—be it escaping through the Heckran cave, exploring the ruins of a future civilization or an excursion into prehistory—lasting about as long as (and offering the same self-contained narrative pieces as) an individual episode of a TV series while feeding into the overarching plot. The game’s story itself walks a fine line between grim (as Our Heroes learn of a terrible threat to humanity’s survival that spans the entirety of the world’s history) and upbeat (as they decide to save their descendents with sheer chutzpah).

Chrono Trigger is the best parts of Final Fantasy (a grand, sweeping plot and a cool RPG battle system), Dragon Quest (accessibility and charm), and DragonBall (finely balanced shounen manga sensibilities). It’s a rare treat of a game that was very much a product not only of its specific creators but also the time, place, and hardware on which it was created. Chrono Trigger pushed the limits of the Super NES like no game before it, while those same limitations forced the Dream Team to make hard decisions and trim the fat. All that was left behind was what worked. There’ll be other great RPGs through the ages, but never one that succeeds in quite the same way that Trigger did. Its strength is its fun; its secret is its inimitability.

By Jeremy Parish? | March 6, 2012 | Previous: Mystic Ark | Next: Killer Instinct