Some people claim that Squaresoft's 1995 RPG Chrono Trigger is the single greatest role-playing game of all time. To be quite honest, I can't make a convincing case to the contrary.
But then, Chrono Trigger really was more or less destined for greatness. It was produced by an RPG dream team, and one of the real dream teams. Not like Nintendo's so-called Ultra 64 "dream team," which gave us classics like Wheel of Fortune and... hmm. They canceled Robotech: Crystal Dreams, right? Oh well.
But with Chrono Trigger, you had the core staff behind Final Fantasy, led by series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi. On the other had, you also had Dragon Quest lead Yuji Horii. These two very different men brought together their very different visions of what RPGs can and should be, and... somehow, managed to reconcile these ideas beautifully.
Sakaguchi recently revealed the fact that he tried to create a direct sequel to Chrono Trigger but couldn't get it greenlit. That's a shame, but at the same time, Chrono Trigger is so good it's basically infinitely replayable. It doesn't need a sequel; it has a dozen different story outcomes to explore in depth.
Most of Chrono Trigger's DNA resembles 16-bit Final Fantasy, which should be pretty obvious when you first start the game and learn that you're going to fight bad guys with the "Active Time Battle System 2.0." This was, after all, a Square production. And, much like classic Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger featured a linear but twisting and thoroughly epic plot. Players went from humble roots to saving the future from a brutal apocalypse in record time. Paradoxes were averted. Alien menaces were destroyed.
It looked and sounded great, too. Chrono Trigger graced us with wonderful bitmap graphics and a fantastic soundtrack by Yasunori Mitsuda and Nobuo Uematsu at the top of their respective games. Each and every chapter of the game offered its own unique mechanic, mini game, or challenge. It was in every way a lean, efficient take on the RPG.
Its streamlined feel probably had a lot to do with the Dragon Quest influence. The grand scale of Chrono Trigger's plot admittedly didn't feel much like it contemporary Dragon Quests, which had begin to structure its narrative around small, self-contained vignettes beginning with Dragon Quest VI. Yet the sheer approachability of Chrono Trigger came very much from the Yuji Horii school of design.
By contrast, Final Fantasy had abandoned limited character growth mechanics in favor of the expansive Job and Magicite systems that allowed free-form party development. Chrono Trigger, however, featured half a dozen characters with eight fixed skills apiece. That was it! Limited as the character dynamics may sound, in practice they proved to be anything but restrictive. It helped that the ATB 2.0 system introduced two unique concepts to Chrono Trigger's combat: Position-based tactics and combos.
The positioning rules offered an interesting midpoint between the "line up and swing at bad guys" approach of most RPGs and the tactical style of Ultima or Lunar: The Silver Star. Players didn't really have control over where characters placed themselves in a given battle — that was determined by the enemy party composition and setting — but proximity to enemies (and to other party members) dictated a character's capabilities. Close up against a foe? Use a short-range attack like Chrono's spinning sword strike. Have to reach across a long distance? Try lining up multiple foes to execute a long-range slash or something along the lines of Lucca's fire blast.
Better yet, you could use the combo system to make use of multiple characters' capabilities. As the party members unlocked their respective skills, they also would gain access to combination techniques that allowed them to attack foes in tandem. The party makeup at any given time gave players access to completely different types of combo attacks, including massive three-person super-techniques.
These amounted to logical mashups of the techniques being combined — and while they could be powerful, they also had their limitations and drawbacks. A combo consumed the turn and tech points of all characters involved, so in some cases you were better off attacking singly or holding off on combos to conserve power.
What's really surprising is that fighting enemies in Chrono Trigger never gets old, despite the fact that your party works under such limitations and each and every encounter in the game is predefined. There are no random battles here! Yet regardless of the limited palette of combat capabilities available in Chrono Trigger, every battle played out differently and required its own specific tactics depending on your current team and their individual gear.
This was especially true if you recruited the game's secret character, who couldn't innately perform triple techs and had to waste his vital accessory slot on items to enable combos. The constant push-and-pull of game play and the fact that any party composition could make a valid and winning team helped make Chrono Trigger endlessly fun to play. And replayable, too.
Chrono Trigger introduced the concept of New Game + to RPGs, allowing players to revisit the story from the start with all their end-game levels and equipment intact. And they could jump to the the final battle at any time, experiencing all manner of alternate endings depending on where in the story they beat the game again. And it was a story worth revisiting and replaying. The small cast featured all sorts of unique characters drawn from across time and space, from a cave woman to a steam-powered robot, each with their own lovable personality.
With its limited character building and largely linear plot, Chrono Trigger is basically the antithesis of the classic PC gamer concept of the RPG. And yet it manages to be a masterful representation of the genre by playing up its own strengths. It doesn't attempt to adhere to a genre formula or someone else's rules. Instead, it's a middle ground between two different schools of console RPG design thought, a brilliant compromise that manages to be entertaining for newcomers and pro players alike.
With so much replay value and so much sheer goodheartedness of display, Chrono Trigger truly is one of the greatest RPGs of all time. And that makes it a game I can return to again and again... especially with the wonderful portable DS remake.