One of my darkest secrets as an RPG fan is that I missed out on Chrono Trigger during its heyday back in the '90s.
It was already quite rare by the time I finally picked up a Super Nintendo in 2000 or so; and even after picking it up for the Nintendo DS in 2008, I never quite got around to it, mostly owing to my rising workload as a games writer. I finally copped to the shameful gap in my gaming knowledge in a recent episode of Axe of the Blood God, at which point Nadia started guilting me into playing it ("Throw it on the pile!") I started plugging away at it on my two-week journey through Europe, where I discovered something that a lot of RPG fans have known for close to 20 years now: Chrono Trigger is good.
So good, in fact, that I'm actually legitimately ashamed that I've missed out on it this long.
Wake Up Crono
In my previous attempts to finish Chrono Trigger, I've always gotten hung up in the future. After an energetic start that sees Crono rescue Marle from the middle ages, then deftly avoid a death sentence, the story bogs down a bit in a post-apocalyptic future filled with rats, robots, and abject poverty. It's here that I usually find myself drifting away, only to return and forget exactly what I was doing. Then I start over and the process begins again.
This time around, I powered through the future and back to Chrono's time, where the story picks up again. I discovered the End of Time—an eerie realm occupied by a solitary old man—and unlocked magic by running around the map (thankfully, I didn't have the same problem getting it to register as others seemed to). I went looking for the legendary Masamune and got my ass soundly kicked by a pair of plucky twins who combined to form a misshapen monster—the game's first true test. I fought lizard people in the distant past, reforged the Masamune, and ultimately confronted the dastardly Magus, who was attempting to revive Lavos and destroy the world.
Suffice it to say, it's been quite the ride.
One thing that's really jumped out at me is how much Chrono Trigger really feels like a blend of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. Villains like Ozzie and Magus have that distinctive Akira Toriyama look to them—the look that wouldn't be out of place in Dragon Ball Z—but the characters emote like those of Final Fantasy VI. The story has the epic drama of Final Fantasy, but characters like Frog and Robo feel as if they've been pulled straight from Dragon Quest. The monsters in particular have the Dragon Quest look to them, which is to say that they are endearingly cartoony without being distracting.
It's well-known that Chrono Trigger is a collaboration between Dragon Quest's Yuji Horii and Final Fantasy's Hironobu Sakaguchi (Yoshinori Kitase, Nobuo Uematsu, and others were also involved), but this is the first time I've really felt that connection. It's at once familiar and new and interesting—a perfect mix of two classic RPGs. I honestly never knew it was possible.
Another thing that's jumped out at me is how much the on-screen enemies add to the dungeon design and the combat. My favorite battle so far has Crono and company chasing Ozzie through the Fiendlord's castle as the villainous lieutenant sets off various traps, culminating in a battle in which he is sent plummeting to his doom by activating one of his own trapdoors. It's hilarious—the sort of battle that could never have been pulled off as effectively in a traditional RPG with random encounters. Having enemies on the screen makes Chrono Trigger come alive.
All in all, it's a stunningly well-designed game, made all the better by how well the different time periods mesh together into one adventure. I've seen some people complain about how the adventure grinds to a halt when you're trying to recruit Frog—and it is admittedly tiresome to tromp from era to era looking for bits of the Masamune—but the time travel itself works really well. The periods all have their own heroes, villains, and story arcs, all of which spill into the rest of the timeline and build into one overarching adventure. It's a setup that has the potential to become incredibly messy and confusing, but Chrono Trigger manages it all effortlessly.
Sitting now at the halfway point, I'm interested to see where they take it. Most of the major players have been introduced at this point, as have all the time periods. I know that Lavos eventually destroys the world, and that Magus is the one responsible for awakening him, but it's unclear where the group goes from here.
One thing is for sure, though: the story is hitting high gear.
Enjoying Chrono Trigger in 2017
As I've delved deeper and deeper into Chrono Trigger, the one thought that has occurred to me again and again is, "Wow, this game really lives up to its reputation."
It's often hard for older games, especially older RPGs, to live up to the praise heaped upon them posterity. When talking about the impact of games like Final Fantasy VII, you often have to say, "It doesn't look like much now, but back in 1997, it was the most incredible thing anyone had ever played." Graphics age, gameplay systems become antiquated, and once-lauded stories start to feel flimsy and cliched. Final Fantasy IV is an amazing game, but it's well-regarded in part because we're willing to forgive its stilted writing and one-dimensional story, which leans heavily on an endless series of heroic sacrifices for its drama.
This game is not like that. Chrono Trigger was released in 1995, when Square was at the absolute height of their powers, and its shows. It's gorgeous—one of the best-looking games on the Super Nintendo. Its score is scintillating and its characters are distinct, which makes the battle system feel less broken than it does in Final Fantasy VI. It's striking how well it holds up in 2017.
Playing through it on my trip has been like discovering a really good television show long after it's completed and finally getting to see what all the fuss was about. My only regret is that I'm not playing it on my TV, because in some ways it feels like almost too big of an adventure for my little 3DS. But then, it wouldn't have been there to keep me company on my flight home, so I guess some sacrifices have to be made (the DS version apparently has a better localization as well).
In any case, I can't remember the last time I picked up an older game like this and fell head over heels in love with it. Stripped of its nostalgia, it still manages to shine in a way that I find legitimately mindblowing for a game made in 1995. If the second half is anywhere near as good as the first, finally finishing it will be a treat.