Checkpoint: Chrono Trigger

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This column originally ran on January 18, 2010.

In 1995, Square released the best birthday present Chris could ever ask for: Chrono Trigger. The SNES title would later set records for sales in Japan and make a gigantic impact in the worldwide market, setting the standard for RPGs to come after it. Checkpoint looks back at what many call the greatest RPG of all-time, and breaks down what made Crono’s adventure so outstanding.

On the surface, this doesn't look like one of the best games of all-time.
On the surface, this doesn’t look like one of the best games of all-time.

Silent Protest

Chris: It’s surprising to me that Crono is such an easy-to-like  character. He’s the classic silent protagonist, yet he manages to convey a whole range of emotions.

Lee: I think the different body poses really helped, as well as his ability to shake his head.

Shaun: You really see this when he gets killed. I didn’t realize how much I was invested in him until this happened.

Chris: I mean, it’s possible to beat the game without bringing him back to life, but I wonder how many players did that. Not counting the ones who didn’t figure out the process, of course.

Lee: I never wanted to beat it without him. It just didn’t feel right.

Shaun: I ended up getting to the end without him–I mean, to the very last boss fight, then realized it was the last boss fight, and quit. How lame is it to beat Chrono Trigger without Crono?

Chris: About as lame as it is to beat Metal Gear Solid without metal.

Shaun: Exactly. What?

Lee: About as lame as beating Super Mario Brothers with Luigi.

Chris: Ooo.

Shaun: Anyway, it’s not just Crono who is well characterized. Even the old days of 2-bit graphics and sparse dialogue, the level of depth in the supporting cast was excellent as well. I was particularly fond of Marle.

Chris: I don’t know. Maybe I’m just a sucker, but I bought the whole Crono/Marle thing. Even though they had known each other for like three seconds before Lucca’s teleporter ruined her day, the two of them worked for me.

Lee: Frog was my main man. Without revealing too much, he unleashes a case of whoop-ass on a very large object. We never see that again, but it was awesome.

Chris: That was one of those moments that CT had in spades. Frog’s theme in the background, an epic blade of light that pierces the clouds, and then wham.

Shaun: He killed the hell out of that rock. Frog also had the best theme music, hands down.

Chris: We’ve seen these character personalities replayed a thousand times since Chrono Trigger, yet it seemed like the perfect balance. The hero. The princess. The nerdy friend who forms a love triangle. The brooding former bad guy. The robot with a heart of gold. Other than Ayla, these were all fairly standard roles, but the writing team brought them to life like we’d never really seen before.

Shaun: This is true; certain scenes were devised with the only purpose being to characterize. My favorite was the trial. I don’t know if there is a different way for it to play out, but mine trial was very unfair. Very unfair indeed.

Chris: Ah, the trial. That really sold me on the game from the start. Seeing that my actions from just earlier in the game had direct, measurable consequences really got me invested. It was like “damn, I made this happen.” And yes, I ate the old man’s lunch at least seven times.

Lee: I enjoyed the trial as well. I was really pulling for Crono, but I knew he deserved to be put behind bars.

Shaun: What? It was Marle’s stupid fault for being immature and naive and reckless. Did Aladdin deserve to be arrested, too? Not unless you count stealing a crime.

Lee: Look, Crono was just as big of a street rat. But I didn’t expect the story to take that turn. And even though I was thrown in jail, I was able to escape. That was thrilling.

Chris: I love that they didn’t use a copout to explain the different outcomes. You’re innocent. Three days of community service — oh wait, the chancellor rigged it so you get executed anyway. In fact, it just makes you invested that much more. He can’t do that to me! I’ll show that dragon tank!

Shaun: That whole sequence was so well done, because it broke up the pacing. Court trial. Harrowing escape. Side scrolling boss fight. Epic.

Chris: The sequence is probably just the first (albeit maybe the best) example of the major plot sequences in the game. There were a number of those crescendo moments that felt like a payoff each time without diminishing the experience.

Shaun: Yeah, like when Lavos comes out of the freaking planet and sends out six billion lasers. Didn’t see that coming.

Chris: You fetch the Masamune by climbing up a mountain and fighting the guardians, then climb up Magus’ ridiculously tall castle, walk into a room where lights trigger every step you take, then engage in what feels like a final boss fight against this powerful wizard guy (Dark Matter ruined my day like three times). Then Lavos shows up, you get sucked into a portal and have to feel your way through a new era.

Lee: Those parts felt more like cinema to me. It was nice to get a break and watch some event unfold. Then you got to jump back into the action with a new goal in mind.

Shaun: The whole game is so well paced. It’s probably one of the earliest examples of a video game transcending to film-like storytelling.

Chris: See, that’s a good description of it, but I think it pulls out a larger point: you were still in control almost all the time. This wasn’t a 30-minute cutscene with moments in between (*coughXenosagacough*) or pushing a button once to feel “engaged” (*coughGodOfWarcough*). This was real, and impactful.

Shaun: Yeah, no quick-time BS to muck it up. That’s actually one of the things I didn’t like in the remake — anime style cut scenes, but they didn’t replace the originals. You just saw the same thing happen twice. Which…was so lame.

Chris: Right. I would have much rather had those available as extras. Then they would have been cool.

Great box art. You know, except the whole "neither Frog nor Marle uses fire" thing.
Great box art. You know, except the whole “neither Frog nor Marle uses fire” thing.

Building Character

Lee: I think Lucca was the character I used the least. She was a minor player in the grand scheme of the story, and her attacks were terrible. I only pulled her out when I was fighting fire people because of the Taban clothes.

Shaun: Yeah, I didn’t like Lucca either. Her genius was just a story convenience, a sort of deus ex machina that I didn’t really like. And she was annoying.
Chris: To be fair, she was better later on. But toward the beginning, she was almost insufferable. Her refusal to call Marle by her chosen name was probably more grating to me than it should have been.

Lee: I didn’t think she had a bad personality. I just think she went downhill after inventing the gate key and repairing Robo.

Chris: For me, I used Robo the least. His lasers were shadow attacks, but there was a certain someone who cornered that market much more effectively. And his magic defense was terrible. Besides, I don’t really buy into robots as characters, sorry. I know that kills my chances if Gundam Trigger ever comes out, but there it is.

Shaun: Didn’t really care about Robo that much either. I mean, he wasn’t bad, but I didn’t really use him when I didn’t have to anymore.

Lee: Her special red portal sequence made me laugh the first time I played it. The conveyor starts, and you have to enter the code. Well, if I didn’t hit those buttons so fast, her mother may have lived. The losing screen was a fade to black and a loud, 32-bit scream. I think I lost on purpose a couple of times to hear it again.

Chris: I’ll admit, I thought it was kinda clever that they gave her mom a name that corresponded to buttons on the SNES controller. Not a big thing, but still. Of course, I still forgot her name the first time I played and now she can’t feel her legs anymore.

Lee: Lara. But it’s too late now. We can’t travel through time.

Chris: Let’s face it: the utilitarian parties used Crono (good at just about everything, Luminaire) and some combination of the others — Ayla (Falcon Hit), Magus (Dark Matter), Frog (group healing/Masamune 2), Marle (dual techs with Crono, best healing). The others were just extras, although I’m still okay with their characters.

Shaun: I liked Ayla. And it was good having a variety for the subsequent playthoughs.

Even the overworld looks great.
Even the overworld looks great.

Setting the Standard

Chris: Was this the standard for New Game +?

Shaun: I would say definitely. If it didn’t invent it, it set the bar that lasts til today.

Chris: I mean, it didn’t really have much that was different the second time through (at least not until the DS remake). You kept your levels and your equipment and stuff, and away you went. But it was still great. Sometimes I feel like games that require you to play multiple times to get everything are more forced and contrived than innovative.

Shaun: And the other scenarios are so interesting. On the beginning of my second go through, I thought it would be interesting to go and stand on the other platform during the festival. Next thing I knew, Marle and Crono were fighting Lavos…and it was not a fair fight.

Chris: The multiple endings really do keep the player coming back.

Lee: I didn’t feel like getting all the different endings. I like the game, but having to look up when to beat the game several times? That aspect did not appeal to me.

Chris: I’ll give you that. Some of the timings on those are really obscure. I’m not sure how you’d know to try them, especially back before the GameFAQs days.

Shaun: I liked the ability to kill everything with with one attack in the New Game +. As much as I loved the dual techs and appreciated their innovative gameplay, I enjoyed eviscerating everything with Luminaire more. Some of those techs seemed pretty organic. Others are complete BS.

Lee: Hmm, I thought Luminaire was a lightning attack. Don’t know about the whole “evisceration” thing, but it was pretty awesome. If you played your cards right, you could have it before the boss in the underwater ship.

Shaun: They were eviscerated, Lee. I saw it. Zap. Blood was everywhere.

Chris: And giving up the one accessory slot to access the triple techs was kinda silly. I wasn’t going to be rolling out a Magus/Lucca/Marle party regardless, but I certainly wasn’t taking the Gold Stud off Magus to do a triple tech.

Shaun: I think it’s worth mentioning the inventiveness of Crono’s real time battle system and implementation of techniques by combining abilities with partners.  In a time of largely turn-based RPGs, Chrono Trigger was an innovator.

Chris: Well, it was a combination of the solid battle system and optional battles (for the most part). There were a few spots you were forced in, but otherwise you either triggered them (with the 300 traps in the sewer, for example — damn cat) or walked into them. I’m pretty sure CT was the foundation of my dislike of random encounters.

Shaun: It made you question game design built around not being able to choose when you did and did not want to fight.

Lee: I liked the teaming up for different techs. And they made sense. Combine fire and ice? Antipode. Ice and a sword? Icy sword.

Shaun: And it really made you question why it wasn’t a standard in RPGs until 15 years later. Not to mention the animation of these attacks were stellar, and most of them are pretty unique from one another, all things considered.

Chris: Yeah. No palette swaps there. Well, except Fire Sword and Ice Sword, but that’s kinda to be expected.

And thus began one of the greatest battles in history.
And thus began one of the greatest battles in history.

Game Mechanics

Chris: Let’s talk about the time mechanic a bit. Again, I think this was part of the complete plot package, but I like that doing things in the past influenced the future, and the connection between the eras.

Shaun: For being a video game about time travel released so many years ago, I thought their handling of time travel was both well implemented and yet easy to understand. It made sense to me, but didn’t force me to take a special relativity physics class to understand it like Lost did. “Not where are we…but when are we?” Stupid Lost. I love that show.

Chris: You’re the only One-Upper who does.

Shaun: And that is the greatest crime of all.

Lee: Planting a seed in the past will make it grow into a tree. That was lame. Making the royal family create a vault to hold an artifact so you can make weapons out of it later was much better.

Chris: The Sun Stone was kinda lame too. It’s not ready in 600 AD after billions of years, but it is ready a few hundred years later? …Only it’s stolen, and you can’t get it back without…the kindness…of beef jerky? Ugh.

Lee: But you still have to put it back and get it in 2300 AD. What I did like was that the bosses in the game did not get repetitive. New tactics and new attacks. You really had to keep on your toes because you couldn’t just go into a slugfest.

Chris: Yep. I’d say at least a third of the bosses countered physical attacks in some way, if not some other tricks. You had to be smart, not strong.

Shaun: The progression of the weapons and armor was very well done, and they seemed to come at a nice clip–not so soon that they make your just-procured fancy sword obscure, but not so long that you feel powerless with old weapons.

Lee: And they didn’t make money a big issue. Sure, if you wanted the good stuff now, you had to fork over the cash. If you waited a little bit, it wouldn’t be a problem.

Chris: I like that you could go out of your way to craft the best armor and weapons, or just say the hell with it and go punch Lavos in the face — as long as he didn’t punch you first. With lasers. Either way, the equipment was scaled well.

Shaun: From a storytelling perspective, I liked that most of the bosses were battles that I actually cared about, and that had some context behind them. It was not just random ass monsters coming at you the whole time.

Chris: That’s true. Even some of the bigger RPG titles out there have played around with that mechanic, usually for the worst. Like how many bosses in Final Fantasy VII were just out of nowhere? Pretty much all of them on disc one except Rufus and Jenova, right? CT gave you a reason to want to beat those bosses. Or get your ass kicked by them, if “them” means “Spekkio.”

Lee: I NEEDED those tabs. No matter the cost, he had to be killed.

Shaun: The battle with Magus was incredible, and was filled to the brim with intensity, not only from a narrative perspective, but from a gameplay one. Did Frog getting his revenge outweigh having Magus in my party? I struggled with that one.

Chris: Part of the greatness of the Magus fight was the music. Some have called the soundtrack from Chrono Trigger the best of all-time. As a reputable journalist, I consider myself part of that “some.” Still, Mitsuda (with a little help from Uematsu) put together a masterpiece, didn’t he?

Shaun: It’s one of the games that made me pay attention to music, which is often overlooked by “graphics” and “shinier graphics.” That’s saying something. The boss fight against Lavos is one of the best songs in gaming.

Lee: It was amazing what they did with the technology they had. Nowadays, we can put actual instruments and vocals on a soundtrack. They managed to make the music memorable without all of the fancy techno lights people have today.

Shaun: It sounded like a real score, not just video game music.

Chris: I think more than anything, CT (along with other games from the 8/16-bit era) emphasized how important strong melodies are in a video game soundtrack. It’s one thing to build a soundtrack out of the best orchestral pieces and fancy choirs (hello, Last Remnant). But if you don’t have enough hooks and tunes to hum, the player’s not going to remember them.

Shaun: Ha, choirs chanting in Latin a good song does not make.

Chris: Personally, I love Battle with Magus (who doesn’t?), Singing Mountain, Boss Battle 2, Manoria Cathedral…too many tracks to list.

Lee: The more epic the music, the more epic the battle becomes. It adds a sense of desperation, like the whole world is at stake.

Shaun: It just seems like Chrono Trigger mastered what so many other games try at but fail. CT was an instant classic, and yet its gameplay has managed to endure so that it holds up even in today’s standards. It really was years ahead of its time.

What if all of Chrono Trigger looked like this?
What if all of Chrono Trigger looked like this?

Overall Impact

Chris: Even though I’m not sure enough gamers from the current generation have played this game (sales for the DS remake were solid, but still disappointing), I really think it’s deserving of being called the best game of all-time. Sure, that gets tossed around a lot. But the characters, plot, music, gameplay mechanics…they’re all so well done.

Lee: I think it’s time I gave Chrono Trigger its due. Out of all the RPGs I have played, I enjoyed this one the most. The cast, music and story were all reasons I will keep coming back to this game, long after next gen consoles come out.

Shaun: It’s in the debate. I think it’s a solid top ten, if not five.

Chris: I think it’s a solid top one.

Lee: If not top half.

Chris: Woah. Easy.

Lee: That’s like saying if I had one-half games around, it would be Chrono Trigger.

Chris: You could pull a Six Degrees of Tasty Bacon here and trace Chrono Trigger’s influence on other games in the past two decades, even outside of the RPG genre. It’s amazing, really.

Shaun: Mmm, bacon. So, my question then is why has there never been a true sequel. Chrono Cross was good in its own right, but not really a sequel. Do we want a sequel? I mean, collectively. Personally, I would love a good one.

Chris: Chrono Cross probably would’ve been a good game without Chrono in the title. Unfortunately, they took a chance and it didn’t pan out. I’m just not sure I trust Squeenix to make a sequel.

Lee: I wouldn’t mind a redux. I know people tried it, but an actual revamping of the graphics, music, etc. would be cool. I would still have the 16-bit version, but a different perspective would be enjoyable.

Chris: I definitely don’t want to see a half-assed attempt on a new console. If anything, I’d almost rather see a remake. You know, like the 3D one people keep clamoring about for VII (omg Sephiroth would be so on fire in hi-def omg).

Shaun: It depends. Main entry Final Fantasys are perennially excellent. Dirge of Cerberus made me vomit blood all over my PS2. But I would think that they would give a sequel their full attention.

Chris: Even then, I don’t know. I think old gamers like us have a certain nostalgia factor tied into the games of 10, 15, 20 years ago. Maybe Crono crashing into Marle in the fair plaza wouldn’t be the same in 3D. Maybe it would be better. I don’t know.

Shaun: As much as I like sequels, part of me thinks that Chrono Trigger should be left as is–a classic masterpiece that stands alone. That’s right; I changed my opinion 180 degrees in about five minutes.

Chris: If nothing else, CT can stand on its own merit. It already took us on a journey that spanned the ages, and I was grateful to be along for the ride.

Lee: It was like a magic carpet ride with friends you don’t ever want to forget. But eventually, you have to grow up and steal to stay alive.

Chris: Just like Eddie Guerrero.

Shaun: And share a whole new world.

Chris: A new fantastic point of view.

Shaun: Don’t you dare close your eyes.

chrono-trigger-10

Checkpoint is a series of discussions run by Chris, Shaun and Tech Guy back in their college newspaper days. For more entries in the series, click here.

3 thoughts on “Checkpoint: Chrono Trigger

  1. Love Chrono Trigger! I can’t believe more RPGs haven’t utilized the Techs idea. I remember Ayla was pretty good at opening the whoop-ass cans. And the music… *Sigh* Mitsuda is simply incredible. Definitely one of the best RPGs ever!

  2. Truly a great game. It blended some of the best aspects of the fantasy RPG genre, while nicely bringing in Utopic and Distopic (apocalyptic) motifs. So many parts of this game deserve to be remembered.

    I know not everyone was crazy about ChronoCross, but I think it gets WAY less credit than it deserves. Don’t hate me for saying this, but I think it was on par with the original–and the music is probably my favourite VG music bar none–Mitsuda is a genius!

    Thanks for the great walk down memory lane.

    1. I can’t say I have a lot of love for Chrono Cross, but I will acknowledge that Mitsuda’s work on the soundtrack is outstanding — maybe even better than the original title itself.

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