The concept of time travel in entertainment is often executed either with so much camp that it gets a wee bit ridiculous and cheesy, or with enough in-depth discussion and metaphorical clues that you couldn’t wrap your head around the message with a seventeen-mile long bandage. Squaresoft’s Chrono Trigger successfully embeds this concept into gameplay while avoiding either extreme while delivering an adventure with an endearing cast of characters, combat abilities that can only be described with the vernacular “friggin’ sweet”, and an aesthetic presentation that almost epitomizes the glory days of 16-bit role playing sagas.
Cast in the shoes of the aptly named Crono, you begin your day – as many other similar young RPG protagonists do – unaware of the epic adventure that lies in wait. Encouraged by your mother to get your lazy rump out of bed and have fun at this day’s Millenial Fair, you end up running into a chipper young lass who takes a keen, flirty liking to you. Marle, as she calls herself, follows you to your friend Lucca’s science exhibit – a teleportation machine. Volunteering to be a guinea pig, the strange pendant around her neck reacts to the machine and rips open a hole that teleports not to another place – but to another time.
You’ve likely heard this before, but it’s encouraged that you keep your hands down and your rear ends in your seats. The somewhat cliched beginning only serves to set up a tale whose tapestry is weaved across multiple epochs, leading you to people and places whose very existence hangs almost at your mercy. Participating in wars from the past somehow leads you to the desolation of the future. It’s then where you find out about the cruel fate that will plunge the world into destruction, and make up your mind to disprove the inevitability of this catastrophe. As Marty McFly and Kyle Reese have taught us, there’s no better way to change the future than to abuse time travel.
Because time travel is such an integral part of both the storyline and the gameplay, it would be easy to tip the balance too far to one extreme. Squaresoft triumphantly creates an experience where time travel feels neither like a storyline gimmick that simply follows along a linear path, nor a gameplay gimmick that renders the story overly convoluted or unnecessary. You are mostly in command of when you must travel to which era, and specific actions that you complete triggers changes in the game’s world and story in other eras which reveal more clues and threads. Affecting the past changes the present, obviously, and you end up using what you know from the “new” present to further affect the past – well, you get the idea.
Of course, as a game from the Super NES era, there’s not much room in its game world for a truly dynamic world affected by every action you take. Even with the splendid job done by the developers to script as many time travel puzzles as they did, this is not The Elder Scrolls: Temporal or Grand Theft Stopwatch. This is perhaps a blessing in disguise, for it lends to the game’s accessibility regarding adventure and storytelling. You can’t get yourself into game-breaking trouble by getting stuck as a result of missteps you make. You’re also made to focus on the memorable cast – arguably what keeps many fans reminiscing about this classic. You encounter a valiant young knight-in-training cursed to be in the form of a frog, a rotund robot whose brute strength is an invaluable asset, and a prehistoric woman who straddles the back of a pterodactyl (whose strength might be almost as brute as the robot’s). You might even make a friend out of an enemy after you peel away his sinister outer layer and discover the wounded, traumatized child within.
Though not all of the characters are entirely deep or multi-dimensional, one can’t help but feel attached to them because of the staunch loyalty and respect they have for their friends, family, each other and the entire world. You’ll genuinely want to help them succeed in their quest, and in doing so – of course, in traditional RPG level-building fashion – you’ll uncover some of the more fun aspects of the game in addition to some of the more disappointing ones.
For better or for worse, character management is kept relatively simple. The weapons and armor you find strewn about the gameworld are all tailored to each individual. The character Frog, for example, must use a broadsword – he cannot swap weapons with Crono, who bears a more samurai-influenced blade. Lucca is restricted to guns, Marle to crossbows, and so forth. The same applies for armor and even magical spells. Leveling up your abilities also exudes simplicity – experience points level your character’s stats up, and accumulated tech points unlock new special techniques and spells for your character in a linear fashion. It makes the game instantly more accessible and simple, but also kills much of the tinkering and micromanaging that many role-playing fans look forward to.
With a cloud hopefully comes a silver lining. In this case, the ease of accessibility removes much of the potential complications that might arise when trying to learn “Combo” techniques. At first, without the Combos, the basic battle structure seems familiar and – because of the shoehorned abilities – almost crudely primitive. You have Fight, Tech and Item, with the battle flow being in quasi-realtime similar to the Final Fantasy games on the Super NES. The “Techs” that your characters perform, however, spice things up by adding an area-of-effect aspect. Some Techs will damage all enemies within a certain proximity of the target, where others will target all enemies that happen to be arranged in single file of each other. Since enemies actually move about the battle field, you can wait patiently until the enemies have meandered over into the ideal formation that you can take advantage of.
The Combos take things a step further by allowing any characters in a ready state to combine certain attacks to deal more damage, widen their area of effect, cause additional status defects, among other things. Unleashing Antipode – a Double Tech which is a simultaneous attack of fire and ice – for the first time, though, is nothing compared to the first time you unleash a monstrous Triple Tech, where your entire team of three gang up on the unwitting target. Double and Triple Techs require each character to have learned certain individual techs. The simplicity of the leveling system, then, gives players quick and painless access to these exciting abilities. Again, those that yearn for deep character micromanagement will feel this is watered down – but admittedly, considering how fun the Combos are to use, this can be easily forgiven.
The aesthetics in this game also ease the potential pain of its somewhat simplistic trappings. Famed Dragon Ball Z and Dragon Quest artist Akira Toriyama lends his hand in designing the entire cast and the world in which Chrono Trigger is based. His vibrant coloring and bold line strokes are brought to life with the Super NES’ color palette and is rivaled only by the very best – the 3D illusion of Donkey Kong Country and the elegance of Final Fantasy VI – that the console has to offer. Character sprites are decently large and the environments sport details such as roaring waterfalls, beams of light shining through trees, and far-off mountain mist noticeable only from high peaks. The lesser enemy art design uses smallish sprites and could have used a bit more artistic detail, but perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that combat takes place on the map without a transition to a special “combat mode” screen.
The sound quite possibly trumps the visuals in most cases, at least where the best it has to offer is concerned. Final Fantasy veteran Nobuo Uematsu teamed up with then-newcomer Yasunori Mitsuda, of the Xeno-series fame. The result is an epic score that mixes Uematsu’s noble, heroic and grandiose melodies with Mitsuda’s emotional, elegant and more subtle style to great effect. For instance, the Chrono theme song – which opens with blaring trumpets and brisk, almost staccato strings -contrasts nicely with the soothing, Zen-like and almost Buddhist sitar theme that plays when you reach a city in the clouds deep into the game. There are times when certain pieces start to feel simplistic and almost childish, but for the most part they either evolve into something deeper or are easily overshadowed by the soundtrack’s best.
We have come to expect well-executed story, combat intricacies, and aesthetics from Square’s best. So, too, should we expect the familiar and value-adding game design that opens the world for you to explore after hours of closely following a set path. There are additional characters to meet, items to find and favors to partake in. Even as you build up to the story’s conclusion, there’s that one area you haven’t figured out to unlock. What lies in wait – a secret weapon, or a potent technique perhaps? On a completely different level is the fact that exactly when you choose to rid the world of this evil is what determines which of the ten-plus endings you’ll see. Unfortunately, the value added here falls slightly on its face only because some of the endings are silly or just plain sloppily thrown together.
Thrown-in endings aside, the overall classic feel of the package can’t be denied. For every time you wish there were more weapons, spells and dimensions to your character, there is a moment – be it a battle, character interaction or startling revelation – that tugs at you. Whenever you start to wonder if the adventure could have used more intricate time-traveling butterfly effects, the cleverness of the puzzles that are there will convince you that it matters not. And each time you wish Crono spoke his mind, you find that the rest of the charming cast makes up for it. A flawed diamond is still a diamond, and despite some bumps along the way, Chrono Trigger remains a classic.
From the Trigames.NET Archive
Originally posted April 25, 2006