One of the great hallmarks of the Japanese Role-Playing genre of video games is Chrono Trigger. The 1995 Super Nintendo game was crafted by a dream team of the era’s best RPG developers. Produced by Squaresoft, the title was a collaboration between Square and Yuji Horii, who at the time was best known as the creator of Dragon Quest. The designer for the title was Hironobu Sakaguchi who was credited as the father of Final Fantasy. For RPG fans in the 90s, Squaresoft working on an RPG that was essentially Dragon Quest + Final Fantasy was an RPG fan’s wet dream. How could it be get any better than that? Well, it did, because numerous other talented individuals worked on the title. Akira Toriyama handled (Dragon Quest, Dragon Ball) character designs and a young artist by the name of Tetsuya Takahashi was also part of the art department for the game. Composers Yasunori Mitsuda and Nobuo Uematsu were onboard to provide the music while a trio of Final Fantasy vets, Akihiko Matsui, Takashi Tokita, Yoshinori Kitase, handled the directing duties. A lesser name at the time, Masato Kato (Xenogears, Final Fantasy VII), contributed as a writer on the project and would come to be the main architect of the Chrono Trigger story.
Needless to say, this was a huge project for Squaresoft and the Super Nintendo in the mid-90s and was the spiritual merger of Square and Enix years before that merger would become a reality. Unfortunately though, the game was almost too big and too late arriving in the first quarter of 1995 after the Japanese launch of Sony’s PlayStation and roughly 6 months before that console’s US release. Another obstacle to the game’s success was its price. In the US, the retail price of a new copy of Chrono Trigger was $80, a pretty massive sum of money for a single game that wasn’t part of an established franchise. RPG gamers, particularly in Japan, had reason to be excited for Chrono Trigger and were likely willing to pay such a price, but the casual gamer had no idea what this was and the JRPG subgenre was still finding its footing in the west. All of that is to say, it’s not particularly surprising that, despite largely strong review scores in gaming mags, the game didn’t sell vast quantities when initially released. The production run was likely modest, and many people simply missed it.
In 1995, I didn’t quite miss Chrono Trigger, but I also didn’t get the full experience. The title was a rental for me, and even though SNES JRPGs aren’t as long as modern ones, a single rental still wasn’t enough time to experience everything the game had to offer. I distinctly remember getting to the point where the character Frog leaves the party, and I don’t believe I made it much farther. The game somewhat quickly came to be regarded as a missed classic. I think this was largely due to the explosion in interest in the genre following the release of Final Fantasy VII, but even a mere 2 years after the SNES release, the game was already hard to come by. Prices on the after-market were routinely $100 or more, and even though we should have still been used to higher priced games, it was hard to justify that kind of expense when brand new PlayStation titles were $50.
For many, their first introduction to Chrono Trigger would come from emulation. Emulators for 8 and 16 bit consoles were becoming popular and many used them as an alternative to paying exorbitant after-market prices for rare games. I know I gave Chrono Trigger another shot on an emulator, but I don’t recall making it very far. For me, there was always a logic hump to get over when it came to playing console games on the PC. I also lost interest because not long after that Squaresoft announced a PlayStation port of Chrono Trigger. The title would be released alongside Final Fantasy IV as Final Fantasy Chronicles in 2001 (ironically, quite late in the lifecycle of the original PlayStation). I was a day one buyer of the bundle and it was in that form that I finally completed a playthrough of Chrono Trigger. Unfortunately, the PSX version of the game wasn’t the best way to experience it. In porting the SNES game to the disc-based PSX a new problem was unleashed: load times. The loading was a necessary evil to enjoying the game as simply going from gameplay to the menu included a load of approximately 5 seconds. It may read as inconsequential in text, but in playing the game it’s annoying and monotonous. Still, it wasn’t all bad for the PSX version as it did include some flashy new animated segments from Toriyama’s Bird Studio and animated by Toei, who also animated Toriyama’s most famous franchise Dragon Ball.
The PlayStation release was a flawed one, but not so flawed that it could sap all joy from Chrono Trigger. Still, I have wanted to replay the game for years now, but was reluctant to return to that PSX port even though I still own it. And ever since 2008, there really has been no need to as that is when Square-Enix released what many consider to be the definitive version of Chrono Trigger on the Nintendo DS. The DS version kept the good parts of the PSX port but returned the functionality of the SNES version. It also contained improvements in the form of a refined translation and display mode tailored to the DS which basically removed all visual clutter from the main screen and moved it to the bottom one. It also made the game portable, and really the only sacrifice one has to make is the loss of being able to easily play the game on a television. When the DS version came out it slipped under my radar. I was likely just too preoccupied with whatever I was playing at home to grab it. Only recently did I finally rectify that, though similar to the SNES version back in the late 90s, my procrastinating did hurt me in the wallet to some degree though not as badly as it would have in 2000.
My desire to play Chrono Trigger in 2021 stems from the fact that most of my experience with the game was in an inferior form 20 years ago. Since then, the game’s reputation has only managed to grow and many now regard it as the greatest RPG of all-time. The RPG podcast Axe of the Blood God even did a March Madness style bracket for its listeners to vote on that resulted in Chrono Trigger besting the likes of Final Fantasy VII, Skyrim, and The Witcher 3 to be crowned the best ever. Now, one RPG podcast is hardly the final say on any single game, but I found it telling that a subscription-based userbase for an RPG podcast would still settle on Chrono Trigger as one would imagine anyone paying to listen to an RPG podcast is quite likely a diehard RPG enthusiast. And I personally had no real qualms with the result myself as I personally hold Chrono Trigger in very high regard and the end result made me realize that I just need to experience it again for myself.
If you’ve read this far and have no idea just what Chrono Trigger is allow me to explain. It’s a pretty traditional JRPG from the 90s. As the player, you control and manage a party of up to 3 characters with more in reserve as you go from town to town in the game talking to non-player characters to find information on where to go. Traveling from these towns to the next destination unfolds over a world map; a zoomed out view of the game’s world where characters can traverse miles in seconds. Upon entering hostile areas, the player will encounter enemies which triggers a battle sequence. Unlike its peers, Chrono Trigger’s transition from exploration to battle is entirely seamless. There’s no change to the art style, no loading of a new screen, the characters just simply pull out their weapons and commence fighting. In battle, characters can attack, use magic, use items, or flee when it’s their turn. Turns are determined by the character’s underlying speed score which affects how quickly their action meter fills. For RPG veterans, they know this as Square’s Active Time Battle System first implemented in Final Fantasy IV and Chrono Trigger makes no real changes to it. Where Chrono Trigger does distinguish itself from Final Fantasy is in the removal of random encounters on the map as enemies will now appear on screen before a battle begins. The other distinguishing trait is in the Tech system, which I’ll get to shortly. For the most part though, the game plays like any other JRPG. When the battle is over, character’s gain experience which contribute to them leveling-up and seeing their base stats improve. They also gain ability points which are applied automatically to their magic and skills and will eventually result in them learning a new ability. Characters can also be outfitted with a weapon and three forms of armor that enhance their native abilities and are gradually replaced overtime as better equipment becomes available.
That all is pretty conventional, but Chrono Trigger changes this up a bit with its emphasis on time and its Tech system. The word tech is essentially a synonym for magic in other games, though the game doesn’t consider all techs “magic.” They’re the abilities characters learn as they get stronger and the only way to learn a new tech is for a character to participate in combat, which is different from earning experience towards leveling up as inactive characters will still earn experience. Techs come in various forms, some are simply strong physical attacks, others are elemental spells like Water and Fire, and some are support abilities like healing and buffs. Each character has their own unique techs to learn and they basically shape how that character should be used. Some are naturally more physical fighters with the character Ayla in particular lacking a magic attack. Some are magic attackers, some are more of a support character, and a few try to blend both. That part is pretty standard, the part where Chrono Trigger introduces a new wrinkle is in the form of dual and triple techs. Each character will eventually learn a tech that’s compatible with another character. This starts off slowly, but by the end of the game basically every character has a tech that works with another. Learning them is simply a matter of the two characters participating in battle together when they both know the tech needed to create the dual tech. Like standard techs, they take on various forms and can be healing or attacking in nature. Some allow the non-magic users like the previously mentioned Ayla to add an elemental component to an attack, but mostly they’re just high impact moves as the damage output is greater than the sum of its parts. The same is true for triple techs which just incorporate all three active characters.
The Tech system is certainly flashy which helps cover up its lack of depth. Very little player input is required to learn them and it becomes more about balancing risk vs reward. Especially early in the game when the speed of the characters is both slower and more varied. Dual and triple techs are only usable when all of the characters involved have full action gauges so waiting on slower characters means there are moments when characters aren’t doing anything. Towards the end of the game it’s less of an issue as you will likely have access to multiple characters that have maxed out or near maxed out speed. The only added wrinkle is there is one, optional, character that has no dual techs and only a few, hidden, triple techs. Deciding whether or not to utilize that character can be tricky because you’re losing the ability to combine attacks. That character is also entirely offensive in nature which means someone else is going to have to be the healer in the party and usually that character is weaker and not the best choice for dual-teching. By the end of the game though, it’s again rendered somewhat moot as there is at least one character capable of healing that also can dish out plenty of damage.
The main focus of the game’s plot and design revolves around the ability to travel through time. The game begins with the main character, default name Crono, encountering a runaway which leads to the main character getting into a rather sticky situation. It’s not particularly unique for the genre, but it will result in the player getting sent 400 years into the past. As you progress through the game more periods become available. They’re accessible via permanent warps in certain areas and they’ll take you to the future and even further into the past. A key component of advancing the plot involves traveling to the future to obtain something only available there and then going back in time to change something in a later period. Even though you’re essentially playing with the time stream the whole game, it’s still a linear experience for the vast majority of the game. Only towards the end does it open up a bit, as do many of its peers, when the player gains access to a vehicle that both flies and functions as a time machine removing the need to backtrack to specific warp points.
The game is certainly still fun after more than 25 years. The game cycles characters through early on which keeps things fresh and exciting. Level-ups occur at a brisk enough pace and new abilities are added at a suitable pace as well which can become addicting. Seeing each era available in the game also provides incentive to keep going, it’s once you’ve seen them all that the game starts to lose a little steam. Players will naturally gravitate towards a preferred trio only really swapping characters out to make sure abilities aren’t neglected. It’s helpful that you can swap at will, though saving the game is still relegated to the world map and designated save points. By the end of the game, a tedium will start to set in as it becomes apparent that Chrono Trigger’s lack of random encounters doesn’t mean all confrontation is avoidable. Rather it would be more appropriate to describe Chrono Trigger as a game of scripted encounters. Many enemies are onscreen, but completely unavoidable. This becomes annoying in traversing to the various time warps as many will always feature battles in certain spots, even when the party is far beyond the enemy’s talents. One optional string of quests late in the game involves going back and forth between a dinosaur village in two time periods that is just a constant string of fetch quests and backtracking. You will come to know all of the encounters in your way as you battle through them again and again. You may even come to miss random encounters as at least they had some variety as opposed to these scripted ones which never change.
Where the game has not suffered though in the ensuing years rests in its presentation. Toriyama’s digitized character designs are still as charming as ever and the inclusion of the anime cutscenes serve as a reminder of what these sprites represent. The script is mostly light-hearted with plenty of moments of humor. I don’t think anything in this game made me laugh out loud, but it was something I definitely enjoyed for the most part. The score is also a strength, even on tiny DS speakers, though I do feel like it’s missing a signature track similar to how Final Fantasy back in the 90s had its victory theme. The world design is enjoyable though with eras of typical fantasy fare, but also there’s the variety inherent in the future world and prehistory period. The future is quite impressive given the sheer amount of clutter forced into each area. It could have become too messy and busy to look at, but instead remains impressive after all of these years. Certainly, if you’re more of a modern gamer and something like the PlayStation 3 was your first console you may not appreciate the visuals as much as someone who started gaming in the 70s or 80s, but hopefully most will still find them pleasant enough.
And this takes me to my final thoughts and how I view Chrono Trigger as both a product of its time and something that is inherently timeless. Which is to ask, is Chrono Trigger worthy of being viewed as the best RPG ever? I find it hard to argue that it is. I can certainly see how someone who first played it in the 90s can form an attachment to it. It has a terrific team behind it, looks great, sounds great, and it’s just different enough from a Final Fantasy or a Dragon Quest to feel unique. And if you’re into time travel then you really have a recipe for a terrific gaming experience. Where I think it comes up short though is largely in its systems. There’s almost zero customization available to the player as each character has a defined role. Actually, if anything, their roles aren’t defined quite enough as it’s not hard at all to just pick 3 favorites and stick with them. Especially towards the end of the game when all techs have been learned and you can just spam the best dual and triple techs to get past just about every encounter. Enemies basically have just two tricks, they’re either susceptible to physical attacks or magic ones, and not much else. All of the challenge is found in the first 10 hours or so when you’re forced to adapt on the fly, but come the end of the game when it should be getting harder it’s actually getting easier. The final dungeon is almost painfully boring as it’s very linear and offers little or no challenge. I just powered through with the team of Crono, Ayla, and Frog and never had to turn to another character. And I didn’t do any grinding (which is actually another feather in the game’s cap) and was around level 50 come the end. I wasn’t having a bad time with the game or anything like that, but I was certainly ready for it to be over and was reminded why I never embarked on a New Game+ back on the PSX version.
That’s not to say that Chrono Trigger isn’t a competent RPG or an enjoyable experience in 2021. It very much is, and I think a lot of people fell in love with the game because it is so accessible and the presentation is rather flashy for a game form 1995. It’s just not the deep, RPG, experience some might prefer in the genre. I think there’s still a debate over whether or not it’s even the best SNES RPG available. Final Fantasy VI is quite epic in scope with a touch more depth, while Final Fantasy V is very much a systems-focused RPG experience at the expense of story and presentation. In looking at the offerings in the console generation to follow, I still think highly of Final Fantasy VII and I’m also a big proponent for the game’s sequel, Chrono Cross. Then you have games like Suikoden II, Tactics Ogre, Xenogears, and more and I’m reminded that the late 90s and early 2000s really were the golden age of the RPG, the JRPG in particular. And I’m left to honestly wonder if this game can compete with the likes of Skyrim and The Witcher. Those modern titles offer something almost completely different in terms of gameplay, but if I was in one of those annoying scenarios that literally never happen and I had to pick just one RPG to play forever am I picking Chrono Trigger? Am I even considering it? I don’t think so. There is a New Game+ option once the game is over and there are extra endings to uncover, but like the systems, they’re more style than substance. I probably will play through this again since I have the DS version now, but I’m not currently itching to so it may be awhile.
One thing I am certain about in my replay of Chrono Trigger is that the DS version is indeed the way to go. I love making this a portable experience and even though you can’t save at will, at least a DS can be placed into sleep mode to hold your progress. The new display is superior to what came before it with the menu shortcuts on the bottom and the gameplay on the top. I enjoy having the cutscenes even if they don’t add a ton they’re still enjoyable to look at. And from what I can tell, the new translation is superior to what I remember, though admittedly it has been a long time since I looked at the original. The added DS specific content is kind of worthless though. You get a battle arena and a new dungeon that’s just more tedious than anything, but if you’re not tapped out on the game’s combat by the end it’s there. It’s also entirely optional and adding this new content to the game did nothing to harm what had already been created. If you liked Chrono Trigger before, you’ll still like it now. And if you’ve ever enjoyed a classic JRPG, you’ll probably like this as well. It moves at a good clip and it’s very approachable. I would just caution first-time players to not come into it expecting the greatest RPG known to man because that’s an impossible standard for any game to live up to.