When my wife and I were married in 1995, one of our wedding gifts – partly as a joke – was a Super Nintendo gaming system. There were a few games we occasionally played but it was more an in-joke for the group than anything else.
At that time we were also heavily into Dragonball/DBZ fandom, with my wife specifically a fan of Akira Toriyama’s art. So when, some months later, we heard about a new video game, a so-called “RPG”, that Toriyama had done the design work on, we decided to get it, mostly for the neat character art.
I was… cynical, to say the least, about the potential of any game calling itself a “Role-playing game” on any game or computer console. I knew (and still know) far too much about the limitations of computers to take the name seriously, and I really couldn’t imagine any way to do anything even vaguely roleplay-like to make up for those flaws.
But, since we had paid for the game (and quite a large sum – IIRC it was $79 retail or close to it, and we were not very well off), I decided I should at least play it, and sat down to play it at around 6. The opening music was the first hook – nigh-orchestral sounding for its era, even though it was really a limited-channel MIDI recording. And the images were interesting – at least as good graphics as I could ever have expected. But still, it’s the game play that mattered.
After some time I realized I was feeling rather tired, thirsty, and I probably needed to go to the bathroom. Which was odd, because it still looked a little light out.
I then looked at the clock and realized that it was a little light out because dawn was coming. And that is when I realized just how powerful such a game could be, if done right.
With Chrono Trigger, everything was done right. The introduction to our nice, slightly clueless Silent Protagonist Crono (he speaks at least once, maybe twice, in the whole game); the Millennial Fair which provides training in using the game system in a context that makes story sense; and then the meeting with Marle and the experiment by your friend Lucca that goes… horribly wrong.
From this the game springboards you across time and space, to five separate eras and multiple continents, and even a place between space and time. It gave you puzzles to solve (that were just hard enough to feel like you worked for it), side quests that meant something, and – most importantly – multiple endings that depended on your choices.
This has to be emphasized. This was almost unheard of in that era, and the degree and variety of the different endings was huge – and most of them were interesting and FIT with the universe in ways ranging from joyous to utterly creepy. It made the game feel alive in a way that other games didn’t; your choices mattered. Yes, there were a lot of limits. There were many points of choice you COULDN’T make. And so on. But compared to what I’d been expecting? It was a brilliant revelation, a multi-possibility story told in music, images, and physical game actions that drew me in and held me.
Chrono Trigger had all sorts of little “touches” that struck me as brilliant. It may not have originated them, but it gathered them all and used them well. The varied “Techs”, magical and semi magical skills, all appropriate to their characters and – given the graphic limitations of the time – done very impressively. The fact that you could them master combination techs – between two or three characters – was also a lot of fun, providing more interesting options in combat. The fact that you could often AVOID wandering monsters, rather than inevitably being drawn into One More Fight, was a welcome relief from the Final Fantasy games, in which travelling was a never-ending series of annoying little battles.
And the handling of time travel was well done. You could even exploit time travel for your own gain; for instance, once you gained the ability to move freely through time on the Aeon, you could to to the future, fight your way through the Black Omen, loot everything in it – and then repeat that for the modern era, the medieval era, and the ancient era from which the Black Omen originally came, getting four sets of loot from one location. The changes in time and events were shown in the endings, and were always logical, if sometimes eerie.
And then there was the music.
Chrono Trigger had no fewer than three CDs worth of high-quality MIDI music, and much of it was so good that I finally broke down and bought the CD set. At a Japanese import store. For about eighty dollars.
It was worth every penny. First videogame soundtrack I ever bought, and while I wish I could get someone to orchestrate some of the tracks properly, I still think much of it stands up well today.
And all of this on one SNES cartridge. For people unfamiliar with that era of videogames, the incredible awesomeness of that fact may not be apparent, especially in the era of blazingly fast online speeds and DVDs and multi-GB thumb drives. For the SNES, the entire game – graphic generator, music, plotline, dialogue, maps, the works – had to fit in the cartridge, which had what the industry called “32 megs” of storage capacity, but which was actually 32 megaBITS, or 4 megabytes, total.
Four megabytes to hold three CDs of music, over a hundred hours of gameplay, multiple endings, game maps, all of it, in that one little box.
Alas for later, the group that was assembled to create Chrono Trigger – the Dream Team – was never to be assembled again. Eventually a sort-of sequel, Chrono Cross, was released… but it did not work well as an actual sequel for a number of reasons (most importantly because, rather than BUILDING on the plot from the original, it found a rather annoying way to make the efforts of the heroes of the first have led to disaster). This had an unfortunate effect on the re-issues of Chrono Trigger as the ending sequences were modified to fit with Chrono Cross.
Even though it is now more than 15 years since its release – an absolute eternity in computer terms – Chrono Trigger still remains in my top 5 favorite CRPGs of all time – and on many industry surveys of “best of all time”, Chrono Trigger still rates highly indeed. It was only a couple of years ago I last did a replay through it, and it’s STILL fun.
If you’ve never played Chrono Trigger, and you can possibly set your mind back to the era where the graphics weren’t so realistic, to where the stylized 16-bit images were the best you could get, you should try it. Try what was, in its day, the greatest CRPG ever made, and even today stands proudly with the best the industry can make – because in some ways, even the best games today cannot match it.