Saying something nice about Chrono Trigger doesn’t take a lot of effort. Its quality and importance are so universally agreed upon that to even suggest it’s anything less than utterly amazing would be considered controversial. And you know what? That universal opinion’s right, on the whole. Chrono Trigger really is special.
Then again, was it really ever going to be anything else? The game’s core members of staff, including Final Fantasy director Hironobu Sakaguchi, Dragon Quest‘s mighty Yuji Horii, and the phenomenally successful designer and artist Akira Toriyama, were already considered legends, and the passage of time has only confirmed the significance and enormity of their contributions to their chosen fields. Chrono Trigger has the sort of credit roll that’d raise eyebrows if it was suggested on a fan forum never mind seen in a finished product, the very idea of Square and Enix’s titans willingly getting together to make an RPG as impossible a dream in the mid ’90s as seeing Sonic The Hedgehog on Nintendo hardware.
But here’s the thing that really sets Chrono Trigger apart. It’s not that it is special, it’s that it knows it’s special. There’s a thick streak of confidence running through this game, leaving in its wake an RPG that does so many things other examples of the genre were perfectly capable of doing, but simply didn’t dare to. Every battle takes place in the exact same environment the party are already standing in, each new foe appearing on-screen not in a flash of blinding white light or a dramatic distortion of the current scene but perhaps dropping out of trees or running into place, seamlessly blending these two traditionally separate states of play into one. So many areas are used once, their ROM-hungry graphics never seen again outside of a replay. The game’s rolling introduction is happy to share breathtaking glimpses of kingdoms floating in the sky, flying machinery high above the clouds, and dragons framed by moonlight, its easygoing generosity implying that whatever it reveals now will either be even more impressive with context, or is so good that nothing is lost for spoiling the surprise.
Yet as spectacular as this all is, it all pales in comparison to Chrono Trigger’s mastery of its central theme: time.
Time travel stories have a tendency to disappear up their own temporal paradoxes faster than Doctor Who can get David Tennant back in an old police box (see: the Soul Reaver series). There’s an understandable lack of clear rules for the subject, which tends to lead to writers trying to overcompensate by laying down too many of the damned things, every one of them practically begging to be broken five minutes later.
Chrono Trigger largely sidesteps this usually disappointing situation by showing some creative restraint, its insistence on keeping things simple avoiding all but the most cynically determined attempts to unravel its epoch-hopping adventure. The main plot point is just another version of the familiar “unimaginably powerful entity is going to destroy the world if the heroes can’t stop it” we’ve all seen countless times before, this no-nonsense threat one very clear problem to connect everything else to. The time travel itself is the thing that happens when the cast travel through time. The clue’s kinda in the name. Did you want a more detailed explanation, the sort that mentions wormholes and what happens if you meet yourself and all that? No. What happens if someone thinks to travel back in time to the moment Lavos arrives, only this time they’re holding a gun?
They die with a gun in their hands (unless they’re playing on a New Game+ save).
The clarity provided by this solid foundation allows the game to be messy in another and far more extraordinary way: it allows us to be the catalyst for the world’s change, for our actions to echo through time.
We’re introduced to this concept very early on, during the court scene that picks over Crono’s behaviour—the things we choose to make him do or not do rather than a dull list of yes/no decisions—at the Millennial Fair. Did you take something left out in the open just because it was there and you could? Did you try to run off while someone else, someone you’d promised to stay with, was busy, because you are the universe’s main character and no one else here really matters? Did you try to sell something that wasn’t yours because you viewed it as an inventory item rather than another person’s precious object?
How you react to these scenarios and more is all noted down, and although the final result may be the same either way (not that a corrupt court seeking to remove someone for convenience’s sake regardless of their innocence could be considered an extraordinary turn of events), the tone set here lasts for the rest of the game. Everything you do changes something, everything you do matters.
How many games can honestly say that?
And because Chrono Trigger goes out of its way to demonstrate that these actions of yours, no matter how big or small, will leave a lasting impression on the world for centuries—maybe even millennia—to come, not only is it so much easier to keep track of what’s actually going on across multiple eras (because nothing happens unless you make the move yourself, or at the very least are present to witness it), but it also gives you a far more personal stake in events taking place long before and after Crono’s lifetime. Ancient history and the distant future are places filled with meaningful triumphs and friends worth fighting for in this story, locations that would still be worth travelling to even if the fate of the world didn’t depend on it.
Exactly how much you change is (of course, as far as Chrono Trigger sees it) mostly up to you, the game packed with side stories and optional decisions capable of reshaping reality before your eyes. You never have to speak to Lucca’s mother at all, never mind learn about the cause of her serious injury or actually attempt to travel back in time to fix it. You never have to view the recruitable Magus as anything other than a lilac-haired antagonist if you don’t want to. Again and again Chrono Trigger is more than content to offer you dizzying potential, the formless clay to shape into your own tale, rather than carve out the future in stone for itself.
The most shocking of these malleable events is almost certainly Crono’s unavoidable and unexpected death at Lavos’ (metaphorical) hands. Of all the characters that are “allowed” to die in an RPG, the silent player avatar is absolutely not on the list. The implied love interest? Absolutely, there’s no easier way to up the emotional stakes. The gallant knight? Almost expected. The upbeat friend? A serious death provides memorable contrast. But the designated hero? That’s almost unprecedented. Yet even his future is yours to write, his (pre-credits) revival an entirely optional sidequest, a Lavos-free future something you can create just as readily without him. Does Chrono Trigger judge you for abandoning its lead character in this way, or force you down a darker path as punishment? No, not at all. The “reunion” ending may ultimately conclude with Crono restored but the lingering mood between his passing and then is one of stoic acceptance, the script even going so far as to have Lucca say “It’s a fate we can’t escape. Someday we will all pass away, Marle”. This is the path you’ve chosen, so this is the path the game follows you down.
Rarely has a game placed so much trust in the person playing it, or put so much effort into crafting something beautiful and then been happy to let someone else, someone the developers will never meet, decide how it all plays out. But then again, it’s not often a game is as special as Chrono Trigger, is it?
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2 thoughts on “Chrono Trigger: If history is to change, let it change!”
A game that more than deserves its status as beloved classic. There’s so much to love about it, right down to the little touches – I remember helping out an NPC family in the past and finding their descendants changed from greedy to generous. And of course there were cats!
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