Rescue the beautiful girl. Save the world. This most familiar narrative arc may stretch back through videogame time and far beyond, but it belies Chrono Trigger’s otherwise staggering display of creativity and bold invention.
Perhaps the most revered of all of SquareSoft’s releases during the Super Nintendo’s golden age of Japanese RPGs, Chrono Trigger is also the most atypical. Its removal of the genre’s unpopular crutches – the random battles, compulsory level-grinding and long, ponderous battle animations – was unexpected. Its inclusion of multiple endings, breezy non-linearity and focusing of a story on time travel and the relentless quest for reconciliation was positively at odds with a long-established formula its own creators penned.
Developed by what Square called its ‘Dream Team’, the game’s illustrious line-up of creative minds united, for the first time, the two godfathers of the genre: Hironobu Sakaguchi, creator of Final Fantasy, and Yuji Horii, creator of Dragon Quest. Flanked by the likes of anime art legend Akira Toriyama and Final Fantasy’s well-loved composer Nobuo Uematsu, the team’s title, while boastful, was, in terms of RPGs, exact, and the fingerprints of their experience and insight touch the game like no other.
Set in 1000AD, the game draws back the narrative curtain on mute protagonist Crono (so called because limiting his name to five characters and removing the ‘h’ of Chrono freed up valuable cart space). Joined by his best friend, nerdish scientist Lucca, the inventor of the teleporter-turned-time-machine upon which the entire game pivots, the duo travel back and forth between seven different time periods within the same geography, righting history’s wrongs to bring about a peaceful future. By zooming out the narrative and gameplay lens, far up above history’s tapestry, the game is able to explore, with unusual tangibility, the theme of generational cause and effect. While this mechanic drives the main quest – Crono gathers together his ragtag team of friends from as far back as a prehistoric 65 million BC and as far forward as a post-apocalyptic 2300AD – it’s in the optional subquests that its worth is most strikingly revealed.
At one point we meet a greedy and foolish Mayor who governs the busy port of Porre. By visiting his family home 400 years earlier, speaking to one of his ancestral mothers and offering her an item for free, history is altered as she vows to bring up her children to believe in generosity and kindness. Upon returning to contemporary Porre, Crono discovers that the mayor is now a charitable man – and the port of Porre is a far more useful town because of it. While the concept is perhaps a little too straightforward and idealistic, it’s blossomed into all manner of clever and thought-provoking scenarios with a creativity few time-travel-themed videogames have since matched.
The power of the story, and the pleasure of unravelling its world’s secrets and flaws, is heightened by one of videogaming’s timeless soundtracks. Its author, a young Yasunori Mitsuda, had been hired three years prior to Chrono Trigger’s development to work as a composer at Square. Frustrated at having been used primarily as a sound engineer, Mitsuda gave company president Sakaguchi an ultimatum to either give him a game to score or release him from the company. Under the guidance of Final Fantasy composer Uematsu, Mitsuda worked relentlessly on Chrono Trigger’s soundtrack, falling ill in the process, but creating a backdrop that perfectly complements the story while establishing the character of his later work.
Much of the game’s ease and appeal comes from its clever, accessible battle mechanics, which in many ways transcend the genre. Whenever Crono encounters an enemy his teammates appear by his side, in the field environment, and immediately the battle is underway. Eschewing non-interactive pauses wherever possible, the game instead emphasises fast-paced action. Frequent and inventive boss fights maintain a shoot ’em up style pace and urgency while, at the same time, never overwhelming the player with over-intrusive frequency or difficulty.
It’s this canny and successful reworking of RPG convention that still clearly marks out the game today in a genre that has mostly failed to take its important lessons to heart. One particularly memorable moment early in the game makes fun of your inevitable press-X-on-everything RPG item-gathering habit. Accused of committing various robberies in a busy marketplace, Crono’s brought before a judge and jury to face trial for crimes you’re certain you never committed. Incredulously you then watch footage of your actual actions earlier in the game, racing from stall to stall, picking up items from tables with carefree abandon.
The relationship between your in-game behaviour and narrative consequence, a concept rarely explored adequately in videogames, underpins the game with startling success. With 13 different endings, each drastically different from the next, and dictated by the sum of your decisions, Chrono Trigger’s adventure feels like yours alone, and your mark on its history hauntingly visible and unforgettable for it.
This article was first published in Edge Presents: The 100 Best Videogames in July 2007.