The Interesting Case of Chrono Trigger

This article is part of our Year of the RPG. You can read more about our Chrono Trigger adventures here.

It’s not every day that I have the distinct honor of playing “the best RPG ever.” After all, if a game is objectively the best of a particular category, then there can only be one game in that slot. The problem with any “best [thing] ever” is that, so often these pronouncements are a matter of taste, sometimes blurred by preference, experience, or time.

Chrono Trigger hails from an era when the people who sing its praises were children, or perhaps teenagers. So when I popped in the Playstation port of this game, I approached it cautiously, both wary of its hype and open to truly having the best gaming experience I’ve ever had.

hype train

Although I will touch upon names of characters, I won’t be talking too deeply about the story itself, so beware minor unmarked spoilers.

spoilers
Little spoiler alert

Time Travel

Let’s get something very easy out of the way first: Chrono Trigger is a good game. More interesting, however, is that the elements future computer/console RPGs borrowed or modified were very clear to find. What struck me first is that the titular Chrono (spelled “Crono” in game due to limits in the number of letters a name can have) begins the game by being woken up by his mother, who admonishes him about being late. I was immediately reminded of another character who travels through time and is known for sleeping late.

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Game character comparisons aside, Chrono Trigger’s turn-based combat was intuitive and not nearly as intrusive as I was expecting it to be. From someone who isn’t really a turn-based aficionado (or fan), I found that the game introduced the mechanic well, never once assumed I knew what I was doing (which is a good assumption when playing with a new-to-you mechanic), and yet at the same time never treated me like I was too stupid to figure it out on my own.

At the beginning of the game, I was even given the option for enemies to “wait” before attacking to give me more time to sift through the different menus, as well, which I chose and found helpful, but also thought never impinged on the overall combat experience, either. And man, were some of those fights urgent.

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Get him, Marle…

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’m not well-versed in Final Fantasy games, but I was a fan of Legend of Zelda (particularly Zelda II) growing up, so it was fun to see the overworld hub connecting the different areas Crono and his friends could explore pop up in this game. Unlike Zelda II, however, I never found myself hopelessly lost in the expansive world that spanned five (technically seven) time periods, although whether this is due to Chrono Trigger’s design or the age difference between when I played Zelda II and when I played Chrono Trigger, I’m not sure.

When it was released, Chrono Trigger was revolutionary in how it handled side quests and companion quests, insofar as it had them. I’ve read other reviews that have opined this game was the first to use NPCs for exposition and world building, but I don’t think that’s correct, even though it may be one of the first games to do this. I think it’s safe to say that talking to NPCs has become somewhat of a staple in video game RPGs since then. Either way, considering the huge maps and well-populated world, the important NPCs were easy to find and always happy to dump information on poor Crono and pals at the slightest provocation (or in return for a soda… or a chicken dance).

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Making Friends and Influencing People

You guys know me, and so you know that I’m sort of a fan of good characters. Chrono Trigger does well in this department. While Crono is the silent type, and Marle is the shoe-horned love interest, I was never without compassion for any of the characters. Ayla and Lucca rocketed to the top of my favorite characters list, but I found myself moved by the plight of Robo and Magus, as well.

Frog and Marle likewise had moving, if not stereotypical, stories, and each character had their own moment to shine as their personal lives took center stage during their questlines. Interestingly, all of these quests shared a similar theme about who they are and where they fit in the world, finding their path, and making peace with their existence.

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In keeping with this theme, the companions’ quests all seemed to build on one another, and there is a definite order that makes the most sense when trying to complete. I found it fascinating that the theme of time linking everyone together was utilized during the side missions, albeit was a loose association. But mostly, what I liked most about the characters was that they all seemed real. They had relationships with each other, they had their own motivations and stories, and no one – again, perhaps with the exception of Marle and Frog – were so deeply mired in archetype that they were not as interesting as the others.

Of course, one can’t talk about Chrono Trigger without mentioning time travel. This was a fascinating mechanic, and it was utilized in a way that made sense in the story and enhanced it instead of encumbered it. The idea of traveling through time and manipulating small events (or large events) and then letting the butterfly effect take care of the future is a familiar yet well-executed plot device, and more often than not I found myself wondering if this instance is one that requires me to go back in time, and if so, what would I need to do? I haven’t played many time-travel games, but I’ve also never played any other game (with the exception perhaps of some Portal – that really has me thinking in plot mechanics.

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However, Chrono Trigger does conceptualize time as a straight line that one can travel back and forth across, which I have a personal issue with. This is impossible, because it creates a paradox simply by its existence; the events would have to have happened and not happened at the same time. Although this begins to point to some of the questions about the nature of reality and time in Chrono Trigger, which is a discussion for another day.

Unfortunately, the story itself didn’t really grip me as much as I thought it would. As was mentioned, it was an interesting concept and was executed well, but the story itself was fairly straightforward: bad guy invades, hero has to stop it by traveling through time. To my eye, the one aspect that made the story unique was the inclusion of Schala and the dynamic with Magus, so I would have personally liked to have seen that emphasized a little more. I realize that I have played a number of RPGs even before the Year of the RPG started, but it just seemed like they missed a really interesting storytelling opportunity there.

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On the other hand, I also played this game in 2018, well after its release and after being bombarded with reports of it being the “best game ever” and seeing it at the top of Top 100 lists consistently. I think its hype got the better of me, and I was looking for a much more profound story from a “best game ever.”

To be fair, there were many times that I sat there saying, “No way… no way…” but upon reflection for this article, I realized those reactions had to do with seeing certain types of symbolism show up unexpectedly (read; surprise it was in a video game), not from the actual game itself. The remedy for this, in my mind, is tempering hype.

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Rose Colored PrismSpecs

It’s hard for me to comment on this game, because I found myself tearing myself into two time periods even as Crono and friends hopped around between the distant past and the far-flung future. One part of me played it in 2018. That part of me found Chrono Trigger to be a very good game, and one I enjoyed.

The characters were fun to get to know, and the story was interesting, even though the parts I was most interested in (what happened to Schala?) never came to fruition. In the present, I appreciated seeing the origins of what have become “traditional” console RPG elements, like the dungeon escape scenes, heavy NPC involvement, side quests, three-dimensional companion characters, and vast world maps.

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The other part of me was trying to play this game back in the era of Super Nintendo, and that part of me had quite a bit more fun. It was amazing to see fully-animated cutscenes that were then echoed in the 16-bit graphics, and the sheer level of detail in such an expansive game that was all stored on a (relatively) small Super Nintendo cartridge. Again to my untrained eye, Chrono Trigger pushed the envelope for computer RPGs, having a deep story, three-dimensional characters, and implementing a number of RPG characteristics that subsequent games utilized and expanded upon.

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Like having an all-inclusive cast…

The tough question for me is, Does it live up to its hype? If the hype is “the best game ever,” then the answer is no. I’ve played games with good stories, challenging but well-balanced combat, and interesting characters, and I can’t look at Chrono Trigger and say that it’s better than every single one of them in every way imaginable.

But is it a really good – even great – game? Yes, I think so.

If you’re wondering whether to play it or not, should you? Absolutely yes.

Does it have replay value to get all the endings? I usually only replay games because I am intrigued by the story, so this isn’t something I would do, but there is plenty to go back and explore.

Do I recommend it? Unhesitatingly yes.

Don’t fret! We’re not done with Chrono Trigger yet! We’ll be exploring more of its symbolism in future posts.

Have you played Chrono Trigger? What did you like best about it? Does it live up to its hype? Who was your favorite character? Let me know in the comments!

Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon!
~Athena

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23 comments

  1. I am one of those “best game ever” folks, insomuch as it’s my favorite game. I’ve played it more times than I can count, got all the extra endings… and played the disaster that is Chrono Cross. That being said, I don’t usually harp on it being the best game ever, because that is so subjective. It’s generally a byproduct of who you were when you first played it, what the game meant to you. Ocarina of Time is a lot of people’s “best game of all time,” but there is a lot there that doesn’t hold up despite it being a great game.

    I am just so, so glad you enjoyed the game, its world, and its characters. I can see how you would feel the plot is a bit thin, and yes the time travel paradoxes would be abundant (try not to think about it too hard!), but the world and its characters were built with love, and it shows. Looking forward to more posts on my favorite game!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah I’ve heard Chrono Cross isn’t as good… but I’m glad you love Chrono Trigger so much! It does many things well, and I’m sure if I played it at a different time I would completely love it. You’re right about it being subjective and due to when you played it. Dragon Age: Origins is by no means a perfect or perfectly-executed game, but I tend to see past its flaws and just love it to little bits. But that’s not for everyone! haha

      I did enjoy it! The characters were great, the story was overall really interesting and had some great thing going on, and the time-travel mechanic was fantastic.

      Me, think to hard? Perish the thought! 😉 I’ll try not to disappoint!

      Like

  2. I really liked the game when I was youger, but haven’t played it in recent years. I’m not sure I’d go so far as best game ever, simply because it’s hard for a turn based combat game to hit that for me (i’d rather take the fight styles of Alundra or FFXIII:LR in RPGs). It is one I remember fondly though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I surprisingly liked the turn-based combat after a while. This is a terrible comparison, but it reminded me of playing a rhythm game, which I wasn’t expecting.

      Alundra is on my list of to-play games; I’ve only ever heard good things about it. And of course FFXIII:LR might happen next year, if I get through this one!! 😛

      Like

      1. There are certainly games that do it well, Chrono Trigger included. I just find it to be too slow in most cases.

        Alundra was great fun, at least in my memories. It get kinda like Zelda in some ways. And Lightning Returns … I understand why some people didn’t like it, but I personally thought it was really underrated

        Liked by 1 person

  3. There was a time in which I would’ve considered Chrono Trigger my all-time favorite JRPG. That time came to an end the minute I finished Persona 4. This isn’t to say that I think Chrono Trigger is bad – far from it. In fact, it remains one of the best games of the nineties. However, I also think it grew something of cult over the years whose members tend to dismiss newer efforts as inferior without giving them a chance. It’s the game a lot of people consider the greatest of all time less because it really is and more because it’s the safest option. It’s the pick guaranteed not to generate controversy, having been released in an era that is considered a sacred cow in the eyes of gaming enthusiasts – older ones in particular. When it comes to story, it has definitely been surpassed by the likes of Undertale and Persona 4. For that matter, it didn’t even hold on to the title of “best storytelling in the medium” when the decade came to a close, as Planescape: Torment saw its release in 1999 (appropriately enough).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Planetscape: Torment is a game that I have heard many good things about, and I’m honestly not sure why it’s never really made it far enough on to my radar for me to play it. Maybe I’ll have to remedy that at some point.

      What I think is a very strong point in Chrono Trigger’s favor is that it set a foundation for other games to build upon. As far as I know, it was unique in regards to depth of story and importance of NPC characters. It does many things well. But you’re right that it’s gathered quite a loyal following, and nostalgia is a very powerful thing…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I highly recommend it; it’s one of the few games that received a 10/10 from me.

        Yeah, Chrono Trigger’s influence on the medium is pretty evident by this point – especially in how JRPGs ruled the remainder of the decade. I find that nostalgia doesn’t really factor much into my final opinions. Link’s Awakening was the first Zelda game I completed on my own, but it didn’t stop me from declaring it one of the weaker entries in the franchise. I also had fond memories of Pac-Man 2, but I’m more than willing to call it out for being the piece of trash that it is. In the case of Chrono Trigger, I can assure you nostalgia didn’t factor into my final opinion when I reviewed it. It’s a classic, but like Ocarina of Time, it no longer has a claim to being the absolute best of the best, I feel.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Noted! Maybe I’ll play through my main games faster and have a “sidequest” or two… Not likely, but either way it’s a game I want to check out!

          That’s fair. I think blindly loving something and actually loving it are two separate things. If you really love something, I’d image that you can see its flaws, but you like it anyway… It’s not the same as nostalgia, but even my love of Dragon Age: Origins doesn’t blind me to the fact that it is far from a perfect game. Clipping, crashing, and wonky animations plagued all of my playthroughs… not to mention some plot inconsistencies and holes throughout the game and the series.

          And now I’m talking about Dragon Age again. But you’re right that love, memories, and a yearning for the carefree days of playing video games all day can sometimes shroud objective thinking, especially once a “cult” following springs up around a game.

          For what it’s worth, I never thought that nostalgia clouded your review. Chrono Trigger, like Ocarina of Time, is a really great game. Not perfect, of course, but worthy of praise in the game timeline.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. I am of the age where i played this as a teen, and it is easily one of the best of the era. The only reason why it wouldn’t be at the top of someone’s list is simply personal preference. Glad you enjoyed it!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Like you, I played this game as an adult. I had only heard a few rumblings about how good it was at the time I finally plodded through (turns out I had owned it for years on PS1 and didn’t even know what it was.) I had a lot of the same feelings as you after my first playthrough. I’ve played a lot of older RPGs, and the story in Chrono Trigger didn’t grab me by the shirt and shake me to my core with its plot twists. I liked it overall and it was one of the first RPGs on the SNES that I played, but it wasn’t as captivating and wonderful as many people had made it out to be. I think my favourite character was Frog. His story arc was really moving to me, with Lucca’s and Robo’s coming in at a close second and third. I do totally agree with you about Schala though. It felt like a dead end add-on and I really wish they had done more to explore that part of the story, or at least continue it in a sequel or something.

    Either way, I’m glad that you enjoyed it. I’m looking forward to hearing more on the topic!

    p.s., I hated the music from Zeal. People all over the internet praise it as the best song ever, and I wanted nothing but to be away from that music as quickly as possible. I don’t know if you’re planning to talk about music in another post, but I’m curious to know what your favourite tune was.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your insight! The thought did cross my mind that maybe I just didn’t appreciate the retro charm, but I do feel a little better that you had similar feelings toward it. The companions, like you said, were on point, though!

      I wasn’t a fan of the Zeal music, either. It was interesting at first, and it fit the area, but it grated on me after a while. Something about the timbre of the instruments, I think… I hadn’t been planning on talking about the music, to be honest, but it’s definitely something I can percolate on and see if I can think of an interesting angle to chat about.

      Regarding my favorite tune… I actually really like the battle songs! But I think my favorite tune that always made me smile and think, “YES it’s this song!” is actually called “Fanfare 1” or something like that. It’s just so “fresh” and upbeat!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha it’s a totally nerdy thing to notice, I know, but it did strike me while playing. It’s one of the things I think about in regards to history, too. Traveling back in time (across a line) is impossible because it would have already happened, and yet it didn’t happen, and so that sort of time travel would have to both exists and not exist and then my brain starts to hurt… (haha)

      Maybe I’ll revisit this idea in a later post. I’m not sure whether I’ll fully grasp all “the science,” but it might be fun to try!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Chrono Trigger was the first JRPG I ever played, and it blew me away. A lot of real “games can actually do that?” moments when I was a kid. The story was deeper than anything else I played, stages were linked together by more than base justification, battles required a lot of thought, and it always seemed to keep building on itself.

    Incidentally, the second JRPG I ever played was Final Fantasy III/VI. I was convinced the genre was gifted to us mere mortals by the hand of God for a good long while.

    I do think you’re right, it has been subject to drifting hand of time, in that the standards of the medium have moved on taking this for inspiration, so as the bar is higher, it doesn’t exceed it like it once did. But it’s still a fantastic experience, and I think it’s easy to see how it blew everyone away back in the day.

    I believe your gripes with the timeline structure are addressed in the sequel, Chrono Cross, where it turns out our crew unknowingly split the timeline in two, but as Jay mentioned, Chrono Cross is a little bit of a dumpster fire.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s definitely a force to be reckoned with in regards to games! Even on the Playstation, I was looking at it and being amazed that a Super Nintendo managed some of the technical aspects, let alone the depth of story, etc. With an introduction to JRPGs like you had, I can see your point!

      It was a great experience. I enjoyed it immensely, don’t get me wrong! I can only imagine how it was back when it was released. It’s quite an honor, I think to pave the way, even if that means that you’re not the shining star anymore. A parent’s ultimate job is to become obsolete for their children’s survival, after all.

      A split timeline? And I thought Ocarina of Time was confusing! (haha) But seriously, that’s good that they at least tried to address it, even if Chrono Cross isn’t quite the game its predecessor was. I own that, too, somehow… Maybe I’ll give it a look…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I think the Zeal Island parts were the most interesting aspects of the game because they involved Magus and Schala (not to mention the best music in the game). I love villain redemption, so I really liked that you could join your cause to the blue haired wizard whose motivations weren’t just “destroy the world,” but were far more personal (though Squeenix is known for that). I also loved the backstory behind Frog’s Masamune.

    Having played both this and FFVII, you can see Chrono Trigger’s influence on my favorite game of all time with the main big bad being what it is. I also still semi-seriously use the phrase, “But the future refused to change.” CT was never my favorite RPG, but I see where the love for it comes from. It’s a shame Chrono Cross wasn’t nearly as good, but could’ve been if it pared down the number of extraneous characters.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really liked the surreal aspects of Zeal, and Schala and Magus are fascinating to me. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed the music – it grated on me after a while, but I can see how folks would like it.

      People keep mentioning Chrono Cross, and I have half a mind to play it just to see what happened…

      Liked by 1 person

  8. That was a great review!! This is an older game, and I have played this game for the first time at 45 years old! It gave me that nice old video game feel. I love Zeal! That Corridors of Time song is my favorite!

    Like

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