It’s the year 1995, and the era of a beloved video console, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), is slowly coming to an end. It has been announced that the Nintendo 64 will be released in 1996, leading publishers to save their resources for the console to come instead of creating good content for the dying SNES. It is in this late stage of the SNES that the dream team from Square – the famous company behind the Final Fantasy series – publishes a game so innovative and addictive that it immediately becomes a hit and even today remains on the list of the best games of all times: Chrono Trigger.
The dream team behind the game consists of Hironobu Sakaguchi, who is the creator of the aforementioned Final Fantasy; Yuji Horii, who is the creator of Dragon Quest; and Akira Toriyama, who is famous for his art work for Dragon Quest and who is also the creator of the popular manga Dragon Ball. They started to develop a new kind of role-playing game (RPG), bringing to bear their knowledge, experience, and craftsmanship, and created a game that was still connected to previous RPGs while also adding new ideas that really set Chrono Trigger apart.
The game’s protagonist is Crono, a young man living in a world similar to our Earth in 1000 AD. The day the story starts is the day of the Millennial Fair, where the people of Crono’s time come together to celebrate their victory over the monsters of Magus 400 years ago. At the Millennial Fair, Crono bumps into Marle, helps her find her lost pendant, and has a good time watching the festivities. Eventually, the two come across Lucca’s science display, where Lucca and her father are presenting their new teleporter. Hooked by excitement, Marle volunteers to be teleported, but instead of appearing in a designated place, she vanishes completely. Crono and Lucca immediately repeat the process and get transferred into a different time. They find out that it’s 600 AD, the very time humans were fighting Magus’ monsters – which, it turns out, have kidnapped Marle. Crono and Lucca rescue her and try to go back into their time, but instead of getting back to 1000 AD, they are transferred into the far future of 2300 AD. They find the cities in which they grew up destroyed, and the remains of humanity on the brink of extinction. They find archives which store information about the past. Apparently, a creature called Lavos was summoned by Magus in 1999 AD, destroying the world as they know it. From here onward, Crono and his friends try to stop humanity’s destruction by travelling through time and changing the future.
The story in itself is good enough to excite the player, and makes him/her want to keep going as they can easily connect with the beautifully and interestingly created characters. But that is just the icing on the cake. What makes Chrono Trigger such a good game is that its concept of gameplay is brilliant, creating complexity through simplicity. A lot of RPGs started out as relatively simple games. Take the first instalment of Final Fantasy as an example: you weren’t able to choose between characters, and they only had a few different skills and slightly different stats. The battle system was randomized: when you walked around in the game, you would randomly encounter enemies and fight them. The battles themselves were turn-based. Depending on the characters’ stats, they would be faster/stronger/more beefy than enemies. The gameplay formula Final Fantasy created was used in most of the RPGs that followed. The only difference was the introduction of a wider range of characters, a frustrating increase in abilities and stats, and decreasingly interesting monsters to battle. All of this was meant to create the illusion of difficulty and complexity: give players more choices and harder enemies, and they will think they’ve accomplished something when they beat a final boss. This understanding of difficulty is what made one of the most tedious mechanics of gaming necessary – grinding. Grinding is the process of mindlessly wandering around in the game to find and fight monsters in order to make your characters stronger. It makes the game longer than it should be, again creating the illusion of difficulty: what takes a long time must be difficult. Furthermore, if you grind too much, all other enemies – including bosses – will become so weak compared to your characters that you won’t need any of your millions of abilities: you will only use normal attacks, leading to mindless button-mashing. Ultimately, grinding is a symptom of poor game design.
Here’s where Chrono Trigger took a step in the right direction.
The battles in Chrono Trigger are not randomized. They only occur when the player actually touches the enemies, giving him/her the choice of whether to fight or not. Once in battle, the major difference between Chrono Trigger’s battle system and the system of common RPGs becomes obvious as only three choices can be made: attacking, using a technique, or using an item. This may sound simple but it is all the game needs to create entertaining and engaging battles. You see, while the monsters in Final Fantasy stand still and enemies and players take turns to battle, enemies in Chrono Trigger wander around the battlefield. Furthermore, the turn-based system was replaced by a time-based system: enemies don’t wait for you to finish your turn; they attack immediately after a certain amount of time. Equally, the player can decide whether to attack immediately or take additional time to figure out the situation. Combine all of these mechanics, and good battles result. The player has to analyse the enemies’ behaviour and weaknesses while also acting fast to avoid damage. The ever changing position of the enemies in the arena gives further depth to the battle. While simple attacks may hit one target, techniques may have an area-of-effect damage where enemies close to one another get hit by the same attack. Since the enemies are walking around, attacking and button-mashing might not be the best choice in battle. Instead, waiting for them to align in a way that makes area-of-effect attacks do maximum damage can make even hard enemy formations crumble. As if this wasn’t enough, characters can combine their techniques to perform impressive dual or triple attacks which not only do a lot of damage but also look great. This gives the player a feeling of satisfaction as waiting and making the right choices at the right time rewards them with awesome and effective attacks. All of the above engages the player, and gives him/her control over the battle: if you lose, it’s not because you haven’t grinded enough but because you have been mindlessly button-mashing instead of taking your time to analyse the situation. And all of this is achieved with just three options to choose from.
Chrono Trigger is a timeless game. While the graphics may be outdated, the gameplay can still compete with today’s games. It draws players in with an exciting and engaging battle system which requires full attention all the time. On top of that, the story and characters are so well developed that it is hard to stop playing. The game rightfully takes its rank among the best games of all time.
Ole Kasch & Alexander Jahn