Chrono Trigger

   The mentality behind the creation of an RPG, even the great ones, is at its core a money mentality. You can see it in interviews with even the greatest developers--there'll always be a quote somewhere about how "Dragon Fantasy of Fire XXXVII" is expected to move 9 million units and enhance the company's sales data for this quarter by the total net worth of the Microsoft Corporation. Role-playing games are the summer blockbusters of the Japanese gaming world.

Yuji Horii explains the secret of his success

   Which is what makes Chrono Trigger so unusual. Yes, it had marquee names involved, including the "Dream Team" of longtime Dragon Quest scenarist Yuji Horii, renowned anime/manga artist Akira Toriyama, and (partly) ubercomposer Nobuo Uematsu. Despite its pedigree, however, the mindset in making Chrono Trigger was that of a small pet project, an art-house movie in the earlier analogy. Which could help to explain why it's been one of the most critically acclaimed and influential role-playing games in the history of the genre.

   The sense of fun and creative abandon that runs throughout the project is evident in the storyline. Free from the angst and ethical dilemmas that would dominate later RPGs, the plot revolves around a band of oddball characters traveling through time to defeat an alien menace intent on draining the life from the earth's core. All the cliched fantasy RPG elements are in place--the fake chancellor, the legendary sword, the rebellious princess--but Horii knows they're cliches, and these elements are never taken entirely seriously. The fake chancellor acts almost comically suspicious, the legendary sword is actually a pair of twin boys, and the princess who hates her status in the present day perversely learns to enjoy it in the past. Not to say the game is devoid of dramatic or touching moments; the final scene between Ayla and Azala, Lucca's journey to the day her mother was crippled, and Schala's enigmatic sacrifice all rank as classic emotional moments in the annals of RPG history.

 Lucca, the original RPG hottie
A sterling example of Toriyama's transcendent design

   The key to any story, though, is caring about the characters, and in that respect Chrono Trigger is aided by possibly the best work of Akira Toriyama's career. The characters at their base aren't very original–Crono, the typical spiky-haired optimistic hero; and Magus, the brooding bishonen dark wizard stand out as examples–but they stand out as shining examples of their "types" to the extent that a "Crono-like" hero is now used to refer to any mute RPG protagonist. The art is universally vibrant and colorful, a good indication of what Toriyama can do when he's not having to worry about the constraints of animation.

   The third member of the "Dream Team" was Nobuo Uematsu, who delivered six or seven quality tracks; but the real highlight of Chrono Trigger's score was the debut of Yasunori Mitsuda, whose Celtic-tinged songs immediately grabbed people's attention with memorable tunes such as the confident main theme, the Robo's mellow theme, and of course Magus' ominous theme. There are a lot of composers in Square's stable, but it says something about Mitsuda's ability that he's one of only two that's known by name to the majority of RPG fans.

Burning Aerial Katana Strike Wonderful!
Double tech

   Story, art, and sound are important, but without gameplay you effectively have a movie in cartridge form. Fortunately, Chrono Trigger has gameplay in spades. It was one of the first RPGs to innovate by totally eliminating random enemy encounters; all encounters happened when an enemy, clearly visible on the overworld screen, ran into your character. The battle was then played out on the same overworld screen used for exploration, another innovation that went against the standard practice of separate overworld and battle screens. Chrono Trigger was one of the the first games where all the characters were designed to work together; Techs or Magic could be combined into Double or Triple techs for major damage.

   The biggest gameplay innovation, though, and one that still hasn't found its way into RPGs as a whole, is the New Game+ concept. Beating the game while meeting a certain set of criteria nets you the option to play through the game again with the same statistics, items, and gold that you had at the end of the first run-through. This is great for those who just want to run through the story again quickly, but the New Game+ is also key to opening up the bonus endings.

 Alternate ending
Damn you! Damn you to hell!

   Games have had multiple endings before, but Chrono Trigger took the concept and ran with it with around twenty of them, most of which revolve around a warp that opens up in the New Game+. What happens in any given ending is usually related to what's happened in the game so far when you take the shortcut warp to defeat Lavos. If you're in the middle of the prehistoric quest, you'll see a future when Earth is populated by lizardmen instead of humans. If you're still trying to find the Hero Medal after meeting Tata, you'll glimpse a world where Tata is the hero, and Crono, Marle, and Lucca are the enemy. And if you're good enough to beat Lavos with just Crono at the very beginning, at the Millennial Fair--ah, but that would be telling.

   The only downside to Chrono Trigger was that it was fairly lacking in the challenge department. There were some low-cost Double Techs that could completely heal the party, and none of the bosses were really that difficult to begin with. That lone shortcoming to the game, however, just made it easier to blast through and appreciate the Chrono Trigger experience. If you haven't had the pleasure yet, well ... don't you think it's about time?

Retrospective by Nich Maragos, GIA.
Chrono Trigger
Developer Square
Publisher Square
Genre Traditional RPG
Medium Cartridge (32 mb)
Platform Super Nintendo
Released September 1995
 03.11.95 (SFC)
 11.04.99 (PSX)
Walkthrough and Script
396 screenshots
25 character designs, 7 anime character designs, 17 item and weapon designs, and 8 scenes
Packaging, magazine ads, carrying case and cel artwork