I popped the cartridge into the 2DS with a measure of trepidation. I’d bought the handheld months prior to catch up on a generation of games that had passed me by. We had several of these in the house, gifts our daughter had accumulated over the years. The title I’d just inserted into the device was one of these; I’d given it to her because it was—and still is—my favourite game of all time. Soon enough, the 2DS recognized the software and the main’s character face appeared as its icon in the system menu, drawn by the hand of Dragon Ball’s Akira Toriyama himself.
Liking Chrono Trigger is far from a hot take. First released on the SNES in 1995, it’s still regularly included on lists of the best role-playing games 27 years later. Many consider it the finest of its cohort of Japanese exports from that era. It’s been ported to multiple systems, including the Nintendo DS, the version I played these past few months, though these days you can find it on PC, via Steam, and also on mobile (use a controller). Chrono Trigger is beloved for a reason, but, as I decided to revisit this formative piece of media in my mid-thirties, I was afraid the tinted glasses of nostalgia were clouding my judgement as to its merits.
I first came across Chrono Trigger at my local video store (or video club, as we called them). The games were in the basement—one of the basements, anyway; the other housed XXX tapes, not that I ever saw any part of it. Along one wall stretched dozens of SNES game boxes, long and short like the cartridges they were meant to contain (these were for display only), whereas the PlayStation cases next to them had the shape of CD cases, though the very first were tall and rectangular, the opposite of their SNES neighbours. There may have already been Nintendo64 boxes on the wall to the right, but the only other part of the room I remember were the disproportionately large PC game boxes, Diablo II’s hooded skull foremost among them.
The SNES era can boast of terrific covert art. Even so, Chrono Trigger’s box stood out to young fans of Dragon Ball, as it was drawn by the manga’s creator, Akira Toriyama, along with the character design. Indeed, the front and back featured a sword-wielding protagonist whose spiky red hair was reminiscent of Son Goku and his kin. I rented the game, perhaps more than once, and eventually bought the video store’s copy. To a child who barely knew a word of English, what appeal could a role-playing game possess?
Part of its charm comes from the colourful, welcoming world, which launches the player into the adventure via a festival complete with mini-games. Unlike early 3D games that were starting to be released when CT came out in 1995, the 2D sprites of 16-bit games have a timeless look, and CT’s graphics are as vibrant now as they were then. More importantly, the cast rises to the occasion with an unforgettable ensemble: spunky runaway princess Marle; genius inventor Lucca; cursed knight-turned-giant-amphibian Frog; prehistoric chieftain Ayla; Robo, who picks his new human friends over his own kind; and Magus, a bad guy who turns out to be not so bad after all. Oh, and there’s Crono, the silent protagonist. OK, maybe the names aren’t super inspired, but you can change them to your liking.
One of CT’s main conceits is time travel, as you move between several time periods to prevent the apocalypse. This was easy for the youth that I was to follow, as instead of 1,000 AD, the world map showed 600 AD, then 3,000 AD and so on. In the future, you see footage of 1,999 AD, when “Lavos” rains down destruction over all of civilization. It’s a simple way of conveying the stakes, yet one that works so well, especially when you see it again and again in the form of the game-over screen when you die.
Decades before Mass Effect 2, this JRPG had its own set of loyalty missions, exposing each character’s backstory and giving depth to an experience that’s light on dialogue, but full of personality. The cast is charming, their essence shining through in large part thanks to the animations: Lucca spinning around as she proudly showcases an invention, Ayla barely able to contain her excitement, Frog standing straight as he gazes into the distance.
One moment features prominently in my memory: the campfire scene. The gang is sitting by the fire in the middle of a forest while Lucca works tirelessly on Robo. He stayed behind in 600 AD, you see, working for decades to save a forest on a patch of land that is little more than a desert in the present. When you leave him in the past and go forward in time, a lush forest appears, the astounding result of his efforts. Robo is rusty and has moss growing all over him, so Lucca devotes herself to fixing him. She keeps at it through the night, hence the campfire.
Others might remember that scene for the conversation the party has about a force possibly guiding them through these epochs to save the world from Lavos. Indeed, when Lucca stumbles upon a portal late at night that brings her back to her childhood to save her mother from losing her legs, that would seem to confirm that there is an intentionality at play. What I take away from this moment, though, is a beautiful camaraderie, a deep friendship between Robo and Lucca. From a storytelling perspective, the campfire scene is engraved in my mind as a breather, a beat to show your characters enjoying their time together and forging deeper bonds.
But what about the gameplay? How does it hold up? Surprisingly well! Not only does CT employ time travel in satisfying ways at the narrative level, like the appearance of the forest after you leave Robo to work the land, but the battle system itself is more engaging than many RPGs released today. While enemies and bosses having different mechanics, like dinosaurs being weak to lightning-type magic, is commonplace in 2022, CT goes beyond the basics and offers a challenge in that regard. Especially if you select the “active” battle mode, which doesn’t give much time to ponder your next move.
On top of their regular techniques, characters learn double and triple techs while fighting alongside specific party members, and can only use these when they are together. As such, it pays to play around with party composition and to spend time with each character. They all have their own strengths, and many have healing techniques, so you can usually choose your favourites and make it work.
If you’re not already familiar with the cast, it could be surprising to find a JRPG closing in on thirty years old that features three bad-ass heroines, potentially making up half the party if you don’t recruit Magus. Two of them aren’t super physical, relying respectively on crossbows and steampunk-like guns as well as powerful magic. Then, there’s Ayla, who doesn’t have any magic, but punches enemies real hard with her fists. It didn’t stand out to me as a kid, when I just took this as a matter of course. Nowadays, it’s a refreshing change of pace. However, there’s not much in the way of diversity, as everyone is light-skinned and seemingly cishet, though I’m sure fanfic has been written about Glenn (Frog) and Magus, and a case could be made for Lucca being queer, if only because she’s alone. That’s just wishful thinking, though.
Ready back through this post, I realize I failed to mention the music, a stand-out score by Yasunori Mitsuda, with help from Final Fantasy’s Nobuo Uematsu. Each track helps set the scene, whether it’s a joyous festival or a future in ruins. They get the blood pumping in battle, and do their part to flesh out characters’ personalities. It’s the soundtrack I often go back to while working, though that speaks more to my familiarity with its notes than to its quality as one of the best of its generation.
For years, I held that Chrono Trigger could be released as a new game at any time and still be seen as innovative thanks to its time-travel shenanigans and its battle system. Now that I’ve finished it yet again, I firmly believe that’s true. It stands out as a shining example of the 16-bit era’s best, and remains, close to thirty years after its launch, my favourite game of all time.
All images property of Square-Enix or their respective owners.