Chrono Trigger is a well-known, obvious classic, no doubt about it. Despite it being such a classic, I only experienced this title for my first time a few months ago. I consider myself a JRPG guy, but there are a ton of older titles of the genre that I have not gone to play, including most of the Dragon Quest titles, the Suikoden series, Wild Arms, and more.
I purchased Chrono Trigger way back when it initially released for Steam and just kind of left it there. Other games enticed me more at the time, and there was, and still is to an extent, quite a bit of controversy and distaste thrown towards the Steam port of this classic title.
Square Enix PC ports are usually problematic, so that did not surprise me much. Still, it is always unfortunate when some more beloved titles get shafted ports on a popular platform since that gives prospective players an inaccurate and inferior window of how these games truly were back in their heydays.
Thankfully, however, the Steam port of this title did get updated dramatically. While some fans may still have their own legitimate issues with it, I personally had no major problems at all. The DS version content was added, allowing me to experience the added postgame, which I did not find too terribly engaging, but it was a decent time sink at most.
While having such a recent, new perspective on a title most JRPG fans worth their salt have played long ago is unique, to say the least, I still found myself agreeing on most opinions for why this game is so beloved.
Combat in this title is, by today’s standards especially, quite simple. It follows a traditional ATB turn system with party combo attacks called Techs. Despite how simple and admittedly easily breakable the combat is, the ease of accessibility alone makes this an ideal starter JRPG for those unfamiliar with the genre. Learning new techs is always an exciting accomplishment, and they give each battle result screen a stronger sense of anxious fulfillment than simply being rewarded money and experience.
Even with this combat’s simplicity, though, the sheer amount of variance and experimentation present due to Techs gives a much-needed flair to what would ordinarily be an overly dull series of encounters. Each duo and some trios have their own unique Techs, which I found quite impressive for its time. There is also a choice between active or wait for the ATB gauge, so both beginners and veterans of this combat style can find their place and own appropriate levels of challenge.
Magic is quite useful and ingeniously used in some areas of this game as well. While the upgraded variants of spells can hit multiple enemies, some enemies only become vulnerable once hit by a specific element. For example, my favorite instance of this is these monsters who wield these club-looking weapons. There is also a version of them in the same area that lacks those weapons.
When normally attacking both enemies, you immediately see that the barehanded versions take normal damage, while the ones wielding the clubs are highly resistant. And I was like huh, wonder what they’re weak to. And after some spell usage, I saw that it was Fire that they were weak too, and there is even a specific animation for doing so. Casting Fire causes the club to burn, and these once resistant enemies become the barehanded variants that now take normal damage from physical attacks.
That may sound small and relatively inconsequential, but that really stood out to me as a game from the 90s. It showed a level of careful polish went into designing the normal mobs and not just the boss fights. I wish that more enemies in the game were affected by spells in this manner, but I do have to praise it for where it is done because it’s just really damn cool.
The story of Chrono Trigger is its most praised aspect, and deservingly so. Despite tackling time travel, widely considered an overly convoluted storytelling mechanic in most scenarios, it does it in such a digestible manner that also leaves subtle room for interpretation for some of its main events. It does not directly spell out every major development from its cast, but it also spells out just enough for players to want to dig deeper. The subtleties of the cast and the plot as a whole rely on prior investment, but there is such a delicate balance struck here between show-and-tell that it deserves all the praise it gets.
The side activities in this title are among the best in the genre that I’ve experienced. Instead of these sidequests consisting of merely simple monster hunts or item scavenging with superficial layering on top, a good chunk of these quests tie into denizens of the world, prior major story events, characters, and most notably and uniquely, the usage of time travel.
Most of the sidequests I did, did not really feel like sidequests, honestly speaking. They each added to the world’s depth considerably, with a few particular ones enhancing the characterization of select members of the main cast that felt sidelined during the main scenarios. While these scenarios being in the main story would have been somewhat preferable, them being activities that the player themself has to find and reach on their own serves to highlight how intimate and personal some of these questlines are.
Lucca’s quest is by far the one that struck me the most, as its dark and scarring nature made me think about how much this must have emotionally impacted kids who played this game originally. It also showed a more vulnerable side to her character that is just not all too present for the main narrative’s duration. Robo’s and Frog’s quests were also quite fantastic and made me care more deeply for their individual plights, especially Robo, who I admittedly barely used in my playthroughs.
I’m not usually a lover of retro soundtracks, but Chrono Trigger’s is honestly hypnotizing. While I wouldn’t listen to most of these tracks outside of playing the game, contextually speaking, the music is masterfully utilized and composed.
The field and dungeon songs are whimsical and despondent, truly making the world’s plights ever more present in the player’s mind. And the battle tracks are exciting and jovial, giving players a positive connotation of fulfillment when making their way through hordes of enemies in dungeons.
The cast is incredibly diverse and unique with their motivations in the overall narrative. For instance, you have a princess, a robot, a prehistoric female badass, and a frog! The narrative utilizes its time travel nature in obvious yet smartly delivered ways. Having a cast made up of different eras of history hones in on how drastic and omnipresent the threat they face is and why they all stick together.
That seemingly simple aspect of the party’s formation makes the world feel so much bigger than what you see and drapes an even greater veil of ominous fear for what would happen if all of your efforts were to fail. Arming players with the knowledge of the world’s time periods arms them with an even greater emotional burden that ultimately makes the game’s several conclusions all the more impactful.
There are over 10 endings to achieve due to it being possible to defeat the final boss at almost any time you wish. While most of these endings are admittedly not terribly unique from one another, and a few are jokey memes at most, for the era this game initially released, that variance of completion is astoundingly impressive. It also perfectly complements the nature of time travel, which gives host to an endless sea of possibilities.
I would not call Chrono Trigger a perfect or even a masterful JRPG. I have some general critiques, such as Ayla not feeling as fleshed out as the rest of the party, having to defeat the same boss about 12 times for different endings, and the party themselves barely ever having interactions with each other for most of the game.
Despite all that, there are strongly utilized elements here that make it apparent why this game stands near the peak of so many gamers’ JRPG lists. It set a foundation for future games of the genre to have more intricate narratives, unique casts with individualized characters, an active, changing world, and so much more. And beyond all that, it’s just an enjoyable game through and through.
If there are somehow still JRPG fans like myself who have not played this game yet for whatever reason, then I implore you to give it a shot. If only to see what it did for the genre. It will probably not blow your mind since part of its efficacy just won’t hit with the same strength as it did all those years ago, but you’ll more likely than not at least appreciate and respect what this game did as a 90s JRPG.
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