The Vintage Game Club chose Chrono Trigger as its fifth game. I never owned a SNES, so I missed the game its first time around; I did play through most of the PS1 port of the game, but found it a bit of a slog. Which, I’d gathered, had a lot more to do with that port than with the nature of the game itself; so I was happy to give it a second try, this time on the DS version.
And, indeed, “slog” is now the last word I’d use to describe the game: it’s the lightest-on-its-feet JRPG that I can think of. When I think of that genre, I think of long treks through overworld areas, dungeons that don’t know when to stop, with both sorts of areas overflowing with random monster battles where you spend 75 percent of your time going through load screens and animations, 24 percent of your time mindlessly selecting the same actions over and over again, and one percent (if you’re lucky) actually enjoying the combat.
At first blush, Chrono Trigger couldn’t be more different from that description. As you emerge from your house, rather than emerging into a town, you’re placed directly on the world map. There is a cluster of buildings near where you are, but if you choose, you can wander quite far in the world (over a bridge into another continent, even) without encountering a single monster battle.
As you play more, you realize that the standard conventions are there, they’re just less prominent. Functionally, each area of the world map behaves like a city in a standard JRPG: being able to walk across two continents sounds impressive, but it’s probably the single largest area that you can walk across, it’s only one of four or so separate areas in that time period, and there are map regions in four other time periods to explore. So it’s a city, albeit a large one.
The traditional “travel while fighting monsters” overworld areas turn out to be there, too: as you emerge from your first time gate, you’re plunked into a forest area with monsters, and there’s another one as you go from the city area of the map to the castle. But they’re extremely mild, having between two and four monster battles.
The reason why I know how many monster battles there are is that, unlike traditional JRPGs (but, thankfully, like many more recent ones), the monsters are visible on the the screen, rather than being random encounters. This lets you avoid most of the monster battles should you so choose; I generally didn’t, however, because the battles went by so fast. They take place right on the screen where you’re travelling, instead of cutting away to a separate battle screen, and have a minimum of superfluous animation; that, combined with the small number of monsters, means that you can go through one of these overworld travel areas in a couple of minutes the first time, and faster on subsequent trips. The upshot is that the travel areas serve the structural goal of providing a clear separation between areas of the map while not getting in your way any more than necessary to accomplish that goal.
While the dungeons weren’t quite as ridiculously short as the travel areas, they were significantly shorter than the norm for the genre. A typical dungeon might take half an hour to go through: long enough to show of its personality, to give a few mild puzzles, but you’re at the final boss before you get bored. The DS nicely helped emphasize the compact nature of the dungeons: a map of the current area of the dungeon appeared on the bottom screen as you wandered through it, making it clear just how manageable it was.
The result is a game that, for its first half, was skipping lightly from event to event: wandering through a city here, a brief travel area there, a castle, a dungeon, back to the castle, spending most of your time advancing the (pleasant) plot rather than fighting repetitive battles.
Unfortunately, that didn’t last. Magus’s Lair was a good deal longer than any dungeon that preceded it; it was reasonably well constructed and at a key plot point, so I was willing to give it a pass for the sake of variation, but it was immediately followed by Tyranno Lair. That dungeon was equally long, not as well constructed, and had an unusual amount of monster battles that you couldn’t avoid, including battles in areas that you had to backtrack through.
After Tyranno Lair, the game had its ups and downs—the 12,000 BC time period had some interesting aspects, but in general there were a lot more dungeons, they were longer, and the game had lost its lightness. I was happy enough to keep going, but I was doing so more in a spirit of seeing the game through to the end rather than active excitement about what was to come. So I marched along with the game until Crono died.
Normally, having your main character die might sound like a bad thing, or at least (given that it’s a scripted event) an emotional high point. But while Chrono Trigger does have many virtues, its portrayal of its main character isn’t one of them; honestly, I was as glad to be given the opportunity to experiment with filling my party with other characters as anything else. The dungeon after Crono died was a well-done “get thrown into jail and have to retrieve your items” segment; when you emerged from that, the bad guys had conveniently added wings to your time machine, meaning that you could fly all over the world in five different time periods, most of which had significant areas that had been previously inaccessible.
With that, the game returned to its lightness. There was a main plot that you could follow if you so choose (indeed, that you were almost at the end of); given my lack of attachment to the main character, I figured I’d instead try out the many side quests that had suddenly opened up. And I’m quite glad I did! They were, in general, a return to the short dungeons that characterized the beginning of the game; the game also used your time machine to good effect in several of its puzzles, requiring you to navigate between periods to solve them and then showing you, on your return to the later time period, how your actions in the past had affected the behavior and legends of the later time period.
More than lightness, though, the side quests had an emotional resonance far beyond anything in the main story, or indeed most RPGs’ main stories. In her GDC talk on story, Margaret Robertson talked about how the most effective, affecting, enduring storytelling in games is more often found in the small touches than in the grand plots: she used the Anju/Kafei side plot in Majora’s Mask as an example, and I know I’ve been haunted by that ever since I played that game most of a decade ago.
And Chrono Trigger‘s side quests are another beautiful example of that. The side quest to set Cyrus’s soul at rest, where in 1000AD you hear about a ruined castle haunted by unsettled souls, then manage to go back to 600AD to properly bury Cyrus, then return to 1000AD and find that people’s conversation has changed to a discussion of Cyrus’s (and his friend Glenn’s) noble deeds. The side quest where you defeat a desert monster, letting a couple plant a forest; then leave Robo behind to help them tend the forest, returning 400 years later to find him enshrined (but still barely functioning) in a church. Which leads to a conversation around a camp fire late at night and a strange time gate leading Lucca back to a scene in her own childhood where her mother had lost her legs; this time, though, you can save her mother. Or, in my case, you couldn’t, because you didn’t figure out how to input the commands quickly enough; there was absolutely no chance that I was going to leave the game like that, so I replayed it until I succeeded in saving her.
And then there’s the Sun Stone quest. It’s the shortest of the side quests, but the most moving for me: it involves a family that you’d encountered before where the father only cared about money, where his kids hated him. Going into that house had almost felt physically painful for me before, and I’d never understood why it was there until I played through that side quest; in it, you change the events of the past in such a way that the father has become generous and gives you the Sun Stone. Getting the stone was nice, but removing the poison from that family mattered a lot more to me than the Sun Stone did.
Quite a game, when all is said and done. I can only imagine an alternate universe in which JRPG designers actually paid attention to Chrono Trigger, and emphasized a density of experience over stuffing you with dozens of battles with minutes of animations pitted against seconds of thinking. Or, more profoundly, an alternate universe in which the video game industry realized that grand narratives about saving the world from destruction had less of an impact on the players than sketches of what our daily lives, loves, families are or could be like. Which we saw in our previous VGC game as well: there, too, the save-the-world plot just got worse as the game continued, but the family relations still shone through.
Many thanks to the other VGC members who played through the game: I very much appreciated all of your company, and I’m looking forward to the next game!
This post has not been revised since publication.