Chrono Trigger (1995)

“Chrono Trigger is the greatest game of all time”
Objectivity or Hyperbole?

by the Well-Red Mage

“‘Artistic value’ or ‘quality’ in a work of art is not merely a matter of personal opinion but to a high degree a matter of common agreement among artistically sensitive and trained observers and to a high degree objectively traceable.”
-Jakob Rosenberg

 

 

Exaggeration is an indulgence of the internet age.

No one could incriminate today’s pundits, pulpits, and politicians with understatement, and that bleeds down from the speeches, the journalism and the entertainment that we digest to the content we create to the little things we say to one another in passing conversation to even the minutiae of so-called “social” media in tweets and comments. Yes, this exists even in the gaming community. That’s why we hear so often the favored phrase: “[game title here] is the greatest game of all time!”

What does this actually mean, “greatest game of all time”? Of course, we as human beings with our complex social behaviors and idioms can’t actually mean that the game we’re talking about is literally the best, the most perfect, technically, emotionally, mechanically, visually, objectively perfect game in existence out of all the other games which have been produced. Can we? Faced with that kind of black and white absolutism, the intimidation of the claim to perfection, a lot of us would probably back away from such a statement and recant. Many of us might, in a dismissive panic, believe it’s not even possible for a video game (or any piece of entertainment or art) to be factually perfect.

I won’t say “Well then why do we use the phrase ‘greatest of all time’” because we speak in these exaggerations frequently. It’s not hard to see how stretching the truth a little and overstating our case can earn us greater social status (if the stretch is believable or if we’re trying to be witty) and inflate the importance of our opinions. A little luscious adjective goes a long way. It’s not that we’re being intentionally insincere. It’s just how our modern communication works and our strong feelings on subjects slips us easily into the mode of hyperbole, though no matter how many times we use the word “literally” to describe our vexations to death, it is ultimately embellishment. Lump this together with figures of speech, sarcasm, irony, metaphor, referential jokes, purple prose, outright deception and it’s no wonder we hardly understand each other in any literal sense.

Full disclosure, I recognize I’m bad at this. I speak in hyperbolic statements because I have strong opinions and feelings about nearly everything. I’ve been criticized (hopefully lovingly) by friends for disliking too many things, but the things I do like I’ll guard like a dragon hoarding its dwarven gold. Because of this, I’ve been forced to make the attempt to develop reasoning and arguing skills as best I can so to be able to “win” as many conversations as possible. It is, I admit, inherently selfish and often petty. I’ve verbally brutalized my way through many a discussion but I am, contrary to popular belief, only human. Less an excuse than a diagnosis. In all seriousness, it’s something I’m attempting to work on: both being kinder in conversation and drawing less from the bottomless pit of hyperbole.

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If this hyperbole accounts for all of our most grandiose statements, then this article is already over, if indeed there cannot truly be an objectively greatest game of all time (GOAT), if we only make those claims about “favorites” we have strong feelings for. However, for those brave (or naive) souls who continue to stick to their guns claiming that there can be a GOAT, somewhere out there in the vast history of gaming that’s still being written, then there comes a hurdle. Two of them, actually.

Two problems present themselves like gauntlets which must be thrown down, and they are hype and nostalgia.

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I see the both of these like the two-faced Janus, Roman idol of duality, with hype facing toward the future and nostalgia facing toward the past. Hype is concerned with over-inflating the expectation, significance, and quality of an upcoming title before its release based on rumor, conjecture, and a lot of imagination. Nostalgia involves ignoring or actively forgetting the downsides and shortcomings of old experiences, especially the ones which made an impact on us during the impressionable years of our youth, occasionally drawing the ire of those who feel as if “their childhood is being ruined”. See? More hyperbole.

As confusing as you’d expect life to be if you had two faces on your head, attempting to surmount both hype and nostalgia can be bamboozling and require a lot of hard work. These self-inflicted, twin illusory states involve the glorification of experiences in our minds beyond what is reasonable or factual, and how can one be factual about sepia-toned memories out of our youth or about experiences which haven’t even happened yet? These can, rest assured, be surmounted and moderation can be maintained but only if enough facts are gathered which can then be compared with repeatable, accessible experiences in the present, not the unrepeatable past or the unreachable future.

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On top of all that there’s the nature of interpretation. In essence, interpretation is an intensely private process. Our interpretations are our own because they represent how we experience the world through our own sensory faculties, emotions, favoritism, biases, history, stigmas, beliefs, culture, etc. Interpretations explain why two different people can look at the same painting and experience different feelings, or why two people can view the same film and one takes away one theme while the other takes away another. Just because interpretation can be personal, though, doesn’t mean it’s not important and doesn’t have objective bearing. After all, you’re reading this words right now and I fully expect you’re interpreting them privately but also correctly. Right?

So does this little snag we call interpretation remove any vestige of objectivity in trying to decide if it’s possible for a game to be the GOAT? Not necessarily. Interpretation is personal and private but there’s a difference between accurate and inaccurate interpretation. How so? Simply ask whether the interpretation matches the author/writer/creator’s original intent or not to measure at the very least some authenticity for one’s interpretation. As far as the original intent is discoverable, this is the basis for interpretation. Without it, we’d be left with no capacity for understanding at all, so you might as well stop reading this, burn your money, eat your fingers, close your social media accounts, and assume the fetal position because all words, all feelings, all thoughts are meaningless.

Let’s have a friendlier example: you and I sit down to watch Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. It’s widely held that this 1964 movie by Kubrick is pretty hilarious, in its own dry and horrifying way, but let’s say that as we’re watching it the film elicits from me an occasional titter or guffaw whereas from you it is met with silence. When the credits roll, we begin to have a conversation about it.

We both saw the same movie but one of us talks about how funny Peter Sellers’ characters were and how pointed the black comedy was in illustrating government incompetence in a satire of the Cold War setting. The other talks about how the film is an attack on Eisenhower, how the film was explicitly racist toward the Russians, how it was dishonest in its use of Sellers’ various characters, and how its main theme was the incompetence of masculinity in a dead serious fantasy-documentary format.

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Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove.

Which interpretation is the most correct? While one appears to be “deeper” than the other, we know from the expressions of the filmmakers and film historians that Dr. Strangelove is meant to be a dark comedy and satire. We know from Kubrick’s own words what its themes are, the ones he meant to convey. If, after viewing it, we arrive at thematic interpretations foreign to the circle of the creator’s original intention, according to the creator himself, then shouldn’t it be reasonable to presume that such a thematic interpretation is less accurate than the other, however interesting or “deep” it is?

Allow me to furnish another example by putting on my theologian’s cap. Oblige me for a moment. I’m not proselytizing.

One of the most widely held misconceptions about the Bible is that it’s primarily “open to interpretation”, thus many people approach reading and quoting it as if it’s a simple source of confirmation bias and nothing else, as if it has no central point or themes and it’s just a buffet line of handy proverbs and principles to justify whatever it is you’re trying to prove in 2017 society. This works “both ways”, on both sides if you get my meaning, but what this misconception ignores either for lack of knowledge or lack of interest is that there are entire structures of scholarship brought to bear to properly interpret the text: linguistics, philosophy, archaeology, textual criticism, history and historical criticism, cultural studies involving Judaic and Greco-Roman research. One such discipline is hermeneutics, a term denoting the broad study of principles of interpreting communication, both verbal and nonverbal, and there is a branch dedicated specifically to interpreting the Bible. Without every day hermeneutics, we’d live in a nonsensical society without the ability to convey any kind of meaning at all, a kind of relativistic ocean in which all intent and purpose drowns for lack of conveyance.

The goal of the studies I’ve named and applying them is to discover the original meaning of the biblical text, so far as it can be known. That’s defined as exegesis versus eisegesis, or the exposition of the meaning of the text which the original authors intended versus reading into the text one’s own presuppositions, worldview, philosophy, and bias. It’s clear which is the more useful and which is more accurate. The former is about discovery through scholarly work and the latter is about mishandling the text to satisfy one’s agenda. Furthermore, there are several places in the Bible where it interprets itself and describes its own original meaning. No one is arguing that every passage in Scripture is transparent, particularly prophetic portions, but applying tools like hermeneutics and others makes clearer its authentic meaning versus any subjective meaning. Be wary when someone says “Well to me this means…”

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1Qlsa, the Isaiah Scroll, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in 1947.

So given that there are methods for circumnavigating the tumults of hype and nostalgia (namely, factual comparison), as well as the whims of ascribing quality through personal interpretative discovery (namely, exegesis), let’s address another preliminary. This takes us closer to the subject of games.

Do video games have features that can be objectively compared for better or worse?

If not, then there’s no point in claiming that one game is better than another. Consider that for a moment. That would destroy every publication and critic using a numerical grading scale. Ultimately, that’s experientially untrue.

Think about it. Video games must have features which are objectively better or worse because we can identify with great specificity those features which enabled the wider majority of individuals to enjoy The Last of UsMega Man X, Shadow of the Colossus, Breath of the Wild, and Galaga in contrast with the features which prevented the majority of individuals from enjoying Street Fighter V, Mighty No. 9, Duke Nukem Forever, Zelda: Wand of Gamelon, and E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial.

Don’t miss my point here. I’m not saying that no one could hate the former games and love the latter games, since experiences can vary in liking terrible entertainment thanks to nostalgia, hype, or inaccurate interpretation. I’m saying that the qualities/presentation/mechanics in the former “worked” more frequently than they did for the audiences of the latter, speaking to their quality. That evasive word “worked” means the game was capable of engaging the player through its interactivity, holding their attention, and not needlessly frustrating them.

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Remember what I said earlier about finding comparable experiences to aid in triumphing over hype or nostalgia? That same idea comes to the fore here when we talk about features in a game and whether they have identifiable caliber or not. In simpler terms, we can identify things in games which “work” in some titles but do not in others: level design, voice acting, responsiveness, accessibility, UI… If a game has a functional presentation involving, say, a glitch which crashes the game shortly after the title screen then surely that’s an objectively worse feature about its design than if it ran smoothly!

It seems reasonable to believe, then, that it should be possible to construct a case for a greatest GOAT based on its individual features and measuring them against the features of other games comparatively to come up with an assessment of the game’s objective quality in total. If one feature of a game can be objectively better than the same feature in a different game because of functionality, interactivity, immersion, or what have you, then can a collection of features of a game be objectively better than the same collection of features in a different game? Can all of a game’s features be contrasted with another game’s features in order to arrive at a total objective sum regarding quality? If it works on the micro scale, can it work on the macro, or at what point would that break down, hm?

Well… allow me to drop the bomb: Chrono Trigger is the greatest game of all time.

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Can I say that? Is that hyperbole or can it be objectively proven? Does it matter if it’s “not your kind of game” at all? Can its features be stacked against comparative features in the correct context and come out triumphant? Or am I intentionally obfuscating the truth thanks to the significance of my experience out of childhood? Does this title possess working parts to place it above the competition? If we are to take the introductory quotation above as even containing a sliver of truth, then let’s find the objective features as a matter of common agreement.

“…’quality’ in a work of art is not merely a matter of personal opinion but to a high degree… objectively traceable.”
-Jakob Rosenberg (1893-1980), art historian

My task through this retro-themed review is to take off my rose-colored glasses and look at what I fully admit to be my favorite game of all time and see how far we can take objectivity. I must overcome my own favoritism, a seeming impossibility, in order to furnish a defense for Chrono Trigger. My purpose will be to put this so-called “classic” to the test to see if it could actually, factually be labeled that elusive GOAT, or at the very least one of them.

 

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To Far Away Times

What’s most important about a retro review is to correctly frame the game in its historical context. This is a necessity for several reasons. Nostalgia can be very strong, as we’ve discussed, so placing the game in the midst of its peers and measuring it against the limitations of then-current technology is essential for balance. This is obvious the longer you think about it and it points out the ridiculousness of the assertion that older games are undesirous or unplayable simply because of their graphics, such as a Sony exec named Jim Ryan inelegantly suggested:

“When we’ve dabbled with backwards compatibility, I can say it is one of those features that is much requested, but not actually used much. That, and I was at a Gran Turismo event recently where they had PS1, PS2, PS3, and PS4 games and the PS1 and PS2 games, they looked ancient, like why would anybody play this?”

This derision of retro games based solely on their looks does not explain the success of remasters, remakes and collections of retro titles. This also disregards the importance of gameplay, which can be extremely refined in older games (SEE Super Mario Bros. 3 and Punch-Out!!), and it turns gaming into a shallow playing field where the maxim of the day is “better graphics equal better games”, which is demonstrably false. Of course that does nothing to explain why Sony is making “games nobody [eventually] wants to play” available through its PS Now streaming service, or the fact that you can play a PS2 disc on your PS4… The meaningfulness of retro games became apparent when thunderous applause erupted for the revelation of backwards compatibility all the way back to the OG Xbox during Microsoft’s presentation at E3 2017. Even a cursory mention of the demand for a Virtual Console on the Nintendo Switch further illustrates my point.

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To dismiss retro games because they “look old” is dishonest to history and to sales, shortsighted, shallow, immature, and not representative of a huge swath of gamers. There are plenty of old games that can be dismissed but visual capabilities are only a part of that discussion.

Of course older games have the graphics and presentations allowed them by the limitations of the tech of their time. With a retro review, then, comparisons of features which immediately impact an audience (such as graphics) should be primarily held in context with games of the same generation, or in other words, we won’t be establishing the value of Chrono Trigger’s graphics in direct comparison to your average PS4 AAA title, other factors must be brought in. We’ll see how far it pushed the capabilities of the SNES in its time and focus on the influence the game has had, and make transportive comparisons with current gen systems wherever possible.

 

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“Good morning, Crono!”

Chrono Trigger is a sci-fantasy JRPG involving time travel to different eras, originally released on the Super Nintendo in 1995 by Square (now Square Enix) and ported to the DS and the PlayStation One (never play this unplayable version with its ridiculous loading times: way to ruin genius, Sony). The game utilizes a pseudo-historical mirror to our own Earth’s timeline, albeit with fantastical elements in its many eras. There’s a prehistoric age full of primitive human ancestors and an advanced reptilian civilization, an ice age with a caste system between the enlightened, magical peoples living on a floating continent versus the unenlightened living in the snow below, the middle ages which sees a conflict between the knights of Guardia and the monstrous forces of Magus and the mystics, the present in 1000 A.D. with the celebration of the millennium, a post-apocalyptic future with a ruined civilization, and the empty void of the end of time. These diverse settings allow the game a reach and scope that typical JRPGs of the time didn’t even attempt, mostly limiting themselves to high fantasy or science fiction in one time period. Heck, even most RPGs today don’t have the kind of breadth of universe building that Chrono Trigger has, stretching out across millions of years.

In the year 1000 A.D., a youth named Crono is awakened by his mother on the morning of the Millennial Fair. There, he bumps into a girl who calls herself Marle. There’s more to her than meets the eye but they decide to enjoy the Fair together. They attend a science exhibit demonstrating a teleportation device built by Lucca, Crono’s inventor friend. Marle volunteers to be teleported but when her pendant mysteriously interacts with the machine, she’s accidentally hurtled hundreds of years back in time. Crono and Lucca pursue her and discover that they’ve landed in the medieval era in 600 A.D, four hundred years in the past!

They eventually discover that Marle (who is actually Princess Nadia of the present-day Kingdom of Guardia) has been mistaken for her ancestor the Queen of Guardia in 600 A.D. Lucca quickly surmises the gravity of the situation: the real Queen is missing and since they residents of that time period believe that Marle is the Queen, then they’ve called off their search for the real monarch. That means she’ll never be rescued, which will result in a grandfather paradox in which Marle’s ancestor never survives to give rise to her lineage, leading to Marle never being born, leading to Crono and Lucca having no reason to go back to the middle ages at all. This existential horror is further compounded when Marle is ripped to shreds by the resulting temporal contradiction!

Well of course this is just the start of the adventure and Crono and Lucca eventually rescue the real Queen and save Marle from being erased but they become embroiled in another mishap and are stranded in time again… this time in the far future: 2300 A.D. There, in a wasteland dotted at every horizon with the shattered cityscape, blasted by cold, iron winds, where mutants and rogue robots prey on the weak, the three youths uncover an event that destroyed the world. In 1999 A.D., a parasitic alien organism that had been gestating in the earth since the dawn of man reaches maturity and sets fire to the planet, killing off most of humanity in the process. This the game’s apocalypse, the Day of Lavos.

The three youths know that they must do everything they can, somehow, somewhen to prevent this Day from ever happening. They’ll journey through time again to try and stop Lavos, finding allies in a sentient robot named Robo, a cursed squire from the middle ages named Frog, a ferocious cavewoman from prehistory named Ayla, and a dark sorcerer from the ice age that calls himself Magus.

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Chrono Trigger has enjoyed universal critical acclaim for over two decades now. That’s more than twenty years in which impressions of it haven’t dimmed (generally speaking, since there are always contrarians, of course). If anything, its reputation has continued to improve. Not only are those who enjoyed it in ’95 getting older, like me, but there is a new generation of gamers willing to step out of the comfort zones of their own current systems and go back in time themselves to play some classics. Gamers ten or twenty years younger than me have been able to visit this legend for the first time and experience it anew, finding all the joy in it that I did when I was a preteen.

The fact that it is so accessible is a testament to how well it was finely balanced, how engaging it is to play with its lack of random battles and its lack of tedious grinding, and how well it has aged. It looks and plays a thousand times better than years worth of early 3D games, titles which we often describe as “clunky” if not downright ugly with their muddy textures. In Chrono Trigger, there is a beauty that lasts. The passion which its developers poured into every vivid color, every sense of atmosphere, every scene of drama and hilarity, is palpable enough to stretch across decades.

Anecdotally, I’ve not met a single gamer who played this game and walked away unimpressed. I’m sure they’re out there, but I haven’t met that minority. Even those who have never played the game are aware of its status as an icon.

But how did such an achievement come to be?

 

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The Beginning of Time

To set Chrono Trigger in the correct historical context, let’s look at its place in history. Square as a developer had been saved from bankruptcy by the Final Fantasy series, which by the mid-90’s had grown into a flagship franchise and had already seen several amazing games. Final Fantasy IV innovated RPGs with its Active Time Battle system in 1991. Secret of Mana fused action and role-playing in 1993. Final Fantasy VI blew both critical and casual minds alike in 1994. JRPGs were at their height and while the Sega Genesis emphasized arcade style games, Sonic and beat ’em ups, the Super Nintendo featured plenty of RPG experiences: Super Mario RPGEarthBoundBreath of Fire IIIllusion of GaiaSoul BlazerOgre Battle, and more.

Chrono Trigger appeared during this golden age of 16-bit role-playing, really at the height of the Super Nintendo’s popularity even as it continued to plow into the 32- and 64-bit age with the PlayStation arriving in ’94. Chrono Trigger dropped later in the lifespan of the SNES so it represents in many ways the best realization of the hardware, pushed it to its absolute limits: the visuals and audio, the length and content of the game, its special effects. Compared with other RPGs on the SNES, Chrono Trigger is easily the most impressive on several of these fronts. Compared with early PS1 and N64 games, it feels like an absolute diamond among coal.

Because Chrono Trigger was originally planned for the CD-ROM attachment for the Super Famicom, the developers were forced to condense their ideas when the attachment fell through. They had to streamline this concept of an enormous game down to one which could fit and function on the SNES. The score still occupied three CDs. The storyline still spread out over millions of years. The Mode 7 graphical capabilities were put to the best possible use, the best use in fact out of all the games that used Mode 7 pseudo-3D on the SNES, in my opinion, which is to say: sparingly.

The realization which crystallizes is that Chrono Trigger was conceptually groomed to be a much bigger game and from that scale it had to be refined, trimmed, and tuned to perfection in order to appear on the hardware it was destined for. Call it fate or whatever you like but I’ve no doubt that it was this fortunate/unfortunate position thrust upon it by necessity which produced one of the sleekest RPGs ever.

Today, we’re used to RPGs which labor on for hundreds of hours, stuffed full of repetitive gameplay that pads its playtime with all sorts of minutiae, open-world “exploration”, and errand running. Chrono Trigger is nothing like games that waste their time grinding for loot. It feels lean. Its sidequests don’t feel gratuitous or superfluous. There are no fetch quests or grind chores foisted upon you to artificially lengthen its shelf life. It doesn’t impose on your time. Time, that sense of pacing, is not just a narrative theme and a gameplay quirk in Chrono Trigger. This a game wherein no space or time is wasted, in any context. Its developers had to make nearly every iota of data count, and on that pillar it stands above most anything we’ve seen even in our modern era where the silly idea that “size matters” has seemingly infected bloated RPG design.

Make no mistake that Chrono Trigger benefited from its place in history, its hardware and limitations. Yes, its limitations benefited its focus and flow.

 

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Perchance to Dream Team

Development of Chrono Trigger officially began in 1993 but its inception came in 1992 when three leading game designers traveled together to America. These three men were Hironobu Sakaguchi, Yuji Horii, and Akira Toriyama.

Sakaguchi is the father of the Final Fantasy series, a collection of some of the most influential video games in history. He has worked as designer, director and producer on games which have impacted the last thirty years of interactive technology. His credits are extremely impressive. What would gaming look like today without him? Though Sakaguchi has moved on from writing the stories of Final Fantasy VI and VII, and taking part in the productions of later Square titles, he has since begun his own development studio: Mistwalker.

Horii is the creator of the Dragon Quest series, another long-running RPG franchise alongside Final Fantasy, and he influenced the creation of the visual novel genre. He is another designer whose work has dramatically impacted the gaming industry, as well as anime and manga which has brought to life numerous adaptations of Dragon Quest. Horii is still involved with Dragon Quest productions and is serving as writer and designer for Dragon Quest XI, undoubtedly lending marked consistency to the latest series entry.

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Left to right: Toriyama, Sakaguchi, (standing) Horii.

Toriyama is the manga artist who created Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z, which can be credited with almost single-handedly popularizing Japanese anime in the West. I was alive and self-aware when DBZ hit American soil, when were translating the show, airing episodes weekly, and that stuff exploded like wildfire. DBZ was everywhere: t-shirts, pogs, trading cards, stickers, hats, slap bracelets, action figures, paraphernalia of every sort. Toriyama has served as designer on numerous games, many of them Dragon Quest titles.

With Chrono Trigger, these three creative giants came together uniquely to create. Not fulfill corporate demands. Not to give place to sequelitis. Just to create. Never had this collaboration been done before. Never has it been done again since. Sakaguchi and Horii both served as supervisors with Sakaguchi taking part in overall design, and Toriyama became the lead character designer. His style is evident in every 16-bit sprite. I can’t imagine the kind of creative talks they must’ve had, the brainstorming, but the end result was without peer.

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These caricatures were used as the basis for the appearances of the game’s creators in one of the game’s many endings.

The three formed part of Square’s “Dream Team”. Their collective talents shaped the concept that became Chrono Trigger but they were joined by a host of other creatives: Takashi Tokita, Yoshinori Kitase, and Akihiko Matsui were chosen as the game’s three directors. Tokita was the lead game designer and a writer on Final Fantasy IV, as well as the director of Parasite Eve in ’98. Kitase was the director of several huge Square titles including Final Fantasy VIVII, and VIII, as well as the producer of Final Fantasy XAdvent Children, and co-producer of Kingdom Hearts. Matsui specialized in battle design and brought his experience to Chrono Trigger‘s unique battle system after working on Final Fantasy IV and V, and Romancing SaGa 2.

Further talents involved with the development included Minoru Akao (Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy IV through X and XII) and Eiji Nakamura (Final Fantasy VI, VIIVIIIIX, X, and X-2) on sound programming, Masato Kato (a fan of time travel literature) came on as story planner and scriptwriter not only for this game but also for XenogearsChrono Cross, and portions of Final Fantasy VIIand of course famously Yasunori Mitsuda gave his all for this soundtrack and Nobuo Uematsu stepped in to finish up the music after Mitsuda took ill.

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At this point in time, Square was known for its RPGs (the genre which saved their company) and the Super Nintendo featured plenty of their greats in this genre. Originally envisioned as part of the Seiken Densetsu (Mana) series, Chrono Trigger eventually evolved from a game called “Maru Island” into something much different than its predecessors.

Yuji Horii said:

“We had a lot more freedom than we would with Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest. We weren’t worried about the feel of the world; it would be whatever we ended up making.”

Sakaguchi described the genesis of the game as something that no one had done before. They had no idea how long that vision would last… for generations of gaming at this point.

There is still nothing like Chrono Trigger. No one has done anything like it. Not even its own sequel is like it. Not even directly influenced games are like it. Its multiple endings, its time travelling mechanics, its relationships between past and future, its optional content, its multiple playthroughs via New Game+, its open-ended linearity, the breadth of its storytelling, its host of characters, its design, its fluid balance, its otherworldly soundtrack… these all speak to its uniqueness. Out of so many retro RPGs (a third of them? half of them? three quarters of them?), Chrono Trigger remains uniquely accessible to the modern palate. It eschews the unfairness which so many of them built their foundations on while at the same time resting on the engaging qualities that its place in history afforded it.

Graphics director Yasuhiko Kamata said:

“To be honest, the first thing I thought was, ‘We need to make this something that’s not Final Fantasy or Mana.'”

It wouldn’t be restricted by the confines of already established franchises, leaving the developers free to create a complex and open-ended game about exploring through time with new characters, new gameplay, and many new and diverse settings. Not even Toriyama’s artwork, which has now become so iconic and distinctive, didn’t limit the capabilities of the game.

Sakaguchi:

“There were times that I felt under pressure to make as much of a Toriyama-style world as possible, but contrary to my expectations I found that it was okay to play around with Toriyama’s universe. It felt like anything was possible.”

Chrono Trigger ended up being the kind of project where multiple personalities and talents shone through, like a shared dream.

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A recurring theme throughout the game’s development and the game itself this concept of dreams. It’s obvious that this was the fulfillment of so many dreams. Chrono Trigger seems very much like a labor of love, evident in its extremely high quality and the spark of its inspired inception surrounding the joys of creativity and freedom. In the game, a non-playable character muses: “Am I a butterfly dreaming I’m a man? Or a bowling ball dreaming I’m a plate of sashimi?” This line comes during the ethereal Kingdom of Zeal sequence in 12,000 B.C, a place “where dreams can come true”. Chrono Trigger has a such a fully realized universe, yet still full of mystery, that it feels at times as if you’re peering into someone’s dreams.

The three men who forged the spark of the game were the Dream Team. During development, the game was known as the Dream Project. Then there’s the dream music, the leading leitmotif which actually came to the composer from out of his own dreams…

 

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Presentiment

audio Audio: 10/10

Yasunori Mitsuda was the name of a radical dreamer and young musician working for Square in the early 90’s, who had become frustrated with his low wages as a sound programmer. One fateful day, he delivered an ultimatum to Sakaguchi.

“I started as a sound composer, and that meant that all I was able to do were sound effects — not to mention that I wasn’t being paid very well at the time. I wasn’t even able to pay the bills, so I started thinking to myself that I had no other choice. I felt the situation was unfair. “If you’re not going to let me create music, then I’m going to quit,” is what I basically said to Sakaguchi. So he responded: “In that case, you should do Chrono Trigger — and after you finish it, maybe your salary will go up.””

And that’s how Mitsuda stumbled into composing his career-defining score. He poured himself into his work, sometimes remaining in his office for days. The Japanese work ethic is nothing to sniff at and Mitsuda’s efforts with developing the Chrono Trigger soundtrack is the perfect example. Often he would work himself into exhaustion and at times he would drift asleep, leaving everything open on his computer.

Because he thought about creating music all day long, when he slept his mind took over the creative process all on its own, and he would awaken and immediately begin writing down the melodies which he heard in his dreams. The main and ending themes of the game reportedly came to him in this manner. They were literally songs born of dreams. Mitsuda couldn’t contain his excitement at finally being able to write music so he crafted the main theme in a single sitting.

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The scale of the game was so massive that there was a constant demand for more and more compositions. As the game became fleshed out during development, Mitsuda was required to furnish music of all sorts, music that would fit prehistoric, medieval, and futuristic settings for example, all in the same project.

Further, Mitsuda set extra standards for his work. He said he “wanted to create music that wouldn’t fit into any established genre…music of an imaginary world.” “The game itself has such vast scale, and I wanted the score to be the same.” It seems he was keenly aware of the importance of this project not only as his first composing gig but for what the Dream Project represented.

At the time, video game music looped around the one-minute mark. Mitsuda decided to stretch that past even the two-minute mark before looping certain melodies. His reasoning? He didn’t want the player to grow tired of the sound of the music.

Mitsuda:

“The number one goal this time was to make something that you could listen to over and over without getting sick of it, so each piece is really long. Normally, the music loops after a minute, but all of my pieces are more than two minutes. So no one gets tired of them, but it’s tough writing two minutes of music. Well, it takes twice as long as usual. Then in the end, the number of pieces needed jumped dramatically, and I got so busy I couldn’t do anything. Anyway, there is a sense that I accomplished as much as I possibly could at this point.

“But around December 20 of last year, when I needed so much more music all at once, I was at a total loss. I wrote the last battle, and then a long one, about four minutes, for the end credits, and I thought I was done, then they’d say, “Haven’t you written the sub-boss music yet?” I stayed at my office for four days without sleep to write the music for the last sub-boss, but I really wanted to run away. Well, I used up every ounce of my abilities…”

Decades later and there’s still a richness and depth to the music because of this. Whereas a lot of music in video games today are driven by sounds and noises, ambient and atmospheric, the melodic sounds of Chrono Trigger stand in stark contrast as music which tells a story, which doesn’t merely frame how the player is meant to feel but “suggests” to him/her how they’re meant to feel, how the characters themselves feel. I like to think I prefer the melodic approach to game music design not for nostalgia purposes, but because I think it best serves games which heavily emphasize their stories, the kinds of games I gravitate toward. Also, this helped the 16-bit sounds of the Chrono Trigger score endure, since the Super Nintendo was capable of emulating a variety of orchestral sounds superior to its sound effect capabilities.

Mitsuda also aimed for a sense of consistency in the soundtrack that was familiar to the orchestra and symphony, but not to video game scores. He employed leitmotif, the recurring theme heard after the title screen, throughout the score in various forms in order to evoke that same sense of wonder, adventure, and soaring imagination. This makes the soundtrack feel much more contained, despite its diversity and despite its size.

The result was one of the biggest soundtracks of its era, three CDs worth of music for a single SNES game! The wear and tear this put upon Mitsuda’s mind and body were undeniable, tragically. The young composer described how he felt pressured, desperate even, toward the end of the project. Whereas other areas of development were spread out over multiple staff members, Mitsuda noted that he had to bear the music alone.

It became clear that he had nothing left to give when, even after a hard drive crash that destroyed forty tracks worth of work, Yasunori Mitsuda was hospitalized with stomach ulcers, unable to complete the score.

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Final Fantasy veteran composer, the “Japanese Beethoven”, Nobuo Uematsu was chosen to come on board and finish composing. Uematsu was the musical genius who inspired me to teach myself how to play the piano. I learned by studying the sheet music for “To Zanarkand” and “Aeris’ Theme”. Uematsu has crafted memorable, definitive songs as an extremely melodic composer, which may explain why his influence has faded over time as games have moved away from melody, but what I found to be most surprising about the Chrono Trigger soundtrack is how intact it sounds.

Uematsu signed on to complete ten tracks for the score but which ten tracks are they? I’m sure there’s a list somewhere online but without searching for it, I couldn’t tell you, no matter how many times I’ve played through this game and no matter how many tracks I know by name. Though Uematsu has a distinct style, he wisely chose to marry that to the wealth of work that Mitsuda left behind. The result is a unified score which, like the conceptualizations of the Dream Team, created something new and different through collaboration.

Some of my favorite tracks include… all of them. Perhaps my favorite track in the score, if I had to pick one, would be “Corridors of Time”. The first time I heard that song, which plays in Melchior’s house when the legendary swordsmith restores the broken Masamune, I remember I set my controller down and sat in front of the TV and just took in the music, eyes closed. I didn’t mean to do that. It just transported me. It may have been the only time, besides for Journey many years later, that I felt a spark of something quite nearly religious in awe. Numerous orchestral remixes of this score have kept me satisfied for years.

Someone once said beside Final Fantasy VIIChrono Trigger’s soundtrack may just be the most iconic in any RPG of all time.

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As for Yasunori Mitsuda, he eventually recovered from the traumatic, passionate experience of composing for Chrono Trigger. In fact, he was able to see the conclusion of the game as the Dream Project wrapped up. As the final scene faded away at its demonstration, Mitsuda wept with the other developers at the power of the passion that came across. So many people had poured so much into this game, and that energy was and is tangible in what is easily one of the most stylistically manifold, most impassioned, most recognizable video game soundtracks of all time.

It’s a soundtrack which almost killed its composer but in every factor I can think of, Chrono Trigger’s soundtrack comes off as sophisticated, powerful, earnest, complex, and infused with humanity and optimism, demonstrating the youth and exuberance of the young Mitsuda.

 

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World Revolution

visual Visuals: 10/10

Now that we’ve talked about the music, let’s turn our attention to the visuals. Both of these work in tandem to bring the game to life.

One of the most immediately impressive aspects of video games are their graphics. Graphics often form the basis for judging a game’s quality, “judging a game by its graphics”, so to speak. It’s unfair but it’s done all the time.

In approaching the subject of visuals, we’re confronted with a feature of games which furnishes additional challenges and unique gray areas. In what ways can graphics be “better” or “worse” comparatively? I’m sure you can think of a few games which measure vastly different in terms of graphics, and many games with “bad” graphics that are actually great games. Graphics are just a part of the overall presentation, after all, and I think that’s the fundamental takeaway to remember when grading a game’s graphics and arriving at some assessment of the project’s total value. The entire game isn’t good just for good graphics, nor is the entire game bad just for bad graphics, and also an intrinsically and mechanically bad game isn’t good just because its graphics are impressive.

To illustrate a variety of points, I’m going to cite a sizable sampling of a conversation I recently had with a friend of mine, the Timely Mage, on the subject. We began a point-counter-point discussion, somewhat formally, and he knew to jump on the areas in gaming that would be tough to define in objective terms. I begin by explaining what it is I’m attempting in this very review you’re reading and then we get into the nitty gritty. No matter where your opinion falls in the discussion, you’ll be able to see both the objectivist and the contrarian positions in our talk.

 “It’s funny we brought up the concept of the GOAT, too, Red Mage left
since I’m writing a 10k word apologetic for Chrono Trigger as such, I’m definitely approaching it from the angle of defending such a claim. I’ve spent 2.5k words trying to explain if it’s even possible to make claims like “greatest of all time” in a certain category, in any art form.

timemage “Good luck with that. But freal I think it’s something worth discussing. Even if the same conclusion isn’t reached, just bringing up the topic provides a platform to examine our own presumptions and biases. Like I said, I am aware of the times I am blindly in love with a game and it’s the best thing so I have no issues with others saying they love a game more than others. Making an objective case for why a game is intrinsically better than others is quite difficult (or impossible and honestly not worth it to me) but can be a self-fulfilling endeavor if one has a vested interest in doing it (and more importantly, doing it right).”

“Difficult or impossible are the two things confronting me in writing this. Red Mage left
At the very least it states my case but it’s not going to shatter any ceilings. Bringing up the subject at all is why I chose this angle, partially, and that makes the work extra worth while for me. Hopefully I do it right! I think it’s like this with discussion: you and I don’t always see eye to eye but we’re willing to state our positions and talk about it. That’s already miles ahead of mainstream conversation and light years ahead of most screaming online.

“I approached the first 2k words talking about hype, nostalgia, and interpretation to explore if there are any ways to circumnavigate those things. If not, then yes there’s no way to objectively grade a game higher than others. I also got into whether a specific mechanic can “work” better in one game vs another, which we’d probably agree is possible. If that’s so, then can all games’ mechanics be compared in this way to arrive at a lump sum of quality?”

timemage “Sounds like you’re on a good path to make it as compelling as you possibly can. How about we do a quick point-counterpoint using an aspect of a game as an example to see if it can be rated and ranked objectively or if it’s only subjective? Maybe something like graphics.”

“That could be good. I used the term “worked” to establish the quality Red Mage left
of the feature in a game. Graphics would be a feature that I think would be more difficult to pin down in terms of quality then gameplay but I think we could agree that The Last of Us had objectively better graphics than Mighty No.9. The question is why and I think for visuals that’s where it gets complex. A few things to consider would be how well it uses current technology, how well it meets expectations, how well it serves the presentation as a whole. That last one would be significant because a game like Journey for example is benefited by its minimalistic graphics and those weren’t the most visually complex or realistic that it’s original platform could manage.”

timemage “Exactly, which is why if you can’t pin down graphics which is perhaps the most likely to be subjective of all then I don’t think you can close the case (unless you make the case that graphics don’t play a part in a game being objectively better than others). Let me first ask: Do you believe there is a way to unequivocally say a game’s graphics are better than another’s and do you think graphics are pivotal to making a case that a game is objectively superior to another (as a sum)?”

“Actually I think with the above considerations,  Red Mage left
things like its use of current gen technology or expectations or a concrete things like glitches or how well it serves a presentation, that it’s difficult but not impossible to say how graphics are better in one game than in another. It’s complex but if it’s entirely subjective there is no way that we can say the graphics in Mighty No.9 are bad but you and I would both agree that they are.

“Another consideration would be historical context and the year of its release, the comparison to its peers. Mighty No.9 looks really bad because in comparison to its peers in the year of its release it looks extremely dated already and that apparently doesn’t do a good job of serving its presentation or it doesn’t meet the expectations of those who helped to pay for it. So I think that’s my answer to the first half your question as for the second half of your question I think the graphics are a huge consideration to make and definitely a part of games as a whole.

“As a counter question do you think that the graphics in The Last of Us are objectively or only subjectively better than those of its peers at the time of its release based on what was capable with its current gen technology? I just thought of another factor that one could explore to gauge the object of quality of graphics or not and that would be how well they’ve aged in comparison. Sorry this is stream of consciousness stuff but another issue would be the user friendliness of the graphics and it could be things like camera issues, how easy it is to see what you’re doing…”

timemage “Awesome answers. I’d add a caveat to the inclusion of historical context. If you rate it based on its place in history then you can only say it’s better than other games in its vicinity. To give a game a 10 because it was better than its predecessors and rate it against a current gen game’s 1 when the 1’s graphics are better than the 10’s would be a tad unfair. However keep in mind I’m fully aware that pixel graphics can be more compelling than 3D so that leads to the question: what is bad and good? What is better than another if tastes differ. I get the “works” rating you were talking about but I think it’s self contained. It says whether or not graphics within the game work within itself but doesn’t make the case whether it “works better” than another’s.”

“There are several titles with graphics which prevent you Red Mage left
from actively engaging with them because of issues like that and I think that’s objectively bad.”

timemage “Agreed. The challenge is quantifying that. So as a response to your The Last of Us graphics question, I think if I could answer that question our discussion would be complete so I’m going to respectfully shelve that for now. Need more time to think and sharpen my thoughts against yours.”

“No just answer as your gut prescribes! Red Mage left
I think about it in these terms: if all of gaming is subjective then we can’t say that any game is bad or any game is good. But we find that to be experientially false, because we make these claims and stand on them all the time and not just about games but about movies or music. I understand that you’ll need time to think so I respect that, this is all fresh in my mind because again I’m writing an essay/review on it. What would really be cool is if you wrote a rebuttal paper!

“I think in order to build a case for the subjectivity of not only graphics but of other select game features, you may need to go so far in qualitative relativism as to say that Duke Nukem Forever is not a bad game and that Mighty No.9 is not a bad game and that The Last of Us is not a good one. But I don’t think, if we’re talking along the lines of objective truth, that either of us would make those claims. But then the question is why can we make qualitative claims at all? And I think the answer is because you can comparatively and factually explain why certain features of a game work better than others.”

timemage “My gut says yes TLoU is better graphically than most of its peers.”

“So then to build your counter-case you’ll have to explain to me Red Mage left
why that’s not actually true, that it is not in fact objectively better than most of its peers!”

timemage “I think when rating and ranking a game it comes down to accepting a generalist approach and being aware of (but in the end ignoring) that there will always be a contrarian response. You can’t argue some games execute much better than others but of course there will always be the few who love inferior execution and claim it’s better because it adds to a certain feel of a game that they find superior.”

“That’s an interesting point Red Mage left
and I think it gets into something I mention in the review about personal taste and interpretation but the more you think about the private value someone personally finds in game the more I begin to think that any person’s personal liking or disliking of some game ultimately says little about any intrinsic value in the game, it says more about the person than the game, separating these two thoughts. Because liking or disliking by definition is subjective so what bearing could it have on establishing objectivity except only in the very slightest and most general terms: majority of people liked or disliked? If like/dislike is discovered in the majority then the question still remains: well why? And liking or disliking can’t establish that, it only barely begins to hint at objective features.

“I think you and I probably like several things that are objectively bad or poor but we can explain what those elements are and even why they don’t affect our subjective opinions anyway: nostalgia, interpretation, experience, familiarity, etc. The issue is that those subjective things like nostalgia and interpretation need to be surmounted in order for us to make an objective claim on the quality of an art form.

“I suppose the principle that would need to be engaged if someone says they love inferior execution and claim that it’s better would be to examine each of their individual arguments and see whether they hold up or not and if it’s not just them liking it for some subjective reason. If the arguments do, then maybe the game actually does have good mechanics at a fundamental level and not at a surface level, maybe we could be surprised by those claims. But I think that those cases would be exceptionally rare. I haven’t heard anyone make a convincing apologetic for Mighty No.9… to cite a specific example for the purposes of this conversation.”

timemage “I agree. The thing is we can all make a case for why we find something superior and it’s based on what we find valuable. I find well-realized worlds to be valuable but could a person who does not care for that still objectively admit that the world is well-realized? Can a person who prefers pixel art objectively admit that Uncharted’s graphics are superior to Hyper Light Drifter? I believe there is room for agreement of objectively superior quality over subjectively superior quality but it’s a tangled mess full of nuances and infinitesimally indistinguishable shades of gray. I’m sure you’ll get as close as you possibly can to making a good point for Chrono Trigger but unless you’re willing to dedicate your life to dissecting it and comparing it to a constantly expanding library of games I’m sure you’ll have to draw a line at some point.”

“Yeah it can’t be a final word on Chrono Trigger Red Mage left
and objectivity, but I’ll get as close as I can.”

timemage “The most any of us can do!”

“Right so I can only attempt objectivity as far as it’s feasibly possible, Red Mage left
but I reject as much subjectivity as possible in this context, and I think there’s quite a bit that can be rejected. To respond to the examples that you said earlier between Uncharted and Hyper Light Drifter I think that’s where you would fall back on one of the factors for visual quality that I cited earlier, for example the intention of the developers. Naughty Dog attempted to create a game with realistic graphics and they very well succeeded at that on a platform where they pushed the current technology as far as it would go. In the case of HLD, you have an indie game with the explicit purpose of using pixel art and not aiming at all for realistic graphics. In that context HLD was successful because it had comparatively great pixel art in terms of its vision, uniqueness, vividness, etc. This is where the broadness of gaming needs to be used for comparisons using context and appropriate contrasts. Journey vs The Last of UsHLD vs Uncharted 4, HZD vs BotW all use different styles of intent that must be taken into consideration. Tough and convoluted but not impossible.”

timemage “Thought: I wonder if the closest we could get in a simplified form to rating a game’s execution is to have a list of items with binary options of either “works” or “doesn’t work”. And if you want to rank it then compare it with another game and go down the same list and choose which one executes it better. I guess the main question is how do you come up with a consensus to answer those questions? And at the end of the day what you have is the popular vote. Meh.

“So that’s exactly what I was getting at with the comparison between different intents. Did Uncharted 4 succeed in its execution? Yes. Did HLD succeed in its execution? Yes. Which executed better? Who knows. I’m not sure how quantifiable that is.”

“There’s no academic or scientific “authority” in gaming Red Mage left
but for a consensus I think you’d have to put that list to the test, which I like, and attempt to prove your assertions to a consensus. That’s what academics do and I think it’s time gaming had the same level of research and inspection and studiousness applied to it that art historians and film critics apply to their fields.”

timemage “For example, Goat Simulator. Was that a successful execution of intent? Yes. Is it objectively inferior on a technical level? Absolutely. But that’s what was intended. It’s a part of its charm and if it was technically better it would devalue the game.”

“We would have to say better in context, categorically, Red Mage left
and if we go so far as best in all of gaming then new arguments would need to be furnished. I would guess that Uncharted 4 would come out on top of that comparison with Goat Sim.”

timemage “I’m sure we could come up with a good criterion if we put our heads together given the motivation and time there are.”

“Oh yes we could! We must also bring other factors to bear, Red Mage left
I only cited the intent factor as one possibility for the examples we were just talking about but to continue along those lines of gauging quality between two high-quality games then more factors would need to be implemented. That’s where I think you could get into things like use of current gen technology and historical context, and that’s why I say in terms strictly of visuals maybe Uncharted 4 would come out on top over Hyper Light Drifter, and that’s only in the context of visuals using only a few factors! There would still be plenty more to weigh and discuss. Now I haven’t played Uncharted 4 but questions to bring up about its visuals would be how well are they aging and will they age well, how well they allow the user to interface and interact with the gameplay, how well implemented its individual features are such as cutscenes or facial animations or rendering or fidelity, and so on? And on the flipside you could ask the same questions about HLD. On the one hand I think it’ll age better 10 years down the road however I think you could make the claim that it lacks all of the emotional and emotive scope and scale that Uncharted 4 has because of realism. It could be argued that it’s easier to engage with characters that are realistically rendered versus those which are essentially just a collection of stylized pixels, and HLD emphasizes only a few emotions.

“That isn’t necessarily to say generally that realism will win out every time, because sometimes those things don’t age well, like the works around the PS1 and PS2 era, but I think you’d have to decide on individual bases. This is somewhat off-topic and it doesn’t have to really play a part in our point counter-point discussion, but do you think that all or most of the disciplines, principles, and procedures in academic-level critical studies can be applied to video games?”

timemage “Hmm. Not sure I have the best grasp of all that you would include in that list of academic principles, etc. Any that you can give as a good example of something that may or not be applied to video games? I guess if I were to attempt to answer I would say yes unless it’s obviously irrelevant. I probably overthought your question.”

“I think we’re thinking the same thing, Red Mage left
and I’m going to try and think of specific examples. Statements which come to mine include things like textual criticism, historical criticism, cultural studies, linguistics, literary interpretation, film criticism, cinematography… I get that that’s stream of consciousness stuff for examples but I think you and I are thinking along generalities and principles.

“I think that mainstream gaming discussion could stand to have more of an academic approach in terms of studying narrative and ludology and mechanics and development comparable in principle to other academic studies, rather than boiling down to “well let’s just agree to disagree” in terms of objectivity. Of course I’m not saying that that’s what you’re postulating, but I’ve just seen that sort of catch-all dismissiveness quite a bit when you begin to get into the real in-depth stuff and measuring quality, or at best attempting to. And as a further clarification I think that there is room for that kind of lighter talk, and I wouldn’t want to see all of the discussion dominated either way.”

timemage “Agreed. I think higher criticism would benefit both the quality of gaming journalism and the quality of games. I certainly believe there is a place and purpose for measuring quality even if the best we can do is settle for a populist consensus (although I don’t believe that’s the best we can do). If the creators know their work will undergo higher scrutiny and if that scrutiny matters to a large population and if that large population votes with their money then I think we’ll see more intentional, deeper, meaningful content on the market.

“However after this year I think we’re on a good path. Not exactly sure why (requires some analysis) but I’ve had some of my best experiences in gaming this year with Horizon, Life is Strange, Farpoint, etc.”

“We are the future. Red Mage left
I find the first of your two paragraphs highly inspirational. I too think we’re on a good path. There’s still a lot of ugliness, unnecessary divisiveness, politicization, lazy writing, and so on in gaming journalism but there’s growing pushback against that. I’ve seen a lot of praise for this year in gaming thus far, lots of people saying it’s been a good one. So now that I sense that the point counter-point is winding down, let me thank you for a rigorous and robust discussion and a fair-minded presentation of positions: thank ya!”

timemage “Thank you for taking the time to play along, lol. There’s probably a better environment for this kind of discussion than Messenger but I think a lot of gold came out of the discussion nonetheless.”

“Yeah FB messenger is pretty terrible, and so is talk to text! Red Mage left
So un-shelve your answer to that Last of Us question!! Your answer is…”

timemage “The Last of Us is objectively superior in visual quality compared to most of its contemporaries. Taking into account widely accepted traditional critical analysis, The Last of Us stands above its peers in cinematography, use of color and detail to convey tone and historical narrative, graphical fidelity and techniques, facial animations, etc.”

“Boom.” Red Mage left

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So that’s our epistemology! There’s a lot to sift through there but I think we went through a lot of the challenges facing any determination to make objective quality claims in the arena of graphics. The conclusion we reached? That you can certainly make these objective claims even in areas as gray and vague as graphics, since there are games with demonstrably better graphics than others and since we experientially make those claims and stand on them all the time, not just in games but in many other contexts.

What needs to be done is bringing in as many factors as possible to make such claims, which sometimes gets into such technicalities that a simple 10-point scale may not reflect those realities, not without courting fractions. But if art historians and literary critics merely said “10/10” without detailing their opinions, then there’d be much fewer academic studies, papers, and research in those fields, wouldn’t there?

That being said, let’s move on to the graphics in Chrono Trigger. How can we gauge whether they’re good or not? We can bring numerous factors to bear: historical context, pushing hardware, process of development, conceptualization, intent of the creators, overall presentation, how well they’ve aged, presence of any glitches. How far we could extend this short list I’m not sure but skimming across a few of them should suffice for the purposes of this review!

First, historical context. By this I’m referring to Chrono Trigger’s graphics among those of its peers. During the fourth generation of consoles, the Super Nintendo reigned supreme, outselling every other device on the basis of its massive library, exclusives, family friendliness, and hardware capabilities. Despite Sega’s marked offensive against and head start on Nintendo, the SNES came out on top that generation and it remained a competitive giant even on into the fifth generation of consoles.

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The SNES boasted a palette of 32,768 colors, that’s 32,256 more colors than the Genesis/Mega Drive, 256 colors on-screen at once versus only 61 at once! It could also feature pseudo-3D effects through things like Mode 7 rendering and the Super FX chip present in certain SNES carts. Nintendo quickly made Sega’s games look outdated with this new, powerful technology. These ensured that the SNES had the best looking games of the 16-bit era, many of which looked better than the games coming out in the generation immediately following. In terms of graphics, the SNES was supreme.

Left: Genesis, right: SNES, 61 colors vs 256 colors.

Chrono Trigger took advantage of every capability that Nintendo’s hardware had, pushed its possibilities to the limit as we’ve already mentioned. The SNES had the best graphics out of its generation of consoles, and Chrono Trigger had the best graphics out of the SNES’s library of games. I can think of several rivals for that esteemed position: Super MetroidFinal Fantasy VI, the Donkey Kong Country games, Star FoxYoshi’s IslandF-ZeroMega Man X2Super Castlevania IVSuper Mario RPGDoom… all of these flirted with complex uses of 3D and unique implementations of Mode 7 or the Super FX chip, brandishing fluid sprite animations and incredible detailed sprite art, but what a lot of them share which Chrono Trigger rises above is a kind of dark muddiness.

With so many colors to choose from, it’s a wonder why some games ended up looking dull but that can be seen especially in contrast with Chrono Trigger. Visually, it’s somewhere between Final Fantasy and Secret of Mana. One of its developers noted there’s less white mixed in its colors compared to Mana, but it’s not quite as “dank” as Final Fantasy (to borrow a term used in an interview with the developers). Compared with the opening sequence of magitek marching through the snow toward Narshe at the beginning of FFVIChrono Trigger’s intro alone sets a new precedent for graphics that grab the attention. There’s a real depth of color and richness of tone, and dynamism in Chrono Trigger. The game also made use in several scenes of the SNES’s simulated 3D, those these were not showy or overdone. So despite it not matching every single technical achievement of other SNES titles combined, I think Chrono Trigger sits head and shoulders above the rest in historical context.

That inadvertently covers a bit of how far Chrono Trigger pushed its native hardware. Considering it was originally planned for a CD-ROM add on that never came to fruition, it’s easy to see the potency of the graphical end result after the project was refined for a cartridge. What about conceptualization?

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We’ve already seen how a lot of Chrono Trigger leaped out of boundless creativity, from the freedom to create, and from actual dreams, the subconscious, but there’s more to Chrono Trigger’s conceptualization than even that. For example, what do Chrono Trigger and Ridley Scott’s Alien have in common? Well, did you know that Chrono Trigger took influence from the 1979 science-fiction horror classic, a film renown for its incredible atmosphere? It was precisely that sense of mood and use of lighting which informed Chrono Trigger’s own scaling of light to create its distinctive settings and frame its memorable scenes.

The graphics director of the game himself, Yasuhiko Kamata, said when asked about the “feel of light” in the game:

“…personally, I think the expressions of Ridley Scott, the director of Alien, with the rays of light and the smoke coming up are very beautiful, and I wanted to make that the main feel of the game.”

Once you discover that that influence existed, it becomes more and more obvious, especially in areas which used layered smoke and mist, or dappled sunlight, to create a sense of atmosphere.

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Thirdly, as far as intent of the developers and presentation, the game has incredible personality and accuracy. Considering the game uses no separate battle screen, each playable character had bucket loads of unique sprites and expressions, and these same sprites exuded the art style of Akira Toriyama. This is of course clearest in the profile pics of the characters in the main menu but you can see the depth of loving detail in your sprites as they walk, fight, laugh and cry, as well as in the multitude of ferocious monsters and bosses throughout the game. There’s a unique character vigor in Chrono Trigger.

Main program designer Katsuhisa Higuchi said:

“And in Chrono Trigger, you get more than just one side. [The characters] move around, and they have their attack patterns, so their graphic data is overwhelmingly greater.”

Story Planner Masato Kato:

“The enemies in a normal RPG are just the one still picture. And if a really cool picture shows up, then it moves just a little bit in the battle. In this game, it’s not like that. The enemies really exist, and they move around like the characters, and it takes an enormous amount of data to animate them. That’s just how alive the enemies are.”

Heck, they were successful enough in their 16-bit impressionism of real life that I used to think Lucca had nice legs when I was a kid! Now, I was never really a legs-man but there was a sassy confidence that the nerd girl Lucca was animated with when she walked, convincing in its execution. Lucca’s legs aside, that’s just one example of the detail lavished on Chrono Trigger’s presentation. Even minor characters exhibited a range of animations and emotions based off of Toriyama’s artwork.

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And fourthly, finally, so as not to belabor graphics: how well have the visuals of Chrono Trigger aged? Perhaps these were the best visuals of the 16-bit era but what can that say about how Chrono Trigger visually compares with graphics in the games which came after it, and how well its Super Nintendo graphics hold up? That could occupy another 10,000 words all on its ownsome so for now I’ll say the following points: the SNES 16-bit era has enjoyed some of the longest lasting influence and respect in the history of gaming, the 16-bit era has been a major influence in the rise of stylized pixel art indie games, the 16-bit era built upon and perfected pixelated graphics from the previous generations of gaming, the 16-bit era aged far better than early 3D graphics from the 5th and even 6th generations, which look uglier, drabber and were plagued by camera issues in contrast, and the 16-bit era (because of its limitations) didn’t fall into the trap that current gen gaming has which elevates and glorifies graphics above substance as the most significant feature of a game or piece of hardware (SEE all of Microsoft), generally speaking.

For these reasons, which bear further exploration someday, I equate the 16-bit era as having some of the best graphics, if not the best, out of any era in gaming history, and if Chrono Trigger is indeed at the top of the 16-bit era graphically, then it partakes of each of these points in spades. No detrimental glitches, no frustrating framerate issues, no camera complaints, no stain of ugly textured titles ruins its graphics, and there’s no glorification of its visuals over its content. It has aged better than pretenders at 3D and better than games to come over the next few years.

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Can we expect that it will age better than even embarrassing attempts at facial animation like in Mass Effect Andromeda or the stammering glitches of all sorts of other current gen titles after another 20 years have passed? Perhaps its “pixelated naiveté” helps with that expression (if I may borrow the phrase from a friend), because I mean HD detail and resolution are cool and all but they don’t mean much if your characters boil all that realism down to the expressiveness of potato-faced mannequins.

We shall have to phrase it that way and move on.

 

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The Wings of Time

accessibility Accessibility: 10/10

To talk of gameplay in Chrono Trigger is to talk of the sum of lots of self-awareness and fine tuning. Apparently, one of most common complaints which the developers received from early play testers was that the game was too hard. Now that may come as quite a shock to those familiar with Chrono Trigger. We’re only in the know with the final version of the game that plays like a dream.

Chrono Trigger has a fluidity and flow not just of pacing in terms of narrative but of balance in terms of its gameplay and mechanics. The game doesn’t feel overlong and tedious nor too short and disappointing. There’s never any need for grinding out experience to progress through the story. The regions and eras don’t feel cut-and-paste. The boss fights feel eventful and challenging without being unfair or brutal to the extreme.

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diff Challenge: 10/10

One of the areas of conversation I’m most interested in regarding “retro” games is the subject of their difficulty. You often see difficulty touted as a significant feature of retrogaming. There are two schools of thought which seem to come out of this and more or less miss the mark based on their degree of extremism: one camp shuns retro games as being too hard, unfair, cheap, impossible, broken, and therefore a waste of time, whereas the other camp embraces retro games as some kind of proof of “machoism”, that beating a retro game is a statement of skill and a testament to one’s endurance, patience, and all around lack of sissy-ness. One tells you to forget the clunky past and the other tells you to suck it up but neither addresses the quality that challenge brings or doesn’t bring when present in a video game.

As seems to be the case in so many areas in life, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and in that absolute center lies Chrono Trigger. It manages to furnish enough challenge and enough extra material (the Black Omen, beating Lavos with a single character, optional bosses) so as to feel like a toughie while at the same time never forcing you to walk back and forth near an inn for hours on end just to crunch in a few extra stat gains so you’re not wiped in the next dungeon.

Playing through Chrono Trigger as much as I have, getting every single ending and exploring every last corner of time, I had my fair share of game over screens but these were never frustrating deaths I might’ve prevented if not for broken mechanics or a cheap boss attack. I challenge you to find an RPG with better balance, better pacing, and better tuning than this, an RPG true to its principles of exploration and imagination not bogged down by tedium and too much non-story stuff to do.

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gameplay Gameplay: 10/10

There are five significant areas of Chrono Trigger’s gameplay that I want to touch on.

First off, time travel. This is the foundation of the game’s entire presentation. It’s in the title, for cryin’ out loud! The development team was cautious about the time travel mechanic twisting the game into a series of backtracking chores. Masato Kato working on story did not want the game to feel like a “long string of errands”. I think they included time travel wisely, sparingly and primarily as a function of story more so than a function of gameplay.

Let me unpack that thought. Time travel in Chrono Trigger isn’t something that you can just do at a whim for most of the game. It’s not something you can just select from your main menu screen. Time travel is, early on, constrained to events prescribed by the progression of the narrative (tracking down Marle, returning with her to the present, escaping from prison and fleeing into the future, ending up at the End of Time, etc.).

Further, you can only cross the barrier of the fourth-dimension at rifts in spacetime, at Lucca’s original accidental time machine, or at the End of Time. From these points you can travel to any temporal destination you’ve previously visited until the story opens up more. It’s not until much later that you find Belthasar’s Wings of Time, the Epoch, a flying time machine which lets you cross chronology whenever you like. Refraining from easy access time travel and showing some subtlety informed a nice flow through most of the game so that by the time you get the Epoch, you’re near the end of the game, and time travel then becomes more about exploration than about exploitation or monotonous fetch questing.

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And best of all, most of the time travel makes plain sense. If you go to the future and open a treasure chest, then go to the past, the chest will still exist unopened in the past.

Secondly, there are no random encounters in this game. To be clear, I really enjoy a good RPG classic but one of the things I find it hardest to go back to are the random encounters, especially if the encounter rate is dialed up beyond what seems normal. I discovered this to be a major complaint with older RPGs, a complaint made even among a select few of my own scribal associates, and the younger the gamer it seems the less tolerance for random encounters will be found. I realized my own distaste for high random encounter rates when trying to finally make it through the first Final Fantasy recently, thanks to the NES Classic. What drudgery! Battle after battle after battle!

Chrono Trigger uniquely did away with that with an elegant solution. It retained the level of tactical prowess demanded by turn-based RPGs like Final Fantasy games while avoiding the tendency toward the button mashing mindlessness of action-RPGs in the vein of Secret of Mana. Instead, it was a turn-based RPG with encounters visible on the overworld map. This allowed the player to choose to engage an enemy or to dodge them entirely. Note that there are “scripted” battles which occur especially in the later portions of the game that cannot be avoided, likely to ensure there’s measurable challenge in those portions, but this lent a freedom to most of the game that made Chrono Trigger stand out.

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Interrupt innocent game of kickball for a fight?

Now given this was not the first game to drop random encounters and put the monsters on the map in this way, but it was the first RPG to drop battle screens. When your party encounters an enemy, they’re not whisked away to a separate screen with a new set of sprites or character models, both for themselves and for their foes. Instead, the battles take place right on the map, seamlessly. There’s no break between exploration and encounter except for the encounter itself. The game has great accessibility and great pacing for it.

The game’s existence as a cart not as a CD-ROM actually allowed for these faster loading times. It was better for the limitation, said one developer:

“Thanks to the high speed of the ROM, it was possible to seamlessly make the action visible in the field without the need to make a transition into a battle screen. Previously, such as in FF, the developers “hid” processing in a “second of darkness” during those transition scenes but in Chrono Trigger all that had to happen quicker and seamlessly.”

Thirdly, there’s the Active Time Battle (ATB) system. While Chrono Trigger had marked differences from the Final Fantasy games, it did lift this battle system from where it was first implemented in Final Fantasy IV. Players had to wait until their characters’ action bars filled up before they could make a move and attack. The ATB system may be one of the most significant innovations in role-playing games ever. It breathed a fresh sense of urgency over a genre that was already then known for being boring to those unaccustomed to its sluggishness. Instead of number crunching and slow deliberation on every move, the “Active Time Battle 2.0” here turns Chrono Trigger’s bouts into exercises of wit, forcing you to think on your feet and act fast or be annihilated.

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Fourthly, character classes and techs. Character classes, or jobs as they were known in Final Fantasy games, was something that Chrono Trigger ignored by simply not being explicit about how its characters developed through gaining experience. However, each character that joins your party has a different fixed elemental affinity which informs the set of magical attacks which they’ll learn over the course of the game. Crono uses lightning magic, Marle uses ice, Lucca fire, Frog water, Magus shadow, and Ayla and Robo have no magical affinity, instead emphasizing physical attacks for the most part. In this sense, Chrono Trigger sticks to tradition where only one character can learn a specific skill set. Contrary to Final Fantasy, there’s very little room for customization beyond choosing what three characters appear in your active party.

The innovation which puts Chrono Trigger on the map, however, is its use of “techs”, the game’s name for skills and magic abilities. Techs can have pre-described effects on enemies but as your characters learn new techs, you’ll discover that some of them can be used in tech combos. This immediately makes you aware of what party members to take with you to face a boss or enter a dungeon. You can combine techs to make new dual or even triple techs, attacks which require input from all three active members of your party. These can range from Crono’s Cyclone and Frog’s Slurp Cut being used together to perform the dual tech X-Strike or Crono, Marle, and Lucca’s union for the triple tech Delta Force: a lightning, ice, fire attack. There are tons of combinations, and I’m not sure I’ve even seen them all!

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Fifthly, there’s the New Game+ invention featured in Chrono Trigger. This was not the first time that allowed a gamer could progress through the game again after completing it (the original Legend of Zelda had a harder second quest after its first), but it was the first time in gaming history that this concept was christened with its own title. New Game+ would later become a staple feature in Square and even non-Square titles.

New Game+ was uniquely suited for its debut with Chrono Trigger since this game often uses decision making mechanics which lead to varying outcomes. For example, when Crono is thrown in prison, you can decide to wait out your sentence to your execution day or you can try to escape by either beating up a guard or sneaking out through the back of your cell. These choices are aplenty in Chrono Trigger so replaying the game allows you to explore different avenues, see different conversations and scenes which never would’ve happened otherwise, or in some cases even pick up new treasures that you couldn’t access before.

Commenting on this, Horii and Sakaguchi said:

[Horii] “With the options in Chrono Trigger, you often find yourself wondering about what would have happened had you chosen to do something different. The second time through gives you more chances to toy with what people say.”

[Sakaguchi] “Wherever we could, we tried to make it so that a slight change in your behavior caused subtle differences in people’s reactions, even down to the smallest details. If you feel the changes, I think the second playthrough will hold a whole new interest.”

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A lot of games include decision-making mechanics but none of them emphasize the freedom to make choices like Chrono Trigger does, as if the presence of its core premise of time travel frees the player to make any decision they like without the pressure and anxiety of worrying about whether they made the “right” one or not. This is not an aspect of the game where you had to keep any kind of notes for. Once you’re beefed up enough, you can just fight Lavos and restart to a new third or fourth NG+ anyways. Thankfully the developers ensured that decision-making meant freedo, not being burdened down and held back by the options you chose.

Thus when you complete the game for the first time, you’re taken back along the timeline as it were (again NG+ is uniquely suited to this game about time travel), allowing you to restart Crono’s journey while retaining the same levels, experience, techs and equipment that you amassed on the previous playthrough. You can then progress through different avenues of the storyline, building it as you go later on in the game, and coming to the final confrontation with Lavos through any number of different pathways through time.

It’s an ingenious way to keep even a dozen or more playthroughs of this game interesting. I’ve never played through an RPG so many times before or since but I’ve discovered all of the many, many endings, even those with small differences, by fighting Lavos at different points during the adventure. Does each new timeline fragment reality and create a new timeline, a flashpoint paradox? That’s for the sequel Chrono Cross to answer, more or less.

 

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The Sealed Door

story Narrative: 10/10

RPG and JRPG storylines typically fall into the same category of quest-based narratives, drawing from familiar archetypes where a hero goes on a journey to make some friends and confront some great evil. Though the details differ, the stories themselves can sometimes feel practically interchangeable. So why do we retell these narratives so often, then? Because the hero’s journey plot is so inspiring, reminding us that individuals no matter their size can be forces of great change, and that peoples from different backgrounds can come together and unite for a common good, that confronting evil is worth setting aside our differences for. Our species has been telling these kinds of stories since the dawn of writing, on through Gilgamesh, Perseus, Hercules, Robin Hood, Superman, and Frodo.

With Chrono Trigger, the joy is in the details. While the plot fits the familiar structure of heroism, it’s how the game goes about telling this story which makes it exceptional. Most RPGs at the time were linear, straightforward, advancing characters from point A to point B without deviation. The odd sidequest here or there was the exception, not the rule. This was even more evident in the RPGs which emphasized story over mechanics like dungeon-crawling or character customization. Heck, even the first Final Fantasy was about a time paradox. Since those days, RPGs have taken on qualities framed around optional content, DLC, and open-world mechanics, leading to games that feel busier, less linear, which tell their tales as the player prescribes or in small chunks and bursts as you progress through the game’s series of tasks.

Chrono Trigger falls down the middle. It’s an an open-linear game which allows remarkable freedom fairly quickly but restrains that freedom just enough so as not to derail the progression and sense of urgency, the tension about the storyline. As is true with so many things in Chrono Trigger, there’s a perfect balance here in its narrative structure. When it feels like you’re exploring, you’re actually advancing the plot. When it feels like you’re advancing the plot, you’re given the pleasure of exploring its rich environs. Because there are so many different time periods, there’s an additional layer of exploration, namely investigating the relationships between eras and the consequences of your actions in the timeline, and that sense of discovery ends up being the cornerstone of the story, pushing it forward on the energy of wonder, not begrudgingly.

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I really can’t think of a better example of a game whose foundational mechanics enhance its narrative methodology, rather than detract from it as we’ve seen with some open-world games or choke it as we’ve seen with some traditional RPGs. In Chrono Trigger it never feels as if you have to wait too long for the next “scene” by plowing through infinite hallways full of monsters or by completing a long chain of chores for NPCs.

A significant part of any story is character development. Watching a character change during the course of a story is one of the joys of storytelling and it helps us identify with the character, understand them as a person (however artificial), and learn from them. This was one of my complaints regarding another very well-received game, The Last of Us, in which we learn a lot about Joel’s past but we never see the character change essentially at all from the selfish scumbag he became after his daughter’s death. It’s not that he never becomes a saint, it’s that he never ceases being static, a caricature of a man defined by a moment decades ago.

Chrono Trigger develops its characters and outlines their backstories through optional content played out over multiple playthroughs, scenes in which you uncover what happened to Lucca’s mother or what turned Magus into a cold-hearted wizard. Crono himself, a silent protagonist, is treated as the POV character for the player, the bridge into the game world and a stand-in for the one holding the controller. The game is character driven. So many members of its cast are memorable and they’re certainly more interesting than typical JRPG characters with hair-color swaps.

The game didn’t feature advanced motion capture, voice acting, or facial animation technology to parallel the real world inflexions of human verbal and non-verbal language. It had to rely instead on fluid sprite animations, musical mood-setting, deliberate silence, atmosphere, and scripting (the translation was completed in only 30 days). The tendency from our modern vantage point may be to frown among Chrono Trigger’s dated technology and presentation as inferior to the scope of impact that current gen games afford, but one possible answer to this is literature. Literature uses less than Chrono Trigger to tell impactful stories: dialogue, exposition, narration… just words on a page but these are capable of portraying drama. Chrono Trigger adds to that cinematic moments, soaring music, and colorful splendor in ways that went further than its peers.

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In actuality, if the presentation is of high enough quality then there’s no reason to think that an outdated work of entertainment (Citizen Kane, It’s a Wonderful LifeLes MiserablesHamletThe Great GatsbyTetrisChrono Trigger) should fail to rank and impress primarily on the basis of it being old. Classics never die. They remain perpetually moving because their quality transcends time, and I’m loathe to extend that benefit to every art form except for video games! If you believe games are art, then why believe they can’t stand the test of time like any classic film, sculpture, painting, or book?

There are so many moments in Chrono Trigger which transcended the mundane realities of pixels on a CRT screen. I’ll never forget scenes like these which leaped off the TV and grabbed me by the heartstrings or stirred my sense of childlike wonder (a sensation which wanes with age, yes). How could I forget that feeling of soaring through the skies above the clouds in the Kingdom of Zeal, or the grim showdown against Magus atop his castle, or the sadness of the End of Time, or the wistfulness of the Reptites watching their civilization crumble, or the playfulness of Masa and Mune, or watching the main character die? I couldn’t forget them any more than I could the scenes when I followed Captain Nemo twenty-thousand leagues beneath the sea, or stumbled with Alice down the rabbit hole, or propelled through the ages in The Time Machine, or heard the boar’s head speak in The Lord of the Flies, or watched the wretched Golumn plummet into Mount Doom. When entertainment becomes more than a way to waste time, when it leaves an impression on its audience, is that not a testament to its power?

I remember playing through Chrono Trigger with my wife, watching her take in the story as we progressed. We came across a powerful moment when we see in a flashback Glenn being cursed and turned into a frog after his failure to save Cyrus. Though we chatted during the lead up to that moment, all conversation stopped as the game went quiet. The silence was captivating.

Thanks to the quality of its presentation, Chrono Trigger’s story has become one of the best respected and best remembered in all of gaming history. The capstone of that is the New Game+ mode with the multiple endings. I can really only think of a few other RPGs that had two or three endings but over a dozen? Chrono Trigger stands alone in this arena. While not all of the endings lead to dramatic conclusions for the characters, many of them do, allowing what few other pieces of entertainment do: the ability to see what would hypothetically happen should a set of circumstances fall in line in different ways. Exploring these varied avenues of a branching narrative blew my mind and made a younger me think the game was limitless. Decades later, I know the game isn’t limitless but it has that spark of awe which makes me empathize with that perspective out of my youth.

More so than with graphics and visuals, I think story is a far vaguer thing to nail down and put a score on. We can still talk of things in storytelling which “work” and things which don’t. We could probably have that conversation till the proverbial cows come home. For the purposes of this review, however, I shall stand on the trove of characterization, open-linearity, world building, scenes, dialogue, respect and fame that Chrono Trigger’s story represents.

 

 

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To the End of Time

unique Uniqueness: 10/10

It has been 22 years since the Dream Project came to fruition and crowned the 16-bit era, and since that time Chrono Trigger shows no signs of stopping. Its influence and impact still resounds more than two decades later in games which take direct inspiration from it and others which indirectly follow in its footsteps. The one plaintive cry that went up after the announcement of the Super Nintendo Classic Edition was “Where is Chrono Trigger?” This is a game which has already been remade and repackaged a handful of times, yet its absence on the SNES mini caused “Chrono Trigger” to trend on Twitter… in 2017.

I hope that in some way I’ve been able to address exactly why that is, why this game remains so beloved and so cherished while so many others have faded with the passage of time.

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Perhaps where Chrono Trigger succeeds most is in being free to be creative. Seemingly it was made out of the mere excitement of creation. It was not a slave to an enterprise franchise or the conventions of its day. Chrono Trigger did not have to save a company. It did not have to satisfy a fanbase or kickstarters. It did not have to pander to an agenda or fit into a mold. It was not a AAA giant nor an obcure indie. Like the story of the trespassing girl who ate the bears’ bowls of porridge, Chrono Trigger is “just right”.

In a world where MMORPGs soak up thousands of hours of gameplay time with meaningless, anti-social banter and loot grinding, where games fade from retro to ancient and become relics whose light has gone out in so many eyes, where JRPGs have become unoriginal anachronisms full of plastic-faced anime clichés, where big name franchise games stagnate and fester in development for a decade only to turn out sloppy and vapid, where the flashy and the “hyper-cool” has replaced patience, balance, and imagination, Chrono Trigger stands defiant as a milestone in gaming history. Even if you don’t believe in the existence of a theoretical “game of all time”, all of the evidence points to Chrono Trigger being at the very least a masterpiece. It “works” better than Final Fantasy XV, I can tell you that.

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Its inspiration borders the metaphysical. It knows few equals in the hearts and souls of many a gamer. It inspired me to learn to draw. I once sketched an entire diorama of its characters with the Epoch blasting past them. It inspired me to take up an interest in music. I began thinking about instruments and eventually took up the piano, and this game’s soundtrack was the first one I ever wanted to own. It inspired me to write, an activity that really defines my life right now. Chrono Trigger was the first and only time I attempted a novelization. I found an old typewriter at a garage sale and spent my allowance in my tween years to buy it just so I could retell the story in this game in my own words. This is the subjective value I’ve found in this game.

I know it has meant so many things to so many different people and for me it really made me feel what creative freedom is like. Chrono Trigger is the greatest example of what happens when you put the most brilliant people together in one room and let them create to their hearts’ content. It showed me that a story can contain anything I dreamed up. It taught me how to create entire worlds and characters who could relate to each other across vast chasms of time. It demonstrated to me that ideas matter, that they can have impact, and that games can impress in ways I had never fathomed.

Chrono Trigger to me represents an entire summer vacation. That’s how long I played it, holed up in my room with blankets over the windows to coax the dimness of a perpetual den. I got sucked into this game and never grew tired of it even after months of gameplay, exploring interactions through time down to the smallest detail. My step-dad came in to check up on me from now and then that summer, probably to make sure I wasn’t doing drugs or anything, and he sat down to watch me play and got hooked himself. He even asked when I was going to play the game next and if he could come and watch it, after breakfast one morning. Poor dude had to go to work during the weekdays though.

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pgrade My Personal Grade: 10/10

Chrono Trigger is my favorite game of all time. I happen to believe it’s a magnum opus, perfect in its presentation, its visuals, its execution, its joys, its humor and its drama, its storytelling and its music. This is the longest, most physically and mentally exhausting review I have ever written and yet I feel like I did when I played the game for the first time: there’s still so much more to explore. I could’ve reached 20,000 words diving into themes and interplay between characters, but like the game itself there has to come a moment when we reach the End of Time, where all times lead. Chrono Trigger preserves an air of mystery about itself by not explaining away everything, by leaving certain things purposefully mystifying. That’s part of its attraction and I’ll follow suit with my review.

Perhaps that’s part of why it has endured so. Sakaguchi, Horii, and Toriyama conceived something the world has never seen the likes of again. Sakaguchi once said Final Fantasy is about “challenging expectations”. That philosophy bled into the project that became Chrono Trigger.

I’m reminded of the oft-repeated cautionary sonnet of Shelley’s Ozymandias, self-proclaimed king of kings, whose works ye mighty might have despaired to look upon once, yet those works now lie half-buried within and worn away by the sands of time. Those same sands of time have had no effect on the permanence of Chrono Trigger. Its lasting appeal amid the dismissive annihilation wreaked upon its peers and predecessors by the ravages of time, as well as newer titles which are so quickly forgotten, is proof of its significance and its importance. And as time passes, this statement shall become ever truer.

Chrono Trigger is the greatest game of all time.

Thanks for reading!

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Aggregated Score: 10.0

 

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25 thoughts on “Chrono Trigger (1995)

    • I tried as best I could to explain why I think it’s the GOAT and it took me forever to do it! 😀 Currently I’m thinking the biggest obstacle to establishing an ultimate GOAT is nobody has played every game ever. I had that talk with another contributor here. There are some folks who haven’t played CT, either, so it very well can’t be the GOAT for them unless they’re effectively convinced. In that regard, what is your GOAT pick?

      Liked by 1 person

        • It is a tough question. After so many words, I’m inclined to believe that there is no such thing as an objective GOAT, though I’m interested to explore where the objectivity in comparing individual games and their features lies against the border of things like favoritism, nostalgia, brand loyalty, and hype.

          Liked by 1 person

  1. When I first played CT, I knew absolutely nothing about it. I had just finished getting my butt kicked many, many times on FFIV, and since it was included on the PS1 disc, I thought I might as well get my money’s worth. It was just amazing. I still regret not doing all the endings on there or the DS port.

    Of course, then I rushed out and bought Chrono Cross and was utterly disappointed to say the least.

    I know there are so many different battle systems out there, but I just will never understand why more games don’t have Dual/Triple Techs. Come on, Square Enix! You’re united now! MORE CT-LIKE GAMES!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oooh going in dark! That’s so enjoyable when you stumble across a masterpiece. And you even played it on the PS1 port which had loading time issues. The game itself is perfection and yes Chrono Cross is highly disappointing by comparison and I wish Square put out more true sequels to this game with the same systems in place.

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  2. I want to actually play Chrono Trigger before reading this epic review so I’ve bookmarked it for a later date (hopefully before the world ends, haha). I just wanted to say I’m impressed you were able to talk about this game in so much detail! 🙂

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    • Well the world may end before you get a chance to read this thing! 😛 It is a deep meandering so I would suggest you play Chrono Trigger first before reading it. If for whatever reason you give up on that, I spend most of this article discussing its merits rather than its narrative, take that as you will. I figured if I ever went this big for a review it would have to be for this game, but it was so exhausting I doubt I’ll ever do it again.

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  3. I personally would not quite consider Chrono Trigger the greatest game ever made (full disclosure: it would actually lose against most of the other games I’ve awarded a 10/10), but it is indeed one of the best games of its decade, and I think it succeeded at grasping something the medium had attempted to strive for, but didn’t get until then. It can be difficult to judge works in the face of a large fandom, but this is a case where I feel the heaps of praise it has amassed over the years is 100% deserved. It manages to do absolutely everything right with no major weaknesses to speak of.

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    • I think that given the limited experiences anyone can have, unless there’s someone who has played every video game ever, that the GOAT moniker is ultimately impossible to realize on a purely objective level, much as I tried and will continue to try to find the limits of objectivity and subjectivity. This post was mainly that, a wrestling with that border, trying to discover it, and bring standards for myself into critiquing beyond just “I like this or that”.

      Of course, we’re still talking about objective features when you mention things like it manages to do absolutely everything right with no major weaknesses to speak of, so at that point it comes down to making comparisons between the 10’s, which you’re ready and able to do, I’m sure. That I think is the valid response to this article. What I couldn’t abide in other feedback I received was when commenters insisted on games being purely subjective and then arguing against the objective claims I made by making further objective claims (such as hardware specs statements).

      Anyhow, you know me that I’m not interested in arguing after I’ve written my piece, so in the interest of conversation what are some of the other 10/10’s you’ve reviewed? I’m still building up my review library but at around a couple hundred reviews I only have this game and SMB3 as 10’s. I fully expect that TWRM will be a place where very few 10’s ever coalesce.

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      • As someone who has played the NES Dragon’s Lair and the SNES game Metal Morph, I can tell you that attempting to play every game ever made would be a bad idea even if one somehow had the time. With my own reviews, I tend to speak objectively about a game, going into its background, what kind of game it is, and what the story is. After that is when I start sharing my subjective thoughts.

        I have awarded the 10/10 grade five times so far. Other than Chrono Trigger, they are: Undertale, Planescape: Torment, Metroid Prime 3, and Metal Gear Solid 3. I tend not to use decimals (and if I did, I would only use .5), so for some of these games, I can actually think of a few weaknesses. Metal Gear Solid 3 has cutscenes that drag on for a little too long and the gameplay of Planescape: Torment is somewhat underdeveloped. The reason I ended award them a 10/10 anyway is because what’s good about them well and truly outweighs their weaknesses to the point where they’re a non-issue. In the case of Planescape: Torment, the gameplay may not be that great, but the story is one of the best the medium has to offer. It goes beyond any sort of aggregated scale I could come up with.

        I tend not to award many 10/10s either; I tend to limit it to one per franchise.

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        • I think I got that gist from you that you were fair in limiting your 10’s, even though I haven’t seen your portfolio. The decimals help me excuse games that come really close to 10 but have a few flaws. Of the ones you mentioned, Metroid Prime 3 and MGS3 are games I’ve played that I don’t think qualify for GOAT (whatever that is). The latter particularly contains what I mentioned in my review, the burden of attempting realistic graphics in an era when it was not possible to create other than uncanny valley faces, vs the impressions that unrealistic graphics offered. As for the other games you mentioned, I haven’t played them which takes us back to that first problem we talked about anyway haha! I think we can both agree though that attempting to be objective and then supplying our subjective thoughts is the way to go.

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  4. What a wonderfully epic read that was. Chrono Trigger is one of a long list of games that I really enjoyed but never finished. Even so, I always had fun when I played it. It was actually the combo moves that first grabbed my attention, as I’d not seen that done before. Really good read about a really good game.

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    • Is it a tad long? 😛
      Someone on Twitter said it read like a doctorate thesis but I figured if I ever took the longform review style to this level, it would have to be for Chrono Trigger. I just wonder why this game resonates with so many and I tried to explain that, in as safely tedious terms as possible 😀

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