Time traveling into the SNES’ past – Chrono Trigger

This is one of the two page spreads that appeared in North America to promote Chrono Trigger’s entry into the market in 1995. Along the left side, it played up character designs by Akira Toriyama (Dragon Quest, Dr. Slump, Dragon Ball) and the 10 endings that players could discover across 70 hours of play.

It’s been 20 years since Chrono Trigger landed in Japan on this calendar date and for those that remember their halcyon days spent on the SNES with it, is regarded by many as one of the best titles ever made for the console. It wasn’t just a great “JRPG” — it was a great RPG that had many of the hallmarks that others within its general genre in both the East and West have often pulled from their developer’s toolbox of tricks to amaze, motivate, and inspire players involved in exploring their respective worlds.

It boasted multiple endings, something that a number of other iconic RPGs have to their credit ranging from Black Isle’s adaptation of Planescape to others such as Obsidian’s Fallout: New Vegas and BioWare’s Dragon Age: Origins. It bragged about being 70 hours long, though your mileage may vary depending on which paths you took through the game, yet was a fair estimate especially if you were like me and wanted to explore every possibility within the game and pry as many secrets from its convoluted relationships between its characters and the plot triggers.

According to a 1994 interview in V-Jump, a manga and video gaming magazine in Japan, and archived over at mega-fansite, Chrono Compendium, the initial kernel of the idea came about in 1992 as Hironobu Sakaguchi (Final Fantasy) recounts an event where he traveled to America with Dragon Quest creator, Yuji Horii, and manga artist, Akira Toriyama (Dragon Ball) on a research mission checking out the latest in graphics tech. Inevitably, the three began talking about making a game together and over the next year or so, brainstormed a number of ideas. They “had almost given up” when they heard from Kazuhiko Aoki that he was interested in bringing their project to life. The rest, as they say, is history.

Chrono Trigger’s team was a “dream team” of industry veterans and genre all stars. In addition to the Three Musketeers above, it included Masato Kato who had previously worked on games such as the Ninja Gaiden trilogy on the Famicom/NES and Princess Maker 2 in ’93. Yatsuhiro Matsuda worked on Final Fantasy V and Secret of Mana in a sound effects/programming capacity. On Chrono, he’d be part of the team involved in actually composing music for the game, a team that also included Final Fantasy maestro, Nobuo Uematsu.

The time travel idea almost didn’t happen and it wasn’t originally one of the ideas sketched out for the game. It came up later, though Masato Kato didn’t like it fearing that it would lead to repetitive gameplay. But Yuji Horii was a huge fan of the idea and Kato eventually wrote up the general scenario around it, using multiple endings in an apparent attempt to reconcile the different paths he couldn’t branch the main story into. Sakaguchi also noted that the more humorous touches in the game would be “impossible with something like Final Fantasy”.

The result was a game whose aesthetic was filled with a kind of blind wonder at what lay around the corner playfully tugging on the edges of simple, childhood curiosity, before revving up the epic with its sweeping story and Peter Pan-like flights of fancy taking players through history and all the way up to the literal end of time.

The story starts the kingdom of Guardia in 1000 AD where Crono is awakened by his mom on the day of the big fair. For the most part, the game cuts the player loose to check out Guardia on their own, or take part in fair activities such as battling a big robot to testing their strength for “silver points” that they can use to buy prizes with. But eventually, they meet up with their friend, Lucca, who is testing a new invention that will light the fuse on a grand adventure whisking Crono and the friends he will make across time on a grand adventure to save the world from a mysterious enemy called Lavos.

Little does Crono know that this is going to be a day of surprises. This scene also gives us another sample of Chrono Trigger's outstanding soundtrack.

Little does Crono know that this is going to be a day of surprises. This scene also gives us another sample of Chrono Trigger’s outstanding soundtrack.

The game used a number of concepts to stand out from its peers. Enemies were often visible on the playing field allowing the player to try and avoid encounters if they could. On starting the game, the player could also choose between “Active” or “Wait” modes for the Battle Mode which was derived from Hiroyuki Ito’s work on FF IV.

“Active” meant enemies wouldn’t wait for you to make your choice while “Wait” meant that enemies wouldn’t make a move until after you’ve chosen what to do. It also employed a combo system via its “technique” system which were its version of “spells” or “special skills”. Certain characters would double up on certain techniques, or even all three (party size was limited to three at any time, although players could swap members after making it to a certain point in the game) for incredibly devastating attacks. These technique combos could even be leveled up with points earned by using them.

As for saves, players could save anywhere on the world map, at save points, or at the End of Time.

Though the game asks you this at the start, you can always toggle it in from the options.

Though the game asks you this at the start, you can always toggle it in from the options.

But time travel remained a core piece of the game and side quests, characters met, and where you were in past eras could potentially affect later eras and lead to a new ending. One of the complaints about Chrono Trigger was that, for some, the game could be too “short”, but with the permutations allowing for subtle changes with the story leading to new endings, its replayability was pretty high, a concept that has also been recently visited by another time traveling adventure, Life is Strange by Dontnod Entertainment.

I played through Chrono Trigger several times trying out different party combinations and whether something might change if I did certain things differently. This was made especially more entertaining with its New Game + feature that allowed players to replay the game with levels, technique, and equipment earned when you had finished the game — a feature that would later be used in a variety of other games in the Square family as well as by other RPGs both on consoles and PCs in later years.

The art direction for Chrono Trigger was also notable. Artists took Toriyama’s character designs for Chrono and his friends transforming them into pixels packed with expressive behaviors which players could trigger on their own in certain situations. Crono and friends could shrug, dance, and laugh on cue. They could perform like cartoonish characters during in-game scenes playing out like small vignettes fleshing out plenty of characterization across Chrono Trigger’s ensemble. The world map, zooming in on locations using the SNES’ Mode 7 effects, the look of each era and that of the bosses also came together in building Chrono Trigger’s eclectic collection of eras, each of which could be treated as its own world.

The opening area at the fair allowed players to explore it to their heart's content. Chrono Trigger gave players quite a bit of freedom, especially once you start hopping around time exploring what you could.

The opening area at the fair allowed players to explore it to their heart’s content. Chrono Trigger gave players quite a bit of freedom, especially once you start hopping around time exploring what you could. As for this scene, I’m leading a kitty back home. Players didn’t have to, but if you were playing this game fresh and only had an idea that something like this might actually be remembered in some way down the line, you did it anyway. Or tried to.

Even with multiple endings, Chrono Trigger made the ones that I had managed to find on my own worth getting to as opposed to simply being a cursory event betting that you’ll play the game again. And that’s the feeling that I still remember having years after having played this — that Chrono Trigger was a warm celebration of the craft that its team of designers knew well and had brought together under one roof. Writing about it now brings back an itch to hook up the ol’ SNES and give it another go, hoping that my saves might have still survived by some fluke.

Even today, Chrono Trigger continues to routinely make its presence felt on countless “Top whatever” lists for memorable RPGs from that era, of all time, or just for fun. This was one of Square’s greatest moments in daring to do something outside of its Final Fantasy bailiwick.

Unfortunately, it’s also a lesson where lightning may not actually be able to strike twice. A spiritual descendant, Chrono Cross, was released in 1999 though it was radically different from Chrono Trigger (as was intended). It was still critically acclaimed by many publications, and by many fans, but there was still a hope that Chrono Trigger would be revisited with a more closely related sequel. Fan efforts also had come around, such as Chrono Trigger: Crimson Echoes, though were relatively incomplete especially after getting cease and desist notices from a very protective Square Enix.

As a result of its incredible journey, Chrono Trigger isn’t hard to find. Although SNES collectors are often faced with the high prices that the game goes for on outlets such as Ebay, especially if it’s “complete” with all of the original packaging, the game has proliferated across a number of other platforms, usually with enhancements or extra content, from the PlayStation to the Nintendo DS and even on mobiles such as the iPhone and Android devices.

Chrono Trigger is easily one of my favorite games on the SNES. It’s a great classic and a fantastic sample of the kind of creativity that Squaresoft had often tapped to build its empire with over the years. It might not ever get a true sequel and I’m actually okay with that the way I am with other RPGs that had also stood similarly alone. At the very least, by sharing that much with us, I think Sakaguchi, Horii, Toriyama, and everyone else involved in its creation can continue to celebrate something that has made a unique mark on gaming history that not even Lavos can erase with the kind of journey that imaginations were made for.

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