I still remember the first time I played Chrono Trigger. I had drooled over it since it came out and I saw pictures of it in Nintendo Power (does that magazine even still exist?), and I just knew that it was an incredible game. It was some kind of psychic connection I had with the game or something. Still, I didn’t even have a Super Nintendo at the time, so it was little more than a dream.
Years later, I was in school and somehow it came up that I owned Super Mario RPG (and a SNES, though I don’t really remember when that happened). This guy came up and offered to lend me Chrono Trigger if I lent SMRPG to him, and thus I had finally acquired the game I so desperately wanted to play, if only temporarily. Everything after that is a bit foggy, but I’m pretty sure I returned it. Maybe. However it happened, I still own Chrono Trigger and have no regrets about it, even if that means that I technically robbed it from a classmate. I mean, I’d have probably set him on fire if that meant keeping it a little longer. Here are a few reasons why I love Chrono Trigger so much:
It makes you think without asking you to think:
Have you ever wondered what “beyond the flow of time” means? I like to think of time as an infinite number of photographs spread out on the floor that people are zipping between and experiencing, which would mean that being beyond time would be seeing all those pictures sitting on the floor and questioning the universe’s organizational skills for just leaving them scattered all over. I mean seriously, the universe needs a maid or something.
Thinking about concepts like this isn’t at all necessary to understanding or enjoying Chrono Trigger. Because of this, it completely avoids being artsy and coming across as pretentious while still compelling you to think about the deeper meaning of little bits like that.
Not everyone is an enemy:
These days, games that show the slightest amount of moral grayness are lauded as though realistic shades between “throwing baby seals into a wood chipper” malice and “devoting one’s entire life to making others happy” altruism is somehow an achievement. Given that games have writers, one would think that this is what they should have been doing the whole time. Looking back at the past decade or so and the huge number of games that boil down to little more than “good beats evil because good guys are totally hardcore chick magnets with muscles and bros,” however, I kind of have to wonder how most game developers justify what they pay their writers. Seriously, they better be getting people coffee and answering phones for the garbage they’ve been coming up with.
The crazy thing is that Chrono Trigger did shades of gray way back before inflated budgets made even near-photorealistic graphics possible. Not everything that looks like an enemy is one, and even a major villain can be recruited once you figure out his back story and why he did the things he did. It doesn’t seem like it’d be a difficult thing to implement, yet CT is one of the few games where this is possible. I don’t understand why that is; it’s not like characters who are a little more like people than fictional constructs would be difficult for people to grasp. We’re kind of used to realistic people because of real life and stuff.
Midway through the game, one of the main characters is killed. Boom, dead. Sure, you can bring them back if you want to (or just leave them dead), but how many games take risks by including something like that? Plenty of games kill off characters, but it never seems to be a playable/important character; if you have a close friend/romantic interest in any modern game, it’s a pretty safe bet that they’re going to bite it at some point to provide your character with some cheap motivation to go on. That’s not the same thing, though—that’s just a lazy way of compelling a character to do something for the sake of revenge. In Chrono Trigger, that death doesn’t drive everyone to beat the final boss to avenge their loss. Instead, it lets you access an alternate ending and opens up the possibility of reviving the character while showing you that the boss is one bad mutha.
I was seriously sleepy when I found it:
Okay, this reason might only be relevant for me, but when I first played Chrono Trigger, I was exhausted. School took a lot out of me, so a line like “we find truth in the bliss of sleep” triggered thoughts like, “I’m not ignoring homework by dozing off… I’m simply looking for truth!” I still have a habit of searching for truth when I should probably be doing other things, which is why I’m posting this now instead of several days ago when I first had the idea to write this.
The time-travel mechanic allows simple lines to take on deeper meanings:
In the example of the picture above, the lady (who has no name and looks identical to others in the area) has been ordered to burn a seed. If you tell her not to, she’ll choose to plant it and then mention that she hopes to be reborn somewhere full of green forests. In most games, that’d be that. In Chrono Trigger, this starts a quest in another time period that ends in a forest being created, and the two quests being connected heavily implies that the person you work with later on (Fiona) is the nameless seed lady having been reborn like she’d hoped. Most games wouldn’t even give the main character this kind of treatment, much less a minor, nameless character.
All major characters are explored, but not always in the same way:
The pitfall of Bioware games is their predictable formula where any character you get to know has their own little quest separate from the main story, because the main story then becomes little more than a straight line with a few optional forks. These sidequests are so lacking in subtlety that they might as well be called “learn more about whatshisface.” Chrono Trigger does things far more naturally; while some characters have optional quests to learn more about them, the personal troubles of several characters frequently have a bearing on the main story itself. You can’t progress without learning about how Frog became how he is, for example.
Other times, such as in the case of Lucca, there are “back story” sidequests that are hidden away in other quests. You learn more about Lucca by getting involved with the forest sidequest mentioned in the last point, for example. Since you learn about different characters at different times and in different ways (rather than all being obvious “learn more about this person” sidequests), it gives progressing in the game and learning about the characters an organic feeling that Bioware’s formula simply can’t match.
Not everything revolves around the main character:
The sidequest where you learn more about Lucca doesn’t involve any other characters. This isn’t a rare one-off, either—the world and characters don’t revolve around the main character. They certainly like him enough to follow him, sure, but this isn’t like other games where your followers resolve their personal issues by looking to you for strength or by learning from you. You might help beat down a few monsters along the way, but the characters exist separately from you and find their own reasons and resolutions over the course of the story.
Contrast that with a game like Dragon Age: Origins, where everyone’s change is solely due to how super crazy awesome they inexplicably find you. I never understood that, because it’s simply impossible to create a legitimately interesting character in that game. Nevertheless, your followers in DA:O basically become groupies whose very existence revolves around you and what they have with you, as though a codependent relationship is the greatest thing human beings can aspire to. Very creepy stuff. I imagine the relationships of Bioware employees frequently end in restraining orders.
Chrono Trigger actually tackles a number of serious themes, including obsession, sacrifice, tolerance, and even letting go of the past, yet it never bogs itself down by wading so deeply into those issues that the whole game becomes about those things. Instead, this seriousness is broken up by random bits of weirdness. You can dance at a fair, compete in a futuristic race, and even fight against a dude who looks like a lady (pictured above). I wish more games were capable of so deftly walking the line between serious and humorous, because it actually ends up giving the game a special kind of sincere charm.
I mean, where else can you win some cat food in a game at the fair before running off to confront a world-destroying monster?