With instant classics such as Final Fantasy II, Final Fantasy III, and Secret of Mana, it’s no question that Squaresoft is the king of role-playing games on the Super Nintendo. Every single video game they’re putting out these days is a smash hit, I can understand some level of apprehension about whether they can keep it up, particularly since their newest title does not carry the Final Fantasy name. There’s only one way to be sure of Chrono Trigger‘s quality before it inevitably comes out in America: import it from Japan, and my copy has finally arrived. Read ahead to see if Square has lost their Midas touch, or if their games are still gold.
Chrono Trigger (Super Famicom)
Release Date: March 11, 1995
Let me say this first: I can’t actually read Japanese. That said, I don’t know that I’ve played an RPG where you don’t have to run up to some world-ending giant monster and hit it in the face until it dies, and Chrono Trigger is no exception. The main thrust of things in this game is time travel, and you’re sucked into the action when a carnival attraction goes wrong and sucks you into another era. At first you’re just trying to save the girl and get home, but eventually you find out that some sort of alien creature is going to destroy the world in the far-flung future of 1999, and it’s your job to stop it.
There are five main eras that you time travel through over the course of the game and you can get a party member from each one, including a chivalrous knight who happens to be a giant frog, an energetic cavewoman, and a robot from the future. Each one has their own quest line in their own era where you’re required to keep them in the party as you search for whatever McGuffin that drives the plot forward. This ensures that the game keeps moving and always feels fresh, without getting bogged down in fetch quests or staying in one big city for too long.
Special mention goes to a certain plot twist in the back half of the game that I will most definitely not spoil here. I didn’t see it coming and was completely blown away.
I don’t think I can go back to random encounters ever again. I’m sure that every single role-playing game going forward is going to imitate Chrono Trigger in this regard, or I’ll eat my Super Nintendo. Nearly all of the monsters you fight in Chrono Trigger are already on the map, standing guard or patrolling the dungeon. If you want, you don’t have to fight them; you can just walk around the monster, as long as you make sure you aren’t detected. And when you do fight, the battles happen directly on the map without changing to a separate battle screen. Unfortunately, it’s still turn-based like Final Fantasy and not Zelda-y like Secret of Mana is, but if you want a faster-paced battle, you can choose in the options to allow the monsters to take their turns even while you’re choosing spells from the menu.
The battles themselves have a great new feature: combination skills. Remember how in Final Fantasy III, Umaro could pick up other party members and throw them at the enemy? It’s kind of like that, but with everyone. There are only six or seven party members to choose from in Chrono Trigger (and you can only make a party of three at a time), but each one of them has their own unique collection of skills and different combinations with each other. For example, Chrono’s area spin attack can be combined with fire to create a more powerful, flaming spin attack, or with a healing spell to spread it among the entire party instead of on a single target. It’s a great addition that encourages the player to change their party composition and see what crazy new combinations everyone has.
At first, the overworld of Chrono Trigger seems small in comparison to FFII or FFIII, but that’s because of the game’s theme of time travel. By going through time portals, you visit the same world at different points in history, which greatly expands the size of the map. While the terrain doesn’t change in the 400 years between 600 A.D. and 1000 A.D., for example, the world of 65,000,000 B.C. is a nearly unrecognizable place. At first, the gates between eras are connected to specific locations, but eventually a sort of hub is unlocked to connect all of them to one convenient place that allows you to heal and change party members between times. As is tradition at this point for role-playing games, eventually you get an airship that lets you time warp at any point on the map.
Chrono Trigger looks and sounds amazing, among the Super Nintendo’s best. The sprites are larger than FF3‘s, around the same size of Secret of Mana‘s characters. Nearly every area has its own unique look, from ancient caves to futuristic domed cities. All of the different skills and spells (including the combination attacks!) have cool animations, instead of a generic “spellcasting” motion like other games. The character design is by famed Dragon Warrior and Dragon Ball Z artist Akira Toriyama, and it really shows in a few places, particularly in Chrono’s spiky red hair and several characters who appear to be named after food items like in DBZ. The music is by apparent newcomer Yasunori Mitsuda, who does an admirable job creating a variety of tunes that always fit the situation. Frog’s theme song is a particular standout, especially when it plays during a specific scene with a magic sword. You’ll know it when you see it.
They’ve done it again. I never thought in a million years that Square would ever team up with the creators of Enix’s Dragon Warrior series – I still consider the very idea ludicrous – but it’s clear that the collaboration has produced something beautiful. Chrono Trigger can stand tall alongside Final Fantasy II and III as one of the greatest role-playing games ever made. I wholeheartedly recommend picking this one up once it (presumably) crosses the ocean later this year, or to import it if you have the means and knowledge to play a game in Japanese. With games like this, there’s not a doubt in my mind that Square can remain king of RPGs for the next twenty years.