If you had asked me back in 2000, I would have without hesitation said that my favourite game of all time is Chrono Trigger. The story was grand and spanned millions of years, the characters were memorable, the villains were bad-ass, the visual style was great, it had multiple endings, it had the best soundtrack of any game in history, the main characters crossed time and space in a flying steampunk time machine I mean holy fucking shit right there, and oh yeah, the global threat to humanity managed to kill the main character halfway through the game spoiler warning.
I've played it all the way through several times over the years, and I completed it yet again just recently. I played until completion, even though I know by heart where everything is -- every secret location, every hidden item, every hidden bit of dialogue, every Easter Egg. I took my time with the game and with the story, and when it was all over...
Well, as a rational adult, how did I like it?
The story of Chrono Trigger is essentially about friends who, because of an experiment gone awry, are dragged through time, discover that the future of the world is one of destruction and a lasting darkness, and of their subsequent efforts - however futile they may turn out to be - in trying to prevent the impending disaster. The narrative spans millions of years, includes characters from multiple eras and time-lines, and makes good use of the device of time travel in solving problems. This use of time travel also paves the way for the coexistence of magic and advanced technology, and the overall theme of the game could be described as science fiction fantasy.
The cosmic entity known as Lavos is the being ultimately responsible for the destruction of the world, and its existence is the catalyst for all the events in the game. The first time Lavos is seen, it is in a recording played back on a dying computer screen amidst the crumbling ruins of civilization as it emerges from the earth and begins to tear the world asunder.
The characters are well-defined, their motivations are clear, and their back stories - revealed slowly over time - are often powerful and lend real weight to their actions. It's a huge story, ripe with premonitions and subtle twists that unfold over time, and it has generally great build-up and excellent pay-off.
And the first minute of the game features the main character Crono waking up in his bed, petting his cat, and going downstairs to his mom to collect his allowance.
Without the nostalgia goggles, Chrono Trigger is a Japanese RPG about teenagers saving the world. They pose their way through danger, acquire magic powers from a Furby, bring hope to the people of a dying future through sheer unbridled optimism, and battle an eldritch abomination. Oh, and the main character is a mute.
No, really. That's the core of this universally idolized video game.
Logically, I should hate this game. In most incarnations, I do: Final Fantasy past number seven are all pretty much that, and they are almost universally prime examples of the systematic assassination of subtlety, character development, literary quality, storytelling, and common sense. The stories are awful, the plot is ridiculous, and the main characters are bumbling schoolgirls and whiny, socially inept and temporally challenged morons who for the good of all mankind should be dumped on a secluded island teeming with ravenous mutant Chocobos. Think Jurassic Park with nothing but lawyers and T-Rexes.
What gets to me about Final Fantasy more than anything, though, is that these inept, bumbling, hormone-filled teenagers are the sole hope of the entire world. Really. This is the A team. These are our heroes. We can't have a team of ancient cyborg ninjas. Instead, make way for Justin-Bieber-haircut-boy and a cast of people who alternatively revere and ridicule him.
To be fair, Chrono Trigger never got bad in the story department, and the characters aren't complete dicks on toast, so maybe it's unfair to bring up some of the worst that JRPGs have to offer when making references to the story and overall theme. Actually, the story in Chrono Trigger is genuinely epic enough to warrant the use of the word, and while it does have its silly moments, it also has a lot of weight to it.
So I'm not saying the story is bad. I'm saying the premise should make it hard to take it seriously.
I'll step away from the actual game for a minute to talk generalities. The theme of young teenagers embarking - willingly or unwillingly - on a quest to save the world is a very common theme in many works of fiction, but it is especially prevalent in JRPGs. Young people just eat this stuff up, and this game was obviously no exception. When you're a teenager, the idea of an amazing, memorable adventure with amazingly kick-ass friends and your own robot is extremely appealing.
As an adult, however, you start to question certain things, like "why the fuck are these people trusted to carry the Sword of a Thousand Truths?" I mean, Final Fantasy games universally take place in worlds inhabited by significantly powerful players who all sit back and leave the fate of the known universe in the obviously inept hands of a group of small-minded, fashionably-challenged, superfluous-to-the-story, awkwardly-flirting youths whose final plan for victory is believing really hard in love and friendship? Why does ANYONE think this is good storytelling?! WHY DO YOU PEOPLE LIKE THESE GAMES!?
FUCK YOU FUCK YOU FUCK YOU FUCK YOU FUCK YOU FUCK YOU FUCK YOU FUCK YOU FUCK YOU FUCK YOU FUC
Still, in the case of Chrono Trigger, it's not about horrible characterization, never-ending ineptitude, or characters being obviously superfluous to the story. It's just that at no point in the game does the Old Man at the End of Time go, "You know what? This is getting a little too rough for you kids. Maybe we should find some ancient cyborg ninjas to battle the endless minions of evil. I mean, this is the fate of the entire world we're talking about, right? Hell, the mental stress alone must be overwhelming!"
But, no. There's no mental stress. The ancient cyborg ninjas aren't called in. But maybe that's for the best, as they would obviously lack the power of... friendship?
This kind of stuff usually takes me out of the story in a big way. I'm a big fan of that word immersion when talking about video games, and RPGs need a lot of it to be truly great. This whole teens saving the world stuff is illogical, and thus immersion-breaking, for rational adults.
But, here's the kicker. I wasn't a kid when I played this game. I was 18 years old. I was into adult and intelligent science fiction at the time. So why - if I didn't care before - am I bringing it up now?
I don't know. I guess I thought it deserved a mention, considering it's really the heart of the game. Maybe I willingly overlook it, or maybe the main character has sufficient room to mentally project myself into to the extent that it doesn't matter, or maybe I just thought it symbolised the childish innocence of the protagonist before he is thrust into a world with little time and little hope. The first imagery of a shattered world in 2300AD becomes particularly powerful when set against the vibrant life of 1000AD. It's a very effective literary device.
Or maybe I'm just making excuses.
In the end, I don't care. I admit it: Chrono Trigger is the exception for me, but I couldn't tell you why. I just know that the way the characters act and talk makes me like them instead of hate them, and I have a genuine desire to see them succeed. In the world of JRPGs, that's got to be worth a goddamned trophy or something.
I can't get through a topic on Chrono Trigger without mentioning the music at least once, and it deserves this mention.
A little history: Three high profile designers were present in the making of this game: Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of Square's Final Fantasy series; Yuji Horii, creator of Dragon Quest; and Akira Toriyama, famed for his work on Dragon Ball. For their combined artistic excellence and achievement, and for what they accomplished in Chrono Trigger, Square dubbed this the Dream Team.
It is a shame that music composer Yasunori Mitsuda is not included in that list.
What strikes you immediately in the game, right alongside the visual art style, is the superbly atmospheric music. In fact, the music drives the game forward in a powerful way. There is only written dialogue, so emotion has to be conveyed through music alone. Mitsuda succeeded amazingly in this, but at great personal cost; he became physically ill due to overworking and stress, and contracted stomach ulcers. Final Fantasy composer Nobou Uematsu offered to compose the few remaining tracks for the game for Mitsuda, an offer he gratefully accepted.
I follow him on Twitter, even though I have no goddamned clue what he's saying
The end result is a work of freaking art. You play through this game once, you know the musical themes for life. I would happily play the soundtrack by itself, and in so doing I would remember every scene to which the music was set. That's the mark of a masterpiece.
In this regard, nothing has been lost to time. The visuals and the music are still as moving and as powerful as ever. Nostalgia goggles off, I still maintain to this day that it is the best soundtrack to any video game, ever, and it elevates the game to entirely new heights.
On the other hand, one of the protagonists is a talking frog.
Okay, that might sound weird, I'll admit, but some context should sort this out. After all, I'm getting ahead of myself; we have a good way to go before we get to the mighty warrior Frog (seriously). First, we have to locate the robot that eventually learns the power of friendship
I loved this game for its silly absurdities as much as its epic story, and they didn't feel out of place before. Has that changed at all over time? I swear my brain wants me to say yes. I mean, take Frog. His back-story reveals that his real name was Glenn, and that he was a squire under a great knight named Cyrus. Together, they stood against one of the recurring antagonists of the story, Magus. During the battle, Cyrus was brutally slain in front of a horrified Glenn. In a fit of rage and against Cyrus' dying wish, Glenn attacked Magus, but was easily cast aside. As punishment for his murderous intent, Magus turned Glenn into a frog and summarily threw his frail body off a waterfall.
Having survived his ordeal, Glenn now calls himself Frog, is a master swordsman, and fights to free his lands from darkness.
There are so many questions I should be raising about this, and it surprises even me to find that none of it matters because that story is just plain awesome. The fact that the back stories are presented in such a great fashion as they are also helps a lot, as does the fact that over the course of the game, Frog eventually finds closure with Cyrus. He stops blaming himself for the death of his friend, and makes peace with himself and the knowledge that he'll remain a frog forever. It's weirdly compelling.
Also, Frog finds the legendary Masamune and cuts an entire mountain in half. I'd have questions about that, too, if I didn't just fucking orgasm.
Robo the robot (seriously, just roll with it) is found and salvaged during the lead protagonists' adventures in the distant future, and he, too, is similarly built up over time, with a full back story culminating with fighting his best friend to the death, rebelling against his programming in order to side with his friends, and destroying the SHODAN-like Mother Brain. And again it's completely awesome and defines him as a character.
So, to recap: Three young teenagers are sucked through a time portal to the past where one of them is mistaken for the missing queen, then to the future where they race a jetbike against a robot named Johnny, help the remnants of humanity regain their hope for the future through sheer unbridled optimism, find another robot they cleverly call Robo who slowly learns the value of friendship, discover that the world will end in a cataclysmic event, travel to the End of Time where they learn magic from a Furby, then go back in time in order to defeat an evil wizard alongside a master swordsman named Frog who is an actual frog...
...and it's all kinds of awesome?
So you hit Magus with a frog until he falls over.
Sorry, I forgot to mention: Magus is the big evil wizard I was talking about. He was trying to summon Lavos so that he could nefariously defeat the cosmic monstrosity once and for all, thus saving the world and avenging his sis-- wait, what?
Yeah. Turns out Magus is from a technologically advanced and magically-inclined Atlantis-like civilization from 12,000 BC. Their rulers tried to harness the power of Lavos, which went about as well as you'd expect. Magus loses his sister and his home in the conflict, and is forever banished from his own time. Now a grown man of significant power, he - as the only being powerful enough to even attempt it - prepares to fight Lavos to the death for the sake of revenge and the salvation of mankind. To do this, he sacrifices countless innocent lives in conflict and strife to fuel his needs and draw the attention of Lavos.
He is, in a sense, this world's Ozymandias.
So when you kick down his door and challenge him to honourable 3v1 single combat, summarily interrupting his ritual and banishment spell, things go to hell in a hand-basket, and you're spirited away to the past where you meet the badass female reptile-puncher Ayla, because apparently 65 million years ago humans and dinosaurs were taking turns beating the crap out of each other.
I told you this gets awesome.
This is also where you witness the arrival of Lavos on Earth first hand, in the form of a comet plummeting from the sky and burrowing deep into the earth, there to slumber for millions of years until the stars aid in its escape, and--
Wait. I think I got my mythoi confused.
So the game has you hopping from period to period, meeting new characters and solving Lavos-related problems along the way, until a chance occurrence drops you into 12,000 BC where you fail to stop the corrupt rulers of the land and LAVOS AWAKENS AND FUCKING KILLS YOU.
Where's your friendship now?
It's at this point that I look back on everything that's happened and realize it all sounds vaguely familiar. Specifically the part about the evil wizard and brooding anti-hero, the cosmic monstrosity from beyond time and space, the talking frog, the inventor friend, the robot that learns the meaning of friendship, the teenagers fighting to save the world, the army of darkness, the floating mountains, the ancient civilization, the Masamune, the post-apocalyptic future, and the bit about time travel. This vague sense of familiarity probably comes from having read anything ever.
That's probably also why I was able to deduce that the main character wasn't going to stay dead.
Not a bad feat of deduction, actually, considering I only had moments to come to this conclusion before I was given the "Chrono Trigger", an egg said to have the power to bring people back to life, but only if you believe really hard in love and friendsh--
This used to be so easy, you know? Just play a game and enjoy it for what it is. But then I played Planescape: Torment, which pretty much ruined gaming for me forever. I mean... damn. I'd write about that game, next, if I thought I'd be able to stop.
Meanwhile, I look at Chrono Trigger, and I can easily see why some people can't quite get past the premise. The story only works because it doesn't take itself too seriously, and it's full of absurdities and clichés. Some people just want more than that. I don't have to bring up my relationship with Final Fucking Fantasy again, do I?
You travel to the grim darkness of the future and give hope to a dying people -- clearly a vital act of humanitarianism before running off again to try to make sure the future never happens in the first place.
You travel to the End of Time, where a Furby teaches you magic so that you can go back in time to stop Magus from summoning Lavos, preventing all the time rifts in the first place.
Oh, and, Marle, your hot tomboy friend? Yeah, turns out she's your time's Princess Nadia, so when she is inadvertently dragged back in time a few hundred years, she is mistaken for that era's missing queen (her ancestor), but because everyone now thinks that the missing queen has been found they call off the search, which means that the real queen was never rescued, and since she was never rescued Marle no longer has an ancestor, and since Marle can no longer technically exist, she explodes.
What? She gets better.
But in fairness, even though you know the main character will probably be able to come back (because, you know, time travel), you do have to go to hell and back before you can even attempt it. During this time, you actually get some pretty heart-warming moments where your friends are really feeling your loss, Marle taking it particularly hard. That's why it's that much cooler that it's Marle who rallies everyone's spirits, and they vow to do whatever it takes to bring you back, even should the attempt ultimately prove futile.
Did I mention this game has multiple endings?
So you go through hell and back, banging your head against the monitor after losing one of the mini-games for the 5th fucking time in a row just so you can get a fucking Dopple doll, finally get everything ready, then traverse Death Peak, the only place in the world where the Chrono Trigger might conceivably be used, banging your head against the monitor some more when you get raped by the Lavos spawn, lose your way, and fall off the fucking mountain.
Finally, you make it to the top, activate the egg, and watch it shatter with no effect.
You mean we went through all that fucking work all this fucking time, getting the impossible fucking Dopple doll, climbing the hardest fucking mountain in the game, getting raped by fucking Bowser, enduring Marle's endless optimism, falling off the fucking windy cliffs, climbing back up again, and navigating this impossible fucking place, all for nothing?
Oh, of course not. Because (say it with me now) only then, when it seems like all is lost, the world shifts, and you are presented with a moment, frozen in time: the instant before Crono is vaporized by Lavos. As you replace him with the dummy replica, the world shifts back to Death Peak, and there - on the ground - is Crono, waking up as from a long sleep, tearfully reunited with his companions and god fucking damn it why are there tears in my eyes?, I mean the main character was obviously going to be all right, right, and oh great now they're hugging and oh what the fuck why am I smiling?! WHY AM I CRYING?!
god damn it son of a bitch i'm a grown man i swear to fucking god
So, that pretty much clinches it. The nostalgia goggles win, and I concede defeat at the hands of the spectacular set-up and amazing storytelling that got us to this point. Suddenly, even the thought of possible failure and inevitable doom is made less bitter, less final, because of this one moment in time, a moment that will endure through the destruction of the world and into the infinite void beyond.
And THEN you get a MOTHERFUCKING FLYING STEAMPUNK TIME MACHINE
YOU USE IT TO TRAVERSE SPACE AND TIME TO SOLVE PROBLEMS WHILE YOU PREPARE FOR THE FINAL SHOWDOWN WITH THE COSMIC HORROR IN THE FLOATING FUCKING SPACE FORTRESS
AM I GETTING THROUGH TO YOU PEOPLE AT ALL
And so, in conceding defeat, I love it all, every last absurd and completely awesome minute of it. I love the tomboy princess. I love the robot that learns emotions. I love the brooding anti-hero. I love the floating mountains. I love the frog and his back-story. I love the epic goddamned music. I love the motherfucking flying steampunk time machine and the final showdown with the cosmic horror in the floating space fortress. There was not a moment, not a single instant during my entire recent play-through where I felt removed from the experience through any of the game's faults, aware of them though I am. I had only memories of playing this game for the first time that cold Norwegian winter morning and being blown away, and re-living those moments again under the spell of such nostalgia was an experience I wish I could share with everyone.
Of course you end up saving the world, and are rewarded with the bitter-sweet ending where all your companions are forced to return to their own time before the portals close forever. You say your goodbyes, you watch them leave, and you remain with your memories. Roll credits.
As an old man, I am aware of this game's faults.
As an old man, I still love it unconditionally.
Final thoughts. I started by saying that, in 2000, I would not even hesitate in saying that Chrono Trigger is my favourite game of all time. So, then, as a rational adult, what's my favourite game now?
It's harder to answer, and usually involves disclaimer phrases like "in terms of storytelling" and "in this particular genre". Planescape: Torment is mind-blowing in terms of scope, story, and characterization. Team Fortress 2 is the game I play on and off the most. Eternal Darkness is there because I'm a sucker for Lovecraftian horror. Silent Hill 2 in terms of storytelling (see?). The Elder Scrolls games are great gaming experiences and remain my favourite games in their genre (told you). StarCraft remains the greatest and most exciting exhibition of skill in the world of eSports.
But whenever I don my rose-tinted spectacles, it's an easy question to answer.
You get a motherfucking flying steampunk time machine.
Author's day-after note:
Holy shit, this got spotlighted.
To everyone who replied with enthusiasm: You guys are awesome, and I'm really happy that so many of you found this to be a worthwhile read. You also completely broke my Dropbox account where I stored all the audio files for this article! TeamLiquid, you just owned my 250GB/day bandwidth cap. And that's awesome.