Welcome back for another over-analytical trip down memory lane! If you’ve checked out the other entries in this bit of digital navel gazing, you’ve probably picked up that it took me a long time to warm up to the RPG genre. But what changed that and got me interested in it at long last? The answer won’t surprise you if you’re literate enough to have read the header line of this post.
Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what bug bit me and told me I NEEDED this game in my life- probably Nintendo Power’s showerings of praise, in spite of it introducing me to “treasures” like Xardion and Rise of the Robots. I got my copy at a secondhand shop across from the “Springfield Mall,” which probably isn’t actually called that, but dammit, that’s what it was to our family. (This same shop yielded my copies of Metal Warriors and Cybernator, so I missed the hell out of them when they yielded to the Gamestop juggernaut.) I played it some in the store because it had a pretty ridiculous sticker price on it even used, and (I forget if this was me or Dad) wanted to be sure I would damn well enjoy it. I really didn’t know what to make of it- the characters ran about freely like an action game until they hit an enemy, then everyone leapt into position and things went menu-y on me. Yet, when I chose attacks, instead of some limited flailing animation or a flashing spell animation, the characters actually leapt in, had actual attack animation, and jumped back. I wouldn’t say it was love at first sight, but I was definitely interested.
There’s so much to love in Chrono Trigger. Not to be down on Final Fantasy, but most of what grabbed me was how NOT like FF or Dragon Warrior it was. There weren’t any magical WHOOSHES that whisked you off to a battle screen that may or may not resemble the room you were in- enemies were visible and usually avoidable if you weren’t in the mood. All the characters were detailed, distinct and well-animated instead of giant-headed characters who had all the posability and expression of Lego people. The combination of keeping enemies visible and battles on the actual map just seemed to make everything feel more legit than the popular alternative. When given a mostly featureless cave maze where you can be jumped without warning, all it’s ever done to me is give me, well- the 2D version of tunnel vision. I focus more on how to reach the exit in the minimum number of steps because the more steps I take, the more likely I am to get jumped by the same handful of non-animated monster sprites. So even if there is some clever environmental design going on in that cave (as an aside- there almost never was), I’m more focused on counting squares than admiring the water drips or gargoyles, or whatever else might be there that isn’t an item or an exit. CT’s world felt like a WORLD. With PLACES. Guardia Castle was Guardia Castle, not “a castle tileset in a place named Guardia.” If you were crossing a rope bridge across a chasm, being attacked by Free Lancers didn’t teleport you to a mountain path, the enemies would actually float around the party who were forced to line up on the bridge and fight them off- while it didn’t really change anything mechanically, it still felt like a tense encounter rather than busy work.
All of the “Not Final Fantasy” stuff may have pulled me in, but the depth of the experience is what kept me in there. The menus and ATB system took a while for me to warm up to as more of a shooter/brawler player, but I grew to appreciate being able to take a second and think over the best action for the job. Admittedly, Chrono Trigger wasn’t exactly rocket science- there were a few gimmick bosses revolving around elemental strengths and weaknesses or taking out parts of a boss before killing the main body, but nothing that made it utterly necessary to chain a series of color coded skills together to ‘truly’ kill something and get the best ending. (“That comes later.” /Bane voice) It was also pretty cool finding and figuring out equipment, even though it still kind of bugs me to this day that Frog and Crono can’t swap weapons. They’re both swordsmen, damn it.
It isn’t just the presentation or the mechanics, though. Chrono Trigger was a game where everything just clicked together so well that it formed this intangibly wonderful ball of awesome. It has a very welcoming pace that can let it serve as a great “first” RPG, yet it’s not childish or dumbed-down feeling. Pacing is a thing that few old RPGs did well, and CT positively nailed it. All of my favorites “work” for me because they feel like an adventure, not just by having a good story backing them, but creating a sense of energy that makes you WANT to keep pressing on rather than viewing the actual game as an obstacle keeping you from turning to the next page. It felt to me, like a band of friends always on the run to the next step in the quest, or from some great disaster. The gelling is even seen in the battle system’s combo Techs, where two or all three members could join up for an extra-big beatdown. There were even extra, hidden items that would allow Triple Techs minus Crono or with the addition of the otherwise odd man out, Magus.
To this day, Chrono Trigger is the only RPG that I played for months trying to see every variation of the ending possible, endings which- might I add- were (mostly) dependent on actual choices or actions you took throughout the game, including the “Dev’s Room,” which I got a kick out of just for how strange it was. The amount of freedom you had was really something, especially considering the time. You can even choose NOT to ressurect the main character after the first direct confrontation with Lavos and see how the rest of the party takes the reins and still works together as a damn good team. Like I said before, everything just clicked perfectly, and the later ports additions honestly feel like they kill it a little. I don’t really need to see Ayla save the team from Reptites TWICE- once in an anime cutscene and once in the original sprite form. All it does is break the feeling that everything is happening in one cohesive ‘place.’ And frankly, I really don’t give a crap about adding a scene to the end that ties the game more solidly to Chrono Cross, because well- I don’t want to think about Chrono Cross, frankly.
…You guys are going to try and make me think about it again, aren’t you?
How did it affect me? Well, other than opening me up to trying an entire new genre that places storytelling and exploration before “BLOW SHIPS UP GOOD” or “JUMP ON ANIMALS AND COLLECT THE SHINIES?” Well, I can pretty readily admit the idea of technology and magical stuff existing side by side had a lot of influence on the RPG settings I’ve either latched onto or created. Revolver Knight was originally inspired by a mash-up of Chrono Trigger, Breath of Fire II, and a little Earthbound, even if the version of the tale that made its way online was pretty drastically different than the original ones. Mostly, it was just the first time I was so enamored with a video game’s story. Even more so than when the stakes were on the fate of my Uncle Steve. I spent a good while in my Jr. High/High School years regaling my friend Josh on the bus with a spoken account of everything that had happened in my game. I felt like the old man at the start of Conan or something, spreading word of some epic adventure that happened long, long ago.