Saturday, January 22, 2011

For Immediate Removal: Chrono Trigger

We all have games that have been defining to our console careers. Games that set benchmarks. Moved us. Change our lives. These are games that should never even get a whiff of the musty air in the back closet, but should instead be set upon a pedestal and fed like Caesar.

"Would you like some more grapes, Tetris? Perhaps some suckling pig?"

To ensure that these games are granted their appropriate divinity, we are starting up a new series of posts here at the Backlog: "For Immediate Removal." In these entries, Ayn, David, and I will be paying kudos where it is due, talking up these gaming immortals and ensuring that you know their name if you didn't already. In this line of thinking, there is no better game to be observed in this first entry than what is debatably the greatest RPG ever made: Chrono Trigger.

There are few games in my life that have truly altered my line of thinking and made me a better person. There are also few games in this world that have moved me enough so in all facets of play, sound, and look that I have been excited to play them over and over and over. But Chrono Trigger is the king of these titles in my book. It takes all the best elements of any game (deep story, engaging characters, fun gameplay, great score, strong visuals, unique concept), rolls them up into one perfect pie crust, then fills it with some of the most creative aspects and touching situations ever to grace a cartridge.

Chrono Trigger: Pie of the Gods.

In a game this great, it all starts with the setup. I first heard about the game from my brother, who read about it in Ninendo Power magazine. The game was very highly touted, with people hailing its coming as the crown jewel of the now-mighty Squaresoft. Following hot on the footsteps of masterpieces such as Secret of Mana and the Final Fantasy series (up to its 6th title at that point; 3rd in the US), Chrono Trigger looked to take full advantage of the Super Nintendo's capabilities at the time. Here's what Nintendo Power had to say in the opening lines of its pre-release feature on the game:

"Square Soft's upcoming RPG, Chrono Trigger, is destined to be its biggest game ever. This massive 32-megabit game has all the elements that attracted hundreds of thousands of players to the Final Fantasy series, but it improves on Final Fantasy in almost every area. In fact, once you begin playing Chrono Trigger, you'll wonder how you were ever happy with anything less." (Issue 74, July 1995, pg. 52).

Their only negative comment: "You'll be spoiled for every other RPG." And they would know. They're playing with power.

Quite the expectations. And just to put the cherry on top, the game featured the artwork of Akira Toriyama, whose fame in the US had been steadily growing as Americans were introduced to his Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z anime and manga series. The game had all the hype in the world to live up to, and it did just that.

Love at First Start...

The story starts out simply enough. Boy is woken up at home by mother. Goes to big Millenial Fair to celebrate the current Year 1000. Runs into girl who happens to be a princess. Girl tags along. Both go to meet Boy's best friend, who is a female inventor. They test out her new teleporter. Girl is transported back in time. Boy goes after her. Aside from the the time travel (which we will elaborate on more thoroughly moving forward), the game initially plays to the generic story of young boy saving a damsel in distress. However, right from the start, you can tell that this won't be just another RPG. Allow me to dissect the opening minutes of the game.

Graphically, the game immerses the player in vivid colors and active scenery. The opening sequence shows seagulls flying over the Millennial Fair from top-down perspective while cannons are fired off from the fair. In previous games this sort of image would have been a one-time, non-playable sequence. In this game, this is the world map. Compare the detail and effect of this world map to that of FFVI's Mode 7 map, and the victor is clear (at least to this gamer).

The music, written primarily by Yasunori Mitsuda (with additional composition by Noriko Matsueda and the legendary Nobuo Uematso) sets the attitude and the scene from the first note in Crono's bedroom. What's especially impressive to note in the early going is the fact that the music is not static on the world map. If you explore to the West of the starting town of Truce, the music actually fades out into a completely different overworld theme! The sheer volume of music in the game impresses.

However, its the quality of the music that astounds. This score has nuance throughout. What Final Fantasy 6 started with epic soundscapes such as Terra's Theme (the starting World Map music) Chrono Trigger takes the extra mile.

NOTE: In particular, the ending theme of the game is a true stand-alone gem. It is a three minute piece of music with build and emotion. If you can find it online with accidentally stumbling on spoilers to the game, I suggest taking a listen. It alone can draw you in.)

It wishes it had this kind of allure.

What one also finds early one is a uniquely more interactive combat system. By interactive, I mean to say that the enemies you fight can be seen plainly (and avoided much of the time) and the battleground is the same ground you walk around on (not a static combat background screen). If you are walking in a non-World Map area, you have to be prepared for combat. The fact that fights are not random makes it feel more "real." The fact that you can avoid without equipping charms that "repel" enemies is refreshing.

Additionally, the Tech system (Chrono Trigger magic / special system) creates a nice balance between innovative gameplay and cinematic experience. All playable characters in the game can pair up (or triple up) with other characters to create larger, more visually impressive attacks. Because of the expansive number of combinations, a player can find enjoyment simply trying to unlock all the specials (including some special Techs that requires specific items on specific characters).

Boom goes the dynamite.

Lastly, you find out very quickly in this game that, while it begins as a linear quest, this time travel saga actually becomes rather open ended toward the end. There are numerous side quests that, unlike games that preceded it, expand heavily on the story, the characters, and ultimately result in different endings to the game (each of which offers additional insight into the heroes or fun-easter egg moments). If you simply play the linear quest, you get a great story. However, if you take the time to play the side quests, you are truly rewarded with a more organic story experience.

A Resonating Moment (mild spoiler alert)

Perhaps more so than any other game I have played, there is an element of the human spirit that Chrono Trigger captures like lightning in a bottle. The moment that cinched in for me comes early in the story, when our heroes are tossed into the future following a very tight situation and find themselves in a world of hopelessness and ruin. The people they find here have nothing left to live for and no foreseeable means of long-term survival. As the search for the means by which to return back to their time, they stumble upon a computer mainframe that still is operational. Upon further investigation, one of the party triggers a video record, which shows the exact moment of the apocalypse for their world: 1999AD. A beautiful day turns into hell as the ground cracks and fire rains down. All this suffering is brought by one creature: Lavos. There is no remorse and no hesitation as the giant spiked monster ruins the lives of all in moments.

Hope obliterated.

It is in this moment that our heroes, three teens from the year 1000AD, decide to dedicate themselves to saving this world from this end. Now, mind you, I first played this game when I was 8. But even then it struck me: these kids don't have to do this. They are from 999 years before this ever happens. They will be long gone when it does happen. It doesn't have to concern them. Yet, they make a conscious decision to take this fate on, risk their lives, and restore hope to these people (and all who would come after them) who they might never have known of save for a moment of serendipity. For me, the compassion and bravery that is demonstrated in these few pixelated moments has stayed with me; dare I say, it has shaped my life in some ways. I ask you, how many 16 bit games can you think of that actually have inspired someone?

Where do I find this game?

For those who are ready to heed the call and remove this masterpiece from their Backlog, luck happens to be on your side. While it is hard to get a hold of the SNES copy of the game (and rather expensive; upwards of $100 on eBay for a good copy if you are lucky), Square Enix kindly revived the game twice in the last many years. The first time, as a part of the Playstation "Final Fantasy Chronicles" package, Square added in animations by Toriyama himself to sweeten the experience that much more. Even more recently, the company released a Nintendo DS version contain both the cinematics and some expanded play content that allows for even more adventuring. While the new content doesn't add too much to the story or the character arc, it is a fun opportunity to pick up some new weapons.

Point made, Chrono Trigger should not be on your Backlog. If it is, rectify your mistakes by finding it and enjoying like some many others. It is a gold standard that helps explain why some RPGs find themselves shoved at the back of the closet.

1 comment:

Stephanie said...

You know I came on to comment about how you posted twice in 2 weeks only to find, no second post. Lies sir. Lies.