Once upon a time, there was a manga artist called Akira Toriyama, who had a vision of the future thanks to what he later dubbed ‘useless-ass psychic powers’. The vision showed him that in a moment of weakness, he would be responsible for one of the worst crimes ever to be depicted in geek culture, a series so heinous that to this day we may only speak of it in hushed tones – Dragon Ball GT. Knowing that this destiny was inescapable, he concluded that the only logical response was join forces with Squaresoft to create one of the most beloved RPGs of all time in order to generate enough goodwill to survive the oncoming barren winter. The result of that was the topic of our column today, Chrono Trigger.
The creation of Chrono Trigger reads like a dream team setup, in that it involved three major figures whose collaboration would have seemed unlikely before. Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of the Final Fantasy series, teamed up with Yuji Horii and Akira Toriyama, who were the creator and main artist of the Dragon Quest series of games. This team-up was particularly notable since Dragon Quest was the major franchise of Squaresoft’s major rivals at the time, Enix (the merger between the two companies hadn’t happened yet). It was a potent force to be certain, as Dragon Quest was so popular in Japan that people were being mugged for their copies of the third instalment, and popular opinion holds it that the release of every Dragon Quest game causes a dip in the national productivity of Japan (untrue).
The story of Chrono Trigger starts with the most silent of silent protagonists Crono, being woken by his mother in a scene that every spoof of JRPGs must now contain by law, and sent off to the town festival, where he runs into a girl with a mysterious pendant named Marle. Crono then takes Marle to a demonstration of his gadgeteer inventor friend Lucca’s latest invention, an actual teleporter which malfunctions and instead sends Marle back four hundred years in time. Don’t you hate it when your teleporters just short out and send you hurtling through the infinite void of causality? Crono and Lucca go back in time to save her, only to find two problems – first that she’s actually the Princess of their Kingdom back in the present, and that she’s been mistaken for her ancestor, causing a paradox that has erased her from existence. Whoops. Working with Frog, a knight of the kingdom transformed into… well, guess, they rescue Marle’s ancestor, restore temporal normality, and are back just in time to be arrested for kidnapping the Princess in the Present. One would think it’d be hard to cite precedent for temporal kidnappings, but this is a well-prepared legal system.
The main plot of the game kicks off when Crono, Marle and Lucca end up in 2300 AD, where they learn that a creature called Lavos will awaken in 1999 AD and cause the end of the world, transforming the future into Mad Max, as all apocalypses are required to do by law. You should really remember the Great Lavos Emerging of 1999, otherwise it’s a waste of my time hand-cranking this generator in the ruins of civilisation to type up this article. Instead of doing what any sensible person would do and kicking the problem down the generation chain, they opt to find a way to save the future from the all-devouring creature.
Looking back on Chrono Trigger today, you can see the emergence of a lot of RPG staples. It’s become our go-to series for parodies of how RPGs work, and for good reason. Mechanically, it did things differently from its ancestor series in Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. Enemies existed on the world map, and there would be no transition to a battle screen in order for combat to unfold. Battles proceeded with the Active Time Battle System from Final Fantasy, with the interesting twist that if characters had learned certain skills or spells, they could opt to combine their attacks into a larger, more powerful move that took up both their turns. Each character had a different elemental affinity and could cast their own type of magic, with the exception of the robotic Robo, and the cavewoman Ayla, who opted instead to punch enemies really, really hard.
The series’ big innovation was the introduction of time travel mechanics, and all the head scratching, mind breaking temporal shenanigans that unfold from there. The game plays out over several different time periods, namely 65,000,000 BC, 12,000 BC, 600 AD, 1000 AD, 2300 AD, and 1999 AD which is only available for the final boss battle. Shared areas in those time periods will have shared treasure chests, and opening one in the past will cause it to be empty in all the following periods. Careful use of time travel will open up new areas of various periods for exploration and plot advancement. Interestingly, time travel is rarely used to solve puzzles, such as causing changes in the past to allow progress in future time periods, but I suppose if your first venture caused one of your party members to be erased from existence, caution would be the byword of the day.
The tone of the game fluctuates with some regularity. One moment you’ll have the campy Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy V style humour of things like Gato, the singing/dancing/battle robot or the miniboss squadron of Ozzie, Slash and Flea, the incompetent trio who make Gilgamesh of Final Fantasy fame proud. Then you’ll go to the bleak dystopian future of 2300 AD, or the repressive, magical caste system of 12,000 BC, and realise that all this humour is built on a planet that has been condemned to a slow, withering death by an external parasite of near limitless power or the tragic, haunting backstory of the villainous Magus and the hubris of people whose magic made them into Gods to be struck down from glory. But hey, the robot raps!
Overall, Chrono Trigger is a triumph of a bunch of creative people sitting down and coming up with something freed from the conventions and restrictions of their flagship series. It’s easy to see the influences of both of the series creators in it, and it’s a shame that more people can’t take risks and make games like this anymore outside of the independent community.
The less said about the catastrophically confusing and convoluted chronology contained chaotically in Chrono Cross the better.