Say the words Chrono Trigger to any long-time RPG fan, and you’re likely to get the same response: the eyes close, a small smile forms on the face, and you hear something along the lines of “now that was a great game” or “they just don’t makes games like that anymore”. When it was originally released back in 1995, Chrono Trigger was a tour de force of storytelling, characters, and fantastic gameplay. There was simply nothing else like it at the time, and it has been held up for years by RPG fans as one of the standards of the genre.
We all know, however, how time and nostalgia can skew our views of certain things (anyone gone back lately and watched the movies you loved as a kid? The NeverEnding Story just doesn’t seem quite as cool…). In the years since its release, many RPG’s have come and gone, have expanded and improved on the Chrono Trigger (CT) formula, and have captured our imagination. The question then becomes, how does the original game hold up in the face of what has come since?
For this review, we thought it would be interesting to view CT through two lenses. Being the deprived child I was (we didn’t have a Super Nintendo…the horror!), I missed CT when it was originally released and am playing it through it for the first time. Lee, however, lists the original as one of his all-time favorites, and is looking for some of the tweaks and differences that make or break this DS port. Let’s dive in and see what we find.
Chris: Graphics for old-school ports can be very tough to rate, simply because they look so dated in comparison to newer titles. CT, however, does not run into this problem. While nothing in-game is going to push the DS’ technical capabilities, the clean, crisp artwork is extremely well done and certain areas (particularly mountains or bridges with water and clouds in the background) are amazingly beautiful. I can see how this would have knocked the socks off of everyone when it first came out. I think old-school fans will absolutely love the attention to the original game’s detail, and newer gamers – while possibly underwhelmed – will certainly appreciate the graphics.
The characters were designed by DragonBall creator Akira Toriyama, and the influences are obvious. You will pick up a number of different characters along the way, and end up with a rather eclectic and diverse group ranging from the titular Crono, to prehistoric warrior princess Layla, to the most bad-ass fighting frog you’ll ever see (appropriately named Frog). Amazingly, each character is able to display a fantastic range of action and emotion in their small 16-bit animations. This is an absolute must, since the meat of CT’s impact comes from the focus on these characters and their interactions. Without the stellar animation, CT would have fallen flat, but it truly delivers in spades.
Lee: Some have griped about Chrono Trigger not receiving the full 3-D treatment, like the Final Fantasy games received. While it would have been nice to look at CT through a different lens, the graphics hold up really well. I had forgotten how few frames of animation each character actually had, but what’s there still looks great. Maybe on the next Nintendo system we’ll see an updated CT with full 3-D animation, like many of the ill-fated 3-D remakes that litter the web. Until then, just content yourself with playing one of the best looking games from a few generations ago the way nature intended.
Chris: This will be the first – and possibly last – perfect score I have ever given in a category. To put it simply, the musical score in Chrono Trigger is one of the best you will ever hear. Ever. Composed by Square heavyweights Yasunori Mitsuda and Nobuo Uematsu, the music is nothing short of spectacular. Some of the melodies these early composers were able to wrangle from a simple MIDI program will absolutely blow your mind, and I can pretty well guarantee that you’ll be humming many of the tunes long after you power off your DS. My only very minor gripe is that some of the weaker songs are reused in many different areas and hearing them for multiple hours can get a bit tiresome. But that is a very minor issue in what is a beautiful, incredible soundtrack.
Lee: I was worried that the soundtrack wasn’t going to sound as good coming through the DS speakers. I needn’t have worried. CT sounds as great as it ever did, and I swear to some non-denominational deity that some of them sound even better. I can’t recall how many times I’ve heard the theme for 600 BC, and I never get tired of hearing it. There are so many great tracks, and I can’t say enough for how firmly they stuck to the soundtrack. You can’t improve upon perfection.
Chris: When it comes to simplified, easy controls, I can now see the reason CT has been looked at for years as a standard of the RPG genre. There are few games I can think of that have such an fantastic simplicity in their control scheme. There’s nothing revolutionary here (move with the D-pad, confirm commands with the A button), but I didn’t struggle once with how to accomplish an in-game task, pull up an inventory item, equip a character, or any other gameplay issue. The bulk of the gameplay is done in the top screen, while the bottom screen is reserved for map and inventory functions. Thankfully, all the menu screens are concise and well-organized, and there was a distinct lack of clutter on the actual gameplay screen, something many games seem to struggle with. You do have the option to control player movement and inputs with the stylus, but I found that was far more trouble than it was worth. The control design is simple, it works fantastic, and I can’t think of a single thing I would change about it.
Lee: I really tried to give stylus control the old college try, but I couldn’t do it. It felt far too clunky to handle, especially once you’ve played the SNES version over and over like I have. However, having two screens means that all of your party’s info and battle commands are on the bottom screen, which leaves more space to see the great 16-bit graphics. It’s a win-win.
Chris: Just like the controls, the story and gameplay in Chrono Trigger are a model of elegant simplicity. Things start out simple enough when you visit the annual Millienial Fair to see a friend’s new invention, but when you meet up with a mysterious girl and the machine goes haywire, all hell breaks loose. Crono and his group begin a time-traveling journey that will take players from 65,000,000,000 years in the past to the far distant future, with plenty of stops in between. From waking up in your house at the beginning of the game to any of the 14 whirlwind endings (which depend on which point you decide to take on the final boss), CT weaves a tight, engaging, and amazing narrative. The world and characters are all extremely well defined, the villains are appropriately nasty, and the entire package comes together as far more than the sum of its parts.
The gameplay itself has now become pretty standard fare, but was quite unique for its time. CT was one of the first games to ditch random battles, and instead make every enemy viewable on screen. In most cases, you can choose whether or not to fight a particular baddie, and this option makes some of the more complex maps much easier to pick your way through. Also gone is the standard “good guys on this side, bad guys on that side” setup, and character positioning comes into play during most battles. Starting position for both your squad and enemies is determined randomly (as far as I can tell), but can be a key factor in whether or not you’ll be able to take out multiple enemies with your area of effect spells.
Battle are active time, similar to what you see in the older Final Fantasy games. Both enemies and players have a time bar that fills during combat, and can act once that bar is full. In another unique mechanic, CT allows multiple characters to team up for powerful dual or triple tech attacks. These attacks have to be unlocked through XP and require certain characters to be present, so there is some strategy in developing your team. Leave one player on the bench too long, and while they may be at an equal level with the rest of the team, they won’t have nearly the number of special tech attacks. It’s a balancing act that works well throughout the game, and forces players to think ahead with what they want their characters to be.
CT is almost perfectly balanced, and there were very few times I felt the need to spend significant time grinding out experience levels. As long as you’re not actively avoiding battles, the level ramp and difficulty curve is excellent for both veterans and newcomers alike. The multiple boss battles are both unique and challenging, and will force players to think about which team they take into battle, and how they are equipped. In a stroke of either sheer genius or complete common sense, there was a save point before and after nearly every tough boss fight in the game. Other RPG’s should take note at how CT got this simple fact right nearly 15 years ago.
Lee: One problem that some had with the original game is the many translation errors littered throughout. For instance, most CT veterans remember a woman in the Millennial Fair who says, “I hate fairs!” In the original Japanese, she was supposed to talk about how much she loved fairs. There were also some sequences where people were drinking beer, and to meet Nintendo’s crazy standards, they changed it to soda. Sure, it doesn’t sound like much, but you’d be shocked how much a bona-fide real translation adds to the gameplay, and it sharpens plot points to a fine point. Bonus: Frog no longer uses “thee” and “thou” for the most part.
There are also some ancillary features that they stapled onto the gameplay. There’s a bestiary, and a new sidequest involving some familiar faces. There’s also some weird monster battling stuff that you can do, but I set foot in most of those things once and never returned. Really, they aren’t necessary. It’s like gluing a puppy to an ice cream sandwich: Sure, ice cream sandwiches are nice, but do puppies really need improving? You can pretty much forget about them. Still, hats off to Square for not forcing us to play the new sections. I appreciate that they left well enough alone.
Chris: With so many endings available, it’s almost a guarantee that you’ll play through Chrono Trigger more than once. The experience won’t be hugely different the second (or third, or fourth) time through, but I think most people won’t mind multiple runthroughs one bit. There is no multiplayer to speak of.
Lee: I’ve played through CT about three times now, and I’m about 30 hours in to CT again. If you’ve played through it once before and don’t see a need to pick it up again, I implore you to try it again with the updated translation. It’s really the game’s biggest selling point.
Chris: I can see now why CT is held up as one of the crown jewels of the RPG genre. It is a fantastic game from start to finish, and does nearly everything perfectly. It has obviously been used as a template for many games that have come since, and with good reason. It’s as near perfect as we’re ever likely to see in a role-playing game. If you’re like me and missed it the first time around, there’s no excuse to skip what looks to be the definitive version of this classic tale.
Lee: Definitive is right. It’s rare to see a remake that not only respects the original but deepens your appreciation for the grand accomplishment that was made in the first place. If you’ve played CT before and never “got it,” or if you’ve avoided it for whatever reason, now’s your chance to give it the shot it deserves. It will be well worth your time.