You would be hard pressed to find an Indie RPG developer who doesn’t respect Chrono Trigger on some level. Mitsuda’s soundtrack is amongst the best of its generation; Toriyama’s designs; Kato’s story managed to be complex, yet deceptively simple. This was Squaresoft at its finest, completely unencumbered by the negative trends of recent years. There are almost too many details too much to properly appreciate, but one element stands above all.
The entire game felt dedicated to destroying the tedium of RPGs. No random battles and no grinding.
It starts off like almost any RPG of its era, with a sleeping mime/teenage hero, but the introductory arc subtly pushes you right into the action. Just walking to fairground reveals the games streamlined design; I remember the slight pause I had when I realized that I wouldn’t have to trudge through button-mashing battles just to explore.
While other games of the period, such as Earthbound, had systems for reducing/eliminating unwanted battles, Chrono Trigger was arguably the most refined. Its location-specific battles really strengthened the introductory arc.
Even with the Millennial Fair, there wasn’t a “wait-for-it-to-get-good” sort of intro. It very quickly demanded your attention with character and charm, despite guarding key plot points behind seemingly meaningless interactions. The first few arcs feature a darting plot; you’re constantly on the move from one goal to the next. Importantly here, progress is very clean, particularly for an initial playthrough. The initial set of reactive plot points are spaced tightly, allowing players to rapidly gain both a sense of accomplishment and attachment to the world.
As much as I enjoyed the introduction, its brilliance is only revealed as the game enters its second phase with the arrival of Lavos.
Instead of feeling the story drag to an inevitable conclusion, you spend a good deal of time having no clue what Chrono Trigger’s end game really is. What’s astounding is how the game handles the standard “save the world” goal. By the time your characters have decided upon saving the planet, your immersion validates that goal in entirety. Had that thrust of the story been issued earlier, there’d be less reason to care and fewer means to understand the stakes of the coming battle. As soon as you reach the bleak future, you know something’s wrong, but the moment Lavos pops up on the screen your worst fears come true.
What’s more is that the game shortly thereafter paves out a tempting shortcut to the final boss. Even an inexperienced RPG player would have little reason to expect victory, but that glimmering warp bucket was absurdly tempting. “I can already fight the boss?” “Is the game really over?” “A bucket, seriously?” The game uses the ridiculous nature of the moment to great effect. With power-fantasy at the core of most RPGs, it’s as if the designers were openly mocking the average gamers’ overconfidence. During my first playthrough, morbid curiosity led me straight through the warp bucket and into Lavos’ domain.
The beat down was swift and decisive.
Conceptually, the moment was perfect; an unwinnable fight by design instead of force. Being more of a natural force than a character, you’d spoil the boss by showing him directly too often. With the bucket choice, Lavos gets to display his senseless power without getting overexposed to the plot. Logistically, he’s a pure villain; there’s no moral structure or secret imperative to hold him back during combat. All of this is crystallized as Lavos annihilates your party without a second thought. A churned of equal parts dread and anticipation starts building at this very moment. Victory of Lavos will not be easy and it will be had soon.
By the time you reach this point, you’ve visited past, present, and future, defended yourself at trial, seen the world shattered, saved a happy-go-lucky princess, and met a self-aware robot with a Rick-Roll-esque theme song. Yet despite this, you’ve been obliterated by an earth-shattering evil that you can hardly comprehend. It’s both inspiring and humbling. This is RPG storytelling at its finest.
As with anything I write about, there’s always more to be said, but for brevity’s sake let’s pause here.