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A Japanese RPG Primer: The Essential 20

March 19, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 5 of 21 Next

Chrono Trigger

Developer: Square

Publisher: SquareSoft (1995, SNES)

Nearly fifteen years after its release, longtime JRPG fans still point to Square's Chrono Trigger as one of the best of the best. Although it was hardly a point of interest at its American release, Chrono Trigger resulted from the combined efforts of Hironobu Sakaguchi and Yuji Horii -- in other words, the masters behind Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, the two most popular JRPG series in the world.

By combining Square's talents at storytelling and aesthetic design, along with Horii's skillful scenario design and knack for simplicity, they almost created the perfect game.

One of Dragon Quest's greatest strength is its reliance on tradition. It's also its greatest failing, forcing the development team to keep at variations of the same theme, simply because that's what Dragon Quest is. In essence, Chrono Trigger is essentially a Dragon Quest game that's allowed itself to step outside of the limitations of the series and do something a bit more daring.

For the longest time, Akira Toriyama's character artwork was confined into tiny, little, barely distinguishable sprites -- never clearly visible until after Chrono Trigger. With Square's talented artists, the trio of heroes -- spiky-haired country boy Crono, feisty would-be princess Marle, and bookish scientst Lucca -- came to life in ways that Dragon Quest never had. Koichi Sugiyama is an extremely talented composer, but his music stylings rarely go beyond Western-style symphonic orchestrations.

Here, Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu is free to rock out with a few contributed tracks, but a bulk of the soundtrack composed by the talented Yasunori Mitsuda, who made his name on this game. Whereas Dragon Quest always felt a bit low budget, Chrono Trigger is one of the most gorgeous looking, gorgeous sounding games on the Super Nintendo.

Certain other elements from Dragon Quest have been carried forward, most notably the existence of a silent protagonist. It also, unfortunately, affects the battle system -- the only method of character customization come in the form of stat enhancing seeds, another carryover from Dragon Quest.

For some reason, the number of playable characters has been cut down to three. At least it implements a battle function called Double and Triple Techs, where two or three party members can combine their magic spells for extra special attacks. In some ways, it's a step down from both Final Fantasy's and Dragon Quest's respective systems, but it's not enough to really matter in the long run.

The DQ series is also known for its snappy scenario design, full of memorable events and NPCs. Chrono Trigger is a nonstop ride through numerous setpieces -- Crono's accidental trip to the past, his subsequent trial and resulting escape, the discovery of Lavos in the post-apocalyptic future, the drunken celebrations in the prehistoric era, the raid on Magus' castle and the lead-up to the fateful battle.

Pretty much the entire game is series of climaxes, one after another after another. It's also quite compelling to see how the relatively small game world changes in all of the different time periods. Near the game's end, a handful of subquests really show off how cool it is to amend the mistakes of the past to change the future.

Time travel is such a fertile ground for interesting storytelling that it's a shame few games explore it. Even Horii himself tried it later in Dragon Quest VII, with far less interesting results.

The only real downside of cutting down all the treacle is that the overall quest is pretty short -- one can probably beat it in maybe fifteen hours. To counteract this, Chrono Trigger introduced the New Game+, which allows you to restart the game from scratch but carrying over the stats from when you beat the game.

After a certain point in the plot, you can time travel directly to fight Lavos, and depending where you are in the story, defeating him will reveal over a dozen different endings. All of this helps expand one of the most intriguing stories found in Japanese RPGs.

Article Start Previous Page 5 of 21 Next

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Shaun Huang
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What about Star Ocean? Tales of Phantasia? The hentai RPGs? the horror RPGs? The intro talks big about "studying" the japanese rpg primers but the content seem more like one person's list of favorite rpg instead of a comprehensive overview.

Tom Newman
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Great article! FF heavy (I disagree about FFXII, and definately disagree about Chrono Cross), but my top 5 made it in including the much overlooked BoF:Dragom Quarter and SMT:Nocturne)

Aaron Lutz
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There's a reason it's called an "opinion" piece... it's this guy's "opinion" of the top 20 JRPGs. And he did define the requirements to be included in the list early on.

To the Author,

Thank for this illumination. Sadly, I don't play as many RPGs as I would like, and Gamasutra continues to inform me about games that I never knew existed. This is no different. I agree and disagree about a few choices, but all-in-all it's a good read. Thanks!

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I agree with Zero Punctuation's view on JRPGs. They all look, sound, talk, feel smell the same.

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If you're going to say that all JRPGs are the same, then I think it's pretty clear that you haven't explored the genre much.

Also, this list needs some Disgaea on it, or just any sort of recognition towards Nippon Ichi Software.

Hayden Dawson
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The inclusion of titles such as Dragon Quarter and the Shin Megami's do a strong job of showing how varied the genre is. For places such as g4 and other US sites that have been the most vocal in bashing JRPGs lately, I find it so humorous that they hold FPSes up to some gold standard when if anything, such titles even more guilty of the same old same old.

i would agree that the most obvious series not covered (as he did specifically define JRPG for the article) is something from the Tales series.

Nicholas Karpuk
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I found this article really insightful, since the world of JRPGs is often intimidating, since a bad investment can mean a dozen hours of grinding and plots that don't really satisfy.

It really highlights the benefit of the genre, which is an almost absurd level of depth when it comes to atmosphere and a sense of a larger world.

The main frustration of this article is that the games I was not already familiar with are by in large titles that I can't purchase legitimately without throwing down a large amount of cash.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

David Deeble
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Great article. Within the context you stated at the beginning of the piece I agree with many of your selections (the others I just haven't played).

I haven't played a JRPG for quite some time (Dragon Quest VIII was my last), the reason being that I find the genre may have already past its best, recent titles just don't seem to have the edge that made many of the games on your list so memorable - though I suppose it could just be a bout of nostalgia kicking in.

Still, one thing's for sure: The article's made me fall in love with Skies of Arcadia again...oh and I had my weekend all planned out. Curse you and your eloquent words!

Roberto Alfonso
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When teen, I could never decide whether Final Fantasy VI or Chrono Trigger was the best role playing game ever made. Over 10 years later, I still can't decide.

By the way, isn't Pokémon a JRPG? And I would have mentioned Lufia instead of Final Fantasy VIII. The game starts in the final tower, with your characters at level 70. Back in 1993, that was revolutionary.

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No Super Mario RPG. No Lunar. No Lufia. No Secret of Mana. No Vagrant Story.

Could have dropped FF all but Final Fantasy VI and replaced them with the above.

Final Fantasy V is far from essential.

Jon Burke
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Secret of Mana and Vagrant Story aren't traditional JRPGs, which is what this list is.

Really the only one listed here that I don't agree with is Shadow Hearts: Covenant. Didn't care for the ring system much. It makes every action a gamble when things like using items and doing basic attacks shouldn't be.

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Lack of the Saga series is surprising. Not to mention Tengai Makyo Manji Maru for the PC Engine that lived on Famitsu's Top 20 best games ever list for years beyond its release. Then again, these 2 series are far more essential to Japan JRPGs.

Paul Rooney
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Fantastic article, very glad to see Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne and Persona 3. I couldn't agree more.

I'm a huge SMT fan for many reasons and Nocturne had many small but key elements that made it by far my favourite game. One of which having a demon that can cast estoma and riberama for exploration and levelling up. Took a lot of the frustration from random encounters right out but kept a huge level of tension due to the brilliant difficulty level because you always had to be on the ball, and if you were even flicking on 'Auto' was a great feature.

The plot(s) also grabbed me more because not only was it complex, it was dark and sometimes optional. For me a guide is essential for this game because its absolutely huge.

Devil Summoner was also great as it had a fantastic and distinct atmosphere that almost felt tangible at times.

Anyway a fantastic list, some of which I havn't played. You can use this list as a must play quality RPG list.

Ryan Barrett
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Kurt, where oh where is Crystalis!?!?

AND Vagrant Story!?!? OMG and Secret of Mana and oh i'm sure everyone above me said something too that you didn't have. You really shouldn't have combined 4, 6 and 7 into one. And 5, 8, and 12 are HARDLY worth playing. Sorry Kurt, but your list fails.

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Ignore the haters, Author. This was a great read.

Tawna Evans
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Too much to read! I ended up just scanning titles, and I read only the pages of games I am familiar with. It would be nice if the article were shorter... maybe provide one paragraph per game instead of a whole page.

The author seems heavily biased in favor of Square Enix games. I saw multiple Final Fantasies and such.

Aaron Gingras
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I think the inclusion of an abundant of Square-Enix RPGs was to be expected, considering they've been the primary developer of some of the best J-RPGs out.

Still more into Computer RPGs myself, though.

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I liked the list a lot, it was the most accurately critical and praising the various underlying "segments" that make up each rpg and it's gameplay that I've seen! And while I feel that a few did get left out, and for me final fantasy is vanilla meh, I thought it was a pretty comprehensive list of the mainstream JSRPGS also. Kudos, mebbe now I will finally try Phantasy Star IV my friend has recommended.

PS you left one thing out -- its a bigger mystery than not releasing FF V, another Chrono, etc etc combined that Earthbound II(Mother 3 if you prefer) was indefinitely delayed, then pissed away on a Japanese Cell Phone.

Shame on you, NIntendo!!

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Good list all in all, though like many above me I'd take issue with many of them. For one I found Chrono Cross' battle system anything but friendly to an rpg veteran like me. I'm all for new systems in rpgs, but seriously having to melee attack to charge up to use a HEALING item was something that made me wanna be violent. Spells I could see doing such with but items always made me annoyed.

Other than that I don't have much of a problem with the list at all. I would have grouped all the final fantasies together to make room for some others (yes I know a lot of FF games are very diffrent from each other, so sue me it's still the same name they should be together) but it's a minor gripe.