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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.