Saturday, 26 February 2011

Chrono Trigger

Related article - One of Chrono Trigger's designers, Hironobu Sakaguchi, discusses his new Wii JPRG The Last Story.

It seems an apt time to revisit role-playing classic Chrono Trigger, in the wake of last year’s extremely successful Western launch of Dragon Quest IX and the recent Japanese release of The Last Story on Wii, which could be the last game Hironobu Sakaguchi* makes. In a recent interview with EDGE, the Final Fantasy creator poignantly admitted: "It's not a question of me wanting to make videogames or not. Of course I want to make more. It's more about the relevance of my work. If too few people like my games, it's a sign that my ideas are from another time. It would mean that my creativity doesn't meet today's tastes and expectations". So The Last Story, from its title onwards, appears as though it could be a rare case of a developer realizing and exploring their own waning relevance to a gaming world they fundamentally helped shape, wrapped up in the conventions of a JRPG (off the top of my head I can’t think of a better, possibly sadder, example of how far gaming culture has developed, and how old this interest of ours now is). Chrono Cross, a highly-praised sequel to Chrono Trigger was released in 1999, but sadly never made it to Europe. It is, however, scheduled to release on Japan’s Playstation Network in Spring, but given how long it took Chrono Trigger to officially launch in PAL territories – thirteen years! – we won’t be expecting it anytime soon. And besides, Chrono Trigger is ripe for several revisits yet, its multiple endings, intelligent battle system and excellent script as comforting on a third and fourth playthrough as they were startling on the first. The following extract from Eurogamer’s review is my favourite piece of writing on Chrono Trigger, distilling just what makes the game as fun and radical today as it was back in 1995:

In one memorable scene early on, Crono stands trial for crimes you're sure you never committed. During the trial, the prosecution shows footage of your actions earlier in the game, running from stall to stall at a bustling fair, 'stealing' goods from trestle tables. It's the game poking fun at your habit of clicking on everything; an excellent and surprising joke that not only ridicules the JRPG conventions its makers helped establish, but foreshadows the game's wider themes in a lighthearted way.

Presented after the screenshot is my review, originally written at the time of the DS version’s European release in early 2009.

Back when the thought of SquareSoft and Enix ever merging was as fanciful an idea as getting, say, Mario to compete in choice Olympic sports with Sonic, Chrono Trigger was a very big deal. While today it is deservedly regarded as one of the greatest games ever, back in 1995 Chrono Trigger’s myth revolved less around how its design template appeared to refine the RPG to a fine art and more on the mouth-watering prospect of designers from both JRPG-development behemoths collaborating on one title. The reality of course wasn’t as heretical as the headlines would suggest, but even Square dubbed the pairing of Hironobu Sakaguchi with Yuuji Horii and Akira Toriyama a “dream team” – the former created Final Fantasy, whilst the latter two distinguished themselves with work on Enix’s Dragon Quest series.

Despite this star billing, on the surface Chrono Trigger is as conventional a Japanese RPG as you’d expect. You begin the adventure as Crono, a young boy who ventures to the local fair to see his friend’s new teleportation machine. Within half an hour your friend Marle has been teleported through an alternate portal when the machine in question goes wrong. Following her you end up in 600 A.D (a symbol in the bottom corner keeping you up to date with the era you’re currently in). It’s testament to the considerable skill of Square’s storytellers that this tumultuous series of events never feels anything other than a breathless, panic-stricken prologue to the larger story that then unfolds. Despite only first meeting Marle at the fair, following her is the only compelling, believable response.

The little pieces of characterisation and dialogue are superb, as is the pacing, the careful layering of events. Never mind videogaming, Chrono Trigger is one of the great recent examples of storytelling in any medium. In short, it’s everything role-playing games are meant to be, sucking you into a unique world until your identification with the game is inseparable from the characters and their goals.

Unlike, for example, Final Fantasy IV (the last JRPG I played, and another example in the welcome trend of rereleasing these once rare games on the latest consoles), Chrono Trigger is a game that can be embraced by both genre novices and hardened veterans alike. That first group is perhaps the most important; we’d implore the sort of gamers to whom turn-based battles, MP/HP and intense item management seem impenetrable to play Chrono Trigger. In many ways it’s the perfect introduction to the genre, the surface impression of conventionality giving way to some subtle yet significant changes. For a start there are no random battles, with enemies visible at all times; this removes the irritation of being interrupted on your travels, allowing the sense of exploration to coincide with fighting instead of one factor spoiling the other. The Active Battle System (which actually made its debut in Final Fantasy IV) is similarly intuitive, and is pacey enough to almost make you forget that these encounters are still taking place along turn-based lines.

The slight tweaks to the format create some interesting results (for example the gameworld is surprisingly small, which is something you wouldn’t expect from a ‘traditional’ JRPG), but because the design is so tight everything has a purpose; the dynamic of time-travel lending the game the epic-ness that other, lesser, titles would take from an overwhelming world size or a cast of hundreds. This modesty also extends to the visuals (they may date back to 1995 but still retain immense charm) and of course the famous score by Yasunori Mitsuda. Despite all this talk of genre expectations, Chrono Trigger is a creation that transcends such pigeonholing, excelling despite its heritage and context. For a game that plays so successfully with the notion of time it’s fairly apt that with this re-release Chrono Trigger has proved itself to be pretty much timeless.

Having never had the opportunity to play Chrono Trigger until now, only reading about the game in various magazines and across forums over the years, I’m left feeling grateful that a) it lived up to the considerable hype, turning into the sort of canonised prestige title that the worlds of film and music have in such plentiful supply and that b) we live in an age when re-releases/masters such as this one are still considered services to gaming history. Especially for a game that is only seeing official light of day in PAL territories with this DS edition. As polished and complete a version as one could hope for, Chrono Trigger is, in this day of Square-Enix and multi-format Sonic, still a very big deal.

- Here's the full Eurogamer review from 2008, written by Simon Parkin.

- And here's the link to D+PAD Magazine, where my review was originally published.

* Hironobu Sakaguchi was part of the so-called “Dream Team”, which also included Yuji Horii and Akira Toriyama (creators of Dragon Quest and the anime series Dragon Ball respectively). Given that background, the tag dream team is, if anything, an understatement.

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