Chrono Trigger is not Primer, and the world is better for it. The game plays so fast and loose with the rules of time travel, it’s bound to make paradox theorists’ heads explode faster than if they met alternate-timeline versions of themselves. But Crono and his friends exist in a universe where soaring through the millennia is a dreamlike and inviting proposition. A greater attempt by the game’s designers to rectify the logical issues inextricably linked to the narrative’s central conceit – problems that make or break many other time travel stories – would almost certainly be at odds with their creation’s other bountiful charms. Besides, it’s not so much that Chrono Trigger‘s creators ignore the issue of causality; they simply employ it only when they feel it would most emotionally resonate.
The game begins in its parallel world’s version of our present. (However, its technology spans anywhere from turn-of-the-century steampunk gadgets to contemporary kitchen appliances to vaguely futuristic doo-dads.) Spiky haired silent protagonist Crono begins his grand adventure as many RPG characters before him: being woken up by his mother on the eve of a life-changing event. When his friend Lucca unveils her teleportation machine at a local festival, things – as they are wont to do at teleportation machine unveilings – go horribly wrong. Crono is soon hurtling through the ages, traversing and re-travesring a relatively small world map that only reveals its hidden depths in new time periods.
It wouldn’t be a party-based roleplaying game without a menagerie of superpowered oddballs aiding the hero on his journey, and Chrono Trigger’s suitably ragtag collection does not skimp on the eccentricity. Apart from the nerdy Lucca, Crono befriends a princess in disguise; a knight transformed into an anthropomorphic frog; a big-hearted, empathetic robot; a brave, rambunctious cavewoman; and a dark sorcerer who first plagues your team before reluctantly joining the good guys. (The game also gives you the option to simply fight and defeat him, which I’m sure many unsuspecting players did originally.) Unsurprisingly, Crono’s simple jaunt through time turns into a mission to save the world; a now-dormant alien creature known as Lavos, long ago engaged in a mutually parasitic relationship with the planet’s more wicked inhabitants, stands to wake up in a thousand years and rain a fiery destruction from which mankind never recovers.
If this sounds like a typical, gibberish “fate of the world” storyline rightfully and regretfully associated with this sort of game, well, it more or less is. Lavos’ history and its relationship to the world and characters – specifically the magician Magus, his family, and the elders who assist you – never quite reaches coherency (at least not in the somewhat maligned original English translation I played). But Chrono Trigger never feels portentous; it is the exemplary Japanese RPG precisely because instead of fully transcending its genre’s trappings, it illustrates how to utilize them in the best light. Other titles eventually succumb to their own pretensions and make the dire mistake of pushing their nonsense narratives to the forefront, but Chrono Trigger‘s employment of story is, in a word, nimble. While many roleplaying games shoehorn their sword and sorcery into the mold of Tolkien-esque self-seriousness, Trigger‘s casual approach to fantasy bears more resemblance to countryman Hayao Miyazaki’s signature melding of the magical and blase, where fantastical mysteries are presented as almost second nature. It is a game that embraces and exploits its inherent whimsy instead of appearing half-ashamed of it.
But a pitch-perfect tone is only half of why Chrono Trigger‘s story functions as well as it does. The time travel device subverts what would otherwise be a completely lame, substandard “quest-to-vanquish-evil” dirge by forcing you to ditch the false sense of urgency. Crono and company can take on Lavos at almost any time once they harness the ability to time travel, so as a player, there is no rush to reach the game’s finish line. While this might appear to detract from typical dramatic tension and narrative flow, it aims to allow the player to focus on the world’s many small details that create a much richer, more idiosyncratically entertaining experience on the whole. Not to say it does not also positively impact the overarching narrative; with the endgame achievable from the start, the game’s constant leveling up and pursuit of better equipment feel more like the characters are legitimately building toward a goal than it does in more linear RPGs. Assuming complete control over when you face the final challenge opens the game up to countless play styles that might not otherwise be as apparent; it’s equally an excuse to stop and obsessively talk to every villager or to grind maniacally and complete the game before the first act’s end, both of which elicit their own reward.
And really, the time travel mechanic doesn’t just spruce up a few problems within Chrono Trigger or the Japanese RPG genre, but also provides an elegant solution to some of story-driven gaming’s most inherent pacing issues. Traditional narrative structure is defined by how events follow one another on a straight and true path; not to be overly obvious, but characters must be in certain places and certain events must occur for a story to take shape. Games almost inherently interpret this more loosely: characters must be certain places and certain events must occur for the sake of story, but the padding between these events can be as long as the player dictates. It’s part of what makes video games such an engaging, obsession-baiting artform – that they are so adept at expressing an environment and how we choose to interact with it – but it’s also why they have trouble expressing stories with the ease of other narrative mediums. If you’re telling a story about a kingdom in danger, or a princess who needs rescuing, would you entertain the idea of an interlude in which the protagonist goes fishing for several hours? Most games want to drape the structures of other mediums over their stories, and it’s usually an ill fit at best. Chrono Trigger feels believable and unique because it crafts a tale where time behaves as it does in, well, video games.
For all the freedom it gives you to decide where and when the story ends, Chrono Trigger‘s idea of “player choice” is hardly synonymous with “decision making.” In what is perhaps the game’s finest and most unexpected moment, Crono is put on trial, charged falsely with kidnapping. The result is similar whether proven guilty or innocent, but the evidence presented against you consists of player actions so hilariously incidental you can’t believe Squaresoft devoted valuable cartridge space to keeping track of them. The examples of your misdeeds highlighted by the “witnesses” are also meant to chastise players for subscribing to bizarre video game logic instead of using their heads: “Oh, you mean I shouldn’t eat someone else’s lunch just because it’s lying on the table? I should check to make sure the person I just ran into is all right before swiping her golden necklace?” (It’s pretty amazing that a 1995 title was already self-aware enough to call some of its genre’s stupidest tropes into question.)
The trial perfectly encapsulates how some of the best parts of Trigger will pass you by at a moment’s notice, and much of its most iconic content exists as completely optional, character-heavy side quests. It’s here we see the secret brilliance of the game’s map, as helping someone in one era completely changes the terrain at a future date. From the ever-selfless Robo spending centuries planting a forest to your generosity toward a medieval man transforming his once Scrooge-like descendent into a pinnacle of generosity, the intended purpose of these side quests is to acquire better gear for the final battle. As the clearest depiction of your impact on the actual game world, though, they leave you with something even greater: a sense of awe.
There’s a rather ugly attitude that games of this type are inherently bereft of interesting ideas, that they’re too old and foreign and sweet-natured to be anything other than nostalgic fun. And it’s true that I don’t know if I’d call Chrono Trigger a particularly heady experience; it more pays lip service to its many themes – environmentalism, cultural oppression, regret, and loss, to name a few – than it explores of any of them with much depth. But it also has some genuine daring in places you might not expect; for instance, the death of Crono. Killing off a player character for a large portion of a game is ballsy enough on its own, but when the implication is that the story doesn’t suffer without his bland, lifeless presence, it’s a pointed comment on how the people around us often give our lives more meaning than we do.
The game’s writers were even clever enough to use the disparate settings of a time travel drama as an excuse to mess around with genre. Chrono Trigger‘s different eras are adept at referencing the pop culture shorthand we’ve built around certain types of stories, from the mistaken identity and Frog Prince fairy tales that take hold in the game’s medieval portion to the post-apocalyptic wasteland that contains a bit of everything from Mad Max to Phillip K. Dick. Even the combat signals a restless desire for new ideas. Placing turn-based battles against the actual world map instead of random abstract backgrounds may seem like a subtle change, but it greatly augments the game’s sense of immediacy and setting.
It’s only fitting that a game so dependent upon combining the powers of three unlikely individuals would famously be the collaborative effort of Hironobu Sakaguchi, Yuji Horii, and Akira Toriyama. Super groups are often tricky business; great talents in the same room trying to not step on each other’s toes can often lead to a product of milquetoast politeness. Here, though, it truly did result in the utmost of its participants’ craft without giving in to anyone’s ego. (Even the insane alternate ending where Sakaguchi, Horii, and Toriyama show up to chastise you for playing the game too quickly is too genuinely weird to qualify as patting themselves on the back.) Of course, given Square-Enix’s recent indulgences, Chrono Trigger‘s technological limitations might have kept its artists’ vision blessedly in check. I wonder if Squaresoft fans in 1995 would view the current iterations of Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts – their fussy, garish character designs and bloated, frowning stories the near antithesis of Chrono Trigger‘s enduringly simple sprites and text boxes – as Crono and his friends once saw the future’s post-Lavos, ash-choked wasteland. In a world where Phil Fish can say modern Japanese games “just suck” and be met with relatively little argument, times seem dire for a nation of developers who disputably shaped contemporary game design; for many, Square-Enix, Nintendo, and their brethren might as well already be dead in the ground. But luckily, if Chrono Trigger taught us anything, it’s that stories can have more than one ending.