a review of Chrono Trigger
a videogame developed by the square that was
and published by squaresoft
for the nintendo super famicom (super nintendo entertainment system)
text by Brendan Lee
There’s a really good bit in the 1963 film The Great Escape: Lt. Colin “The Forger” Blythe completes a series of counterfeit documents which will allow his fleeing companions to make their way to safety – – an act which would normally cement his value to the team and earn him a coveted spot on the escape roster. Unfortunately, there’s a snag: The Forger (damn and blast!) is so terribly nearsighted that he’s likely to be a serious drag on the rest of the POWs during their desperate flight from the Nazis. To try and prove that his eyes are still keen, Blythe places a pin on one side of the barracks, carefully paces it off, and then traces his way back and forth a couple of times in order to show that he’s able to grab it without difficulty. I won’t say how things turn out for him (I’d sooner play a video game than spoil a Steve McQueen movie), but my point is more about the fake, stapled-together nature of testing environments . . . more often than not, we’re just picking up a pin that we’ve placed there ourselves, rather than actually testing our vision.
The RPG format clings rather stickily to this toothless spreadsheet ideology . . . they’re bland and irritating commodities, by and large; products of convenience-store pastry connoisseurs who looked at dice-based tabletop affairs and decided that the best part was the integers. Because there are only two possible states for the player during any given battle situation (“stronger than”, “weaker than”), each one boils down to the same dopey number crunch. You’ve got the MP, or you don’t; you’ve got all Twelve Shimmering Ladles of Dradzarganon the Enforcer, or . . . aw, crap, gotta go back to Portsmeade again. Each one of these glorified math quizzes is made all the more trite by the way you’re constantly faked into believing you’re making some kind of progress; you know roughly how strong you are at any given time, either by the story cues or the strength of the random encounters, so you’ve got only yourself to blame for not grinding enough on that little island with those nice one-hit Frog Guardians. Any surprises and “ohhhhhhhh shiiiiiiit” moments that the designers manage to wedge in generally possess all the subtlety and nuance of an Amway prosthesis. Essentially, the test always puts you exactly where you should be in order to pass it. This could threaten to get extremely wearisome, and it does, ladies and gentlemen, it does, but with a “good”-style story and a balanced curve to the difficulty it all kind of ends up working you along Pavlov-style for 35+ hours.
Chrono Trigger should have been the game that changed everything.
While the news of a Dragon Quest-cum-Final Fantasy peanut-butter-chocolate matchup was exactly the kind of thing that keeps all of Japan’s citizens from immediately committing suicide, it was the sort of news that, in the United States, having even a passing familiarity with pre-qualified you for at least one locker-room gutpunch from a guy named Kyle. No matter. Nintendo Power ginned up buzz by noting that it was Square’s BIGGEST GAME EVER, and for sore-bellied freshmen like me those sorts of statements generated the kind of excitement that, say, a new Tom Cruise project generates among midget stunt doubles. Still, the point wasn’t – – or shouldn’t have been – – the bigness, as such; the point should have been how the game was upending so many RPG standbys: the random encounters, forced linearity, and self-important gassiness that make up the genre’s lifeblood. Chrono Trigger made me realize that those things could be up for grabs, even in a game with menus and numbers. The results are often surprisingly intimate.
It is, in short, brilliant – – the rarest kind of gaming artifact, standing in the dead center of a whirlwind of talent. In every corner of the game, you can see the fancy sleeves-rolled noodling of creative types who know both the promise and limits of how games can operate. It tap-dances where the Final Fantasy series can, by now, only manage a zombie-esque shuffle. Why? The reason, I think, is that Chrono Trigger is a game of immaculate fairness. From the very beginning, you can see what you’ll be up against at the very end: dip your foot into the bucket and try your luck at the final boss, if you like. G’head. Get you ass handed to you, and . . . well, you’ve only got yourself to blame. Rather than the constant kaleidoscopic-nausea of random battle after random battle, you actually get to see the enemies as they attack your party . . . and when you don’t, you at least feel like you were ambushed fair and square. All that, and they were kind enough to include multiple endings and something called replayability, an idea that was, for RPGs, so unheard-of at the time that the graphic design team at GamePro had to whip up an entirely new kind of Crazy Head just to describe how awesome it was.
How was it awesome? Depressing French cinemagician Jean-Luc “Picard” Godard realized that all you needed to make a really first-rate bit of film was a girl and a gun; for most gamers this would be one girl too many, and several dozen guns too few. Chrono Trigger, however, is very much a call to a type of sparse, character-driven dynamic that puts so many of gamingdom’s Ritalin fiends into a drowsy stupor. Have you played it recently? It’s slow, but it’s slow in the way that a novel or an expensive dinner with a good friend is slow. It meanders at times; it strolls. It’s a chance that games don’t take much recently, to risk gently boring someone for the promise of interesting them later. Or it might just be too difficult to pull of at this point . . . most of this homestyle flavor likely owes to the balance between the artistic direction of the creators and the technical limitations of the SNES hardware; to paraphrase French impressionist Jacob-Abraham-Camille Pissarro: “(The human) brain . . . (is the best SGI workstation of them all)”. Put more bluntly: when all you have is a sheet of graph paper, everything looks like a Blanka. Chrono Trigger was a product that couldn’t have existed at another time: another generation of hardware before, and you’d lose out on the swelling impact of the Mitsuda/Uematsu soundtrack. Another generation of hardware later, and you’d be knee-deep in Extremely Important Cutscenes (something they thankfully remembered to include in the eventual PSX release). In Chrono Trigger, depth and gently-paced sparseness are more or less the same thing.
The truly strange thing was not that the game happened, or that it happened so well – – Sakaguchi, Horii, Toriyama, Mitsuda et al drink Old Spice and sweat Brut, such men are these – – but that it didn’t happen again, and again, and again until we all grew tired of dry-humping Chrono Trigger’s two-dimensional corpse. There was the not entirely unsuccessful Chrono Cross, and . . . um . . . (*brief whirring of Wikipedia*) Chrono Trigger: Jet Bike Special for the Satellaview, I guess. Still, the whole thing was kind of an odd sort of one-off for Square, and it’s never really been properly equaled . . . but it’s certainly not for lack of not trying. Maybe part of the reason that we keep going back to the Final Fantasy series is in the vain hope that we’ll get another taste of sweet fantasy without all of the cluttery Career Trapezoids and Apothecary Spheres and other Styrofoam math-clutter the series has been boondoggled with. Maybe Blue Dragon was our reward for hanging in there. Blue Dragon! Very likely, a great deal more game than anyone deserved . . . I saw more than one member of the foreign game press giving sneers and rolled eyes to the beta at Tokyo Game Show, muttering about “cartoon stuff” into one hand and reaching for multiple omake bags with the other. Clearly they’d each earned all four of the Northwest Airlines seats that it took to get them here and back again (and the accompanying 12 meals that came with them), but it was still a little galling to see a really nice piece of software slagged off by the types of people who habitually read the words “FULLY COOKED” as “READY TO EAT”.
Fuck ’em anyway. Maybe that was an advantage of the SNES, to be a thing of 2D artifacts and pixel grids. Maybe the less imagination we have to project onto our games, the less we end up investing, and the less they end up meaning. Or, at least, the more responsibility there ends up being on the Technology Boys to give us realistic mouth holes and pear-shaped breasts.
I suppose that the reason is that fairness, on the whole, is no longer really in vogue in games. It’s yesterday’s news . . . rewards are given now not for being good at a game, but for being good at a hilarious spastic control scheme (though the next Mario Party is more than likely to give you at least one or two Dig Dugs just for waving the least). The unwashed have spoken . . . and Nintendo probably should have just kept on calling it the Revolution. The pedophiles, 4-year-olds, and Kohlers who make up the Wii installed base (and, by extension, the cobbler-gobbling toddler-coddlers that inform their buying decisions) haven’t just watered down the demand for games that are reasonably-paced, challenging, and at the very least fairly fair; they’ve taken to shaking a pudding-scented Wiimote at it.
Chrono Trigger will never be equaled. It may be bested in some sense at some point in some specific technical category (march of progress being what it is), but its genius lies in the sum of its parts. What makes it one of the best games of all time, the reason it endures, is that it tells a type story that couldn’t be told in any other format. Every aspect was considered and custom-fit to the medium, and it shows: it’s a tale that needed to be told not only as a video game, but as an RPG video game on a Super Nintendo. Anything else would be . . . quite a different story.