WARNING: This article contains massive spoilers for Chrono Trigger… for anyone who still hasn’t played it at this point.
Like my previous Late to the Party entry, Chrono Trigger is a mid-1990’s classic with time-travel themes that’s been remastered in recent years to make it accessible to a new generation of players. (I swear I did not pick this theme on purpose.) But those very superficial similarities aside, I found Chrono Trigger to be a surprisingly complex and enjoyable experience that uses the core concept of time travel to build a world with a rich history… rather than just as the basis for a bunch of kooky point-and-click puzzles as in Day of the Tentacle. As a latecomer to this particular party, it was thrilling to me to discover a game that lived up to its reputation in every way, rather than a disappointing anachronism as with my DotT experience.
Any port in a storm?
Any discussion of the 2018 PC port of Chrono Trigger needs to address its extremely rocky initial roll-out. Having never played the game when it first came out for the Super Nintendo in 1995 (or in any emulated version, etc.), I can’t really provide a comparison of any quality issues with the graphics or other aspects of the game, but the core problem was that Square Enix simply re-skinned the mobile port of Chrono Trigger and slapped it up on Steam, complete with touch control UI and unbelievably ugly text boxes.
There are also some issues with the sprites that are extremely noticeable when compared side-by-side, but which might not have popped out as much to me as a new player with a poor eye for graphics. Regardless, fan reaction was overwhelmingly terrible, and Square Enix quickly responded with a series of patches to address all of these issues. By the time I got around to downloading the game in the fall of 2019, the storm had passed and I was able to play what struck me as an exceptionally fine-looking game of its era, from sprites and backgrounds to menus and UIs.
Besides the look of the game, other aspects of the game were immediately impressive as well. Using an Xbox One controller, I found that moving around was enjoyable, the animations were engaging, and it was clear what people and items I was supposed to interact with (and how). The combat, inventory and party systems were intuitive and the menus were well-designed. Even the real-time combat was surprisingly easy to pick up. And, as I discovered later on, there is even a place in the starting village (the Mayor’s house) where a huge family of helpful NPCs will explain all of these things to you in case you couldn’t figure them out on your own. All in all, I instantly felt that this was a very welcoming and well-designed game, so I was fully engaged from the very first minutes I spent with it.
Of course, longtime fans of Japanese role-playing games— unlike myself, since this was really my first foray into the genre at all— wouldn’t have been surprised by that level of quality, given its “dream team” of designers, artists and composers, with leading figures from other classic game franchises like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. In retrospect, their influence is definitely felt here, as Chrono Trigger effortlessly steps into its classic status from the moment it starts.
The story begins
Since JRPGs have been such a core part of video game culture for so long, even a newcomer like myself enjoyed a feeling of warm, cozy familiarity-by-osmosis with many aspects of Chrono Trigger. We start playing as a young man with the oddly prescient name of “Crono” in a peaceful village in the midst of its everyday life in the year 1000 AD. Fortunately, there’s a big fair going on to break up the monotony. Everyone we meet has a bit of background exposition or tutorial text to share, to ease us into the game’s world. Friends destined to join the party later on will inevitably find some way to mention their names so that the player has a chance to rename them (though names are limited to 5 characters?!). We walk into random people’s houses at will, and no one objects. I cheerfully steal somebody’s lunch at the fair.
And of course, this bucolic village scene is soon disrupted by a shocking event, as local nerd Lucca’s perfectly harmless short-range teleportation device (!!!) malfunctions and sends my new friend Marle into some sort of time vortex. (This has something to do with the pendant Marle is wearing, which turns out to have important time-related powers later in the game.) Naturally, Lucca and I have to chase after her, and we find ourselves in 600 AD, where we’re presented with a further set of JRPG tropes: a seemingly infinite number of random encounters with low-level enemies (which serve as a quick and highly effective tutorial for the fast-paced “Active Time Battle” turn-based combat system), inventory items to boost character stats, and the ability to sleep and/or eat an entire “spiced roast” to immediately restore all health. Delicious.
So far, so familiar. While this first mission to find Marle was enjoyable enough, my sense at this point was still: Hey, I guess JRPGs are more interesting than I thought! But will I, a non-JRPG fan, actually find something to really care about in what could just be a long series of random encounters and boss fights? Admittedly, I was pleasantly surprised by some of the background art in scenes like this, which instantly gave me a much stronger sense of a real, lived-in world that I wanted to explore:
Fortunately, the real story was about to begin… and wow, this game definitely has a LOT of story. I took incredibly copious notes as I played, and I’m glad I did because otherwise I would have completely lost the plot even while I was playing, let alone when writing this article months later. I still didn’t get all the details written down, and I’ll have to refer to online resources for stuff I’ve forgotten, so please forgive me if the (relatively) brief summary I present here leaves out your favorite aspect of the story. Luckily, we have the comment section for addressing such oversights.
Act One: the scope of the conflict
It turns out that when Marle landed in 600 AD, she was mistaken for the princess of the kingdom, who had gone missing after being kidnapped by monsters as part of their war with humans. We free her and make our way back to 1000 AD, where Crono is promptly arrested, tried and convicted of kidnapping the princess— because, surprise, it turns out that Marle really IS the princess in this era. (Her real name is Nadia but she was slumming it because of how being a rich princess is a super duper drag, man.) Crono breaks out of jail with Lucca’s help, and they narrowly escape recapture by diving through another time portal that sends them to 2300 AD, an apocalyptic wasteland where society has been destroyed by some monster from beneath the earth’s crust called “Lavos”.
As we ping-pong back and forth between different eras over the next few hours of gameplay— 600, 1000, and 2300 AD, 65 million BC, 12,000 BC, and even a strange space called “The End of Time”— we fight our way through waves of enemies and local bosses and meet various interesting characters and new party members (like a humanoid frog named Frog and a robot from the future named Robo… guess this is why a renaming function was provided) as we make our way from one Time Gate to the next. More importantly, we learn various bits and pieces of semi-accurate local legends and start to put together a bigger picture of what really happened to cause all the trouble and chaos we discover in each era:
The powerful creature known as Lavos fell from the stars in 65,000,000 BC, where it slumbered beneath the earth’s crust for ages until an evil queen named Zeal discovered it and harnessed its power to fuel her own dreams of grandeur and immortality, and to build a technologically advanced but highly unequal society of in 12,000 BC built on floating islands in the sky. (She also has a couple of cute kids named Schala and Janus, who will play a role later.) But Lavos’s power got out of her control, and the society collapsed. Lavos went into hibernation again for another 14,000 years or so.
In 600 AD, an evil mage named (ahem) Magus has been seeking to summon Lavos forth again, presumably for his own evil ends, but those plans fail, and Lavos does emerge in 1999 AD to destroy the world with a rain of fire, leaving the wasteland that we already saw in 2300 AD. So now it’s our mission to stop this from happening.
Gameplay and world-building
In the form presented above, this recap of the first part of the game seems relatively straightforward. But a combination of factors in how it was presented in the game made it much more interesting and exciting to discover for myself. For starters, Crono and his crew discover this story in bits and pieces and out of order, so there’s a clear sense of uncovering a vast mystery. In particular, the boss fight with Magus is framed as the big moment when we will finally take down the guy who summoned Lavos, thereby saving the future world… and it’s only after we defeat him that we learn that Lavos has actually been around for millions of years longer than we thought.
Aside from these big plot twists, which are handled quite effectively, there is also some great world-building as we discover connections between characters and encounter unique people and events along the way. One early moment that really caught my attention was Crono’s trial for “kidnapping” Marle, when I was suddenly confronted with various Suspicious Activities from the first hour or so of the game (like, er, stealing that guy’s lunch at the fair) which suddenly threw Crono’s character into question.
Then there was the time in 2300 AD when a local biker and his gang of robo pals refused to let us pass unless we raced him in an unexpected bit of arcade action.
There’s a flashback sequence where we learn more about Frog’s back story and how he became a frog man and noble knight in the first place. Later, Crono partakes in a drinking contest with Ayla, the chief of a cave-dwelling prehistoric tribe and a future party member, that wins him a valuable quest item for about 15 seconds, until it’s stolen by an evil boss I ended up having to fight in the more traditional way. Even the moment when we first meet Robo, as Lucca re-assembles him from found parts in an abandoned factory, is presented in a strikingly “cinematic” way, with fade in/fade out to show the passage of time as other characters do other things (sleeping, trying to open a sealed door) while Lucca works along on her task. And all of these moments, along with every battle and even general overworld wandering, are backed by a mostly very solid soundtrack. With brief NPC interactions and a bare minimum of in-engine cutscenes, the game tells its story in an impressively mature and multifaceted way that was a big part of what I ultimately appreciated most about Chrono Trigger.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the insane cartoon cutscenes, created at Akira Toriyama’s Bird Studio and animated at Toei Animation for the PS1 version in 1999, that punctuate the game at certain key moments. I found these to be less successful, in no small part because of the weird character models (just look at those pointy noses and bizarre leering grins) that didn’t match my mental image of what the characters represented by the 16-bit sprites “really” looked like. I didn’t like the music for these segments as much either, perhaps because the music was a perfect match for Super Nintendo-era game graphics but not so much for these cheap 80’s-lookin’ cartoons (yeah, you heard me). But despite their immersion-breaking qualities, these cutscenes are definitely part of Chrono Trigger‘s unique charm, so they deserve a mention here.
The gameplay is impressively engaging as well. In a system that will (apparently?) be familiar to old-school Final Fantasy fans, combat is turn-based, but with a timer that keeps the pressure on the player to decide on actions quickly and to internalize the controller motions needed to navigate to the perfect attack for every situation. Besides individual and team physical attacks (and spells for healing, speeding up turn times, etc.) that are unlocked as party members level up, a separate magic attack mode is introduced early on with a variety of types like Water, Fire, and Light. Enemy designs, especially bosses and mini-bosses, draw on a rich set of possibilities inherent in this system, with varying reliance on magic vs. physical attacks and strength/weakness to different specific types of magic. Bosses show up with support crews with specific roles like “heal” and “defend”, typically imposing a preferred order for taking them down (e.g. I always killed healers first), and attack in phases that make it most efficient to, say, attack when the enemy drops its defenses to power up its mega attack, then defend and/or heal when it unleashes that attack. The game signposts a lot of these variations pretty well so that the player has some idea of what to do, but I still found that there was still a certain trial and error element to some of the boss fights— not too extreme, though, and ultimately leaving me with the feeling that I had figured out the patterns by my own gamerly genius rather than having the game directly tell me how to take down each boss.
There are also items like armor, weapons and healing items to be managed. Gold and XP flow quite freely in Chrono Trigger, and for a while, I felt like it was way too easy to collect tons of gold and spend it on tons of potions and elixirs (armor and weapons are a bit harder to come by). But it turns out that the limiting factor here is not how many healing items you have on hand, but how much time you have to deploy them in combat when you also have to worry about whittling down enemy health, organizing team attacks (which require both/all of the participating team members’ turn timers to be ready at the same time), and so on. So the combat system remained well-balanced in that sense, despite the relative flood of available items.
If someone had told me about all this complexity before I started the game, I might have found it discouraging as a newcomer to the genre. But the difficulty curve is really excellently managed, so that at just about every boss fight from the beginning to the end, I felt that I was barely scraping by— that THIS was the one fight that I’d never be able to get past— until, with a bit of focus and creative thought about tactics (sometimes offline after rage-quitting in response to my fifth loss in a row), suddenly I had broken through it and learned some valuable lessons for the next fight, along with some freshly earned XP and possible treasure. All told, I felt like I was really learning a well-designed system and becoming skilled at managing it, in a way that reinforced the characters’ evolution from “kids messing around at the fair” to “time-traveling saviors of all reality as we know it”.
Moving right along…
By the end of the game’s “first act”, I had pretty well settled into the game’s groove, while still feeling like I was barely surfing on the leading edge of that difficulty curve. Now, my earlier description of the world’s history was completely out of order with how it is presented to the player in-game, which is actually more like: Rescue Nadia; land in jail; escape to ruined future; stop Magus from summoning Lavos in 600 AD; discover that Lavos has actually been around for millions of years; fight a boss for the weapon to stop Lavos, but then fall through another time vortex to Zeal’s kingdom in 12,000 BC, where we learn about her nefarious plans for Lavos-based world domination. Picking up the story from here, things take an interesting twist when the Crono Crew tries to take down Zeal.
Initially swatted down in a five-second boss fight against a “Golem” that is obviously meant to be unbeatable at this point, the crew is kicked out of the Zeal timeline, and the time portal is sealed shut behind us. At this point, I was pretty clueless about what to do next, since our stated mission at that moment was simply “Find a way back to 12,000 BC and defeat Zeal”. So I got stuck for a good little while running back and forth through time.
(This was, however, an interesting opportunity to learn how heavily Chrono Trigger fans are invested in this classic game. I reported in the Weekly Games Thread on being stuck and was greeted with a number of (friendly!) comments about how hard it was not to give me spoilers, and how frustrating it was to realize that I was doing certain things in an obviously incorrect manner. None of the comments were negative at all, but it did make me realize that writing about a huge classic like Chrono Trigger brings a certain responsibility with it…)
Eventually, after a fair amount of exploring with incidental grinding and leveling up, I found my way to a somewhat awkwardly positioned semi-secret passage in the Abandoned Sewers area of the 2300 AD world, opening the path to acquire the time-traveling jet plane variously known as the “Wings of Time” or the “Epoch”— or, as I renamed it, the “McFly”— that would take me back to Zeal’s kingdom for the climactic final battle. This time, we took down not one but two “Golem Sisters” relatively handily, leaving Zeal no choice but to call upon Lavos itself to destroy us. This is it, right guys? The final battle, at long last! Oh, how I’ve waited for this!
Then the following things happened: Magus, the bad guy who was trying to summon Lavos in 600 AD, jumps out and attacks Lavos, talking about how long he has been preparing for this moment. But he fails. Meanwhile, Zeal is so obsessed with building her own power and defeating us that she injures her own daughter Schala by accident. And finally, Crono tries to attack and is…. instantly killed! OK, technically his spirit is yanked out and reduced to some weird glowing orb or whatever, but yeah, basically the main character just totally died. Everybody else is flung to the ruined surface below as Zeal’s floating city plummets to the ground. THE END.
Not the end
In fact, the game goes on. The rest of the crew, led by Marle (in my playthrough), carries on the mission without Crono. After a brief interlude in which the party is taken prisoner by Dalton (Zeal’s main henchman) and have to stealth their way out of a giant airplane (?!) in order to recover the Epoch and escape, we meet Magus brooding on a beach amid the ruins. Technically, we actually have the option to fight and kill Magus here, but since he just tried to save us and also we are not horrible human beings, I chose to listen to his story instead. It turns out that he is actually Zeal’s son Janus (not a huge surprise if you look at the sprites for each character), and that ever since that fateful day in 12,000 BC when his mother chose Lavos’s power over her own daughter’s safety, he has been building his own magical power and traveling through time in an effort to stop Lavos and prevent the tragedy. When we met him in 600 AD, he was summoning Lavos in order to kill it, so I guess we shouldn’t have messed with him after all! As a consolation prize, we let him join our crew.
There’s still plenty to do, as Zeal has apparently survived and created a strange floating fortress called the Black Omen that now looms terrifyingly over all of the timelines, where she’s preparing the next phase in her master plan. The party returns to the Mission Hub at the End of Time, where the mysterious Time Dude who has been giving us cryptic advice all along presents us with an egg-shaped device called the “Chrono Trigger” (at only 22 hours into the game of the same name!) that can be used to resurrect our fallen friend Crono. The process for this is a bit crazy, as it involves enlisting a wizard to create a life-sized doll of Crono, then doing a ritual on top of a mountain at the solar eclipse in order to time-travel to the moment when Crono was killed by Lavos and swap his real body out for the doll, as one does, before escaping with the real Crono back to the End of Time.
With that done, the Time Dude (his real name is Gaspar, and he used to work for Zeal, long story) tells us that we are finally ready to face Lavos. Or rather.. ALMOST ready. The time is right, but since we may not be strong enough yet, he suggests a series of optional additional missions for objects and people that may “empower” us for the fight ahead:
– Help bring a dead forest back to life
– Shut down the fortress of an evil general who worked for Magus back in 600 AD
– Find “a birthplace of machines” in 2300 AD (
where when Robo is from)
– Find a prehistoric stone that will “shine with the light of all ages”
– Meet with the restless spirit of a proud knight who was killed in the past
– Find a legendary rainbow shell
I have to say that I was a bit taken aback by this turn of events. (As you may be too, dear reader, at this point in what has grown into a very long article.) From other expansive games with a main mission + side mission structure — say, Mass Effect, for example — I was used to having the earlier part of the game filled with random side quests, then having the action narrow down to a much sharper, faster-paced focus on the main mission as I entered the final hours of the game. Chrono Trigger does the exact opposite, with a completely linear series of missions right up until the moment when you’re told you’re ready to face the final boss… and then suddenly there are a bunch of extra side missions?!
However, as discussed much more skillfully by the Game Design Forum in their online book Reverse Design: Chrono Trigger, there’s a very interesting thematic decision going on here, with the designers giving players a chance to save the world through smaller changes that mostly involve helping people and changing the world in real, tangible ways after the abject failure of the traditional Hero on a Mission approach (which ended in Crono’s death). I’ll refer you to that work for a lot more interesting game design commentary than I could ever hope to offer, but I had some awareness of this perspective in advance (thanks to an Avocado commenter who pointed me to the Reverse Design book), and that made it easier for me to accept all these missions so late in the game.
I won’t try to cover all of these missions in any detail here, but I will mention a couple of highlights. (I’m more than happy to discuss the rest of these missions in the comments if anyone’s interested.) First, the dead forest, which we had already heard about in passing in earlier parts of the game. We know that in 600 AD, a woman named Fiona had tried to revive a forest that had been destroyed by war, but that evil forces in the area had doomed her plan to failure. So we return to 600 AD, beat some monsters in a cave to remove the evil influence, and then go about replanting the forest. Since this is obviously the work of many generations, Fiona needs help from someone who can “toil for centuries” at the task… and by choosing Robo as the head of the party when we visit her, we can get him to stay and do the work. I felt slightly clever for figuring this out (even though it’s pretty obvious in retrospect), and there’s a nice payoff when we jump to 1000 AD and find a fully restored forest with a shrine to the worn-out remains of Robo in the center. We can then reactivate him, brush off the dirt and add him back to the party… and this then leads to an unexpected bonus mission where Lucca sneaks off to travel back to a critical moment in her childhood and saves her mother from a terrible workshop accident.
I also liked the “prehistoric stone” mission, which involves finding an ancient moon stone and leaving it in a Sun Shrine where it will be safe for 65 million years until it’s charged up with sunlight and becomes a powerful sun stone. The wrinkle here is that, just a few hundred years before it’s done charging up, a greedy mayor from a nearby village manages to steal it from the shrine and won’t give it back. Again, this is a character we’ve met before, and I know that he (from the 1000 AD timeline) has ancestors in the area (in 600 AD), so I go back and generously give his ancestor an expensive gift for free (10,000 gold worth of spiced jerky?!)… and that inspires the ancestor to start a family generation of generosity. Suddenly, the mayor in 1000 AD is not greedy any more, and he freely shares the stone with me. Like the forest mission, this involved a bit of clever “thinking with time travel” that was a nice change of pace from the exclusively combat-driven earlier part of the game, and really reinforced the idea of smaller, human-level interventions making a bigger difference than epic battles with swords and spells.
That being said, by the time I got through all six of the optional missions, I was seriously ready to wrap up the game. Interestingly from a game design point of view, the Lavos fight had been available since even before the end of the first act (i.e. right from the first moment we reach the End of Time), but it wasn’t until now that I really felt ready. After I had posted about a few failed attempts at beating Lavos, though, my colleagues here at the Avocado reminded me that it was also possible to go back and defeat Zeal in the Black Omen fortress not once, but three times if you do it properly (going backward through time from 1000 AD to 600 AD to 12,000 BC), so I begrudgingly decided to do that for the sake of total complete completeness in my experience for the article. In the end, though, I didn’t find this to be a particularly interesting dungeon, so after schlepping through it once (in 1000 AD), I felt I had leveled up enough to call it a day and go fight Lavos.
I don’t have too much to say about the Lavos fight, except that it’s a well-designed three-stage boss fight (or two stages if you start by just crashing the Epoch through Lavos’s crunchy outer shell) that puts everything you’ve learned to the test. There are also some interesting callbacks to earlier stages of the game, in that the attacks you face in the final stage cycle through different phases that reflect the attack patterns of major bosses from earlier in the game (with the background image changing to blurry scenes from the respective eras as well). Also, at the start of the third stage, Lucca cracked me up by instantly deducing Lavos’s entire master plan based entirely on the fact that its final form is humanoid:
After a few too many attempts (and, in the end, a peek at a guide for how to defeat the final form of Lavos and his two support buddies), I finally took down the Big Bad by the skin of my teeth— I remember shouting in delight and relief when the final death animation started, because I was sure I was going to lose the fight again. After that, it was time to sit back and enjoy some closing cutscenes.
In the in-game conclusion, Crono mysteriously wakes up in his cell in 1000 AD from after the kidnapping trial (how did he get back here?! anyone?) and is promptly pardoned now that the king realizes he and his daughter Marle were actually off saving reality.
There’s a big parade at the fairgrounds and much general rejoicing. Then, just as everyone is saying their goodbyes and returning to their respective eras through the original portal at the fairgrounds… Crono’s mom shows up chasing a lost cat, and they both idiotically run into the portal just as it closes forever. D’oh! Time to grab the Epoch and go hunting after mom for the credit montage! (Actually they never do find her, so maybe that’s my mission for the New Game+ or something?!)
After the credits, there’s a final animated cutscene which, for me, raised more questions than it answered. We see Frog being knighted and sent forth to fight evil in 600 AD— but he’s still in his pre-frog human form as “Glenn”, somehow? (This may be a glitch in the PC port, as Avocado sources report that the version with human Glenn here makes sense for some possible endings but not the one I played.) Even more bizarrely, we see Lucca with a baby version of Robo (one that she built herself, I assume), walking through the forest where they randomly discover a human baby lying on the ground with Marle’s time pendant next to it. What the–?! Did I miss something? GAME OVER THANKS FOR PLAYING.
Even at 5000 words, I feel like this bloated article has barely scratched the surface of what Chrono Trigger is all about. It had certain quirks due to its age and (perhaps) due to the PC port, and I felt it was a bit longer than I would have liked, but honestly, it never dragged (except for one or two points where I didn’t know what to do next and was wandering aimlessly for a while). Overall, it was a very well-crafted experience in terms of both gameplay and story, and I would eagerly recommend it to anyone else who hasn’t tried it yet. Thanks to “Late to the Party” and all of you for giving me a chance to share my thoughts about it!