Chrono Trigger is considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, JRPG of all time, and for good reason. It’s a unique mix of Dragon Quest’s quirky but epic narrative, Final Fantasy’s character driven journeys, Dragon Ball’s visual aesthetics, Ninja Gaiden’s cinematic flair, and some of the best retro music ever composed.
So it’s surprising that when you break down the plot structure and examine the individual story elements, it’s actually rife with fantasy tropes. The princess disguising herself as a commoner to mingle with the people; the heroic quest undertaken without any consideration of the larger context; and an apocalyptic end of the world scenario these young heroes have to overturn. I realize a trope is different from being trite or cliche. At the same time, the combination of these seemingly overused elements is, strangely enough, part of Chrono Trigger’s brilliance, its almost intangible cohesion that has never been emulated, not even in its underappreciated sequel, Chrono Cross.
Because the narrative pieces are so familiar, it allowed the developers to plays with expectations, twisting them right at the moment when players thought they knew what was coming. Marle is the perfect example as the adventurous princess who gets thrown back in time. In most RPGs, the quest is driven by the goal of saving a princess/queen/damsel in distress. But in Chrono Trigger, after following Marle back to Guardia in 600 AD (would that be CE now?), Crono finds she is safely ensconced in Guardia Castle, amused that the people of that time are mistaking her for the missing queen. It seems like an anticlimactic resolution until she explodes into thin air. Her appearance in the past actually caused the demise of that time’s queen, who happens to be Marle’s ancestor, since they called off the rescue party meant to save her after she was kidnapped. Animated in charming Akira Toriyama fashion, it illustrated how the past affected the future, which is your present but your future and your past at the same time.
Context is important here; playing as a kid, the time paradox was riveting, heightening the stakes in a way that piqued me. The way it illustrated the threads of causality was impactful in the way it not only got me to reconceive time, but fantasy storytelling as well. It was also the most unique iteration of the “save the princess” trope I had experienced, complete with quantum mechanics and time travel. On top of that, it’s not like she goes off and lives happily ever after in some fantasy land once you do rescue her. Instead she joins your group and becomes an integral party member, blowing away foes with her trusty crossbow.
It’s this experimenting with tropes I want to cover in the first part of this Chrono Trigger replay that goes from the beginning of the game all the way up until your preparation for battle with Magus. I’ll be focusing specifically on the future, your trial, and boy heroes.
2300AD is a dystopian ruin set in a roboticized society. The contrast with the medieval past is starkly bleak, and the plight of the humans is destitute with no conceivable hope. The environments have changed from the vibrant hues of Guardia Kingdom to the grim undertones marking the aftermath of a horrific Armageddon. Humans are kept alive through enertrons, even though they’re starving because they have no food (are the enertrons chemical and hormonal injections, similar to the processed junk that we eat today, only in energy form?). I’d seen and read about apocalyptic landscapes before in films and books, but it was always with the awareness that I was reading a novel in that setting or watching a film with imminent doom as its backdrop. The future of 2300AD was an unexpected shock on both a visual and emotional level, even though in itself, the idea of a destroyed planet isn’t original per se. Rather, it’s the time jump, contrasting the past and future, that makes this age so disturbing. When Lucca uncovers the fact that it was a strange monster called Lavos that annihilated the world, I felt an immense sense of loss. That’s why I didn’t question Crono and company’s determination to change the past and set things right. When Lucca says, “Let’s go,” you can either reply, “Okay!” or “No…”—I emphatically declared “Okay!” and even though it’s only the illusion of choice, I loved the group’s sense of nobility, their unquestioning leap into doing what is right without any regards to the consequences or even the feasibility of their task.
I know ambivalence and moral choices are part of the modern day RPG, the conflicted hero who often can choose not to do what is right. But there is something refreshingly honorable in Crono’s stalwart goodness. That goes hand in hand with Yasunori Mitsuda’s empowering score that always ‘triggers’ at the right time (in this instance, Crono’s theme).
Each of the characters represents an ideal that is straightforward to pinpoint down to even their elemental affiliation for magic. As much as I like modern JRPGs, most of the characters fall flat and blend into one another. They too represent tropes, but not memorable ones, definitely leaning towards the cliche rather than embodiments of traits I admire. That’s been my biggest problem with current Final Fantasy games; I can’t name a single character I really liked in the last few, other than maybe Auron in FFX. In contrast, I appreciated and understood what each of the Chrono Trigger characters represented, from the fierce and protective Ayla with her prehistoric sensibilities, to the spunky inventor friend, Lucca, who accidentally uncovers time travel, to the conflicted Robo who is torn between his desire to help humanity and to better understand his programming.
Sacrifice is a key aspect of all their journeys, and each of them has to give up something dear to them in order to undertake their role in the monomyth. In Robo’s case, it’s companionship with the rest of the R-series who brutally attack him and chuck his remains in the garbage when he tries to defend his human friends. I choked up as a kid when that scene first happened, outraged, hoping he could be salvaged. Even in this replay, I found myself moved by Robo’s decision. Sentimental? Yes. Maybe even a little melodramatic. But perfectly executed so that when Lucca eventually fixes him again, I was thrilled. It also helps that he kicks robot ass with his power fists.
Chrono Trigger as a project was conceived on a road trip to America. While researching computer graphics, the videogame trinity of Hironobu Sakaguchi (Final Fantasy), Yuji Horii (Dragon Quest), and Akira Toriyama (Dragon Ball) decided to try something bold, something no one had ever done before. They brought in Masato Kato (who had worked on the amazing cutscenes for Ninja Gaiden on the original NES) as scenario writer to work with Horii on the story. Horii has a rich narrative background, inspiring the whole visual novel genre with his ingenious and unexpectedly deep Portopia Serial Murder Case developed in 1983 (which inspired developers like Hideo Kojima of Metal Gear fame). All his stories are rife with eccentric twists, a dark sense of humor, and unexpected moments of humanity that shine through. For western audiences, playing and appreciating Chrono Trigger for the first time, this was as close to understanding the fervor for the Dragon Quest games Japanese gamers had, and still have.
As much as I loved the heroism, the different eras, and the characters, oddly enough the part that struck me most were three seemingly unimportant decisions I made early in the game at the Millennial Fair. The first is to eat a stranger’s lunch to heal yourself, a common enough occurrence in most JRPGs; the second is after you first bump into Marle, you can either help her up, or retrieve her pendant for her and then assist her to her feet; and the third is to aid a little girl in finding her cat. Pretty standard fare in RPGs without any apparent consequences. Or so I thought.
After you rescue Marle and return to 1000AD, you’re put on trial for allegedly kidnapping the princess, thanks to a judicial system you helped inspire back in 600AD. It’s a dramatic scene, a gorgeous scrolling background, stained glass window with the weights of justice on it, officials whispering to each other, crowds watching with anticipation. I wondered what the trial would be about, and when they asked questions about my moral character, I thought I would be exonerated, no problem. That’s when they did a flashback to the sandwich I’d eaten earlier in the game, or in their eyes, “stolen” from an old man. Then the fact that, to save a few seconds, I picked up the pendant before helping Marle up, indicating that I had an ulterior motive for befriending her in the first place. In my defense, my attorney pointed out how I helped the little girl find her missing cat.
Even Kafka’s Trial couldn’t make me feel more paranoid about my past decisions. I didn’t even remember eating the guy’s sandwich, and yet somehow, the 16-bit game had kept tabs on my decisions. What else was it aware of? I’d never seen anything like this in a game before where I was held accountable for past decisions. The combination of Horii’s story telling, Toriyama’s art, Sakaguchi’s sense of scale, Masato’s cinematic angles, and Mitsuda’s score was compelling.
Going forward, I paid attention to every decision I made, no matter how trivial. I was even worried about taking treasure chests from the prison, concerned it might have an impact on the story down the line. My wife, who went through this new playthrough with me, also asked similar questions after the trial, wondering if any future actions might affect a sequence further in the game. What’s worse was we felt guilty, even though we knew were innocent. We shouldn’t have eaten that guy’s sandwich!
I don’t like the idea of kid heroes, especially “chosen” ones who will “save the world.” There is nothing really special about them, only that they were randomly selected, preordained by the fates. Not only is it silly, but it takes away from the whole idea of choice and determination. If there’s one thing Chrono Trigger makes clear, it’s that our decisions, even trivial ones, have an impact. We can change almost anything, even defy death. So I groaned out loud when I found out that a so-called “Hero” showed up to save Guardia in 600AD from the villain Magus and was an annoying brat named Tata who fits into the stereotype of the boy hero down to his design. Everyone is in awe of him, including his parents, who can’t stop boasting about him.
I was relieved when, shortly afterwards, we meet Tata and discover he is a fraud. He merely found the Hero’s Badge, and as he had aspired to be a knight, he faked his heroic identity. Another trope teased, then overturned, which also makes Tata a more sympathetic and interesting character.
The true hero, it turns out, isn’t the great knight Cyrus, who has gone missing, but instead, a frog. The Frog. But even that seems a whimsical claim because Frog—later revealed to be Glenn, squire to Cyrus—was a failure who was helpless to watch his best friend and mentor die at the hands of Magus. He is stuck in a depressed rut, wallowing in self-pity, and only joins you after you fix the Masamune (which includes a bit of a detour to 65,000,000 BC).
I loved Frog as a hero because he went against expectations. An amphibious knight who’s in hiding barely seems like the savior capable of stopping the all powerful Magus. But just as much as the metamorphosis is visual, he’s mentally wracked by guilt and remorse. That doesn’t stop him from being a powerful ally as his X Strike with Crono is one of the most sublime attacks in any game. Frog epitomizes nobility to a fault. He also provides interesting juxtaposition against characters like the more free spirited Lucca, who shares one of the heartier exchanges during Frog’s first exit, as well as his animosity and hatred for Magus. The conflict with the blue-haired magician takes focus as defeating him becomes one of the major prerequisites for vanquishing Lavos—or so the party believes. I hated Magus for Frog’s sake and couldn’t wait to destroy him. Little did I know, I had just fallen for another trope that was going to be turned on its head.
When I first pitched the idea of a replay/retrospective, it was in large part inspired by how much I was enjoying the rewatches and reread articles on Tor.com. But as I delved into Chrono Trigger, I realized there was so much I loved and wanted to cover, I didn’t even know where to start. Fortunately, the editors challenged me with the idea of exploring some interesting themes, including familiar tropes in the first section, that had me playing the game from a very different perspective.
If there’s one thing that has continually impressed me through the replay, it’s that I discover something completely new each time I go through it. The game is a harmonious series of triggers, fusing the art, writing, music, and gameplay that works seamlessly and makes the whole experience feel like the pinnacle of all things RPG, gaming, and storytelling. I’m convinced the creators had a time travel machine that let them iterate on Chrono Trigger until they arrived at perfection.
Peter Tieryas is the author of United States of Japan (Angry Robot, 2016) and Bald New World. He tweets at @TieryasXu.