Chrono Trigger was originally released for the Super Nintendo in 1995, but wasn’t brought out in PAL territories. It came out a few years later on Playstation, in a port which was widely criticized for technical issues, so thankfully it was ported properly to the Nintendo DS in 2009. Chrono Trigger is widely regarded as one of the most influential RPGs ever made, so it’s important to be able to play a decent version of it on a proper console, rather than the inevitably fiddly and unsatisfying option of playing an emulated version on a mobile phone.
Chrono Trigger was developed by Squaresoft after they made Secret of Mana, and it was overseen by a ‘dream team’ of people responsible for the blockbuster Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest franchises. Square obviously had it in mind to come up with something special and Chrono Trigger did not disappoint. The game delivers on pretty much every level. The graphics pushed the SNES pretty hard, and the character sprites and environments are colourful and characterful, as are the animations. There are a surprising number of animations in the turn-based combat system, while the characters’ post-battle fist-pumping and posturing is always a delight. The game also made us of Mode 7, which was one of the Super Nintendo’s notable features. But aside from the graphics, Chrono Trigger also features an excellent soundtrack that features some of the best music of the 16-bit era. The audio is definitely deserving of the plaudits that have come its way over the years.
Chrono Trigger has an interesting time-travelling premise which gives the story a different dynamic to your standard JRPG. The story also moves forward at a fair clip, and on the whole the pacing is brisk and you’ll rarely feel bored or not know where to go. The writing is surprisingly good, and there’s a fair amount of comedy and even some bawdy humour in the dialogue–not what you expect from games of this era, but nevertheless quite welcome. The story sees the player avatar, Crono, travelling across time and gathering allies in a bid to stop a catastrophe that threatens to destroy the world. Along the way, there are a number of quite moving scenes and interactions which must make this one of the more poignant games of the mid-90s. It won’t be a surprise to people who’ve played Secret of Mana, but generally you don’t expect games that look this primitive to be able to move you. It testifies to the quality of the script and storytelling.
Combat features a semi-turn based system using an active time gauge, which means it’s more intuitive than Secret of Mana’s system but, with its plethora of menus and commands, somehow both less tactile and more shallow. You can switch out party members and perform combos, but you’ll rarely need to do these outside boss fights, and there are a number of abilities you’re unlikely to ever use. Enemy design is varied enough to keep things interesting, and battles rarely take too long, but the combat is not what will keep you coming back to Chrono Trigger. Rather, it’s the environments, music, and the interesting characters you meet during your journey.
Some of the major scenes in the game are accompanied by short animated cutscenes which must have been quite a technical accomplishment back in 1995. They still look good, but I don’t understand the art style chosen to depict the humanoid characters. They all look sleazy and malevolent, including the heroes. The same style is also used in the box art and other promotional material for the game. It’s curious, and stands out partly because the rest of the game’s graphics are so gorgeous.
Chrono Trigger was a pioneering game in its use of side-quests and multiple endings. Although most of the game is quite linear, towards the end you are allowed to go off and explore a number of areas (and time periods) to do companion quests and collect gear to help you in the home stretch. The decisions you make at this point have a profound effect on the ending of the game: a mechanic we take for granted now, but something quite unusual back when this game was released. The story is relatively short, and even doing all the side-quests you can expect to finish it in 20-25 hours. Personally, I’m quite happy with this, as there’s nothing to be gained by playing a longer story that’s pointlessly padded out by hundreds of boring turn-based fights that play out the same way. With the branching endings, Chrono Trigger has replay value if you want it, but most people who come to this game fresh now will probably be doing so for historical reasons. While there are of course better RPGs out there these days, if you want to try a retro JRPG, there are few better alternatives than Chrono Trigger. But try and play it on a Nintendo handheld rather than your phone.