Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Essentials #42: Chrono Trigger

Nearly a decade before financial difficulties led to its stunning merger with Enix, Square fulfilled many a genre enthusiast's dream by bringing together the creative minds behind Japan's two biggest role-playing game series, its own Final Fantasy and Enix's Dragon Quest, for a one-shot super game. 1995's Chrono Trigger for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System was conceived and supervised jointly by Hironobu Sakaguchi, creator of Final Fantasy, and Yuji Horii, creator of Dragon Quest. It featured the character designs of DQ's Akira Toriyama and the music of FF's Nobuo Uematsu. But the "dream team" did not end with those four. Kazuhiko Aoki, a battle designer for FFIII and FFIV, and later the scenario writer for FFIX, would take the producer credit. The assemblage of talent he then brought together reads like a veritable who's who of figures in JRPG development, and, for many of them, Chrono Trigger was in fact the title that truly launched their careers.

Director credits were shared among Takashi Tokita (lead designer and scenario writer for FFIV), Yoshinori Kitase (director, writer, and producer who would essentially take the reins of the Final Fantasy series with FFVII), and Akihiko Matsui (a battle designer for FFIV). Tokita and Kitase also contributed to the script, which was outlined initially by Yuji Horii. The bulk of the writing was handled by scenario writer Masato Kato, who would later contribute scenes to FFVII (he takes credit for the "Cloud in a wheelchair" episode) and Xenogears, among other Square titles. More significantly, Kato would go on to become the main man behind the Chrono series, writing and directing semi-sequels Radical Dreamers and Chrono Cross, before leaving Square to become a freelance scenario writer. His friend and frequent collaborator, Yasunori Mitsuda, subsequently the second most recognized Japanese game music composer after Nobuo Uematsu, actually provided most of the music. Uematsu only came on board later in development to relieve Mitsuda's overwhelming workload by adding a few tracks. Even Noriko Matsueda (FFX-2) helped out with one jazzy piece. Also on the sound team, working on sound effects, was Yoshitaka Hirota, later the main composer for the Shadow Hearts series. Behind Akira Toriyama on the art team were graphic director Tetsuya Takahashi (creator of Xenogears and Xenosaga) and field graphic artists Tetsuya Nomura (Square's top character designer since FFVII, as well as the creator of the Kingdom Hearts series), Yusuke Naora (art director for FFVII, FFVIII, and FFX), and Yasuyuki Honne (director and art director on the Baten Kaitos games).

Deep list of Japanese names aside, the dream project delivered the perfect marriage of the artful narrative and aesthetic of Dragon Quest with the high concept appeal and playability of Final Fantasy. Dragon Quest (AKA Dragon Warrior) was never actually very popular in the West, and I personally only recently got into the series with DQVIII, so I missed out on the shifting perspective of DQIV and the multi-generational narrative of DQV. But playing through DQVIII did leave me with a finer appreciation for what Yuji Horii must have contributed to Chrono Trigger. More lighthearted and composed compared to the raw melodrama of the sprawling Final Fantasy epics, and considerably more coherent than subsequent Masato Kato scripts, everything in Chrono Trigger seemed so perfectly ordered and controlled. The tightly woven adventure experienced few lulls or lapses. Never would the player be left wondering why the characters were fighting some random monster in some random dungeon. With the exception of one glaring loose end that was almost assuredly deliberately left hanging by Kato, every twist seemed to fit sensibly in a plan that made for one of the most cleverly constructed time travel narratives of any medium, full of delightful paradoxes and closed circles.

Yet what made the story of Chrono Trigger so magical for me was not even the main plot of the heroes traveling across time on a selfless mission to unravel a chain of events that would result in the destruction of a far-off future. It was the stirring subplots, like Lucca traveling back in time to set right a tragedy in her own life. Or the robotic Robo taking on a mission that would last hundreds of years in solitary diligence for him, but mere seconds for his time-hopping human friends to bear the fruits of his labor. Yes, Robo and Lucca are probably my favorite video game characters of all time, but the game balanced a cast full of charming personalities, and the best part of the experience was getting to know them all.

One Dragon Quest tradition that I did not so much enjoy seeing carried over was the mute protagonist. Venturing far from proper "role-playing games," JRPGs are so heavily scripted and linear that I've never understood the argument in utilizing silent protagonists as a way to immerse the player. There is never anywhere near enough choice in these games to really allow players to identify themselves as the main character, so I would almost always say that a story would be better served to paint a protagonist that is independently interesting. The only semi-convincing point I've heard in defense of the device is that, while we may not insert ourselves as the protagonist, every player is free to project a personality of their pleasing on the mute character, rather than having to accept a hero only by the artist's strictly defined image. That's worked for me on occasion, though I think I may not be doing it right, because the personality that I seem to always project is that of a really quiet guy with no will of his own. Chrono Trigger certainly did not change my mind on the matter, and one of the things that most annoyed me was the perceived passivity of the unfortunately named Crono, in the face of other characters so bursting with charisma. But it did provide me one very special moment:


About halfway through the adventure, something amazing happens. With the party facing imminent annihilation at the hands of a world-destroying monster, Crono alone is able to stand and continue fighting. The player approaches the enemy, and Crono automatically assumes his battle stance. Then the unthinkable happens. Crono dies! Yet the player is somehow still in it, and the game goes on, driven by the other party members. Reflecting in the aftermath of that shock, I realized that, in that transformative moment severing the link between player and player character, the silent avatar had become his own person. For as he stood resolute against oblivion and died for his friends, it was not my doing, but his choice. And the only things more inspiring than his sacrifice would be the devotion of his friends and the lengths they would go to to bring him back.

It's also worth noting that, even after it became possible to swap characters freely in and out of the party, each party member still had something to say about every event. These were always simple observations--the characters could never have direct dialogue with one another--but they were actually distinct and context-sensitive lines, reflecting, not just their idiosyncratic speech patterns, but their different personalities.

While Horii may very well be one of the industry's superior storytellers, I've found that he makes some of the most stupidly unplayable JRPGs in the business. Whatever his stamp on the finished product, Chrono Trigger was undeniably and thankfully a Square game and not one of his sadistic Enix joints. One of the most accessible JRPGs released up to that point, it enjoyed a much more lenient difficulty curve than the grind-heavy Dragon Quest, or even Final Fantasy games of the time.

In a departure from the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest norm, Chrono Trigger did away with random encounters. I'm rather of two minds on this issue, but if I had to pick a side, I'd say that I favor random encounters in moderation over the common alternatives. Chrono Trigger was less needlessly stressful than, say, Persona 3 or certain recent Tales games, where enemies actually chase you and can initiate surprise attacks, but there was still a degree of anxiety in dungeon exploration. Although you could often see enemies on the field, rarely was it possible for the party to avoid the obvious ambushes. Worse yet, these foes would respawn every time you left and returned to a room, which happened frequently in this back-and-forth time traveling adventure. The actual fighting was never very difficult, but it became dreadful nonetheless, knowing every time when you were about to be attacked. I imagine it would be like knowing the exact date of your death in advance; you might be better able to plan out your life, but the living would be made less enjoyable, because the knowledge would cast a pall over every pleasure.

Once initiated, combat was handled with a barely modified revision of Final Fantasy's Active Time Battle system, originally designed by Hiroyuki Ito, who worked on Chrono Trigger as an event planner. One difference was that battles occurred directly on the field with no cut to a separate battle screen, and characters and enemies took positions roughly where they stood, introducing minor spacial considerations in the areas of effect of certain techniques. Party members' individual action menus were also now laid out separately, so that the player was not forced to assign commands exactly in order according to the characters' speed ratings. This was significant mainly in that the player could wait for multiple characters to ready up for orders at the same time, at which point the option for cooperative maneuvers would become available, allowing two or three party members to synchronize their signature moves. While cool to look at, I did not find them particularly useful, aside from a handful of early combos imbuing physical attacks with elemental attributes. Most were no more than the sums of the individual techniques that comprised them, with the additional downside being that, if one participating party member became incapacitated before a selected combo could be performed, all characters involved would end up missing that turn. It was usually wiser just to rely on characters' personal abilities.

Chrono Trigger's greatest innovation may have been the "New Game+" feature, allowing players to carry their endgame experience and equipment over into a breezy second playthrough. It was consequently one of the very few JRPGs that I played through more than once. Part of the incentive for replaying was that, in successive playthroughs, it was possible to warp directly to the final boss fight at any time during the adventure, and defeating it at different points would yield different endings. These were mostly short gag endings that saw the timeline becoming a comic mess because, in beating the game prematurely, the characters would fail to thoroughly cover the changes they wrought. They should not be mistaken for what comes to mind when game makers these days boast of offering multiple paths and endings. There was still only the one real ending with a few variations, but if the multiple endings were not a particularly meaningful innovation, they nevertheless provided some good fun.

Square Enix's shameless whoring out of the Final Fantasy name has turned segments of the gaming community against the company and franchise, to the extent that even the classics have lost a lot of their luster in the eyes of cynics. Chrono Trigger, however, despite a disappointing sequel and no shortage of ports, remains beloved by all. It still regularly contends for the titles of "greatest Square game," "greatest JRPG," "greatest SNES game," and even just "greatest video game of all time." I don't personally love it quite as much as the best Final Fantasy titles, mainly on account of its shallow combat and mute protagonist, but it is without a doubt one of the finest games ever made.

Additional Information

To coincide with the release of the long-awaited Chrono Cross, Square put out a 1999 port of Chrono Trigger for the Sony PlayStation. Released in North America in 2001 as one half of Final Fantasy Chronicles, it was the same game, only with lengthy load times and some brand new hand-drawn animated cut scenes, including one to set up the story of Chrono Cross.

Much as some of George Lucas's additions to the special editions of the original Star Wars trilogy may have done more harm than good, I am of the camp that firmly believes that these scenes ruin the game. Ironically, my personal complaint is that the animation injects Crono with a smirking personality that he never showed before as a voiceless 16-bit sprite, and it's one that conflicts with the image that I had formerly projected upon him. It basically upends my interpretations of his actions, and it makes all the more evident the trouble with the silent protagonist device.

With the Square Enix merger having brought Yuji Horii back to the house of Chrono, and with Masato Kato having returned to working regularly on Square Enix projects, there has been speculation that we might finally see some new movement in the series. So far, all we've gotten is another port of Chrono Trigger, this time for the Nintendo DS. The 2008 release includes the additions to the PS1 version, with none of that version's performance issues. There are also some new optional dungeons and modes that can easily be ignored. Of greatest interest to followers of the Chrono story are a new optional boss and an attached ending that inelegantly ties into the plot of Radical Dreamers, which itself was supposed to have been overwritten by Chrono Cross.


Czardoz said...

"I missed out on the shifting perspective of DQIV and the multi-generational narrative of DQV."

You also missed out on the overall assiness of the original Dragon Warrior, which allowed you to save in only one location in the entire game world. I trust that this hardcore element has been retained in DQVIII? It would be a shame if Horii had dumbed things down for the crybaby masses.

Also, Horii "contributed" a "lighthearted" feel to the Chrono Trigger narrative? I don't know. That whole Lavos eats the world thing seemed pretty grim to me, and the future world was very dark. Come to think of it, prehistoric times weren't so cheery either, and there was an ominous overtone to that entire sky world place. His dark places, indeed.

"Everything in Chrono Trigger seemed so perfectly ordered and controlled." It's true - the game had a more coherent story that perhaps any of the FF games, and it stayed good all the way to the end. I think FFIX is the one that comes closest, which is probably why that's the most satisfying FF for me. I guess FFIV was pretty coherent, too. FFVII aggravated more than it satisfied. FFVIII completely lost me with that Laguna creep side story. And compared with the elegant time travel story of Chrono, the ending of the original FF was loopy to the max.

Henry said...

"That whole Lavos eats the world thing seemed pretty grim to me, and the future world was very dark. Come to think of it, prehistoric times weren't so cheery either, and there was an ominous overtone to that entire sky world place."

I can't be absolutely certain, but, having played Radical Dreamers, Xenogears and Chrono Cross, I'd wager that the darker elements represent Masato Kato's contributions to Chrono Trigger.

But the lighthearted feel is not in the details but the attitude. Even facing apocalyptic scenarios, the party members often seem to enjoy the adventure, and the saddest part actually comes at the end, when they no longer have a shared fight to keep them together. I can't think of any Final Fantasy where that is the case.

I probably should have credited the look of the game, courtesy of Toriyama's colorful art, for having played a huge part as well.