Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Chrono Trigger: Review

by Alex Hill


In 1992, two of the giants of Japanese Role-Playing Games boarded a plane, to check out the latest in computer graphics overseas. Hironobu Sakaguchi is the man behind the perpetual Final Fantasy series, and Yuji Horii is the brainchild of the intensely successful Dragon Quest series. Miles above the surface, they expressed mutual enthusiasm at the idea that they could, perhaps, achieve better results as co-workers. For years they were professional enemies, though not on bad terms. Siskel and Ebert were professional enemies too. Peanut Butter was once thought of as separate from Chocolate, until Reese's came and blew everyone's minds. They were excited at the idea of combining their strengths, and wanted to make a game that had never been conceived before.

When they reached the tarmac, they didn't have any solid ideas on where to take this enthusiasm. They had no clue that this would start the chain of events leading to a masterpiece. No one did. No one could have. No prospector truly knows when he is about to strike gold.

Chrono Trigger is about as close to a perfect game as you're going to find. A marriage of nostalgia, style, warmth and design beyond its years, and maybe even ours. There is more here than in every first-person shooter, every complex strategy game, and even most modern RPGs. There are a million ways that these two developers, who are accustomed to doing what they do in opposition of each other, could have crashed into each other and left only smoking wreckage. Final Fantasy was, after all, made in response to Dragon Quest, Sakaguchi himself ensuring the game would differ from its competitor in areas he thought needed to differ. No doubt there were disagreements, changes. Every video game is a fluctuating creature, constantly shifting its hue. In the development process, no game is ever remotely similar to how it began. There were countless ways this could have gone badly, but this collision of ideas yielded fruit as sweet as the sun.

The two leaders of the genre brought along the best and brightest employees at their disposal to flesh out the concept they finally agreed upon a year and a half later, a story of time travel. In fact, much of it was left up to their staff. Horii would write purposely vague concepts he'd like to see in the game, and the combined team would fully detail and bring these scenarios to life. "If there’s a fairground, I just write that there’s a fairground; I don’t write down any of the details. Then the staff brainstorm and come up with a variety of attractions to put in."

Akira Toriyama(yes, of Dragonball notoriety) here paints a universe unlike any seen in movies or games before it, or since. Sakaguchi described exploring his art as a "sense of dancing". His characters are not squished little squares of archetypes, but vibrant, thoughtfully realized human beings, and that includes the frog and the robot. Even the monsters have a cartoonish, oddly respectable sense of character to them. I do not think of them as being there merely for the moment. I look at the imps and see them as having existed before their scenes, not simply popping in from the ether. Even the throwaway minions of evil have a history, and a life outside of their work.

The protagonists are beautifully iconic, completely distinct from one another. Their movements are spot-on, so brimming with charm that it's almost a shame most video game characters are usually so static. Each has a voice of soul that is unique and rings out in the mind. Not one of them shows even a hint of being unlikable to the eye or deeper. All of them, perhaps even the laconic Crono have reasons for chivalry beyond principle. They carry the weight of insecurities and past trauma. Many are plagued by questions without easy answers, but through each other they find a common goal noble enough to make their own problems seem less significant. There are no boundaries when it comes to companionship, and in their weirdness they find reason to make their journey a happier one.

Several of the characters discover time travel incidentally, and their influence on the world(and all possible dimensions) begins to take its toll. Crono, being a man of indomitable goodness, offers his services to bring everything back to order. Ah, but is the damage irreversible? Even the slightest change effectively annihalates the timeline that began, so the theory is believed.

But let's not get into the complicated stuff. This game isn't about the rules or science of time travel, but of the romance of interacting with a younger(and occasionally older) version of our world. And the need to fix our mistakes, the things we thought could not be unbroken. There is a deeply touching scene involving Lucca, the dorky gadget-girl of what accounts for the modern age, given a chance to heal a deep family wound.

What she is doing is dangerous to the time-line, and even a little selfish. But her actions do not go unnoticed, or unappreciated. Other characters follow suit. They are given an opportunity no one else in history has ever been given, a chance to make things right. It'd be hard for any of us to say we wouldn't use that kind of power for something serving us, more than The Planet. We've all been hurt, we'd all like a do-over. Even the main antagonist is not without his reasons.

Playing it again on the DS, I see more clearly than ever the painstaking depth of this world. The pixel pushers knew what they were doing here. To this day I can't fathom or decipher how they made this game look the way it does. The attention to detail is as astounding as any Studio Ghibli film. Only yesterday did I realize the "orange" caves are orange because they are lit by torches, while the "blue" caverns have running water reflecting blue light on the jagged walls. Not many games of that era really took the time to consider the things like that. Everything looks the way it does for a reason. Every stone sticks in my mind long after the game has been played to completion(and completion, and completion...). There is a unified mission for the art-style and the presentation, which perfectly melds with the progression of the story.

Does this game have any noticeable flaws? "It's too easy" I've heard. So what? Would this game have been improved if its battle system were needlessly complex? Would it have been better if you were furiously shouting at it now and then? That would compromise its audience. Make a game too hard and convoluted and you'll only scare off some of your customers. A game like this invites everyone to the party. For me, the battles aren't always about challenge. They're about time, the central focus of this game. It's about knowing the right techniques to use for the right situation, some of them involving characters teaming up to dish out magical worlds of hurt, and accomplishing the battles in record time.

It is "only" 20 hours long. Yes, the first time. Try and resist the "New Game +" feature, or the additional 10 endings. I double-dog dare you.

The biggest triumph of Chrono Trigger might be its music. This was Yasunori Mitsuda's first professional game soundtrack. At his first to bat, he knocked one out of the park. He was just 23 at the time, which is incredible to me. Long established at Squaresoft only in a low-paying role in the sound department, he gave Sakaguchi-san an ultimatum: either he be allowed to score a video game or he would quit. This happened right around the time two companies were making their most ambitious project to date. Sakaguchi made a gamble, giving this untested young man fed up with his salary and position the responsibility of scoring this monumental undertaking. "Maybe your salary will go up." Sometimes a hunch brings you the lottery.

Is it strange that the main composer, who wasn't critically involved in the project from the start, became its most dedicated contributor? This is a man who had a lot to prove, and Sakaguchi-san knew that. Mitsuda suffered greatly for his work. A hard-drive crash destroyed a great deal of his initial music. He worked himself so hard he developed stomach ulcers. The legendary Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu had to fill in for the last ten tracks, further emphasizing the group effort mentality of the project.

Their compositions are profoundly striking, and conjure places and people and times as vivid, as real and as wonderful as any fiction. It never tries to upstage what's on-screen; the music in Chrono Trigger is liberating, gorgeous and perfectly brings everything it envelopes to a higher place. Mitsuda created the music with genuine love for the characters and scenarios it accompanies, some of which was masterminded by a good friend of his, Masato Kato. You cannot show me a better ending theme in a video game than "To Far Away Times". I will not suffer such delusions. Mitsuda made every inch of this game sing.

Chrono Trigger is a true timeless entertainment. It is as great today as it was in 1995, and it will be great tomorrow. It will be no different in 2995. It will be loved and remembered long after those who made it, and those who first experienced it are dust. The march of history may one day swallow and deposit this game into oblivion. Maybe someone will step on a butterfly in the stone age.

1 comment:

  1. I don't think I've found a Chrono Trigger review as amazing as this. The characters, music, plot gameplay, you did a great job describing it.