“They say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” – Andy Warhol
A new magazine appeared on a Saturday, cramped next to bills that I wouldn’t have to worry about for another 10 years. Those things were my parents’ problems, not mine. My only concern was that new, glossy issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly. My goal for the day wasn’t much different than most 15-year-olds’ goals. Drink some soda, listen to that Weezer album with “Undone” on repeat, play some Secret of Mana (of which I was nearing completion) and read about all the killer new games coming out.
But what’s this? Not only is there a glowing review of a game of my new favorite genre, but it’s also from my new favorite game company. I had played three games in a row from them and they hadn’t missed a beat yet. In fact, the review states it as “the best RPG of all time.”
Now that’s a common term in this day and age, but for 1995 to have such a claim was rare. RPGs were still relatively new to myself and the US shores, so to claim this from a company that just gave me Final Fantasy and Mana was surprising. But one look at those screenshots and the review, my anticipation began to boil over. So naturally I ran out and bought it right away…
…Actually I sat around for a while waiting for it to be released and saving money. In the pre-internet era, that’s all one could do. No videos to watch, music to listen to, message boards to talk about it. In 1995 you saw a game you want in a magazine, wait for a store to get it, and then, if you’re lucky, Wal-Mart will have it but likely only a few copies as it isn’t a “big name.” Plus, if you’re really lucky, it’ll actually be a good game.
As a kid and gaming teen, there was no better joy than getting that new videogame. Some games I remember getting fondly, opening for the first time and pushing the power button. Mario Brothers 3 I bought in Kansas City on Black Friday, but couldn’t play until I got home (a 6 hour drive, so imagine it). Secret of Mana I bought at Sears, as they were the only place in town that had it after I spent days hunting, and I shelled out 80 bucks for it (it was a good year old by that time). I played it non-stop for weeks and couldn’t get enough of Mode 7. Metroid I played at a friend’s house, then bought it the next day from a neighbor who didn’t like it. Five bucks…dumb kid. Of course Mario 64, Final Fantasy III (VI) and VII, Donkey Kong Country and the first 16-bit game I ever played, Sonic the Hedgehog, are all ingrained in my head on when, where and how I got them along with those Christmas days unwrapping a new game system.
Although I don’t remember exactly how I got Chrono Trigger, other than that I found it on a shelf at some store, I do remember grabbing a knife to cut the shrink-wrap off, careful not to damage the flimsy cardboard beneath, with my mother reminding me how dangerous it was.
“Yeah,” was my usual response.
Then there it was, presented like a fine entrée as you slid it out of the box. Like the box and manual, it was covered with Akira Toriyama artwork depicting an orange haired guy wielding a sword, some blonde girl casting a spell and a frog all attacking some monster in a snowfield. Oh, and it still had that new-game smell. You don’t get that smell anymore, maybe it had something to do with all the excessive plastic and wrapping, but it was there along with a never-before-touched cartridge and a butterfly in the stomach as I slid it into that SNES slot.
How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love Time Travel
A rare reaction to many games, but an expected one when the game is of the utmost quality and hits all the right notes. It began with a sleepy-eyed Crono, waking up like any other day. He was just going to go to the fair, meet with his friend, and likely have supper with his mother that evening. Somehow, that ended up into time traveling, saving princesses, discovering a hidden history of the planet, seeing humanity’s future and, eventually, giving everything up to help make things right. Chrono Trigger was a game that is a rarity, and if you've been lucky enough to play it, then enjoy this article, if not, I hope what I've written will get you to hunt a copy down. Before going too deep into Chrono Trigger, though, let’s step back and look at everything it offers us.
The basic plot for Chrono Trigger, for those new to it, is as follows: a group of adventures come across a time gate and travel through it. As they continue on, they realize they are affecting the future through their actions. As they try to get back home, they end up stumbling through more and more gates, through different time period, until the major one: the future. It is here they find their world in ruin, caused by an entity only known as "Lavos" that emerges from deep within the planet. From that point on, the troupe travels through the time periods, even getting their own time machine, to uncover the mystery around the world's destruction and to prevent Lavos from emerging. This brief summary doesn't do the story justice, but the game is unique for a number of reasons.
For starters, it involves time travel. That alone can get pretty complicated to handle, what’s more is it does it with a relative timeline. Meaning that an action in the past not only has a reaction at that time, but a reaction in the following eras as well. You have characters, some playable but many not, weaving in and out of the story from the beginning to the end. You have changes in the world itself, its landmasses and histories with varying cultures. You have a battle system that allows you to want to play with all the characters (duel and triple techs on top of regular magic) and often strategic boss fights to take advantage of the powers. You have, on top of the time-traveling main quest, sub quests that have a similar relation to timelines as you sift in and out of eras to complete them. Could be something small, like giving someone some beef jerky, or major like completely revitalizing a forest. Throw in a distinct and memorable (and very beloved) cast, one fine soundtrack by aclaimed composer Yasunori Mitsuda, multiple endings and the best 2D graphics for any Super Nintendo RPG, it quickly becomes clear that you’re in the presence of something that people dedicated themselves to to create – something truly great.
One would think that traveling back and forth through time, meeting various characters, changing the past to affect the future, doing dozens upon dozens of quests with intertwining plots, characters and stories, not to mention multiple outcomes and endings, would cause for an overcomplicated gameplay experience. By all accounts, Chrono Trigger should be one big mess.
Yet it doesn’t do that. Surprisingly, it takes all those elements that, in today’s RPGs, would force us to play for 60 hours, and binds it into a tightly-wrapped package that developers today still haven’t surpassed. Chrono Trigger can be beaten in a weekend, but that is far from a fault. In fact, it shows how you don’t need to sit and play for a month to get enjoyment out of an RPG. If you cut away the useless and bland things in today’s games, you would probably have an RPG just as short. Chrono Trigger doesn’t have that fluff. Every aspect is well worth your time and the game is one of the finest example of an RPG being “focused.” For once, everything was as clear as a sunny day in the Kingdom of Guardia.
Today’s RPGs, Japanese RPGs specifically, seem to be judged on how much time you put into them. “Oh I spent 50 hours on game X” or “I just did master completion with 100 hours on Y.” People state those as though it’s a badge of honor. But honestly, were all those hours actually worth it? Were they significant? I like to consider Chrono Trigger like the “Greatest Hits” of the RPG genre. Instead of buying eight albums to get your favorite songs, you can just buy one and have all you need.
Also, uniquely, Chrono Trigger lacks “filler.” You know, the stuff a game can do without,. Sometimes the useless stuff involves story or pointless scenes that aren’t relevant, but most of the time it has to do with gameplay – specifically sidequests and mini games to add in gameplay hours to give the illusion of a lengthy quest. Instead of randomly doing mini-games, the sidequests in Chrono Trigger are able to have actual significance to the greater quest at hand. References to the main quest, story revelations and being involved and influencing the world are all able to be tied into the greater scope of things. In a way, like Final Fantasy VI, these sidequests aren’t there as filler, distractions or to punch up the gameplay time. They are significant and a true part of the game as a whole while the game still offers you the ability to end it when you like.
While today’s games try and force their plot devices on us along with exaggerated character emotions, this being a major problem with videogames in general still not quite grasping quality storytelling, Chrono Trigger never shoves it in your face. It presents itself with a “here it is” mentality, and those plot devices and character emotions come steadily and naturally. Chrono Trigger is very grounded and a lesser development team would have never been able to handle all aspects of it - especially in such a small package.
Still, there are many, though, that feel because of the short gametime, and perhaps the fact it’s from the 16-bit era, that Chrono Trigger lacks the “symbolism” and “deeper meaning” found in today’s RPGs. (Please note, I use those terms loosely when referring to today’s RPGs). But what’s unique about games like Chrono Trigger, though, is that it is every bit as deep and relevant as today’s 600 page game scripts. The reason? It doesn’t tell you direct, or state the obvious. It doesn’t have characters telling us their “feelings” and their backstories. Chrono Trigger, like Final Fantasy VI and a handful of other RPGs, is able to relish in that lost art of true storytelling.
Sometimes, overstated stories are noticed more. But the best are often those that are able to craft a story rather than just throw it at us. Chrono Trigger not only has a complex story told so well that some dare to call it “simple,” but it also has numerous complex themes throughout it.
Just One More Chance
One recurring theme, playing off of the notion of fate and destiny which we will discuss later, is about second chances. As I mentioned in a pervious article, a great game is able to find a theme and really bond the characters together through it (in that case of Final Fantasy VI, it was freedom). For Chrono Tigger, it’s all about second chances in life. Our characters, perhaps from the “Entity” the game briefly references, were destined to have second chances, something they all share. Now if you never played Chrono Trigger, you probably should stop reading now as significant plot points will be revealed.
Crono’s second chance is obvious - he dies for his friends. Before, he was a rather lonely kid with one friend: Lucca. Yet here he is, “randomly” bumping into princesses at carnivals and befriending robotic killing machines. It’s easy to assume that Crono’s days are relatively mundane. We know little about him other than that he doesn’t have a father and tends to sleep in. Suddenly, a happenstance event turns his world upside down.
At the time, Crono didn’t know he even needed a second chance. But we see it build more and more towards it. He begins with little, gains, then finds that one thing worth living for. Or, in his case, dying for. All those days of dullness are definitely in the past (or is that future?).
Lucca, Crono's best friend's, second chance is a rather obvious one. Her worst childhood nightmare is relived and hopefully is redeemed. She could never help her mother at such a young age and watched her fall victim to a machine, therefore losing the ability to walk. Obviously, this haunts her, and she too was allowed a second chance to right those wrongs. Fate, in a way, allowed this to happen. Lucca studied machines, robotics and electronics for so many years, that now she had the knowledge to save her mother. Stumbling on a portal at that moment is what she had been working towards this entire time. Deep down, she was always wishing for that second chance, hoping all her knowledge would give her what she needed to do the right thing
You have that one special moment where you return to Lucca’s home after this event, assuming you pulled it off correctly. You head upstairs and her mom is still in the position you left her in…then she starts walking. Small things like that are what make Chrono Trigger great. I’ll go into more later, as I digress.
Robo, aka Prometheus-A robot found in the future, is given a second chance when confronting his maker. Stripped from his “brothers” and now considered a “defect,” Robo is able to be what his name, Prometheus, indicates- a protector and a caretaker for humans. No longer does he succumb to his Mother, even when she tries to sway him or destroy him.
That takes a lot of will, something he didn’t have before, and now can use for those he found real care for. Robo is also one of few characters that directly refers to the notion of second chances and regrets. It’s nice to see a game not have to bash the idea over our heads. In a way, Robo embodies the very spirit of Chrono Trigger: Destiny v. Free Will.
Frog’s entire arc is about redemption, which is a fancy way of saying “second chance.” He doesn’t consider himself a hero, yet has every quality to be one. The death of his mentor made him a recluse, a drunkard and pitiable. Eventually he’s allowed to take up the Masamune (the legendary sword) and avenge his Master’s death. We’ll touch on Frog a little later.
For Ayla, the prehistoric woman, strong-willed and heir to be chief, we see her second chance in the story itself. After her first adventure with Crono, Repites follow Ayla back to her village and destroy it. As when any village in an RPG gets destroyed, Ayla is blamed for this. To make up for her mistake, she seeks out to do what she should have done long ago – finish of the Reptites, but soon finds there’s more to her meeting Crono than taking care of reptilian scum. Ayla grows into a true leader for her people, something they badly needed, and seems to play an important role in kicking off the whole “human cvilization” thing.
Marle, the princess who Crono befriends early in the story, is given a second chance at living - all by bumping into Crono. Arguably, this is a second chance for Crono as well, now having someone new in town to start a new relationship. Princess Nadia…ahem, Marle, finally gets out of her cocoon known as Guardia Castle and breathes fresh air and meest new people. Interestingly, though, is Marle soon finds that once she’s given a new chance at life, that she’s also a much larger figure than she realizes: that she’s important to her Kingdom and her father, who she reconciles with at the very end.
It appears, since the death of her mother, she’s been estranged from her father for some time. Afer her adventures, she sees the importance of her place and title, and her father sees the importance of her daughter wanting to live like a normal girl of her age. They seem to finally say it outright, coming to terms with the Queen’s death, as well as see the importance of their love for each other.
One second chance, though, is entirely up to you, the player. The character Magus had been a bit of a thorn throughout the game, thinking only of himself and purely Frog’s nemesis (and rightfully so). So when you confront him in 12,000BC, you have the option to do what the game had been teaching you the entire time: everyone gets a second chance. So either align with him or kill him. Hopefully you chose the former, as any true hero would.
The notion of second chances is appealing to just about everyone. While you may not know it playing the game, it's appealing to this innate desire of each person to have another shot at something in their life. We all have regrets, either on things we did or did not do, or failed to overcome something physically or mentally, and the characters of Chrono Trigger are representations of those various regrets a person can have. But sometimes those second chances are merely things we wait on happening, and when they do, you can’t help but wonder if someone, or something, is looking out for you.
It Surrounds Us…
For all sakes and purposes, Chrono Trigger is as spiritual of a game that you can make. It’s not entirely allegorical, but occasionally symbolic. It tells its story without having to note mythology, religion, testaments and prophecies of our world to make it relevant, at least not in the obvious sense that we’ve become accustomed to. Its themes and ideas are common but tells it at a far higher level than the standard many are accustomed to. By “higher” I don't mean it tries to force the issue and make it obvious. To not be obvious is much more difficult than it seems and is something more should appreciate.
Yet that doesn’t mean that certain story aspects can’t be compared to our world in the events that take place. It’s not as in-your-face as a game like Xenogears and doesn’t leave you trying to put a million pieces together to conform to a real-world reference like a Final Fantasy VII, however it does get much of its meaning from mythology and literature that came before it. A major one being the notion of something greater, a theme that dates back thousands of years, and one thing that mankind struggles to still comprehend.
Time, or space-time if you rather, isn’t just a series of numbers in Chrono Trigger. In fact, it’s a force that binds all living things through infinity. As time is infinite, it is absolute, and something so absolute is what is able to create the predicaments and situations that allow Crono and friends to fix. The game very briefly references an “Entity.” This is brought up by Robo who brings up the notion that Lavos is not the one that has caused the time fluctuations, but is instead something else that has caused the various gates. Most feel that this is the Planet, as Lavos would eventually destroy it and it is trying to prevent that. While easy to accept, and a sound theory to many, I have two problems with that notion. 1) Does the planet know its beginning and end, if so why take our heroes through so many time periods? 2) How does said planet posses such a power?
I find that the Planet, like Crono or the Kingdom of Zeal (an Atlantis-like civilization in the story), is just one piece of an overarching puzzle. If the planet was truly causing the time rifts, it would simply make it to where it would save itself would it not? Instead, it keeps Crono and company in a Quantum Leap like adventure fixing the past; things great and small. I don’t buy a planet so concerned about humanity either, especially in Japanese folklore where humanity is often the root of all evil to nature. While it uses humans as tools, it also offers them those second chances we mentioned earlier? Is that a “make-good?” A caring planet is pretty hard to accept.
Then you have the notion of the planet having the power to do as such to begin with. A planet has a beginning and end, and for it to travel throughout its lifespan, marking time portals and such, it would need to have died in the first place. Meaning the Day of Lavos, as the historians named the end of the world, did happen, and the planet and all living things ultimately destroyed. Now dead, can it actually freely move within its lifespan to plot out specific points in the first place?
But there is something without beginning or end, the notion of Infinity in space-time. Rather it is this force of space-time and its ability of Infinity which fits into the Entity’s capabilities.
Infinity, though, isn’t just a noun. It’s not a marker of something having no end, it’s also the marker of something having no beginning. Infinity is the surmising of all within the universe, their beginning and ends, their goods and evils. Infinity goes beyond years and eons, people and planets, in Chrono Trigger and surmounts to the notion that it is a force that cannot be comprehended. Like God, it is beyond human reason and our full understanding. What we can understand, though, is balance.
Space time is dependent on balance, and, as we see, there is a strong swing in that balance caused by Lavos. So we have to look at the Entity that wishes to bring the ying and yang of the universe into a calmness. It’s not the planet itself seeking balance, but the space-time continuum, utilizing its power of. We also have to take in the notion that this Entity has no beginning and end to itself and has the power to allow humans to freely pass through time without completely disrupting the time stream. This times stream is another character, just as the our heroes and the planet are characters - mere players in the Entity's grand scheme.
And not unlike God, this force is immeasurable and never understood. The universe is not merely a black veil and start, and time not just numbers. In Chrono Trigger, the universe is attempting to correct itself as this parasite, this “Lavos” has infected it and caused a disturbance. For every action there is an equal reaction. Lavos was the action, the universe’s creation of situations and convenience for our heroes is the reaction. Call the Entity what you will: infinity in the space-time continuum, God, the “force” but a lot of it has to do with its relationship to our main hero.
What is Crono? Well, first, we can look at his name and see obvious connection between “Crono” and “Chrono.” But perhaps Crono represents more than a spiky-haired teenager with a similar name to “time.” Perhaps this force asks of Crono as it would any “chosen-one” or “Messiah.” It asks Crono to sacrifice himself. And Crono does just that. And like another popular Messiah, he rises again as his duty was still not fulfilled to overcome the evil that still plagued the world and humanity as a whole.
But why set up Crono to die? Well, if our universe set up portals to balance itself, it’s easy to assume that Crono’s sacrifice was also part of its masterplan. Maybe that is what was meant to happen all along. Many things might appear as choice, but in actuality all were intended to happen just the way they happened so the universe can find that balance it seeks. It’s not as though the universe has to be sentient, or a God-like figure. It’s a force of nature that has to set things in certain ways for it to be at peace.
In terms of the planet theory, for a simple symbolic comparison, we’ll have to rid ourselves of the God-Christ scenario and take a step back to an earlier period, in this case Greek Mythology.
There once was a goddesses named Gaia, mother of the earth. She brought forth an equal, Uranus, the starry sky. With Uranus, she bore many children (oceans, titans etc..) and one rotten child in particular. Cronus, a Titan, the worst out of them all. Eventually Cronus overthrows Uranus, planned along with his mother, by nicely cutting off his genitals and throwing them into the sea.
As mentioned, both are solid theories and the Entity itself a convenient Deus Ex Machina, but I have a hard time believing a planet is able to care about humanity and have such power when, technically, it was dead. Also, for those supporting the planet theory and attempting to use Greek myth as proof and feel that Gaia=planet, Crono=Cronous and Uranus=Lavos; other than the fact the names of two are loosely related, Lavos wasn’t created by the planet which throws any allegory out the window. Plus, for it to make meaning and refer to Crono being Cronus, he would have to be a complete monstrosity of a human being. He’s anything but.
That's not to say the planet isn't important, it merely doesn't have the power to do all that happens or the reasoning to do so. Lavos causing it harm therefore causes a rift in the balance that the Entity seeks. The universe, the force seeking balance, however does have reasonings, of all shapes and sizes, from helping forests grow to letting a teenager girl overcome her childhood grief.
It’s not as though the Entity being the planet isn’t valid, as it’s what most believe it is. Robo says it himself, the Entity is trying to “Relive it’s past.” Meaning when it died, it’s life flashed before it. I have a problem with this a little bit as that means it would have to be literally “reliving its past” rather than the implied flashes of memory. At the same time, he doesn’t draw any conclusions and says that trying to understand it truly is beyond what we could fathom or conclude. The planet could be one with sace-time as far as we know. I think for any player, whether it be the planet, God, whatever…says more about them than what the game tries to tell us.
That aside, the Entity itself, what it is and so forth, isn’t as important as what the Entity does (allow all the events to take place to begin with). This ambiguous thing runs deep through all of Chrono Trigger, making things that seem to be coincidental or by choice occur. Of course, that leads one to wonder what is by chance, and what is intended.
And That is An Encouraging Thought
Like the planet, Crono was destined to die and, like the planet, be reborn. But did the universe decide just one day to do this? No, in fact it has been doing it for eternity. Our universe and time is unbound to our understanding. It isn’t tangible, you can’t touch it, you can’t see it, it’s there. It effects us, and some may say is an ever-repeating cycle that will never end. This is infinity, and space-time is trying to correct itself continuously to stay in the balance. Because of this constant fluctuation, certain things must be aligned to allow it to balance itself. This is where the “trigger” comes in.
In the game, Crono is this “trigger.” I'll try and not reference the sequel, Chrono Cross, too much as I felt the script was one big mess, but one thing we learned is the “trigger” is a person. What's more is that this person apparently has no idea they are the trigger, which leads credence to believe they were this trigger from the day they were born and that something had to happen for them to be deemed so special that wasn’t in their control. That, then, brings up the notion of destiny.
As mentioned, the universe is constantly trying to balance itself, but it is still beyond our comprehension on how it does so. It's a force beyond all we could understand, so why choose one person on this world to be the sacrifice? That's like trying to answer why God wanted Jesus to be crucified. From day one, Crono and all his adventures were written. This singularity had to occur because he was there to bring balance, he was created to be that trigger. If you need comparison to make sense, try and compare him to Neo in the Matrix films. It's not understood why he was what he was, but he had a mission and a task that the universe needed done.
What appears to be coincidences were also planned by the greater power. A random bump at a carnival or a child finding a medallion dropped by a drunk frog are all expected to happen. While we would like to believe that the team prevented the Day of Lavos of their own free will, they were already fated to do so. Fate and destiny is a rather philosophical debate, and the game likes to give hints that they are able to beat destiny. But then you have the “trigger” factor, which holds it all back.
Like second chances, destiny runs deep throughout the game (and yes, those second chances for them to “change” things were predetermined also as they needed to be there to bring that balance). Destiny and fate can't be summarized in this essay, but their basic purposes are clear. Everything that happens, was meant to happen. Crono was meant to bump into Marle to begin the chain of events. As time is relative, Magus was meant to be swept to 600AD, battle Frog, and Crono was meant to go there to help Frog battle Magus and find out the truth about Lavos. So all these time streams all converge/diverge at various points, and varying fates as well.
Everything is set up for them and designed to perfection. If that isn’t something greater at work, planning it all out, then I don’t know what is. But not everything that happens, though, is a good thing. The constant seeking of balance in the universe can't be all good or all evil, it varies back and forth like an ocean. As Crono was meant to bring balance and light, Lavos was meant to bring unbalance and dark.
The Ethical Virus and the Golden Idol
No, that’s not the name of the next Dragon Quest game, it’s about the causation of the imbalance that needs to be put right. But Lavos isn’t entirely to blame. Think of Lavos as one big germ. It isn’t sentient, it doesn’t know what it is doing is bad, only that it has to do it to survive.
But humans look at things beyond themselves and set it up as greater than it is. While the Kingdom of Zeal should have been appreciative of their world, the time given to them, and realize the greatness that surrounds them (and those on the surface), they, instead, became greedy and power-hungry; finding Lavos as a source of power to be controlled if not worshipped.
While the fate of the planet can be traced back to when Lavos first crashed, the fate of humanity can actually be traced back to when humans attempted to control it. When Zeal (Zeal, of course, meaning desire, devotion and diligence) discovered Lavos, they did what humans often do: try to make profit off of it. Not money-wise, but power-wise. They created a Mammon Machine, and the notion of Lavos as a false God, a Golden Idol, stems directly from the name of the device they created to try and control it. “Mammon” means wealth of evil - the New Testament personified it as a false god.
If Lavos is the false god, then what is the true God? Well, as I said there’s only one true “force” in the universe and that is this intangible Entity and its quest for balance; the creator of beginning and ends, right and wrongs, and time portals for teenagers to fall through. Due to the fact they could never see this, and make a statue out of it, the people of Zeal didn’t even consider it.
The plot arc involving the Kingdom of Zeal is about as obvious Chrono Trigger gets to referring to our own world and religion. Prophets, gurus, false gods, bigotry, enlightenment, the literal falling of an Empire; while nothing is named specific, it is a very heavy narrative. And to think it erased itself from history completely. What does it say about humanity? Other than the beginnings and ends of civilization on the Chrono Trigger timeline, mankind seems determined to become powerful, even immortal. Yet we end up exactly where we began - a few people huddled together for warmth and completely oblivious to anything other than our own survival. The truth is…that’s not too much different than Lavos. It isn’t out to cause evil, and isn’t to be worshipped. It’s just there surviving.
Maybe it is there to remind us of what we truly are, although Crono and company are there to tell us what we can strive to be. As evil people and viruses from space arise, so do heroes, the tools of this “force,” this. And heroes come in all shapes and sizes.
We Can be Heroes….
It begins with a black screen, a mother’s voice, and the screen fades in the minute Crono opens his eyes. You know all he knows from that exact moment. He doesn’t have a backstory, he doesn’t have a voice. You wake up as him and begin. While the designers do a great job of putting you in Crono's shoes, he still manages to express a distinct personality. The true personality of a hero that has become lost over the past 18 years in the genre.
While many RPGs have a cast of characters, all out doing what RPG characters do for one reason or another, it’s sometimes difficult to see true examples of that hero spirit. Many of today’s RPGs lack heroes. I’m sorry, but they do. There is no embodiment of that spirit, that leader, anymore. Chrono Trigger not only has one hero, it has three and all are exceptional representations of the different variations of what makes a hero.
Very few can be on the level that we find Crono himself. I find that any character willing to sacrifice himself for those he loves is beyond mere heroism; but Crono is the purest and truest example of the sacrificial hero that has yet to be surpassed. In fact, I can’t think of many games where a character willing gives up their life to protect those they care about much less the main character.
Crono was simple. He saw his friends being hurt, saw the cause of it, and put himself between the two to protect those he cared about. To give up your own life…there is no greater heroic feat. While we may be in his shoes, we are still watching this occur. Crono establishes himself early as a hero when you guide him to pick up that pendant in the telepod, his bravery well established then and there. But to give up his life goes beyond bravery entirely.
Then we have Frog, a character tested in virtue and honor; a shining example of chivalry, yet he’ll never admit to or accept being a hero. His integrity, he feels, is shattered. Frog is the redemptive hero (and a tad of a reluctant one). His past haunts him, and he is full of regret and remorse. Until he overcomes his self-doubt, only then can he overcome the true cause of his guilt and find the redemption that he seeks. Cecil from Final Fantasy IV is the only other RPG character that goes on a quest to actually find redemption. More importantly, to find redemption in a relatable and subtle way.
While frog masks his sorrow with vengeance, it’s hard to see any hatred in his heart. He is doing what must be done for honor and to find solace in his life. He’s not going after Magus for revenge. If it were only for that he would have been doing it already. He’s conflicted, and for much of the story he’s arm-lengths away from taking it out on Magus. Once confronted with him a final time, he’s given a choice. If you took the correct and fitting choice, then Frog does what, deep down, he always wanted: give forgiveness. He sees Magus no longer as an enemy to be vanquished, but a human being. My accepting his nemesis, Frog took a lighter path that’s far more difficult for a character to do. But for a hero, there wouldn’t have been any other choice.
For Magus, though, that is exactly what was going on. Magus is our anti-hero hell-bent on hatred and revenge for the one thing that cause pain in his life, and he’ll do all he can to get to it. While there is a greater good behind it all, he still is attempting it all for selfish reasons. For some time he had been plotting, planning and doing all he can to get to Lavos and destroy it the way it destroyed his family and Kingdom.
As we see Magus’s anger and vengeance, Chrono Trigger does a strange thing. It humanizes him. For much of the game, he is a villain. Like many villains in RPGs, we assume he’s evil for the sake of being evil. Instead, we’re thrust into another perspective entirely. Magus cares for his family, his sister, and was actually a small child at one point with a pet cat. We see a large scope for Magus as the game shows why he hates Lavos as he does (and maybe, to an extent, hates his mother).
This is the distinct difference between redemption (or justice) and revenge and it’s interesting to see that the two often-confused terms literally meet head-on. And the result once sword clashes with sickle? Well, they cancel each other out and you’re sucked into the stone-ages. Don’t hunt down someone seeking revenge when you want justice…big clash in the space-time continuous on that one.
We rarely cheer on our heroes anymore. Whatever happened to the spirit of them? That embodiment that clearly defines them in their truest sense isn’t even acknowledged anymore. The great obstacles they find courage to overcome are either small things made big, or over the top plot devices to be conquered. Characterization, too, is lost with developers more concerned about clothing and weapons, or a certain stare, or some secret hidden power, than if the hero is a believable person to begin with, much less someone we actually want to route for. When was the last time we had a “great” heroic figure in the genre? Many RPGs since Crono Trigger either give too much credence to the villain or spend time wallowing in the characters' detrimental past. There is no better example of heroes as there are in Chrono Trigger.
In the past few years, I’ve seen many main characters, few of them heroes. What makes someone a hero isn’t about the villain they overcome, or how much time the story spends on telling their past or how many obstacles it throws at them. It’s about never putting yourself first, and showing sincerity to those you care about. It’s about the courage they have to stand up against those obstacles in the first place.
There’s Always a Bigger Fish
For many it is easy to call Lavos the antagonist of Chrono Trigger, but let’s consider something. Most gamers are used to seeing an actual manifestation of a villain. I can’t think of many RPGs where there isn’t some magical pretty boy/evil dark lord/starge large creature/ghost etc… that allows someone to look and say “that’s the bad guy.” But Chrono Trigger is a lot deeper in this than it’s given credit for.
While it’s easy to point at Lavos and say he’s the villain, in reality, he isn’t. In fact, Lavos doesn’t really do anything in the game. We see what it will end up doing, but it’s in the future. We see it crash on the planet, causing an ice age, but that era is long gone once Crono and company are sent on their quest. In fact, Lavos is often out of sight in the story.
True, it will eventually one day end the world, but, technically, that day has already happened as it was fated to happen, and Crono and company already set in motion to undo it just as they were fated to. The true obstacle is, rather, time itself. The Entity I referenced is seeking balance, and the only way to do this is to alter space-time. But to do this, it need various tools to carry out its tasks. These are our heroes.
We can’t always rely on simply going from town to town, getting into adventures and progress to the end as in most RPGs. Chrono Trigger, strangely, never loses sight of the big picture despite the various things thrown at us. While we can travel time, manipulate to our advantage, it’s still our worst enemy. There’s too much to set right, too much to take on, too many places to make better and lives to change…yet we walk into it despite it to correct those mistakes (and maybe cause a few). We learn about Lavos early on. It’s there, it’s waiting, but it’s not throwing problem after problem at us (although the problems it does throw at us are pretty substantial, just ask the citizens of Zeal).
As Chrono Trigger teaches us: things aren’t always what they seem. Magus isn’t as evil as his three henchmen. Ozzie isn’t as cool as he thinks he is. Zeal isn’t perfect. Ayla isn’t a dumb barbarian. There is something behind all that’s happening and so forth. So, to so easily cast Lavos into the one thing that is obvious is, perhaps, naive. Although we can see it, it’s not the one thing that is constantly against us like Father Time and all his idiosyncrasies.
While our heroes might fight evil computers, nuns and golemns, their true test is against time itself. Yes, they can move in and out of it, but they still must set the various eras right. What happens in the past can either hurt or help the future, as we learn early when Crono first returns from 600AD to be promptly thrown in jail. The true obstacle is the timestream. It is this that must be set right. While you don't have a big climatic battle with it, it is one thing that is often against you.
Balance is a Four Letter Word
There was not a game before, or a game since, that is as classy, polished, and universally loved than Chrono Trigger. I’ve not once read a bad review, a bad comment or have seen any downright hatred for the game. Some might argue that because of this, Chrono Trigger is quite possibly the perfect RPG. Maybe not everyone’s favorite, but at the same time it’s one that nobody has gone against. Even Final Fantasy VI or VII, two other beloved games, have detractors.
Most likely, it’s that Chrono Trigger is able to speak to so many and on so many different levels. In case you skipped the previous sections, a recurring theme in the game is balance. But this idea isn’t just found in the plot and story or characters, it’s found in the design of the game itself. The tone is never too dark or too light. The game is never too hard or too easy. There’s never too much story over gameplay and not once do you feel like you’re “stagnant” (Meaning you lost the desire to push forward) nor is the story and gameplay never too complicated or too simple.
Then you have the balance of freedom and linearity. Like Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger offers the player the option to beat the game when they see fit after a certain scenario is achieved. From here, the player can take on the various side quests that span the eras or head right into the final fight. Today it’s either “fully linear” or “fully non-linear.” That uniqueness found in Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI really hasn’t been repeated. Now it’s all black and white.
With all this praise, and with everything Chrono Trigger got right, I have to ask this:
“What the hell happened?”
Why have few games been able to repeat the foundation Chrono Trigger set? Why are they so obsessed with game hours, excess plot devices and stories more geared towards amateurish anime television than something with a little heart? What today's RPGs are to Neon Geneses or Nina Scroll , Chrono Trigger is to Spirited Away or Grave of the Fireflies. One is seen as mere entertainment, the other something with far more to it and that reaches a higher level as a storytelling medium. It’s something that actually touches you and often it doesn’t even intend to.
Games like Chrono Trigger are rare, and in the RPG genre even rarer. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some great RPGs that have come out since 1995. But have you seen any other RPG that not one person has said anything derogatory about? And even if they do, it’s probably something they have to force like “that sound effect doesn’t fit there.”
Most RPGs are heavy in various aspects. Maybe they’re too dark and moody, or too story-heavy and sacrificing the gameplay or too focused on level grinding to care about a story, or too light-hearted to take the serious parts seriously. Why can developers not strike such a balance anymore? Perhaps it was the numerous minds keeping each other in check for Chrono Trigger, as many top-talents came together for it, or perhaps it’s that Chrono Trigger was able to be crafted with such care and sincerity that it demands such love from each person that discovers it.
A game like Chrono Trigger would never be made today, and probably couldn't considering the stagnation the Japanese RPG field is in at the moment. Today, the combat system would have overpowered magic and attacks with super weapons you hunt down in some mundane mini-game, the playtime would no doubt be extended to average out 50 hours (meaning more mini games because most RPG stories are spread out), the story would have a talking protagonist with a convoluted backstory and a more powerful being behind Lavos, controlling it. Not to mention a lot of philosophical ramblings about the Entity and theories of time travel in excessive cutscenes.
Subtlety in videogames is dead. It’s been dead for nearly a decade.
Being subtle doesn't mean you can't have meaning or an engrossing story with interesting characters. I'd like to think that many can see that in games like Chrono Trigger. It has just as much symbolism and meaning, and just as much story in it than games that came out only a few years later, and today now nearly 20. Perhaps players demand the in-your-face “meaning” behind it all, and like to be guided through flashbacks and long-winded speeches. But I would rather spend 10 hours with something exceptionally crafted than 50 hours with something that will only get me to take notice every four or five hours with an action bit and a “twist.”
This leads us to our final portion. Once done with an RPG these days, I put down the controller and I sometimes ask myself “what did the game just tell me?” Did I learn a lesson? Come to understand a bigger meaning? Mostly, no…the stories are often so weak and shallow, despite them outright telling us to belive otherwise, that you learn little and take away nothing to heart as a result.
I don’t know about you, but “heart” is something I think Chrono Trigger had in spades.
Nothing is ever lost, or even finite. Chrono Trigger comes at us with a great message: That, given time, anything and everything will work out. Call it destiny, or seeking of balance or even our own free desire to do so, as Chrono Trigger really doesn't draw any definite conclusions. But it does tell us that life is often short, even fragile, and we should appreciate what we have.
Emotions are rarely worn on sleeves and simply stated outright. They're always there, challenging us, guiding us, even controlling us. Our affections of friends and family is, like life, short. All these feelings for Crono boil up to that fateful confrontation with Lavos.
It asks us “what is worth fighting for, even dying for?” Crono didn't sacrifice himself for nothing, he did it for those he (you) became close to. Friends and family are a strong thread throughout the game and they certainly haven’t been brought up in a more subtle and meaningful way since. RPGs have lost the human element in them and that humanism is what makes games like Chrono Trigger memorable and, to be honest, meaningful and worth spending time with (no matter the playtime).
As mentioned at the very beginning, it’s not about the length of time, it’s about what you do with it. As a game, Chrono Trigger expresses this idea in its design, but also with its characters and in the story itself. It even brings balance as a story element and a game design into the mix as well. What we can take of this is that life may be short, you have to make it matter. Find balance in life, and it will be worth living. The message is clear, and it never once says it outright.
I think it’s extremely credulous for any person to take Chrono Trigger at face value. It came at time where it was a remarkable turning point for the genre. Characters began to feel and act reel, stories more complex than they appear on screen, ideas that are presented beautifully and intelligently. But above all, the creators wanted to tell us more than the story of a group defeating an evil. That’s been there done that. The truth is, they wanted a message and purpose behind it all. And that purpose, that entire point of making a game more than just to entertain, that purpose that has been lost over the years, is what makes a game like Chrono Trigger more significant than what any developer can throw at us today. It is a game with an actual point behind the time traveling story. The superficial nature of today’s games, RPGs or otherwise, ergo today’s gamers, probably couldn’t even grasp the concept.
Time May Change Me, But I Can’t Chase Time
While nostalgia flows through me as I write this over the course of a few days, it’s important to note one significant thing. That over 15 years ago, I experienced something that made an ever lasting impression on me. At one point in my life, I picked up a controller of a game I knew little about and fell in love with it. I sometimes wonder if I was fated to do that, because, now an adult, I still take that first moment to heart.
We should love our past, and those few moments. Not just our fond games, movies, music and books, but everything. Perhaps all those good things we experienced (and even the bad) were meant to happen and help shape us into who we are today. Think of your favorite games and other entertainment piece, and how it touched you. It truly was one of those blue-moon things.
While I may be over RPGs these days, I will always carry with me the fondness of games like Chrono Trigger. I’m sure you have those that are ingrained into your mind/heart/soul as well that you can recall better than most people remember their own birthdays. They come and go, yet never leave us.
As we age, our tastes change, as do opinions, yet we can still remember those fond things. I remember a Christmas morning when I was six, my first car, that special kiss, that touching film, fishing with my grandfather, my mother’s best dish, my favorite pet, or that song that pops on the radio and brings back high-school all over again.
Out of all the things that could have happened, I’d like to think…those things were meant to happen.