Over holiday breaks, I tend to try filling the big gaps in my backlog. The onslaught of new releases is typically done by December and though this only just recently became a job, I get just enough reprieve to come up for air and do something for fun. Rather than shoot for the average game, though, I try to knock something really big out. Like some foundational videogame. Last year, I tried my hand at A Link to the Past. I sucked at it and got stuck after getting to the Dark World, but man was I glad to have tried it at all. In keeping with that tradition, this year I’m finally tackling Chrono Trigger.
There are games with a legacy and then there’s something like Chrono Trigger. Seemingly the JRPG that inspired the vast lot that’d come after, Chrono Trigger holds up remarkably well. It’s been an absolute joy to dig into this game and find not just touchstones of games I’ve played since its release, but deceptively clever bits that not too many of its successors ever picked up on. Mostly though I just appreciate what an audacious game it is and what a wild ride it’s going to be all the way to the end.
The way that I keep describing Chrono Trigger to friends who aren’t as familiar with it is by rambling incoherently about the fact that within mere hours I’d accidentally sent a princess back in time, followed her back there, saved her ancestor, and started hanging out with a frog knight. Afterwards, I went back to the present, was imprisoned (and subsequently broke out of jail), destroyed a tank on my way out, and then escaped further imprisonment by jumping into a desolate future destroyed by robots and left to ghosts. What those ludicrous statements don’t entirely capture is my manic energy, not to mention my frenzied hand movements, as I’m laying it on my poor unsuspecting friends. Chrono Trigger has me rapturous at its unrelenting pace a few hours in and I don’t really see it letting up anytime soon.
Chrono Trigger’s whimsical nonsense is aided by a score that simply doesn’t miss. I joked about it at first, but the overworld theme that plays when you’re first thrown into the past is a pitch-perfect JRPG theme. The humble beginning, the magic-bearing synths, and the harmony that emerges from it and the instrumentation as it crescendos and crashes back in on itself nails the narrative arc of these games. What really makes “600 A.D’’ for me is just how accurately it fits the period in this game. If you don’t know already, though I don’t know how you couldn’t, Chrono Trigger follows a band of adventurers being flung backwards and forwards in time. The first occurrence of this time travel is by complete accident, and lands the player 400 years in their own past, in the year 600 A.D, when magical dark forces still pose a threat to their homeland and ancestors. And the music here, captures the quintessential fantasy of this scenario. It’s mostly contemplative in its tempo, with a dark, if not insidious, undercurrent buried in those synths, and it lights up my brain in the best possible way.
In other places, like the game’s combat, I can clearly see hallmarks of some of my favorites that came a while after Chrono Trigger. For example, and it’s no shock to anyone but me, I was shocked and delighted to see dual techs—abilities from two characters that combined to make one superpowered move—in Chrono Trigger after first experiencing them in Final Fantasy IX some years ago. I especially appreciated that the first one of these moves you’re encouraged to do in either game is a flaming sword, which is obviously rendered in Akira Toriyama’s wondrous box art for Chrono Trigger. I love clocking references in reverse like that, where you experience the piece that was influenced before the original. It lends a historicity to these games and timelines that is oft forgotten, and that I myself am still enjoying putting together.
Despite being so rich in history, Chrono Trigger doesn’t feel weighed down by time at all. If anything it feels bolstered by the time it was produced in. Some of its art still stuns me, and its take on the Active Time Battle system still feels refreshingly new. And there are scenes, like Crono’s trial upon returning to the present, that make the game feel downright progressive. This sequence, which sees Crono tried for “kidnapping” the runaway princess, was such a delight because for all the chatter about this game for nearly the last 30 years, I’ve never heard about it. As you try, and fail, to prove your innocence and good moral character, the game confronts you with the gaming sins you did or didn’t commit throughout the game’s introduction. Did you steal that old man’s lunch that his wife prepared because you’re so used to breaking into houses for Rupees with no consequences? Did you strand that little girl looking for her cat because it didn’t serve you in any tangible way, like netting you XP or money? Did you immediately try to hawk the princesses’ valuable necklace literally seconds after she told you of its importance because you’re so used to selling off excess stuff in your inventory? It was equal parts hilarious and eye-opening how guilty I was of being a legitimately piss poor person because of the way games have conditioned me to act. That single sequence is among the most honest bits of role playing I’ve ever experienced in a game. And sure, the chancellor will find you guilty no matter what—Crono always has to escape the jail and have his legendary fight with the dragon tank, after all—but my choices had weight, even if it wasn’t the kind I was accustomed to. I don’t know how this moment landed with players in 1995, but in 2022, it still kind of blew my mind.
And that’s just the thing about Chrono Trigger: it’s mind blowingly good. I’d heard as much, but I’m appreciating being able to sit down and play this game like it’s brand new, because in countless ways, it still feels like an unrivaled innovator in its crowded field. Its reputation never quite prepared me for the actual twists and turns, not to mention revelations, I’d have playing it. I don’t know how this journey’s going to end, but I suspect I won’t see it coming, and that’s the most wonderful thing about the whole experience. Despite its place in gaming’s canon, I’m finding Chrono Trigger impossible to nail down, and am so grateful for that.
Moises Taveras is the assistant games editor for Paste Magazine. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.