Chrono Trigger’s team was called the “Dream Team” during the production of the game. It was a once in a lifetime mix of people that have mostly left Square since then. It was my third major SNES RPG that I got new as a kid, so it’s really hard to look at with a non-opinionated eye. I mean, I still remember most of the hidden item locations in FFIII / FFVI, and I still remember the opening moves in Chrono Trigger. The game came out from Square in 1995.
There’s really three points of view about Chrono Trigger out there, if you wanted to simplify things. There’s the old fans, like myself, who are filled with nostalgia with the experience of playing the game. Much like the fans of Final Fantasy II / FFIV, they tend to like the translation, the presentation, and the way the game unfolds because that was the game that they remember. The second point of view is the more academic one. From that point of view, issues of plot, difficulty, and game design are important. The final point of view is from a fan of the game’s sequel.
Starting with the last one first, Chrono Trigger tends to be a polarising game. Chrono Cross is a game that waits till late in the game to tell you that all your actions in Chrono Trigger were making the world worse. It’s a game that kills off all your characters, mostly at the hand of a flatulant comedic character in tiny shorts from the first game. Cross is a beautiful game, with a pretty nice Celtic inspired soundtrack (people adore it, but I’m not really the right person to examine it without opinions.) Cross has a massive cast, compared to Trigger’s seven. It has an ambitious time travel plot, and a vauge ending. Due to the troubled development of the game, you could argue that the plot and ties to Chrono Trigger suffered, since the game was heavily changed to get it completed.
From an academic point of view, Trigger and Cross both have interesting ideas about battle mechanics, grinding, and difficulty. When I was young, non-JRPG fans cited Chrono Trigger was the only and best way for JRPGs going forward. They liked that the game had no battle transitions. Instead, you saw the monsters on the battle field, and your party drew their weapons on the same battle field to fight. Although, like most “visible monster” style games, you were pretty much assured of a certain number of fights while exploring an area, it was cited as being a game that had no random battles. For the most part, minimal grinding was needed to advance, and the New Game + feature allowed you to replay the game with your overpowered party. You could also see equipment changes, though this was mostly just slight graphical changes in your party’s weapons. Thanks to New Game + and the low required level caps for an area, the game was fairly easy. The battle system had a emphasis on how your party worked together to do combination attacks (called double and triple techs,) but due to the difficulty level, you could work with many different parties in the game.
Cross, on the other hand, was a reaction to Trigger, in a lot of ways. Monsters are visible on the screen, but there is a transition into a different area for battles. Weapons, again, changed as you equipped different items. You cannot grind in Cross, and you cannot spam magic and techs the same way you did in Trigger. Cross basically gave you a level cap in stars after a boss, and once you reached it (after a couple of battles) you could not grind for more strength. Magic involved elemental weaknesses and involved preparation to cast the strongest spells. The combination attacks were few enough to be irrelevant for the most part. Typically in Cross, you could not evade large numbers of battle via timing your movement. Some people thought the forced “difficulty range” and the lack of grinding was a good thing, since the designers knew exactly how strong your party should be in an area. With the large cast, you were assured your party was always about the same level.
Many people cite Chrono Trigger’s simplistic and optimistic plot as a upside or a downside to the game. The plot begins with your hero discovering that a pendent and a transporter accident lets his friends travel through time. In the future, they discover that the world is destroyed and how, and they decide to save the world. Meanwhile, there’s the occasional quiet discussion if someone is watching their movements, and what kind of story that someone would tell about them. Some people theorize that it’s the planet watching them strive to save it. Other people theorize that it’s the villain’s dying memories of them. If you die in the game, there’s a simple game over with the text “But the future refused to change.”
Cross begins with the assumption that your actions in Trigger doomed the world. Shortly after the game, your heroes were mostly killed by an invading force, and the rest of the game is centered around stopping the suffering of a character from the first game via tumbling back and forth through parallel time lines. Needless to say, the game has a different feel compared to Trigger’s mostly optimistic plotline.
So what is Chrono Trigger like as a game? It’s a well made SNES game. It has good graphics, good music, and interesting set pieces, adding up to a pleasant game experience. The ideas in the battle system, the visible equipment, and the difficulty level basically are unique on the SNES. I can’t really think of a later game that really replicates the same experience.