Chrono Trigger is an excellent video roleplaying game for the Super NES from the masters of the art, Squaresoft. It features some of the best graphics and sound seen on the platform, especially in this genre. The music is fantastic, in typical Squaresoft style, but outdoes even other Square titles on the SNES. It features a somewhat unique approach to merging combat with the game in that enemies are typically either in plain sight before you reach them, or hiding behind some feature of the terrain - there are no completely random encounters, and the world map is a place of peace. Chrono Trigger is a fairly short game, representing only about 20 hours of gameplay if you play straight through, including all side quests.
Chrono Trigger was followed in Japan by a sequel called Radical Dreamers which never made it to the US. Radical Dreamers is followed by a sequel for Sony Playstation, Chrono Cross.
(Spoiler warning! You might want to skip this section entirely, though all events described in detail occur very near the beginning of the game.)
The main character, Crono, is a resident of 1000 A.D. The story begins with his mother awakening him on the day of the millenium festival, a festive celebration of peace. His mother reminds him that his inventor friend Lucca wants to show him her new invention. Traveling to the fair, he (literally) runs into a girl named Marle, who asks him to show her the fair. After spending a little time doing so, he visits Lucca's invention at the top of the fair, which turns out to be a teleporter. Unlike many of Lucca's (alluded) inventions, this one works, and Crono is safely transported from one transporter device to the other. Unfortunately, when Marle tries the teleporter, it reacts with her pendant and she is sent through a mysterious gate, leaving her pendant behind. Crono picks up the pendant and follows her, and is transported to a mountain. Upon returning to his village, he finds that he has been sent four hundred years into the past...
As the game continues, Crono travels not only into the recent past, but into the fairly near future, to discover that it is bleak indeed. The last tattered remnants of humanity are living in domes amidst a shattered wasteland whose very air is poisonous. He also travels to the distant past (and I mean distant) solving people's problems along the way in classic RPG style. In each time period, he makes new friends, who join him on his quest, which rapidly changes from retrieving his friend, to saving the world.
All in all, this game has thirteen endings, the greatest number I am aware of in any game. Each ending basically corresponds to defeating the enemy at a different point throughout the storyline. You must complete the entire game in order to get the "happiest" ending.
Chrono Trigger is a top-down, isometric-view 2D RPG. Terrain is laid out in blocks just large enough for a character to occupy, but movement occurs on a pixel basis. In general it is not possible to fall off terrain, except in specific and obvious locations. Leaving an area takes you to the world map, which is also laid out in a very straightforward fashion. One thing that separates Chrono Trigger from most other RPGs is that you are entirely safe on the world map - there are no random encounters. In fact, there are no random encounters anywhere in the game - all enemies are attached to a specific position or range of movement. All enemies which move are in plain sight and most of them can be avoided. Encounters with them are generally triggered either by running into them (or by them running into you) or by talking to them, but sometimes they are also triggered by encountering a seemingly unrelated enemy or by stepping someplace in particular, usually a choke point in the area.
When moving around an area, you may move in any of the eight primary compass directions. Holding down the B button causes you to run. Walking or running straight into a diagonal wall (or other impassable barrier, like the top of a ridge) causes you to slide along the wall in the way in which you would expect. There are also both stairs, and vertical climbing features like ladders and vines. You can run up and down stairs, but always go slowly on the ladders. Moving around the world map is done in two different ways. Primarily, you will be walking, which is only done in the four cardinal compass directions. There is no run feature. When you arrive someplace you can enter, its name is displayed above it on the world map, and you can press A to go in. While you can accidentally arrive at the world map, you never accidentally leave it. In typical Squaresoft fashion, you eventually get your hands on a flying vehicle, which lets you fly around the various areas of the game, and allows you to reach several otherwise inaccessible locations.
Time travel is the main theme of the game, and while you start out traveling through gates between times, you eventually develop the means to travel between times without them. This also lets you reach a time period for which you have no gate. Gates are opened with the Gate Key, an object which exists mainly to be stolen at one point in the game. After the first (and only) time you enter a gate with four characters, all gates not otherwise specified by the plot lead to The End of Time, a nexus that allows you to choose your destination in time freely. Some times have multiple gates which lead to multiple locations, and so this also allows you to move between continents.
Combat, Techniques, and Magic
The combat system is relatively straightforward, but it does have some interesting twists. There is a meter that fills up, at which point you can take an action. You do not have to command characters in the order in which their gauges fill, however; any ready character can act, or not act, and the game progresses in semi-realtime. Combat itself is a simple comparison of your attack power, mixed with the enemy's defense power, or vice versa. Attack power is a combination of your "power" statistic and the attack power of your weapon. Attack power defines damage. It makes no difference whether your weapon is ranged or not, as your characters will leap across the field of combat in order to attack enemies if they use a melee weapon. Some enemies will do this as well, while others must approach you in order to attack. Your characters are fixed on the field of battle, but (many) enemies move around. This is a major element of combat in that some attacks can hit enemies behind the ones at which you are aiming, and some of their attacks also progress along a line. Some of them will actually hit other enemies as well.
Combat is complicated by the presence of a system of abilities called techniques. At first these include only special attacks and magic-like abilities, but fairly early in the game you achieve the ability to use magic. Magic is a lost art that the game will tell you was taken away from humans because they abused it. Each character has an elemental affiliation which determines what type of magic they use, and thus what kind of spells they have. There is one exception; he has an affiliation but has some of the other types of magic as well. Spells and techniques alike consume MP, or magic points. Techniques are developed with the use of TP or Technique Points, which are awarded along with experience points (XP) and gold (G) when enemies are defeated. Not all enemies produce TP, but all enemies produce G and XP.
Some techniques involve the use of multiple characters. These techniques are learned by gaining sufficient TP while the appropriate characters are in the active party. All characters involved in a double or triple technique must learn the technique, and all characters' battle meters must be filled in order to use it. In addition, it consumes some MP from each participating character. These may take the effect of magic alone (such as a spell called Antipode, which involves fire and ice spells) or they may be a combination of magic and a physical attack. Each attack spell has three levels; a basic one which attacks one enemy, an improved version which consumes about three times as many MPs and attacks all enemies, and an "ultimate" version which consumes 20 MP (as opposed to 2 or 6 for first and second level abilities, respectively) and which does dramatically more damage.
Physical and magic power and defense are separate statistics. In addition, some enemies are immune either to physical attacks or to magic ones. Also, any combo attack which involves a physical attack and magic is considered to be a magic attack, and so cannot be used on an enemy immune to magic, nor should it be used on an enemy with especially strong magic defense. There are spells and objects which increase either physical or magical defense. There are some enemies which absorb certain types of magical damage as health, as well as some objects which confer the same ability on your characters.
Finally, there are spells which cause status effects. There are objects which you can get fairly late in the game which prevent all negative status changes, though a few boss characters can remove your status protection. These enemies typically do not cause many changes of status in any case. Your characters can be blinded, reducing their hit rate, poisoned, which causes them to lose hit points in lumps occasionally, or hit with an "HP Down" effect which slowly but steadily drains HP. Spells also exist to raise or lower physical or magical defense, to put characters or enemies to sleep (which they awaken from either in time or when attacked) or to "stop" them, which freezes them for a while regardless of damage. The most annoying status effect is confusion, which causes characters to attack randomly, though if the numbers are even they are as likely to attack enemies as friends. All status effects are curable through the use of the "Heal" item or spell. All status effects wear off at the end of combat.
Weapons and Equipment
Each character has a specific type of item. For example, Crono's weapon is the sword, while Lucca uses a gun. Like any RPG, as you progress you get more and more powerful weapons, sometimes by buying them and sometimes by picking them up. The most powerful weapons in the game are achieved through side quests, some of which can only be achieved when the only thing you have left to do is defeat the main antagonist. In general these side quests cannot be reached until you are significantly through the game and have gained the ability to fly around the map, and only one of them can reasonably be completed before the characters have reached around level 30. In general this means you will be spending quite a bit of money on weapons. Some of the best weapons have bonuses against magical creatures, or cause status effects. Weapons do not have requirements, besides that they can only be used by certain characters.
Armor, too, can only be used by the appropriate characters, but this is implemented much more loosely than weapons (only two characters can share weapons at all, and there is little overlap.) Mostly, only the males can wear heavy armor, and only the women can wear dresses. Anyone can wear vests or "mail", which is extremely significant because the armor that reduces or absorbs magical damage and which is absolutely critical to clearing certain parts of the game all takes one of these forms. Mail is the advanced form of a vest. Spoiler Warning! The vests in question are picked up from sealed containers that you can only open after a certain point in the game. You can get them in either 600 or 1000 A.D. However, in 600 you are asked if you want to open them, whereas in 1000 you simply open them. If you visit them in 600, and inspect but do not take them, then what would be a vest becomes mail. You can then go back to 600 and collect them again, as a vest.End Spoiler. Armor takes two forms, headgear and armor. While there are some armors which will protect you from elemental damage, there are pieces of headgear which protect you from status effects. In particular, the "Vigil Hat" protects you from all negative status effects, and has a high defense value as well. One of them is found near the end of the game, but you can also buy them if you complete one of the side quests, which is only accessible if you have talked to someone back in 12,000 B.C. and given them the proper answer to a question.
Besides weapons and armor there are also accessories. These generally either alter statistics, give you a new ability, or protect you from status effects. There are also a few accessories which make some extremely high-damage triple-character techniques (combos) available. One accessory ("Rage Band") gives you a 50% counter-attack rate, while another ("Berserker") increases your attack power and causes you to attack single-mindedly every turn. Each character comes with an accessory which provides a stat bonus.
Chrono Trigger features a fairly typical range of items that will be especially familiar to any Squaresoft game aficionados. Tonics and Ethers, which restore HP and MP respectively, come in basic, "Mid", "Full", and "Hyper" versions. There are also the Elixir and Megaelixir which restore full HP and MP to one or all characters, respectively. Unlike many other games, however, there is only one item ("Heal") which cures status effects. This is a welcome change from trying to remember which item cures which affliction.
There are also power, speed, and magic "tabs", which improve the appropriate statistics by one point. Attack power seems to go up unevenly as your power statistic improves; it generally increases one for one, but sometimes a one point improvement in power results in a two point improvement in attack power. Your speed stat has two effects; it causes your battle meter to fill up faster, and it also determines who goes first based on how full your meter is at the beginning of combat.
Other than that, there are a number of special items which are basically keys to later parts of the game. For example, Marle's pendant is the first of these, and later it becomes the key to opening sealed doors and chests (as opposed to locked chests, which must be opened with the appropriate key.) Most of them are quest items that you have intentionally set out to find, and which are taken somewhere so something can be done with them.
New Game, or New Game+?
In an attempt to increase replay value, or at least to let you see all of the game's thirteen endings, Square added a mode that allows you to start the game with powerful characters, and most all of your items. Key items that are plot keys are removed from your inventory, and you are left with only the normal 400 gold that you'd ordinarily start with, but you get to keep everything else. You access New Game+ mode for the first time by having all of the characters in your party, including the one optional character. Once you have saved a New Game+, you can start another one from it any time.
With all of that explained, it is now possible to give a meaningful description of the game's main characters. Note that each of these characters can be named (up to five letters) when they join the party. Spoiler Alert! The last character listed is involved in a number of major plot points, but all of these characters are of course introduced during the course of the story, as are their elemental affiliations. Characters are listed in the order in which they are encountered.
Crono is a young redheaded boy who uses swords (he starts with a wooden one) and whose "element" is lightning. He lives in Truce Village in the year 1000 A.D. with his mother and a cat. He is the second or third-strongest character when it comes to combat, is involved in all of the most powerful techniques and combo techniques, and has one of the most powerful spells in the game (Luminaire, the ultimate lightning magic.)
Marle rapidly turns out to actually be princess Nadia of the Guardia kingdom, which includes the Truce village. She uses a bow and her element is ice (water, but with more damage.) Her pendant, a family heirloom, catapults us into the time travel element of the story, and plays a major part in the game.
Lucca, who uses guns and whose element is fire, is a nerdy inventor girl who lives with her mother and father on an island that is part of Truce village. She's Crono's best friend. Her fire magic is absolutely indispensible fairly early on in the game.
Frog was a noble knight of the middle ages before he crossed the wrong wizard and got turned into an anthropomorphic amphibian. His element is water (of course) and he uses a blade, or in other words, just a different kind of sword. There's a couple of swords, in fact, that can be used by either Crono or Frog. He's a good guy but his psuedo-antiquated dialog (full of thees and thous) is pretty annoying. His attacks are very strong and he has a high critical hit rate.
Ayla is an extremely strong woman from the prehistoric era. She fights barehanded and has no magic abilities, but is your strongest character in combat, doing the most damage and often hitting things that everyone else tends to miss. Her "cavewoman" dialogue is highly humorous.
Originally named R-66Y or Prometheus, depending on who you talk to, he also has no magic ability. His arms are occasionally upgraded (by equipping a weapon) and he has good attack power. His techniques are not as powerful as magic, but are sometimes more useful and tend not to use many MP.
Magus starts out as an enemy, and he makes significant contributions to the plot throughout much of history before you have the chance to add him to your party. His weapon is the scythe, and his element is shadow. He has the most powerful spells in the game, and not only does he have shadow magic, but he also has Ice2, Fire2, and Lightning2, area-effect elemental spells.
(Warning: Spoilers Ahead. It's just not possible to meaningfully discuss this part of the game without them.) Again, listed in order of precedence.
Peaceful and sunny, no one needs to worry about monsters in 1000 A.D. unless they're walking through the forest to the castle (kind of strange, there) or going someplace people just don't need to be going. The first three main characters all live here, on the same continent even.
Still pretty peaceful, but windy and perpetually foggy. There's quite a few more monster-infested locations than in 1000, and even getting to the castle is tougher. As you might expect, the towns are a little smaller.
In The Future, the planet is completely thrashed. The few people still alive live in deteriorating domes, surrounded by desert, ruined cities, and sandstorms that will start knocking down your HP if you spend too much time outside, eventually reducing it to 1. Everywhere you go there are monsters (including in parts of the domes that people don't use) and some of them respond only to magical damage. Besides the monsters (mostly mutants and giant rats) there's also a serious overabundance of hostile robots.
The End of Time
Going through a gate with more than three people results in you being sent here. It's basically just three fenced areas floating in space. An old man is here, and he provides you with guidance. This is also where you first get the ability to use magic, from Spekkio, god of war.
The prehistoric age. Land masses are in different locations and the earth is covered either with lush vegetation or the occasional rocky mountain or volcano. Besides a few primitive people (who nonetheless have some kickass equipment they'll give you if you trade them some stuff that you get by defeating monsters, and who will take your money in exchange for tonics and such, or buy things from you) the residents of the land are reptilian. These "reptites" are fairly nasty characters, and the larger dinos are even worse, but they respond well to lightning.
The dark ages, and also the time of magic. A feudal society in which those with magic keep those without crushed under their heel. The magicians live on floating islands in the sky while those without live in caves on the snowy land below. The queen (appropriately named "Zeal") of this era is responsible for the majority of the suffering that goes on in the game.
You need never go here, but this is the time when Lavos, the main bad guy, destroys the world as we know it. This is what you are trying to prevent, to change the future (2300 A.D. and beyond.) You can get here once you can get to the end of time, which results in a confrontation with Lavos, but unless you're level 30 or better, I don't suggest it. It takes a long time training to become that powerful the first time you get to The End of Time.
The story is absolutely excellent. Time travel is sort of a dead horse in most fiction, with generally goofy stories attached to it. This game actually uses it as an integral game mechanic with extremely good results. Also, though this is really only visible between 600, 1000, and 2300, you can see the evolution of towns (and devolution, in the case of 2300 A.D.) by flipping back and forth between times. Buildings get bigger, or become ruins, and so on.
Each character has some degree of back story. Some of them have a lot of it, especially once you get into the side quests. The back stories tend to be filled in through different time periods, as well, and several of the characters' stories are interlocking. Finally, the game decides who should say what based on who is in your party. Generally the most gregarious character who isn't Crono says something that's appropriate to them when something needs to be said. A single, non-customized line of dialogue is never just assigned to one of your characters.
The game has a number of highly humorous moments as well. For example, in one character's moment of apparent victory, Crono's music begins playing. He yells for it to stop, and his own theme begins. This sort of out of character moment is not uncommon in Squaresoft titles.
The game's graphics are excellent. The use of color is not immediately clear in all cases, because the game's designers wanted to provide each area with a distinct look and "feel", but then you'll walk into a building and everything is richly depicted. The game is fairly low-resolution (high resolution mode on the SNES is not exactly suited to having a lot of motion) so player models are not very detailed, but they do look quite good and each has a good range of motion with sufficient frames to be smoothly animated. Background graphics are extremely detailed and attractive.
Sound and Music
Most of the game's sound effects are very good, although a few of them are also very annoying, in particular effects heard in 2300 A.D. Probably the highest compliment I can give them, however, is that they just became part of the game - they all seem to fit their circumstances well. The music, on the other hand, is excellent all around. It's eerie when it should be eerie, jubilant when the environment is festive, and generally stirring (not a word I generally associate with video game music) in between. This is not as big a surprise for a game from Squaresoft as from most publishers, however.
Play Control and Menus
There is not much to say about most RPGs when it comes to play control, except for Action RPGs, and this is not one of those although there are some action sequences and mini-games. The (very) few mini games are smooth, and they are plot points, so there is both little to say about them, and little I want to say about them. In general they are simple and straightforward. However, what I do want to talk about is the ease of simply moving around your environment. While it is only required on about four occasions, you can choose to run around, which greatly reduces the time it takes to get from point A to point B. Also, you are not restricted to moving in chunks as many older RPGs require, thus you can move diagonally, which makes the task of navigation much less painful.
The menu system is very clean, with highly descriptive icons (will anyone ever develop the same level of skill at ideogram as the Japanese?) and with item descriptions any time you point at anything that isn't equipped. Menus used in combat reopen with the same item selected as the last time they were open, greatly simplifying combat, as most of the time when you are fighting something, strategy dictates repetition. This addition is my favorite feature of the menu system.
Chrono Trigger is a 32Mbit (4 MB) HiROM cart for the SNES. It features 8KB of battery-backed SRAM for its three savegames.
In general I have found Chrono Trigger to be one of the most enjoyable RPGs I have ever played, and in my opinion it is the best RPG for the SNES, bar none. Every aspect of the game is excellent and it's not even particularly difficult to figure out what you're supposed to do and where you're supposed to go, at least most of the time. Possibly the only Video RPGs I've played that had a more engrossing story were Final Fantasy VII and Xenogears - but the latter of those tapers off badly in the second half of the game and besides - consider who made those games...
If you want a great RPG for the Super NES, there is no example more polished. If you like the Final Fantasy series, you cannot fail to enjoy Chrono Trigger.