Chrono Trigger. Enough said.
The title alone ought to evoke a wave of nostalgic appreciation. Its mechanics and its story are simple and straightforward but solid and effective. Its cast is memorable and interesting, the score is one of the best of the era, and even today, few games offer as much replay value. So imagine my horror when my girlfriend, a Legend of Zelda veteran, Bioware loyalist, and my long-time player 2, dismissed the game with a resounding “meh.”
To me it begged the question: in a medium so obsessed with moving forward as fast as possible without looking back, is there a place for classics? Chrono Trigger has been recognized as a classic time and again, but has it really aged well? Is nostalgia alone keeping it, and games like it, afloat? One of the reasons that games are beginning to gain credibility as an art form is that it now has a tradition, and Chrono Trigger has fit nicely in the video game canon since it was released (and re-released). But often “classic” in this medium means dated1.
Mechanically, the game is sound. The combat is simple and tight and leaves little to be desired. Combat is initiated by contacting enemies and is easy to learn or avoid, depending on where the player’s preferences lie. It can be mercilessly difficult, and some players may be forced to grind their way through to succeed with some of the game’s difficult bosses (i.e. most of them), but it’s otherwise about as much as anyone could expect. But what has always made Chrono Trigger memorable is its story.
The game has always been praised for its story even though the player has virtually no control over how it concludes. There are—albeit often convincing—attempts to plant an illusion of control over how the story is played out, but the player is seated on a fairly straightforward railroad. Even the much touted (and even now unmatched) multiple endings don’t add much player control. Little of what the player does influences the ending, rather, the villain Lavos can be defeated at any point in the game, so the ending is based on where you get off the game’s one linear path rather than choosing one branch over another.
Similarly, Chrono Trigger doesn’t include the player in the process of telling the story. Ultimately there’s only one story, one way it’s told, and the player has no impact on it. The uniqueness of gaming comes from the dynamic between work and audience, and Chrono Trigger removes the player from the narrative. The story that the game alienates the player in order to tell isn’t even as rich as more recent games. For a game that’s always been celebrated for its story, it does commit some errors that are now rightly criticized.
Chrono Trigger is also responsible for creating many of the tropes that are now clichés. The cast is colourful, but none of them are especially deep and none of them have a very interesting arc. As a hero, Crono may not be the conquistador that Shepard is or the angsty emotional wreck that your standard post-Final Fantasy hero is but only because he’s a total nonentity. He saves the world lifetimes after it would affect him for no reason beyond the fact that he’s just a really great guy. The main character is only interested in the plot because he has nothing better to do.
Furthermore, the main antagonist, Lavos, is more plot device than villain. It is unnatural, impersonal, and only indirectly connected to the main characters. Lavos destroys indiscriminately, not out of malice, but as naturally as any great force of nature destroys. There’s nothing evil about it, and there’s no ethical qualms about destroying it. Even manipulating the course of history is justifiable. There’s a sidequest near the end of the game in which the heroes discuss the circumstances that initiated their quest and contemplate an invisible presence guiding them. Crono, et al. are even convinced that their world’s version of God is on their side.
Would anybody play that game if it were released now? Would anybody want to take on the mantle of unambiguous heroes taking up a clearly righteous cause? Games are undoubtedly more sophisticated now than they were in 1995. And only a glance at the embarrassing vestiges of the JRPG are evidence enough that fresh faced young adults with absurd hair are a relic from the past. The only thing giving Chrono Trigger a passing grade anymore is the fact that a lot of people played it when they were young.
But perhaps it’s just an evolution of aesthetics that works against Chrono Trigger. Maybe the story and plot are fine and it’s the fact that 16-bit graphics are too old to appreciate. Anyone that has seen a student production of Shakespeare can speak to how even the most doleful tragedies or whimsical comedies can be delivered with all the profundity of a glass of warm water. Games get old, and a few years can make a once loved classic nearly unplayable for those accustomed to lifelike textures and shadings.
Still, for all the areas where Chrono Trigger doesn’t live up to modern games and certainly not to the pedestal I’ve retroactively placed it on, I can’t help but look back on it fondly. Its characterization may be weak, its rigid plot may only be a flimsy justification for a simple set of mechanics, and Chrono Trigger may just be a nostalgia title. Its release occurred during the formative years of gaming and the formative years of the first generation that were raised with games. I won’t say that coincidence is all that makes Chrono Trigger a classic, but I will concede the possibility. But if Chrono Trigger and any other game from its era are just artifacts of nostalgia that couldn’t hold up if released today, then it’s hard to appreciate contemporary games if they too are similarly bound to become obsolete in only a few years. Without any “classics,” it’s hard to get excited about a future.
1Scimeca, Dennis. “The Challenge of Taking Old Games Seriously.”Joystick Division Aug 13 2011.
Further reading: Brady, Sean. “Aging and Aging Well: The Use of Historical Context in Video Games Criticism.” PopMatters. Sep 13 2011.