There’s always a handful of games that create a dauntingly high level of standards for other games to strive for; Chrono Trigger is globally undisputed as being one of them for the 16-bit era.
Near the end of the console’s life cycle, Square (now Square-Enix) decided to match together an all-star cast of creators to craft a new RPG game that stood out from the likes of other well established game series’ such as Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest. Those games specifically; because the creators Hironobu Sakaguchi and Yuji Horii (respectively) created those very franchises. The plot was mostly written by Masato Kato while the bulk of the audio was created by Yasunori Mitsuda; though he was forced to have the (now legendary) Nobuo Uematsu finish the game’s composition due to severe illness. If the art style looks familliar, it’s because it was crated by famed artist Akira Toriyama; who had created the artwork for Dragon Quest, but is better known as the creator of Dragonball Z.
The basic plot synopsis follows a silent protagonist boy, Crono, and his allies through various points in time in order to stop a world-ending event. The allies are gathered from different ages are Merle, Lucca, Robo, Frog, Ayla, and Magus. Each have their own story you learn about through the game and add their own personality to conversations when they’re in your party. Much of this story is a mix of drama and comedy, often having the theme of perseverance through injustices, pain, and loss in order to find hope.
There’s a large variety of monsters and interesting bosses for each age and locale all with their own set of stories that often interlink with others. You’ll start at the ‘present’ age of 1000 AD, but you’ll eventually travel from prehistoric, ice age, middle ages, present, doomsday, the future, and finally the end of time. Each age has its own overworld map with varying similarities depending on their age gap; a detail I found to be amazingly well thought out. The one constant is the Sun’s keep, a cave that focuses sunlight which comes into play for an optional endgame quest. Naturally, you are limited in where you can travel to until main quests are unlocked, giving you time portals to move through. Eventually you will get the Epoch, a machine that can bring you to any point in time or map location.
One thing this game does well is doing away with random encounters; the ones that take you to a separate instance without warning every few steps (a plague on most older RPG games). The battles are done right on the same location you’re walking and most times gives you the option to just walk around the enemy if you don’t wish to fight. Not the first of it’s kind to do so, but it does it well using an active battle system. This also provides contextual opportunities such as getting the jump on sleeping enemies or setting off traps. You work with parties of 3, most times allowing you to choose your members. You can do basic physical attacks or tech attacks that have various affects. Each character has their own move-sets they can learn from gathering Tech points (different from XP).
Once you learn magic, you can tech them to Chrono, Frog, Merl, Robo, and Lucca at the end of time. (Ayla cannot learn magic and Magus already mastered it) Furthermore, you can learn dual and triple techs that combine character actions for more powerful attacks. The characters must have compatible techs learned along with the correct amount of mp needed. ( A point to note is that Magus cannot learn any triple tech with Crono, and requires special stones to work with the other characters)
Along with base stats during leveling, you can enhance your characters with equipment, allowing you to use weapons, helmets, armor, and an accessory. If you know where to look, sometimes you can find a much more powerful weapon in dungeons than what the more recent store offers a lot of time; or just find a free equivalent in a dungeon. Optionally, you can do an insane amount of early game grinding to buy stuff from an infamous Medina village store with their absurd markups. One interesting use of the time mechanics late game is being able to open sealed boxes. If you open the box in an earlier age but not look at the item; you can come back to it at a later time period and get a highly upgraded version of that item (IE: an armor piece that is 100% fire resistant rather than only 50).
Some enemies had very specific ways to be defeated, such as slimes that could only really be damaged by magic. Some monsters though, had alternate ways to be killed. In one area, you can simulations fight snakes and frogs. If you hit the frogs they would automatically counterattack and damage you; however, if you hit the snakes they would insta-kill a nearby frog to replenish their HP. This goes well beyond the very much cut-and-paste AI most games of the time.
Every weapon for every character is individually represented. When they do basic attacks you can see the different colors of their blade depending what they have equipped; some of them having a little flair with them. There are not many 16-bit games that did this; and it usually wouldn’t be until the xbox/ps2 era that it would become more commonplace. When you land a critical attack, your character will do an additional animation of attack, rather then just displaying a bigger number.
Chrono Trigger is one of the best looking SNES games. Characters have a massive sprite set to allow more expressions, the locations are very dense with scenery, and the art design is just beautiful. There is use of just about every SNES visual mode at some point or another which really stood out. Many enemies had visual cues as well, usually Chrono Trigger was enhanced further with inclusion of animated cutscenes in the PS1 game bundle Final Fantasy Chronicles; then was fixed up again for its Nintendo DS release with bonus content. (Does anyone else think that one of Lavos’ forms looks like the inspiration for Cell’s basic form in DBZ?)
Regarding the music, it’s needless to say that the combined works of the games masterful composers is just beyond amazing. Nearly every track fit the mood perfectly; many of which are worth adding to your personal playlists. The games opening music (if you leave it at the title screen a moment) does well to establish the game’s awesomeness. Frog’s theme and Schala’s theme, and Zeal’s theme are incredible as well.
For an NES game, it’s very surprisingly open ended with different endings depending on choices you made throughout the game, even depending on what age you decide to face the final confrontation at. You can then continue the game from the start in new game plus mode, where you keep inventory (excluding cash along with story-based items) and the enemies are stronger to compensate. This adds a lot of replay value for the game, making you want to come back for more.