Revisiting Trigger, part two

I’d like to extend a personal thank-you to everyone who freaked out and overreacted to my Busou Shinki post. It was nice of you to glance and the images and assume the worst rather than actually reading the text! I know reading isn’t technically a prerequisite for being online, but it does help from time to time. ANYWAY. On with a different form of dorkery altogether.

We’re Back!

When last we left this blog, Crono had just saved the princess and a queen, too — the princess’ ancestor from 16 generations prior. Count all the generations of princess-babies saved in between as one homogenous mass and you have quite the royal hat trick. The rescue of Marle and her great (etc.) grandmother pits Crono, Lucca and Frog against their first real challenge, a battle with a monster named Yakra. He’s… a yak. With spine-launchers.

It’s here where the game’s combat system really begins to show its chutzpah. Chrono Trigger has a completely inspired battle system, a fine close to the Super NES’s run of great role-playing games; in fact, the in-game nomenclature refers to it as “Active-Time Battle 2.0,” a very clear indication that it was intended as the evolution of Final Fantasy’s 16-bit battle system. Which FF then ignored. Frankly, every PlayStation-era FF — every 32-bit RPG until, say, Paper Mario, really — was a step behind what happened here. At least. Maybe three or four steps, depending on the game.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that only the Suikoden series came close to realizing CT’s exquisite mix of speed, immediacy and party interaction. The first two Suikodens featured combat that was quick and painless, with practically no load times to speak of — about the only PS era RPG to pull that off, regrettably. Chrono Trigger did it, though, and did it beautifully. Every encounter took place on the same screen as exploration, with the party fighting amidst the normal environments against monsters that could usually be seen in advance (and often avoided). Since the combat used the same visual elements as exploration, there was no load time to worry about, to transitions to deal with. The party simply stepped into position, drew their weapons, and the battle commenced.

That transparency of design was abandoned by subsequent RPGs by developers drunk on the visual potential of 3D graphics. The flow and feel of gameplay become secondary considerations in favor of how totally rad it would be to have battle sequences with the highest possible polygon count and incredible visual effects at every turn. Never mind that Trigger managed to be one of the best-looking 16-bit games ever made; once FFVII sold a million in America, everyone decided to march in lock-step to its design, more’s the pity.

And then there’s the combo system. Like I’ve said, Trigger’s battle system is streamlined, each character learning little more than half a dozen spells and skills apiece at predetermined skill levels. Even so, it never feels dumbed down, because your choice of party members determines your skill pool, which can vary dramatically from team to team. Once two characters fight together, they learn combo techniques which allow them to use their innate skills simultaneously: Crono combines his Cyclone sword technique with Lucca’s Flame Toss to create Fire Whirl, for instance, an innately physical attack that offers Cyclone’s area effect but with an added fire-elemental attribute to double its power — potentially more, against enemies weak to fire. Since all six characters are capable of comboing with one another, each party lineup has its own unique arsenal of skills, which makes the fact that each character individually knows only a few techniques much easier to swallow.

It’s such a simple but effective design; it adds both variety and strategy to an otherwise simplistic combat system, especially once you start building more skills. In the Yakra battle, for instance, Frog is the team’s only innate healer, but he also possesses X-Strike, an extremely powerful combination sword technique with Crono. So do you spend his turns linking up with Crono to take down Yakra in a hurry (with Lucca tossing healing potions as quickly — and expensively — as possible), or do you play conservatively and use his healing skill to counteract Yakra’s powerful physical attacks? And once triple combos become available, combat decisions become even more of a balance. Stupidly, no other RPG has ever done this particularly well. Not even Chrono Cross.

The Trial

So, having mastered the battle system, Crono and company return to AD 1000 to find themselves immediately seized as terrorists. Seems they captured the princess and absconded with her to parts unknown. I told you this chick would be trouble, Crono. Shoulda just hooked up with Lucca and called it a day.

This being AD 1000 rather than 2007, alleged terrorist Crono is actually given a speedy, public and fair trial rather than held extraterritorially for years and waterboarded. The trial is the first real “so cool” moment of the game, reminiscent of FFVI’s opera but infinitely better — the outcome of the trial is only slightly determined by how you respond here. The substance of the case for or against Crono is actually based on his behavior during the Millennial Fair. Did you bother to help the little girl find her cat? Did you eat the old man’s lunch? Were you kind to Marle? Seemingly innocuous actions from several hours ago come into play here, complete with flashbacks and a one-by-one jury tally. The music even resembles “The Trial” from Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

Not that the outcome actually matters; the world of AD 1000 isn’t so far removed from our own, as even an innocent Crono is tossed into the deepest level of the castle dungeon by a shady poltician working outside the law. If only they’d thought to remove his equipment. Especially since I had him kitted out with the best available gear, way outclassing the guards. A bit of stealth action and one massive boss fight later and Crono (now with a seditious Lucca in tow) busts free and fights his way out of the castle, stupidly taking the princess with him. Well, okay, she tags along of her own volition, but still.

Beyond the Ruins

Pursued into a dead end, the crew leaps blindly into a conveniently-located time gate, just like the one that started the whole mess at the Millennial Fair, and land in a cold, bleak world filled with the ruins of what appears to be technology. The previously rapid pace of the game slows down a bit at this point; where the party has been whisked from event to event without a moment’s respite, their arrival in this new area is marked by a change in the tone. Instead of being force-fed information about the new situation, it instead becomes a bit of a mystery. Where have they arrived, and why is everything so desolate? The adventure ceases to be reactive and becomes more exploratory as Crono et al. strive to unravel the truth of their latest destination.

The truth turns out to be that they’ve leapt forward nearly 2000 years to a world devastated by a combination of very angry robots and a monster called Lavos, who annihilated the utopian earth in 1999. Destruction rains from the heavens! on a control console as the three adventurers watch in horror; the world is brought to a grim end, and humanity is left to huddle in filthy ruins, struggling to survive as the end draws near.

Interestingly, the video recording of the Day of Lavos is pretty much the only time in the entire game in which you’re told the story rather than shown. And as it happens, you end up seeing the Day of Lavos by the end of the story anyway. Much as I love Chrono Cross, it would have been such a better game if it had bothered to take its cue from this aspect of its predecessor.

The End of Time

The one good thing to come from this trip to the future — besides Marle freaking out at the annihilation of mankind and resolving to save the world (yeah, fine, so she’s not entirely useless) — is the addition of a new party member, Robo. (He’s a robot, guys. I know, right?) Robo is helpful because he’s the second permanent party member to possess a healing skill. Oh, and his presence makes a mess of the time warp thing and the whole party ends up in a strange limbo called The End of Time.

The reasoning behind this is pretty much just a bunch of arbitrary narrative to justify keeping your party limited to three people, but whatever. The End of Time is a handy way to travel through time. With both the incentive and the means to adventure within the player’s grasp, The End of Time is where the introduction ends and the substance of the quest begins.

Next time: The Hero Appears | Thanks again to VGM for the images!

30 thoughts on “Revisiting Trigger, part two

  1. Hey, you like Chrono Cross too. It’s like, you read my mind, man.

    To date, I stil wish you had a chance to walk through the pre-Lavos domes. Man, I love Chrono Trigger.

  2. These Chrono writeups have been fantastic. Excellent reading material.

    And seeing the domes before they were destroyed by Lavos? JuanFrugal, you have burdened my heart with yet another dream that will never be fulfilled. Curse you!

  3. You know, if instead of trying to break out of jail, you just sit there bemoaning your fate, time will pass and Lucca will appear at the last minute before the execution to bust you out. Pretty interesting alternative that I didn’t know about for a long time.

  4. I might go so far as to say that Chrono Trigger’s one of the best-looking games of any generation, just by virtue of how well its graphics are executed. Sure, they’re 16-bit, but with the exception of the swooshy-tunnel-time-travel effect, they still don’t look too dated. So… outdated yes, dated no? Compare that to FFVII, which is almost painfully ugly when you look at it now.

  5. “Chrono Trigger has a completely inspired battle system.” I agree but there’s something you didn’t mention. I think my favorite minor inspiration in Chrono Trigger’s battle system is the critical hits.

    In most other RPG games of the time when you got a critical hit the screen just flashed and you did more damage. Big deal… But in Chrono Trigger when you got a critical hit the screen flashed, you did more damage AND the attacking character’s attack animation was different. Chrono, Frog and Magus would perform a two-hit combo attack (with their regular attack animation as the first hit of the combo). Robo and Ayla would perform radically different attacks – Robo would use his downward punch critical (or as I liked to call it the crunch punch) instead of his regular straight punch and Ayla would use her jumping forward-flipping critial instead of her regular run up and scratch attack.

    I guess Marle and Lucca were the only cop-outs when it came to critical hits – instead of one projectile they fired two. But I think Chrono Trigger redeems that cop-out by having Marle and Lucca use a different attack whenever an enemy is too close – Marle busting chops with the butt of her crossbow and Lucca magitifically changing her gun into a croquet mallet and whacking the enemy upside the head.

    I feel it’s little touches like that which distinguish Crono Trigger from and elevate it above most other RPGs. In addition to all of the other major differences.

    “And once triple combos become available, combat decisions become even more of a balance.” Especially if you got one or more of the rocks which enable hidden/secret triple techs but take up the precious accessory slot.

    “Stupidly, no other RPG has ever done this particularly well. Not even Chrono Cross.” Unfortunately. But I guess that’s what happens when you have 44 different characters and most of them are superfluous.

  6. Johnny- Well, that’s the difference of a last generation title for the SNES vs a first generation for the PS1. Which isn’t saying much, 3D on PS1 was still kind of ugly and primitive.

    On CT – The world of the future is easily my favorite “World of Ruin” in a game. While out in the wild, the player is beset by cold, howling winds, and in the ruined interiors, the remaining survivors can’t even muster enough energy to recover their dwindling food supplies. It’s truly one of the most emotionally overwhelming settings in the game.

    The best part, though, is that while you’re running around the rest of time making things better for everyone else, the future only seems to get worse. There’s just something eerie about seeing the spawn of Lavos growing on a mountain, preparing to blast off to consume worlds unknown.

  7. The comparisons you make between CT and Suikoden are interesting if only because Square later returned the favor in CC with its massive cast of doom. (Except Square’s mimicry was nowhere near as quality as Konami’s)

  8. What about the totally awesome racing game? I still haven’t figured out what the hell Johnny was…

  9. I totally hate the hell out of that racing game. It was oh so satisfying to destroy Johnny in Chrono Cross.

  10. Oh yes, the Trial.
    When I first played through this back in the day I was shocked to see that they remembered all those little details when you started and could use them against you, or in your favor. What was even cooler was that on another playthrough I saw that you could have a different verdict.
    I thought that was a very cool moment and glad you commented on that.

  11. Damn it! These blog entries are making me want to play Chrono Trigger again. I’ve played the early parts of this game five times already. Then, for one reason or another, ended up losing or deleting my save data. Argh, it’s becoming very difficult to resist.

  12. Why haven’t any other RPGs copied CT’s battle system? You’ve boiled down what made it great: it is very simple without being restrictive. Why haven’t any other RPGs used Combo Attacks? WHY?!

    As for the four people screwing up the time-warp thing, at least this game tried to justify party limits. Party limits never make any sense in RPGs. “If we travel in a group of more than three people we’ll get arrested.” WHAT? Even in this deserted wasteland?

    My favorite part of Chrono Trigger though is the same as my favorite part of Final Fantasy VI. The story is mostly linear until about halfway through when Something Horrible happens, shaking everything up, and then the game is suddenly non-linear. I loved the part on Dalton’s ship when you first get to have a party without Crono, and the variety of things that could happen depending on what party you had. Heck, the huge variety of things that would be different in many parts of the game depending on which party you had.

  13. Another great thing CT has is the fact that you can talk to someone and just walk away if if you don’t want to keep listening.
    I wonder why hasn’t every other RPG copied that.

  14. Wait, Johnny was in Chrono Cross? When? I really don’t remember him.

    And the Trial was one of the most memorable moments in all of gaming for me. I was really left with a feeling of indignation at how I’d been completely set up.

  15. A robot similar to Johnny was a boss in the highway, just entering the Dead Sea. Black elemental, released smoked onto your party and inflicted darkness. Ring any bells?

  16. I want to commend you for pointing out many of the great touches in CT that inexplicably were not copied by following games. Even it’s own sequel.

    Although I know your posts are working sequentially through the game I’d also mention the New Game +. It is an option that should be mandatory in every RPG since. I’m not even saying that a game needs to make use of mulitple endings and a different world like CT and CC do, but that, although I realize not many play through their RPGs multiple times, I would certainly revisit a number of great RPGs but I don’t want to deal with the hassle of relearning skills and leveling up again. There are many moments and stories I’d like to relive, but I don’t want to spend time killing monsters outside a cave to do so when I’ve already done that before.

  17. I guess it’s a good thing I stayed away from RPGs after FFVII. I naturally assumed that they would eventually grab the New Game + feature, and it baffles me to hear that they didn’t.

  18. It’s been ages, but IIRC, Breath of Fire 3 was a PS1 RPG that had a pretty similar aesthetic to Chrono Trigger, including battles occurring on the same screen as exploration.

    Not to say it was anywhere near as GOOD as CT or the first two Suikodens.

    CT had its flaws — massive plotholes near the end, a cast of characters composed almost entirely of cliches –, but it really is a great damn game. And the battle system, like you say, is still one of the crown jewels in the history of Japanese RPG’s, and Lord only knows why nobody’s tried anything like it since.

    (Cross’s battle system was interesting in that it’s the only game where I’ve ever used spells for anything besides boss fights and healing. But Trigger’s was loads better. But you can’t exactly get a decent Double/Triple Tech system going when you have a cast of 800 playable characters.)

  19. Breath of Fire V may be the game you are thinking of. Wonderful game that made use of New Game+ in an interesting way by having the story change based upon your rank. It also featured visible monsters / avoidable battles, and even built upon that system with things like bait / poisons that you could throw to manipulate monsters before they fought you and auto-wins for super easy fights.

    Unfortunately, it received almost no marketing support from Capcom and was a massive departure of the series from its more standard roots, so from what I understand, it mostly languished on shelves.

  20. No, he probably meant BoFIII. Couldn’t Ryu combine with other characters for his dragon forms, or was that a different game? In any case, every single BoF except Dragon Quarter stands out as one of the most prosaic and boring RPGs of its respective day.

  21. I sorta forgot about that part of BoF3 (combining with other characters to make hybrids). I remember in BoF1 there was a thief character (Karn) that could combine with other characters. And that the most powerful of Ryu’s dragon forms combined the entire party together. And in BoF2 you could combine the other characters with “elemental shamans” to upgrade their abilities or change their form. I don’t think there was anything like that in BoF4 though (but you could combo skills). And I never played Dragon Quarter so I don’t know what you can do in it.

    I actually rather liked the simple charm of Breath of Fire 1. Also I feel that each subsequent game in the series became more of a pain in the ass to play – especially the #&@!*ing fishing mini-game.

  22. Hmm, how can I sum up every RPG I played after Chrono Trigger? Ah, yes.

    “HP and MP restored!

    …But you’re still hungry.”

  23. Regarding combo attacks, you say that, “Stupidly, no other RPG has ever done this particularly well.” Play DDS or DDS2 and you’ll see that you are wrong.

  24. Ahhh, one of my favorite games of all time. And one of the best for SNES, which IMO includes much of the “X of Y” games — Illusion of Gaia, Secret of Mana, Legend of Zelda…

    What are y’all’s favorite character teams in CT? I think mine was always Chrono, Frog, and Magus. What a combo.

    I might go home and play the whole thing again…

  25. I had two favorite teams. One was Chrono/Marle/Ayla for great combo spells and melee, or Chrono/Marle/Lucca. The Antipode spells for that last combo were powerful. On the floating island chained to the ground saving one of the elders of time, I could cast the spell twice, hit him for 9999 each, and win. Very easy.

  26. cant seem to find the link for part 1… perhaps they should all be linked at the beginning or end of each part?

    excellent piece btw, i miss chrono trigger as much as i miss ff6

  27. Actually, Johnny appears as himself in the ruined dystopia of Chrono Cross’s Dead Sea. That same highway map with the Johnny-like boss? Take a good hard look at the bottom area of the map, underneath the collapsed section.

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