After all my gushing about Mega Man Legends last week I decided to fire up the game and revisit some of its better moments. This was when I made a shocking discovery! That shiny new PlayStation 3 backward-compatibility update? It has issues. I could deal with the crashing FMV in Vagrant Story, because that wasn’t really part of the game. But the fact that audio streams in MML don’t sync up with the in-game cinematics? This aggression will not stand, man.
Half the charm of Legends was that it actually had in-game cinematics rendered with the same models as the gameplay, complete with animated facial expressions, back in a period where such things were frankly unheard of. Capcom USA even found good voice actors and made sure to time the sound properly to the lip-flaps, such as they were. It was a tiny marvel in its day, and something is rather lost when all of that goes away. Nice work, Sony.
So since I couldn’t spend time with Mega Man Trigger, I figured I’d do the next best thing and get reacquainted with gaming’s other great trigger, the Chrono one. Actually, I’m lying. The name thing is just a coincidence. But wow, Chrono Trigger. What a freaking great game, even after all this time.
Revisiting Trigger 1: The Queen Is Missing!
Square did something truly exceptional in Chrono Trigger, something I wish they’d made an effort to repeat in their future games: they created a streamlined and extremely accessible role-playing game that nevertheless offered a great deal of openness, freedom, content and variety. Generally speaking, RPGs either become bogged down in detailed, arcane systems (FFXII gets a free pass in my heart, but it was guilty of this), or else they strip away everything and basically turn the entire experience into a rote march from one plot point to the next (see: every Shadow Hearts). Chrono Trigger struck a perfect balance from the very first moments of the game.
The game is broken into chapters of sorts and begins with The Millennial Fair — a celebration of the establishment of the Kingdom of Guardia, 1,000 years prior.
Truth be told, I used to hate the Millennial Fair; it kept me from jumping right into the meat of the game. That is, running around fighting things. In hindsight, I appreciate what it accomplished much more. It is, in essence, a tutorial — but a wonderfully subtle one. Rather than taking time to tell you “Here is how you play the game (hint: choose “fight” a lot),” the Millennial Fair is seamlessly integrated into the story. You can skip almost all of it and head straight to the action, or you can explore and deepen your experience.
Talking to people and participating in events at the festival gives you a safe hands-on battle experience, establishes the backstory of the game, gives you a chance to perform actions that will affect the trial sequence a few hours down the road, and even lets you buff up your character. It’s possible, should you be so determined, to net Crono some gear that will last him quite a ways into the game. You can do this by earning silver points to exchange for cash within the fairgrounds, or you can break out of the story path to wander around the countryside, fighting monsters in the north forest and venturing south to Porre to buy better armor. From the beginning, the player sets the pace, the tone and the difficulty of the game. But it’s all very quietly woven into the fabric of the game.
Every RPG needs to do this sort of thing.
Anyway, once you start exploring the fair you meet Marle, a burbly blonde who turns out to be vastly more trouble than she’s worth. Don’t fall for her wiles, Crono! Lucca may look like Velma from an Akira Toriyama remake of Scooby Doo, but she’s a genius and wears a pith helmet! That’s way more awesome than some airhead who gets her fashion sense from the girl in Secret of Mana.
So yeah, Marle screws up one of Lucca’s inventions and falls into a hole in space; Crono bravely follows along and ends up 400 years in the past where he eventually comes to realize (presumably, anyway, since he never actually speaks, so maybe he’s actually a complete idiot randomly bumbling from fight to fight) that letting Marle fall into the past was a really dumb idea since she looks exactly like her ancestor, Queen Leene of Guardia. Improbable, you say? Not really. Royal bloodlines don’t usually enjoy a lot of fresh DNA. Her appearance in AD 600 means that a kingdom-wide search for the recently-abducted queen is canceled since, hey, look, we found Leene. She’s looking younger than ever, and demanding “eye scream.” Ah, hilarity! Until a temporal paradox rips Marle apart from the inside out, anyway.
This begins the adventure in earnest, since you actually to go and fight monsters, ultimately leading up to the first boss fight. The way is made easier thanks to Lucca’s timely arrival and the even timelier arrival of a giant mutant frog-guy named, uh, Frog. He’s a masterful swordsman with a dark secret and, sorry to say it Internet, the most annoyingly strident and bombastic theme music ever. With Frog’s appearance, the game’s combat system really falls into place, but I think I’ll will write about that next time, when the game really picks up steam.
Even in the slow-ish opening parts, though, replaying Chrono Trigger instantly reminds me just how great this game was, and how frustrating it is that so few developers have drawn upon its best elements — accessibility, pacing, gameplay. There’s a reason I still cling loyally to the J-RPG genre despite its utter stagnation and creative bankruptcy, and that reason is simple: Because when they do it right, they come up with games like Chrono Trigger, games visceral enough to reach across genre boundaries and appeal to everyone.
Everyone, I said. If you don’t love this game, you are not worth counting. Harsh but true!
Next time: Beyond the Ruins