Chrono Trigger – Gaming’s Indiana Jones

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There’s an interesting debate in this Neogaf thread about whether Chrono Trigger still stands up today as one of the best JRPGs ever made. For me, Chrono Trigger is gaming’s equivalent of Raiders of the Lost Ark: each had two of the brightest hotshots in the business at the time coming together in once-in-a-lifetime collaboration, with brilliant pulse-quickening music and tight, fat-free narrative structures beautifully balancing adventure and intrigue. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and George Lucas’s Star Wars films were, needless to say, monster hits; Hironobu Sakaguchi was the father of Final Fantasy, while Yuji Horii created Dragon Quest, Japan’s favourite game. These weren’t just a pair of talented people working together, but the pioneers of an entire sub-industry (Spielberg and Lucas with the summer blockbuster; Sakaguchi and Horii the JRPG) as well as the most successful and exciting artists of their generation. They weren’t contented veterans of the industry, nor were they highly regarded yet unproven independents, but rather top-of-the-tree talents already with even greater upside. Yet Raiders and Chrono Trigger show no traces of ego clashes or vanity. On the contrary, any excess has been so studiously trimmed that no imitators (including their own sequels) have been able to match their disciplined storytelling and unobtrusive sense of excitement since. In this retrospective in Empire magazine, Spielberg talks about deliberately setting out with financial and schedule limitations so as to prove himself as a director, and the $20m budget Raiders had was low for then (and unheard of now). The result is a lean welterweight of a movie that wastes no shots, and tallies for no superfluities. Similarly, Chrono Trigger is a rare JRPG that requires no grinding, and can be completed in less than 20 hours. Compared to subsequent games in the genre, with decadent cut-scenes and bloated play time, it’s a marvel of economy. What’s really remarkable is the way Chrono Trigger and Raiders exhibited the same sense of iconic immediacy when they were released. With the latter, from the very first viewing, everything from the design of the main character to the catchiest of the main themes from John Williams tricked us into believing that we were watching the latest in a long lineage of old-fashioned action adventure movies, and lulled us into taking for granted a rare piece of cinema. Truth is, however, that while Indiana Jones’s influences are numerous and well-documented, he is an original IP, and the matinee idols and hero academics who Spielberg and Lucas based the character on had arguably not been successfully captured on cinema for at least 40 years. Raiders felt very familiar, but was in fact a wholly new creation with deceptively few successful antecedents. Chrono Trigger is much the same: the beloved soundtrack from Yasunori Mitsuda and character design from Dragon Ball artist Akira Toriyama lend the game and its environment an air of ready familiarity, but there’s nothing traditional about its gameplay or scenarios. Fast moving, at times startlingly progressive in design and structure, Chrono Trigger put the control of the characters in players’ hands very quickly, used cut scenes sparingly and deftly weaved its time-travel narrative with the right mixture of fun and maturity. It not only avoided random encounters that would plague later Japanese games of the genre, but also did not even transition into immersion-breaking separate battle screens; it possessed a transparent experience system and generous leveling up which removed the burden of senseless grinding from players, yet managed to present challenge through its pacey and rewarding battle system; and as the game progressed and the ability to time travel at will was added, its world opened up not just laterally but also vertically, making this particular JRPG an atypically non-linear experience. Playing it today, you are surprised by Chrono Trigger’s refusal to linger at any one scene or mechanism, at its abstinence from extravagance, at its willingness to try new things and the efficiency with which it delivered them. None of the above features were genre tropes in Japan at the time, and curiously the country’s developers rarely revisited the great ideas successfully realized in Chrono Trigger since. Playing it many years ago, it felt warm and familiar, like an old toy or a classic book; today, approaching the game is a refreshing experience, owing to its forward-thinking design choices, full of concepts that make the JRPG open, accessible and full of momentum, the very things that Japanese role playing games are not and haven’t been for too long.

No film has managed to rebottle the lightning that was Raiders of the Lost Ark, despite numerous attempts like Romancing the Stone, Sahara, The Mummy, and Van Helsing. Spielberg and Lucas made it look easy, and their account of the making of the film sounds a lot of fun, but as Lucas recounts in the Empire retrospective, at the end of the day, one of the greatest directors in cinema history with a point to prove was working with the creator of the most successful world in movie fiction to craft a film almost monomaniacally focused on giving the audience a bloody good time. It has proved to be an elusive formula, but then it would be, because Raiders is nothing more or less than the best minds in the business coming together to make something worthy of their creativity. Similarly, Sakaguchi and Horii were temporarily freed from the burdens of their day jobs and created a game that looked similar to Dragon Quest but was worlds apart in design and mechanics, a game so far ahead of its time that, as this Eurogamer review implies, it represents the lost future of the JRPG. Playing it today, it’s not a question of whether it still holds up. Watching Raiders now is just as enjoyable an experience, but more than that, it’s a reminder of a movie magic since lost. Chrono Trigger is the same: it doesn’t have detailed animation or elaborate summons or battle systems that you can write dissertations on, but what it tries to do and succeeds in delivering is a streamlined wonder of forward-thinking game design that today’s bloated Japanese RPGs have either completely neglected or not come close to replicating. Chrono Trigger and Raiders are like the 1992 USA Basketball in Barcelona, in that they have the sheen of a dream team that will never re-form. Above all else, to them is attached the allure of the achievement that will never be repeated again, and no amount of time will diminish that.

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