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Written by  :  J. P. Gray (120)
Written on  :  Nov 25, 2009
Platform  :  SNES
Rating  :  5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars

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Derivative! Simplistic! Two traits that help make this a supreme classic for all time.

The Good

Innovation and interactivity have long been what I find most valuable in games, and Chrono Trigger is almost completely deficient in both. Why put this in the "good" section?

Because narrative-driven RPGs rely almost solely on passive content. Attempts to bloat up the interactivity or innovate on the tried-and-true "plucky heroes against the foozle" formula are not necessarily good or bad on their merits, but rather live or die by how they fit with the old standby of the genre--passive content. What I mean by "passive content" is the scripted plot and its supporting graphics, music, and atmosphere--stuff I like to rail against as having usurped resources from gaming's most valuable and unique quality, interaction. Taking time to think about what games I actually -enjoy- the most, however, I find that in certain genres interactivity is the last thing I care about, and an inappropriate focus in that direction can actually spoil the game.

How does it happen? The crucial factor here in narrative-based games is that the player's motivation is not at one with the avatar's. The avatar might care about a random girl's slow vaporization via temporal dissonance, but the player doesn't, not to anywhere near the same degree. The player is invested in advancing the plot, and experiencing the passive content. This is why the player will reload to play out unexplored branches of a scripted plot, to try all the significant available paths, without much regard for the avatar's established motivations. Who cares about my supposed squeamish "goodness" when there's more delicious content to experience?

Which brings us to Chrono Trigger's interactivity--there's not much, and that's fine. You don't have to schmooze with some King Guardia simulacrum for hours, carefully massaging his "personality" stat-bundle while mowing mindlessly through a vast plain of mostly barren dialogue menus--you get all the content written for His Guardia-ness just by waltzing up and hitting a button. This is less interactive than an exhaustively subtle dialogue system complete with procedural NPC personality stat matrices, sure, but let's be honest--for some genres, it's better not to have all that crap.

Why? Because NPCs have no agency in a narrative RPG. They have no life outside the player. They simply stand around and wait for you to throw logic switches, then provide you with the requisite quest/bauble/info to throw more logic switches. They're boolean vending machines for the game script. They're never going to break free, form goals, and alter the gameworld in any significant way. They have no agency or life in the world outside of the player, and thus asking the player to relate to them emotionally via subtle mechanics is ridiculous. They are soulless robots in terms of mechanics--to ask the player to navigate a comprehensive conversation system with them would be akin to having blowup dolls require thoughtful gifts, stimulating nights out and long foot rubs from their sad misfit owners. Some reasonable facsimile of life is necessary to justify any game's demand for a player to relate to its NPCs on a more human level. Complex mechanics should not be a shameful disguise for playing tea-party with empty mannequins.

So why not give them more agency, more life? Because that kills any well-structured RPG narrative dead. The player need only waltz into the world and kill vermin for six hours before killing the foozle--if NPCs are equal agents to the player, then -anyone- could have killed such a pushover foozle at any time. Why not allow the player more freedom then? Because the amount of plot-branches would quickly become staggering, precluding the highest levels of quality in the passive content, or making all paths drably alike. If Crono could decide "nuts to Frog; screw that guy, I'm not taking him along," then all the work on the 600AD Magus sequence goes up in smoke, all Frog's passive content characterization is for naught, and alternate paths must be scripted and fleshed out with passive content to an agreeable standard. Now imagine this necessity repeated for every major plot point in the game--if there are only ten major yes/no decisions, that's 1024 discrete paths. You could lower the standard of content, make it more abstract and modular, merge the paths into only a few fleshed-out endpoints, etc.--but then many of Chrono Trigger's NPCs and much of its drama would be as faceless as some of their counterparts in Wasteland, and something valuable, for me at least, would be lost.

As great as Wasteland is, if the passive content is good enough to justify a heavily scripted narrative I don't mind at -all- if I'm led by the nose through an exclusively linear plot. If the signpost NPCs are charming, well-written and relatable even in the most non-interactive sense, then I don't care if I can't micromanage the inflection of my greeting. I don't care if the conversation always goes the way the script demands. I don't care if my avatar is mute! If the content's good enough, exhaustive interactivity isn't the be-all end-all.

Chrono Trigger's content is definitely up to that standard. This is the absolute pinnacle of 16-bit art--sprites are well-designed via Akira Toriyama, environments are lush and evocative, the music is jaw-droppingly gorgeous, and the time-travel plot, complete with varied and lovable characters, reaches mind-boggling levels of fun and JRPG charm. The battle system is remarkably versatile and deeply strategic in design, even though (as usual for JRPGs) its full subtleties are never required of the player by the actual encounters. All these isolated components are derivative, but who cares? If you can do derivative to the highest standard, then count me in. I won't praise you as innovative, but I -will- praise you as good!

The game's few innovations (and there are some) serve mainly to streamline delivery of that wonderful content. Gone are many of the random dungeon fights--a surprising number of monster encounters are realistically visible and may be avoided, drawing down the tedium of sidling up to those logic switches, keeping the focus on the content. Side quests are kept to a bare minimum prior to having an easy means of locomotion, and the main motivation for completing those that exist after the Black Omen rises is--you guessed it--a better ending! The large number of endings and constant accessibility of the final battle go hand in hand in emphasizing the value of passive content--who wouldn't want to see Nobuo Uematsu in sprite form? :-P Even the "New Game +" option's primary value is in providing the player an easy way to march merrily down those almost wholly non-interactive alternate paths, and I would wager most people who enjoy this game have done exactly that. I have!

This game was designed and fleshed out with love and awe-inspiring talent. To experience it is worthwhile even if you're dead-set against kiddy, derivative, linear RPGs. You can't stab Frog to death and take his stuff, sure, but he's a lot more memorable than Mayor Pedros, and that may well encapsulate the trade-off heavily narrative-based games are forced to make.

The Bad

There's very little I didn't like. A few sequences are tedious, such as the aftermath of the "soup-eating" contest where you must follow little footprints through a jungle of slow, unavoidable monster encounters. The Reptite palace is similarly slow in pacing, with (again) too many unavoidable encounters, complete with some backtracking. Catching the rat and the bike race in the future are reminiscent of action sequences in Sierra adventures--not exactly thrilling and incredibly frustrating if you can't hack them. The bike race is pretty, though!

The Bottom Line

Chrono Trigger epitomizes the best qualities of the 16-bit era JRPG. Sometimes, a lack of interactivity and a "childish" theme are exactly what allows for passive content of the highest quality. When the non-interactive art is at such a high level, even the most utterly linear gameplay feels somehow justified.