Chrono Trigger (DS)
Some people call it the Square Enix tax. It's the price that role-playing fans pay when the venerable Japanese game-maker re-releases its classics. And, man, do they crank them out: Already this year we've seen new versions of Final Fantasy IV and Dragon Quest IV for the Nintendo DS. Chrono Trigger completes the trifecta of old-school RPG gems for the popular handheld. Originally released in 1995 for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, this unconventional adventure sends players on an excursion through time and space in an effort to stop Armageddon from going down. Sure, RPG heroes are always out to prevent the end of the world. But Chrono Trigger is one of the few games that lets you visit the apocalypse and learn first-hand why it stinks.
That's the game's big gimmick. All the action in Chrono Trigger takes place on the same world map, with players leaping back and forth in time, experiencing the world at different points in history. Some quests call for the protagonist, a spiky-haired kid named Crono, to travel to ancient times and recover rare ores needed to forge a magical sword. One tasks the heroes with changing the tide of a battle to prevent a bridge from being demolished. So where other games of its ilk are trapped in the medieval milieu, Chrono Trigger is free to hop genres. Science fiction and fantasy blend here in a very satisfying way. By the of the tale, Crono has fought alongside a rough-and-tumble renegade princess, a killbot tired of eradicating humanity, and a reluctant hero trapped in a frog's body.
If you play one classic role-playing game this year it should be Chrono Trigger. Admittedly, the game's visuals are rudimentary and the fighting unspools one turn at a time -- a way to play that more and more gamers are finding tedious. So while gaming has moved on, making fights go down in real-time and blowing our minds with ultra-realistic visuals, Chrono Trigger is worth playing to see how some of the best developers in the business did the best they could with the little they had. The first thing those wary of role-playing games will notice is that Chrono Trigger doesn't have random battles. Except for the instances when baddies jump out of the foliage for an ambush, players can see enemies as they're approaching and attempt to sidestep them if they're quick enough. And those tedious turn-based fights? Chrono Trigger keeps them fresh by jumping into the action quickly. The game doesn't waste the player's time transitioning over to a separate battleground. Fights start and end quickly, and they're varied enough (calling for a hair more strategy than usual) that it's hard to sleepwalk through enemy-infested areas.
A handful of changes have been made in the transition to the Nintendo DS and they're all welcome. Menus and commands are all accessible via the touch-screen, but traditionalists can play the old-school way, manually selecting attacks and other actions with the directional pad. There are a handful of new dungeons and areas to freshen the experience for folks who have played the game before. And there's a new monster training arena at located at the end of time, where players can train monsters and fight them against friends or the computer to gain new items.
Focus on all these fiddly details and you miss the point of a game like Chrono Trigger. Sure, the game is old-fashioned. Even the newest role-playing offerings from Japan feel like they're trapped in the past. There's a reason why people like Hironobu Sakaguchi continue to make games with this look and feel. Nostalgia surely plays a part -- Akira Toriyama's character designs have hardly changed in the decade since Chrono Trigger dropped. The leads in Blue Dragon feel slightly less angular than Crono, Marle and Lucca, but they're close cousins nonetheless. But there's something else. I'd argue that the deliberate pacing of turn-based fights, the steady but predictable character growth and the familiar hero-saves-the-world plots have a certain value. These traits make a game like Chrono Trigger predictable, like comfort food. There's a kind of Zen to playing old-school RPGs -- the pace of the grind lulls the player into a sort of trance. And that's where a game like Chrono Trigger works its magic. Every so often the game snaps its fingers in front of your bleary eyes and says, "Check this out." And right before your eyes you see something truly original, surprising or worth a chuckle.
So maybe you don't like Japanese RPGs. That's cool. I'm not going to tell you how to hone your tastes. But I am going to point out that no film buff worth their salt would cop to never having seen a silent film by the the Lumi?re brothers or Charlie Chaplin. Chrono Trigger is no "Sunrise," but it's a killer example of what the role-playing game can achieve, especially when constrained by technology. Game designers like Sakaguchi are like poets dedicated to a formal approach. Thanks to new technologies they're able to write in free verse, but they learned their craft in a time when sestinas and sonnets were the only way to do things. This new opportunity to play Chrono Trigger offers players a trip in a time machine to an era when game designers wrote lovely stanzas in chunky pixels.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.