Many RPGs are good, but Chrono Trigger is the essence of a good RPG. It’s what you get if you trim all the fat from a typical RPG, and it’s as close to a flawless example of the genre as exists.
Developed by a team-up of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest developers long before Square and Enix would merge, Chrono Trigger really was a dream project. It doesn’t play particularly like either of those series, though it borrows elements from both. The way these elements are combined results in a fantastic game with no wasted plot or mechanics.
Combat in Chrono Trigger plays out similarly to the active time battle system of Final Fantasy, but a number of key innovations set it apart. First and foremost, all battles take place directly on the current area map, rather than on a separate battle screen. Many battles throughout the game can be avoided simply by avoiding the visible enemies on the map, a mechanic that was way ahead of its time in 1995. Further, positioning matters in combat, as many abilities have specific-shaped areas of effect. If Chrono Trigger has one tiny flaw, it’s that you can’t manually re-position your characters to take advantage of this, though that’s rarely an issue.
The party takes its cues from Dragon Quest, consisting of six core members (and one optional one) who each have eight abilities (techs). Each character is distinct, and their ability lists are non-formulaic, allowing for a wide variety of viable party combinations. Playing into this, every pair of characters can learn three techs that are combinations of one tech from each character, and often have dramatic effects. Further, there are triple techs available to every combination that includes the main character. In this way, the game keeps the ability lists simple but allows for a huge variety at the same time. The possibilities at play here are immense.
The storyline of Chrono Trigger starts off as small as RPG plots come, though the stakes soon become world-altering. Despite the epic scale of your quest, the plot never starts to meander, and every step of the way (save maybe one or two) serves a clear purpose in the story. There are a number of involved sidequests, all of which become available towards the end of the game. The structure is such that these sidequests are less something to do to kill time, and more a path of preparation for the final battle. You can, after all, fight that final battle practically whenever you want, from early in the game. (Though make no mistake, you will be crushed!)
Which brings me to another Chrono Trigger innovation, the New Game+. Truth be told, this mode is somewhat lacking compared to later iterations, since the game doesn’t get any more difficult when you play it at a higher level. Indeed, most of each New Game+ is trivial, though you can rush through those bits in a matter of a few hours. The main purpose of the New Game+ is to allow you to discover all of the dozen endings. Some of these are a bit disappointing, but several are hilarious or shed some interesting light on the plot. And even though the game lacks the challenges to justify it, New Game+ is also your path towards leveling your characters to godlike levels.
It’s not that Chrono Trigger is perfect by any means. The game could be improved in some ways. But at the same time, it really has no flaws. The graphics are great, the music ranges from good to incredible, the story is memorable and touching, and the combat is fantastic. And the game is about time travel. What more could you want? If you’re a JRPG fan but somehow missed Chrono Trigger, go play it right now. Just stop whatever you’re doing and find a copy (though preferably not the laggy PS1 version). And even if you have played it, maybe it’s time to play it again!