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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Chrono Trigger DS (9.5/10)

I purchased a Nintendo 3DS not too long ago. It's the first handheld gaming device I've owned since the original GameBoy... yeah, it's been a while. But the reason I shelled out the money wasn't solely for the shiny new glasses-less 3D, but rather for the huge number of excellent games I've missed out on over the years. I never played The Legend of Zelda or Kingdom Hearts games on the DS, not to mention series like Professor Layton or any of the Pokemon games. But I'm a big fan of old style J-RPG's, and there are a bunch of great titles on the DS that are worth playing... or playing again. Porting early Final Fantasy games to the DS is all well and good, but the one that I was most excited for was Chrono Trigger. Talk about a blast from the past! Chrono Trigger was one of my favorite games growing up. The fact that it's available on the DS is the icing on the cake. It gives older gamers a chance to replay a truly great game while exposing a whole new generation to Crono and his adventures across time.  

For my money, Chrono Trigger has one of the best stories ever. Upon replaying it after so many years it's funny how it still stands tall. Our young hero Crono visits a fair during which one of his friends (the brainy one named Lucca) has a teleportation device that buggers up, sending Crono on a trip through time and space to recover a lost princess (isn't that always the way?). Portals serve as gates, some of which open in the same place, but in an altogether different time. You'll visit the past and learn what set things in motion as well as visiting the distant future, all the while helping out those in need.

However, (minor spoiler alert) the future ain't so bright. At some point the evil Lavos (a world ending cataclysm in the form of a giant porcupine... or something like that) destroys the world. As Crono travels, he gain allies from different periods to aid in his quest. These include the aforementioned lost princess Marle, a cave woman named Anya, a robot known as Robo, and a frog... called Frog. Our young adventurers agree to take it upon themselves to save the world by traveling through time to undo the past. But what makes the tale so memorable is how it ties together across time. The idea of causality playing out over multiple variances in time is nothing new, but rarely done on the scale of Chrono Trigger. The scope and scale of the narrative is surprisingly detailed. It's worth exploring each land in time, especially after you reach the half way point in the game. Paradoxes run rampant, and it literally becomes a race against time to save the world from the terrible calamity. 

This was also one of the first games to introduce the idea of side quests... without actually calling them side quests. Of course, just talking to people in the past can have dramatic consequences in the future (something we know as fact from... well, every sci-fi time travel movie ever). It's the idea that you don't have to do these things in any particular order, or do them at all for that matter, that broke the mold. Sure, if you want to get all the best stuff you need to do everything, complete every side mission and every optional boss, but it's really up to you. In other words, what you get out of Chrono Trigger depends on what you put in. 

Chrono Trigger was also one of the first games to have an active battle system. It's still technically turn-based, but each character has a corresponding action meter which, when full, allows you to attack, access your inventory, or cast magic. It's a clever system, if straightforward. However, having said that, you need to be paying attention and know where all your choices are in the menu. If you dawdle, you'll give the enemy time to refill their meter. It takes some time and practice to get used to, but I have to say that after all these years it still stands up pretty well.

But what really makes the battle system in Chrono Trigger so cool is that as your characters level up together you unlock several techniques. Each character has their own special "tech" attacks. These are basically super moves... but here's the kicker: you can use multiple characters in tandem! Combining Crono's Cyclone with Lucca's Flamethrower leads to a devastating attack with a flaming sword that can pulverize multiple targets. On the other hand, combining Cyclone with Marle's Aura healing power means Crono spins in a circle, radiating health for everyone in the team. That's just a couple of examples; there are loads. The more you keep characters together and use them in the party, the more affinity they develop, and as a result, the more dual and even triple (using all three party members) techniques they will learn. Eventually, you'll be able to switch out members as your party grows so you can experiment with all the different combinations and powers.

One of the bigger revolutions of Chrono Trigger was that the enemies actually appeared on the screen as you were on a map... in other words, enemy encounters are not wholly random. This was new at the time. Basically, it means you can avoid fights if you so desire, although to be frank that is easier said than done as a lot of enemies tend to want to pick fights at bottleneck areas on the map. Still, it was a huge change, and one that would affect the landscape of a great many games that followed.

Speaking of enemies, I love level grinding... and you need to be prepared to grind a lot in Chrono Trigger. Each new time period you travel to will require a certain amount of grinding to get up to speed as it were, but this becomes especially important towards the end of the game. Before taking on the final boss, you'll need to be suitably capable. This feeds into the side quests as well, as you'll want the best gear.

Boss fights are a big part of every J-RPG, and Chrono Trigger boasts some of the best. They are well designed, requiring strategy and brains to survive. Sometimes the answers are simple, but for the most part the important battles in Chrono Trigger are mini-puzzles in and of themselves. They require thought, timing, preparation, and strategy to survive.

Chrono Trigger was also one of the first games to have multiple endings. It's easy to see why; after all, this is a time travel game. The choices you make, or don't make, actually affect the outcome. There are something like thirteen different endings you can see. Some differ only slightly from others, but it's clever nonetheless. I admit I've only seen two of the endings, but then I've never gone through and played New Game + mode, another innovation that can be traced back to Chrono Trigger. By giving you access to all the "end game" equipment at the beginning, you can drastically alter how some key events play out... ones that you were probably woefully unprepared for the first time out.

I feel the need to mention the menu system, pretty much because of the way it has been changed to function on the DS. Menus can be accessed at any time from the touch screen on the bottom. This applies to combat as well. You can either use the stylus or the buttons to navigate your options in menu. It works fairly well, although I often felt like I was missing out on the action because I was consistently focused on the bottom screen. Having said that, I love the fact that you can equip items while in the shop screen instead of needlessly mucking about in menus. This is something that sadly isn't as commonplace as it should be in these sorts of games. I find it amusing that after the better part of thirty years one of the most frequent complaints (even in modern, western-style RPG's) is still poorly designed menu interfaces.

There isn't really much to comment on regarding the graphics and sound seeing as this is essentially an 8-bit game. Classic look, classic feel, classic music... it's all good! Having said that, this is one of those rare games that actually deserves a reboot in my opinion, and not just on the DS. If given the proper attention, remaking such a classic with modern technology could be spectacular.

I know I've come across as a gushing fan boy here, but that's not to say that Chrono Trigger isn't without a few flaws. Like most RPG's from this era, it does get overly repetitive. There is a lot of backtracking, not just through time, but also through areas you've previously searched. To actually find everything takes a major time commitment, not to mention a lot of patience simply because there isn't a lot of direction beyond the main story cues. There are some pretty hefty difficulty spikes, especially towards the end of your first playthrough, which can make things more frustrating than fun.

Chrono Trigger is, and probably always will be, one of my favorite games. Final Fantasy may be a more well known quantity, but few games have affected the landscape of an entire genre the way Chrono Trigger did. A lot of RPG mechanics, staples of the genre is you will, either come directly from this game or were honed by it. Having the chance to play it again has been special!


Score = 9.5 / 10

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