The year was 1995. Gamers everywhere were elated that the console gaming industry had been proving for 10 years that home video gaming was viable, and the second generation of console wars was in full swing, with the Sega Genesis versus Nintendo's Super Nintendo and NEC's TurboGrafx-16 as an also-ran. While the Genesis had been released earlier, the Super Nintendo had a much more fruitful crop of role-playing games, ranging from Final Fantasy II and III (American, for the purists) to Secret of Mana to mistakes like Legend of Evermore and Paladin's Quest. The genre looked fairly well-exhausted, and all of a sudden, Squaresoft (yes, before the company merged with Enix) came out with a game called Chrono Trigger.
Suddenly, the bar hadn't just been raised, but catapulted into the stratosphere.
Chrono Trigger starts off very simply: A young man by the name of Crono is awoken by his mother to the sound of Leene's Bell, a piece of history from the kingdom of Guardia in which he lives. It's 1000 A.D., and the Millennial Fair has begun. Naturally, our hero is eager to attend so he hastens out of bed. He's greeted by his mother, who encourages him to meet his technologically inclined female friend Lucca while he's out, and he's off to the fairgrounds nearby. While wandering through the fairgrounds, he collides with a young lady who introduces herself as Marle and explains that she's new to the area and could use a local inhabitant to guide her around. Crono agrees, and the two of them make their way to Lucca's exhibit, a teleportation machine. It seems simple and effective enough; Crono even goes first, to prove this to be true. When Marle takes her turn, she discovers that the pendant she wears reacts strangely to the teleportation machine, and she is shoved through a magical gate! Crono, being the heroic protagonist that he is, follows closely after her. Thus begins a story that will have the unlikely trio recruiting a small but diverse group of time's finest warriors, rescuing the world from an extraterrestrial parasite and themselves from a dismal, bleak future.
Visually, Chrono Trigger is surprisingly sophisticated for the period in which it was released. Colors blend with elegance and ease, attacks are distinctive and expressive, and you never find yourself wondering what your character's body language is supposed to convey. Rare is the time when monsters are obscured by obstacles or the like, and the special effects are smooth and eye-catching; there's never really a point when you find yourself bored by the scenery for more than a sparse moment before it changes. One of the real treats is the audio; go look on OC Remix for all the different ways in which the musical tracks have been edited and reshuffled. Every piece of theme music is different and speaks volumes about the mood surrounding you, from the desolate and bleak sound in the world map of the future to the drum-intensive, primal beat of the prehistoric era. Sounds are telling and diverse; you can tell the slash of your sword from the sound made by knocking out an enemy with the hilt of your blade, and even different monsters have different battle cries.
One of the first changes to the DS iteration of this classic game comes in the means by which characters' actions are controlled. The nostalgic can choose the classic mode, in which each character's action meter builds up right there on the screen, and actions are selected on the same screen on which the monsters are displayed. Those who are more inclined to take advantage of dual-screen functionality can elect to have touch-screen commands available on the bottom screen instead, revealing more of the game's background (and possibly a crafty enemy or two) to the player and still maintaining the same gameplay as the classic version. I can certainly tell you from experience that the difference in practicality is purely in how much of the game screen you can see at one time, and I fully endorse the DS control mode as one of the upgrades this title has received to actually improve upon the original without sacrificing anything.
In terms of gameplay, Chrono Trigger leaves very little to be desired. The command interface is simple enough to understand even without the tutorial available in the starting town, and characters move and react with surprising fluidity to any motion of the controls. Lag time is nonexistent, and it never feels like monsters have an unfair advantage. Of course, some of the real beauty is in the balance, even the lack thereof. There is little to no "level farming" required to take full advantage of the entire game; even if you just plow right through the quests, you'll find that your opponents will be very strong, but can always be defeated with the correct strategy, quick decisions and good equipment.
Chrono Trigger was also the first game to pioneer the concept of "New Game+," which means that the game can be restarted once beaten. Players will keep the levels, items, and techniques they've earned, and will be coaxed through the story again while able to bask in their gathered power. Say what you will about the lack of difficulty, but there's something rewarding in bringing powered-up characters to the boss who killed you twice before you could get past him and just mowing him down with the greatest of ease.
Speaking of improvements, they are truly manifold, taking advantage of the technological advances made since Final Fantasy Chronicles reintroduced Chrono Trigger to the world in 2001. Many fans discovered that while the PlayStation version of the game had several advantages — ranging from a museum in which item locations could be inspected, endings could be re-watched and catalogued (there are more than a dozen different endings available, new players), and techniques could be observed — there was also quite a bit of lag that went with each fight. I'm ecstatic to tell any prospective buyers that both issues have been resolved; the highly useful museum mode is still available, but there's no noticeable lag between an enemy's appearance and combat, meaning that this would be the best Chrono Trigger release to date, even if it weren't for all of the new features.
The makers of Chrono Trigger DS weren't happy to simply recreate one of the best role-playing games of all time and combine the best of both previous releases. Three new items have been added: a monster-raising game in which you train and teach your starting monster (called a smidge) in various time frames, gaining them stat increases and new techniques, and eventually facing them off against opponents in an arena to win prizes. What's more, there is a new village to visit, filled with inhabitants whose nature may surprise longtime fans; each one has a task for you to fulfill, often involving going back and forth between the two time frames in which they exist and fighting strange new monsters. Finally, once the game has been beaten once, new areas open up; the three main characters (Crono, Marle and Lucca) each get a Dimensional Vortex, a complex new dungeon that must be explored until they face … well, I won't spoil it for you. I will tell you that if you think Lavos (the aforementioned parasitic alien) was tough before, you're simply not prepared for the foe you'll face if you defeat all three dungeons, including the new ending!
Of course, even seasoned veterans of the Chrono Trigger universe will want to know how these new features play out. At first, the monster-raising game will seem dull: You send your monster to a different era with an item in tow, come back 10 minutes later, and it's returned with increased stats. Moreover, combat in arena shows that you can't actually control your monster. Your role is limited to watching it fight and offering it items to use, which it may or may not take advantage of, depending on how much it's grown to trust you. There are different ways in which your monster can evolve, and fighting some of the tougher opponents can yield hard-to-obtain items that prove to be worth the trouble. The new village can be fun and also yields some new items along with several new zones, though a friend of mine described it as the "Fed Ex" portion of the game; more often than not, you'll be performing fetch quests for one person or another. The Dimensional Vortices are probably my favorite new content; whether it's the first few rooms, randomized from all available rooms in the game, the new dungeons, or the foes at the end, there are lots of challenge and new items to be found in each one. Most importantly, all of this new content is optional. Not fond of the new village? Don't go there. Dislike training your monster? Don't sweat it. The game never penalizes you for declining to partake in the new content, though it definitely rewards you for taking part.
All told, Chrono Trigger DS is easily one of the best video games I've played in the recent past, and I've played quite a few of them. Whether or not you're a fan of consoled-based role-playing games, you owe it to yourself to try this one; it might just change your opinion of them. RPG fans should consider this one required reading, and even Chrono Trigger fans will find that the DS offering is sufficiently different and improved from the previous offerings so that it's well worth the price of admission. Make time for this one!
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