Chrono Trigger turned 25 on March 11, which has had me thinking about this classic Japanese role-playing game (whenever I’m not spending my time freaking out about the current worldwide pandemic, anyway).
I don’t know many JRPG fans who wouldn’t put Chrono Trigger in their top 5. It was a collaboration between Square and Enix back before they were one company. This resulted in many of the best minds in JRPG history working on the same game, like Final Fantasy mastermind Hironobu Sakaguchi and Dragon Quest creator Yuji Horii. The result was one of the most beautiful and epic experiences of the 16-bit era.
But why, 25 years later, do people still talk about Chrono Trigger so much? What is it that made people fall in love with this game? The soundtrack certainly played a part, as did the (then novel) nonrandom enemy encounters. But I think that the pacing is what really helped make Chrono Trigger so popular.
These days, we often think of JRPGs as experiences that can be close to 100 hours long. Compared to them, Chrono Trigger is succinct. You can finish with the best ending (Chrono Trigger has bunch of endings you can unlock through different means) in about 20 hours.
Even among its contemporaries, that’s pretty breezy. Final Fantasy VI, for comparison, will take most people at least 30 hours to finish. Now, I’m not saying that shorter or longer is better. But Chrono Trigger managed to create one of the most dense RPG adventures ever. At almost every moment, something interesting happens. Even with its relatively short length, it feels like one of the most epic experiences you can in have in gaming. You go through multiple dungeons, time periods, and watch several smaller stories intertwine and combine into a larger narrative.
The length and pacing help to make Chrono Trigger more accessible than many other RPGs. If something like Shin Megami Tensei IV is Lawrence of Arabia — a long, slow-paced drama — then Chrono Trigger is Jurassic Park … or maybe Back to the Future would be the more adept analogy. Chrono Trigger is a fast-paced blockbuster. It’s full of plot twists and action. If ever there was an RPG when I’d want a big tub of popcorn to enjoy while playing, it would be Chrono Trigger.
I’m not trying to short-sell Chrono Triggers other amazing qualities. It has an amazing cast (the noble Frog will always remain one of my favorite JRPG characters). And again, the soundtrack is an all-time great. The battle system is fun, especially with the clever teamup attacks. And I don’t mean to imply that it has a bad story. Just like how Back to the Future and Jurassic Park offer fun and creative narratives, Chrono Trigger’s story is a lot of fun. But I don’t find it to be all that deep or thoughtful.
But a lot of JRPGs have fun stories, memorable casts, and catchy music. That fast pacing is what makes Chrono Trigger stand out. Even 25 years later, I can’t think of a modern JRPG that accomplishes so much in so little time.
Now, excuse me while I listen to “Frog’s Theme” on repeat for the rest of the day.
The RetroBeat is a weekly column that looks at gaming’s past, diving into classics, new retro titles, or looking at how old favorites — and their design techniques — inspire today’s market and experiences. If you have any retro-themed projects or scoops you’d like to send my way, please contact me.