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July 2, 2009

Filed under: gaming»software»chrono_trigger

Do the Time Warp Again

I have probably started four or five games of Chrono Trigger, across four or five different computers (I didn't own an SNES at the time), and never gotten past the Prehistoric Era segment. So while Square's habit of re-releasing its entire classic catalog every time a new platform reaches critical mass may seem grating and money-grubbing (probably because it is), it is sometimes valuable. The DS port of Chrono Trigger is the first time I stand a chance of finishing it. This is probably because, like a lot of adult gamers, I use portable games as a way of multitasking. It's something I can pull out if a movie or TV show starts to drag but I still want to see the end, as well as a time-killer during the inevitable Metro delays. And while I've always got games loaded on a smartphone of some kind these days, it's rarely as satisfying as the experience on an actual console--not to mention that the battery life is far better. So compared to the emulated versions, I've gotten much farther this time around.

Chrono Trigger is almost fifteen years old now, which is pretty amazing if you think about it. It's held up well. More than that: I'd argue that it's better than most anything Square's put out during the intervening years, on either portable or home console. Mostly this is because it's such a lean design: unlike the excesses the company developed in the 32-bit era, there are no collectible card games (FF8) or watersports (FF10) that you have to learn to navigate, and the battle system is relatively simple. It feels like this left the development team free to concentrate on the worldbuilding: the result is a series of rich, often comical time periods linked to each other by a decidedly quirky kind of causality. Great characters, as well, although I'm not the biggest fan of the art style.

Although the game isn't non-linear, it's also impressive how well it fakes it. Shuffle the party as much as you want, they'll all still have appropriate dialog choices (some more appropriate than others, granted). Halfway through, it opens up a whole bunch of sidequests that players can approach in any order. The experience is still basically guided at every step, but in a way that feels empowering and entirely in sync with the time travel theme: at practically any point in the game, players can jump straight to the final boss, although they'll probably get creamed if they haven't done at least a few of the optional missions.

If anything has not aged well about the game, it's the mechanics of the battle system--more specifically, the endlessly frustrating menu options that must be navigated under pressure. At the time, this was how RPGs worked--hell, it's how a lot of them still work today. For a short time, Square seemed to have chafed a bit under that convention: FF6 (released a year before Chrono Trigger) supplemented the menus with oddball conventions like Sabin's Street Fighter-esque combos, while Super Mario RPG went to a far more manageable system of assigning different actions to the largely-unused face buttons. Then the Playstation rolled around, and the company apparently gave up on control innovation and concentrated on putting elaborate CG movies in between boring menus.

In the meantime, it cannot be stressed how annoying Chrono Trigger's menus are, especially since by default they let enemies continue to attack while you try and find the right $%!@-ing Dual Tech. I particularly love hunting for a single healing item through a vast inventory list using a tiny little window, during which time monsters have probably managed to kill the character I wanted to heal in the first place. Once upon a time, this was called "adding tension," but looking back on it, it's a lot like trying to solve sudoku while someone shoots you with a BB gun: a synthesis of tedium and tension that I could personally do very much without. The DS port of Chrono Trigger "solves" this problem by making the same menus into big, touch-friendly targets, which utterly fails to help. It may feel like a blow to your hardcore gamer cred, but I'd recommend switching from "Active" to "Wait" mode instead.

All in all, though, Chrono Trigger's an example of Doing It Right. If everything Square had made was this good, as opposed to say every Final Fantasy except for 6, it probably wouldn't be so galling to see them regurgitate the whole lot every time a marketable piece of hardware came out. There's even a theoretical justification for their actions: even more than other digital artifacts, console games age badly as the march to new platforms and formats makes them difficult--or even impossible--to play them as they should be played, and clearly emulation doesn't always cut it. In theory, I don't begrudge the company for reselling the classics, even if it is just locking them to a newer block of soon-to-be-obselete hardware. In practice, however, the only thing worse than watching them repackage both the good and the awful is watching all of it sell like hotcakes.

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