26 years later, the best RPG ever made still lives up to the hype

This 1995 SNES classic is every bit as good as you've heard.

Where do you even begin with Chrono Trigger?

As someone born in the ‘90s, the shadow of Squaresoft’s seminal SNES saga loomed large over my early gaming years. As a Dragonball-obsessed kid, it was impossible to miss its inimitable Akira Toriyama box art, and wonder about the game inside. Yet despite the universe dragging me towards it, this acclaimed adventure repeatedly eluded me. Captivated by Pokémon and struggling my way through the PS1 Final Fantasy games, as time marched forward, this curious-looking RPG seemed destined to remain in the past.

Two decades later, the siren call of Square’s SNES opus finally became too loud to ignore. At games industry events, I couldn’t help but notice how Chrono Trigger was able to send grown adults on a misty-eyed nostalgia trip with a passing mention. Struggling to keep up with modern releases, I continued to hold out — until I contracted Covid-19. Stuck at home sweating and shivering, while the spherical cells scuttled their way through my lungs, the world before me drifted in and out of focus. Time slowed to a crawl. Days and night blurred into one and mucus spluttered out of my lungs like Dragon Quest’s leaping slimes. As my strength slowly returned, I was still stuck isolating in my London flat.

It was time to appease the gamer gatekeepers at last.

If I’m honest, despite its glowing reputation and my childhood fascination, I was fairly cynical as I booted up the steam port Chrono Trigger. After playing my fair share of JRPGs, could this blurry SNES game from 1995 really still hold a candle to the genre’s best?

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Crono and his friends gather around a campfire in Guardia Forest.

Square Enix

A cozy journey

The answer is a resounding yes. Against all odds, Chrono Trigger’s colourful adventure is somehow still utterly captivating. It’s an almost offensively charming, absurdly ambitious creation. From the incredible, hand-animated introduction by Toriyama to the infectiously upbeat 16-bit soundtrack, Chrono Trigger oozes character from every pore. It’s the kind of RPG that gently nudges you along your adventure with a warm smile.

The compact, yet nevertheless captivating, Kingdom of Zeal.

Square Enix

From its colourful sprites to friendly villagers, Chrono Trigger’s smaller world maps feel less intimidating than modern JRPGs, warmly beckoning you to explore every corner. Unlike many games in the genre, particularly from this era, Chrono Trigger does a solid job at guiding you towards your next objective. Compact maps and regular hints from NPCs to help keep you moving forward with a pleasing sense of flow and purpose.

“It’s hard not to appreciate just how ambitious this game was, and still is.”

Yet as this increasingly ambitious tale starts to unfold, the sheer ambition of Squaresoft’s epic becomes apparent. As your party of misfits hurtles between the game’s smorgasbord of time periods, you’ll find a dizzying number of locations to traipse between. Seemingly innocuous conversations with townsfolk in one era can affect the world around you centuries — even millennia — later. Planting a tree or refusing an item triggers a butterfly effect, potentially reshaping the course of civilization or to subtly changing the fate of an NPCs family line.

Square Enix

Sure, its core cast of characters — mute village boy, spunky princess, and tech genius — have long since become genre cliches. But party members come and go in a seamless, pleasing ebb and flow, and each one has their own fleshed-out backstories that’s told via mostly optional flashbacks and side missions.

Chrono Trigger’s wildly different worlds go a long way toward allowing the game to feel unique, even by 2021 standards. Clever reuse of assets makes the old feel new again. Lands you once roamed with confidence feel strange and altered thousands of years later. Despite the game’s age and obvious hardware limitations, hopping between different eras at will still feels magical and genuinely exciting. Even more crucially, it’s somehow unlike anything I’ve played, and few developers have dared to steal Chrono Trigger’s tantalizing core gimmick in the decades since Square threw down the gauntlet.

Yet, it's this inherent coziness that leads me to wonder why on Earth it isn’t on Switch. Chrono Trigger feels like the ultimate game to play while curled up on the sofa, grinding while half watching a crap TV show. With the Steam port all good to go (after a patch or two to fix its atrocious initial visuals) not having this on Nintendo’s handheld seems like money left on the table.

Countless possibilities

As this epic starts to take an eerie turn, you find yourself hopping between twelve different world maps, all sporting their own unique quirks and personality. Despite its age, there’s a sense of unpredictability to Chrono Trigger that took me off guard. Even though it’s positively ancient by video game standards, it still feels remarkably fresh and full of surprises. From prehistoric hills to arctic tundras and even floating cities nestled upon the clouds, the sheer breadth of imagination behind Chrono Trigger still boggles the mind.

And that’s before you even get into Chrono Trigger’s many, many side quests. As you reach the dark apex of this initially sweet RPG, the sheer number of once manageable maps, quests and stories available to you soon become dizzying. As someone who stubbornly avoids using walkthroughs for the vast majority of games, I found navigating these multiple locations and time periods almost impossible without one. Playing this just shy of three decades on, it’s hard not to appreciate just how ambitious this game was, and still is.

“Simultaneously everything I expected and a complete shock to the system.”

Perfecting what would become a Square Enix stalwart, Chrono Trigger’s active time battle system is absurdly enjoyable and briskly paced, even today. Your party members have unique battle abilities called Techs, which can be combined in two- or three-person combos. Wait until two or three of your party members are ready to take their turn, and you can combine these techs into deadly, show-stopping attacks. The combat styles of each of your party members are all pleasingly unique too. Mixing and matching your lineup helps you to unlock new shared techs, a nice mechanical representation of the bond formed between friends in battle.

Like all timeless classics, Chrono Trigger never outstays its welcome. Where modern JRPGs demand 60-plus hours of your time, seeing the lion’s share of this SNES outing only took me around 26 hours. Were there more side quests, tech unlocks and surprises to see? Undoubtedly.

Crono and Marle explore the Millennial Fair.

Square Enix

Yet that’s the brilliance of Chrono Trigger’s time travel mechanic: you can delve as deeply into this world as you see fit. And boy does this game go deep. With more than a dozen wildly different endings, the level of ambition, care, and polish poured into Chrono Trigger puts most modern RPGs to shame. In fact, this was one of the first games to really hammer home the concept of a post-game, introducing the concept now taken for granted as New Game Plus.

It’s not short of epic moments, either. Chrono Trigger’s many boss battles are thoroughly memorable, pushing you to adapt to various conditions, encouraging you to try out new party configurations, and slowly ratcheting up the challenge and stakes. Just when Chrono Trigger’s most dramatic moments threaten to get lost amidst the tiny sprites, Mr. Dragonball himself swoops in to save the day. In the Steam version, key story moments are accompanied by glorious anime cinematics drawn by Akira Toryiama himself.

Honestly, I’m still struggling to process everything that this dusty old game throws at you. It feels almost ridiculous to say, but there are still lessons that JRPGs can learn from this 26-year-old SNES release. Somehow Chrono Trigger is simultaneously everything I expected and a complete shock to the system, an unexpectedly revitalizing experience. I have to hold my hands up here — Chrono Trigger overwhelmingly lives up to the decades worth of unbearable hype.

You were all right. Apologies everyone, I’m part of the Chrono cult now.

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