IN THE REARVIEW: Chrono Cross

The dimension-hopping pseudo-sequel to one of the most acclaimed RPGs of all time is much better than you remember.

Industry defining games are a rare breed. Even rarer are those that elicit near universal praise and admiration from gamers the world over. Ask anyone to name their GOATs (Greatest Of All Time) and you’ll hear one game mentioned repeatedly. Inspiring! Innovative! A classic in the purest sense! A game experience that transcends its genre! It has appeared on countless Top 100 lists, more often than not in the top ten, and received awards from numerous games journalism outlets. The list of accolades goes on and on, and the game at the center of it all is Squaresoft’s Chrono Trigger, released in Japan on Nintendo’s Super Famicom home console on March 11th, 1995.

Originally conceived as the second entry in the Seiken Densetsu series (lit. The Legend of the Sacred Sword), known as the Mana series in the West, over the course of its development Chrono Trigger gradually found its own identity somewhere between Squaresoft’s two flagship series. The brainchild of Final Fantasy series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, Dragon Quest series creator Yuji Horii, and Dragon Quest character designer and Dragon Ball manga artist Akira Toriyama, Trigger adopted several elements from its RPG predecessors while simultaneously improving and innovating on them. Upon release it was met with great critical and commercial success. Critics and players alike lauded the game’s story, characters, art style, and gameplay most notably the seamless transitions between exploration and combat and the Double- and Triple-tech skills players could execute using multiple party members. Since then the game has been released on over half a dozen platforms including the Sony PlayStation, Nintendo DS, Steam, iOS, and Android. Trigger’s legacy was cemented in the industry, but fans were hungry for more. And Squaresoft knew it would face a monumental task in creating a sequel.

Chrono Trigger for the Super Famicom

The Creation Of A New Universe

Shortly after Chrono Trigger’s 1995 debut, rumors swirled about the possibility of a follow up. However, Squaresoft wasn’t quite ready to dive into the development of a new entry. They had their hands full with the looming launch of several titles including Seiken Densetsu 3, Bahamut Lagoon, Secret of Evermore, Super Mario RPG, and Final Fantasy VII, but that didn’t stop lead Scenario Planner Masato Kato from tackling the “unfinished business” of Chrono Trigger’s ending. On February 3rd, 1996 the text-driven adventure game Radical Dreamers was first broadcast to the Nintendo Satellaview addon for the Super Famicom. The game featured three protagonists, Serge, Kid, and Magil, in their attempt to steal the Frozen Flame, a magical artifact known to grant wishes, before the sinister Lynx can abuse its power. Taking place several years after Trigger’s canon ending Radical Dreamers was an attempt by Kato to explore the fates of many of its primary characters, specifically Lucca, Magus, and Princess Schala. It was met with praise for its complex narrative and much darker tone, though coverage for the game was sparse and a extremely limited release on an obscure peripheral for an aging console meant it would quickly be relegated as a footnote in the Chrono series.

Radical Dreamers, a scenario driven text adventure for the Nintendo Satellaview – not quite the sequel fans of Chrono Trigger were hoping for.

Having had only three months for development, Kato was not impressed with the state of Radical Dreamers and yearned to make a proper title out of the story. Following the release of Xenogears (1998) for the Sony PlayStation, Squaresoft greenlit the development of a new Chrono game assigning Kato as director and Hiromichi Tanaka as producer. Tanaka brought insight from his tenure directing/producing both Secret of Mana and Seiken Densetsu 3, as well as the aforementioned Xenogears. Together the two devised a gameplan for the title’s development that would incorporate and expand on the characters and world of Radical Dreamers while also forging subtle connections to Trigger. A Chrono Trigger 2 this would not be. Tanaka and Kato envisioned a title that would stand on its own with a unique setting, characters, and story.

I never had any intentions of just taking the system from Trigger and moving it onto the PlayStation console. That’s why I believe that Cross is Cross, and NOT Trigger 2.

Masato Kato on Chrono Cross’s development

After a lengthy two year development, Chrono Cross was released on November 18th, 1999 to coincide with Trigger’s PlayStation re-release that included quality of life adjustments as well as several animated cutscenes directed by Toriyama. While Cross was received with mostly positive fanfare and went on to great commercial success, shipping nearly 1.5 million units worldwide, many fans and critics couldn’t shake their disappointment in the game and how far it had departed from its pedigree. Gone were the seamless battle transitions in favor of traditional battle arenas. The charming cast of seven playable characters had grown to a staggering entourage of forty-five. And, most importantly, the connection between the two games was hazy at best.

Chrono Cross’ Serge (left) and Kid (right)
Art by Nobuteru Yuki

On top of all that, many found the story difficult to follow and its ‘true’ ending vague. It seemed Cross couldn’t find its way out out Trigger’s shadow. To this day it remains a polarizing title with RPG fans. But where Cross deviated from Trigger’s formula it delivered, in my opinion, a thought-provoking narrative set in a rich, detailed world and a complex battle and progression system that challenges the player to approach the game on their own terms.

A Tragic Tale Transcending Time And Space

While Trigger took a more playful approach when dealing with serious topics like the immutability of time and the end of the world, Cross struck a much darker chord owed largely in part to Radical Dreamer’s influences on its development. Dropping the time travel plot device for a narrative spanning two disparate realities Cross offered a surprising amount of character interaction and world building since almost every location and character could be encountered twice, often in wildly different circumstances. The fickle whims of fortune graced some and rebuked others. For many of them just a single choice separates one reality from the other: a famous artist becomes a struggling painter, an industrious blacksmith becomes a grieving father, or a adventurous pirate captain becomes the manager of a casino cruise.

WARNING! Major Story Spoilers Ahead!

As the player we later learn in the lost city of Chronopolis (a nod to the future 2300 A.D. timeline depicted in Trigger) that much of the history of ‘Home World’ and ‘Another World’ was shaped by the super computer FATE and its villainous agent Lynx, and that these two are in actuality being manipulated by Lavos, now known as the Dream Devourer. It is also in Cross that we learn the fate of Princess Schala, a loose end from Trigger’s story. After the events of the Ocean Palace disaster Schala was flung through a dimensonal vortex into the Darkness Beyond Time along with the defeated Lavos. Lavos then began to consume the princess in order to evolve into the Time Devourer, a creature capable of destroying ALL of reality, but in her struggle to resist being fully absorbed by the creature she set in motion the events that would lead to the splitting of Serge’s world into two parallels and the creation of the weapon that could destroy Lavos once and for all, the legendary Chrono Cross.

However, even knowing that forces beyond the reach of space and time have been influencing the events of the game’s two realities, Cross leaves the ultimate cause of each character’s circumstances ambiguous. When explored by the player these minor sub plots leave elements to personal interpretation which was a large motivation behind many of the game’s design choices. Was every action taken by the player really the result of meddling by Schala, FATE, and Lavos? This question is never fully answered, and it is this lack of an definitive answer that Tanaka and Kato were going for. Ultimately, Cross’ story is a debate about the purpose of our own lives, the notion of free will, and the ability to forge one’s own fate. Its more nuanced story telling may have perplexed younger players upon its release. However, having played it several times as an adult I have developed a fond appreciation for the little details, or lack thereof, that give it emotional heft. While obscure at times its story becomes more enjoyable with each successive playthrough. I could go into greater depth but that would take several more posts, and I also wish for more players to experience the story for themselves and develop their own theories for many of Cross’ more elusive plot points.

There is no such thing as a useless life-form…No such thing as a pawn!

Princess Schala on the nature of life

The Player’s Choices, The Player’s Story

Extending the theme of free will and personal choice into Cross’ gameplay Tanaka and Kato gave the player an unprecedented amount of freedom when it came to party composition and combat strategy. As mentioned earlier, Cross stars a heavily diverse cast of forty five playable characters. While none of them receive the degree of development that Trigger’s characters did, their micro stories are, for the most part, very enjoyable and rewarding. Additionally, each one is imbued with a consistently unique personality through their accents and dialogue while their personal ‘Tech’ skills shape their individual combat utility. The majority of them are also optional for story progression which adds an additional layer of choice for the player to express themselves through their recruitment and the completion of countless interrelated side stories .

The Element system also lends itself well to player customization. Characters have innate elements (Red, Blue, Yellow, Green, Black, and White) that determine their strengths and weaknesses in combat. Enemies and bosses also have their own innate elements, and combat revolves around the manipulation of the elemental flow of the arena to boost your party’s strength and weaken your foe. Ensuring that your party is equipped with spells and skills to counter the enemy and has at least one member capable of taking advantage of their weakness is generally advised, but there is no wrong way to play Cross. While Serge is always required to be in your party (until you reach New Game+) the other two slots are entirely down to personal preference, and the game can be completed with any party composition. Though, some combinations make it more manageable than others.

The Main Menu screen displaying party members, their stats, element grids, and innate elements.

The game’s progression system is also a far departure from the RPG norm. Experience points, character levels, and grinding are not applicable here. In lieu of these Cross gives the player Star levels (bottom left corner of above image) upon defeating specific scripted encounters, typically in the form of story bosses. When a Star level is received it gives a large stat boost to ALL recruited characters and allows your active party members to gradually grow their stats in the next handful of enemy encounters, though there is a bit of RNG in determining which stats increase and by how much. Furthermore, enemies and bosses are designed to be fought at specific star levels so the game’s challenge remains relatively consistent with no brick walls or gimmick fights, even in NG+. That’s not to say the bosses in the final act are pushovers. Cross always incentivizes strategy over brute force tactics, and the finale of the game will definitely put your mastery of your chosen party members and the Elements system to the test.

A Feast For The Eyes And Ears

While Cross was compared unfavorably to its predecessor in many ways there were two features of the game that were universally celebrated, the visuals and music. Early on in development Kato had envisioned a Southeast Asian setting blended with elements of Mediterranean and African cultures, and Squaresoft’s artists quickly got to work fleshing out the in-game environments. Continuing with the trend of the time, their gorgeous hand drawn artwork was then given life as digitized, partially animated pre-rendered locales that still look amazing even to this day. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that Cross’ environments put even Final Fantasy VIII and IX’s to shame in terms of quality and detail.

Arni Village – A melding of South Pacific and Central African style

In game character and enemy models, while shedding much of Toriyama’s signature style, are also a vast improvement over contemporary games on the PlayStation. Tanaka and Kato made sure to squeeze every ounce of horsepower out of Sony’s little gray box to increase polygon counts, texture resolutions, and color palettes. Animations are also smooth and natural looking giving combat an extra level of excitement when a particularly powerful spell or Tech skill is used. All of it is incredible to see in action, but it does push the PlayStation to the very limit many a time causing one of Cross’ biggest failings: its extended loading times.

Termina – El Nido’s own version of Santorini

To compliment these amazing visuals Kato enlisted the aid of Chrono Trigger freelance composer Yasunori Mitsuda to provide Cross with an electric soundtrack. Mitsuda merged Asian and Mediterranean musical styles and added touches of Celtic, Fado, and Skiffle flare to create what stands today as one of the most emotional and invigorating video game soundtracks ever made. Reviewers often singled out Mitsuda’s soundtrack as one of Chrono Cross’ most noteworthy qualities, and individual tracks have been arranged and played at various video game themed concerts including the Play! A Video Gamy Symphony and Video Games Live. Most recently several songs from the original soundtrack were arranged by the Materia Collective’s David Peacock for the album Paralellus which features performances by Eli Bishop, Kristin Naigus, Augustine Mayuga Gonzales, The Hit Points, and the Videri String Quartet.

My Cross Is Not Your Trigger

Of course, the fans of the original are very important, but what innovation can come about when you’re bound to the past?

Hiromichi Tanaka on fan criticism of Chrono Cross

In the end, whether you enjoy a game or not is entirely personal, but I can’t help but feel that twenty two years later the same misconceptions of Chrono Cross are being perpetuated by a new generation simply out of tradition, and not because the game is outdated or clunky. With amazing visuals, a fantastic soundtrack, clever combat, a provocative story, and fun and colorful cast of characters I believe Chrono Cross deserves at least one playthrough for the uninitiated. Who knows? You may end up enjoying it more than Trigger! Although…I seriously doubt it.

Leave a comment with your take, good or bad! I’d love to hear from all of you on this. Until next time, Geeks!

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