I have a confession: I never played Chrono Trigger back when it was released. In fact, I missed out on all of the RPGs released on the Super Nintendo, due to not having a Super Nintendo.1 Over the years, I have heard a steady stream of “Oh my god YOU HAVE TO PLAY CHRONO TRIGGER” in my life. A few months back I bought a copy and played it.
And, naturally, I learned a lot.
Tutorials Don’t Have To Be Blunt: For a while, I didn’t understand the whole point of the Millennium Fair bit at the start. In fact, the first hour or so of gameplay isn’t like a lot of the rest of the game on the surface, and felt a little weird. Once I got a few hours in, though, it all clicked into place: the entire Millennium Fair is the tutorial.
I didn’t realize it, though, because it didn’t feel like a tutorial.2 But everything you need in the game is there — talking to NPCs, making decisions, purchasing and upgrading equipment, the occasional mini-game, picking up a new party member, and combat. But there isn’t any part of the game telling you to go over here and click on this thing — it just starts with a few NPCs saying “Weren’t you excited about going to the fair?” and letting natural player curiosity take over.
Come Back Later And Try Again: After a certain point, the game opens up, and you’re likely to run into stuff that’s way above your level. Normally, this drives me crazy in games, but for this it felt fine, because by that point I could go to another time period or switch party members and do something else. Or, if I was really clever, I might just get past it. Unlike, say, Castlevania, I wasn’t hard gated from anything, but rather I was just politely beaten into the ground.
The Fiction Should Determine The Design: Granted, this is something a coworker of mine (who has worked on a bazillion MMOs) has also been beating into my head, so it was on my mind when I played, but I think it shows here. Some games use time travel just as a way to showcase different levels — it’s just set dressing rather than a meaningful mechanic.3 But in this game, time travel becomes part of the design. There are a number of puzzles that require you to do something in one time to change something in a later time period. It’s a clever way to present new areas of the “game world” without invalidating the exploration the player did previously. And the writing of the time travel actually reminds me of Moffet-era Doctor Who, which is a good thing. But the design of the game clearly came from this time travel story idea, and it’s clear that it benefits from that.
Grinding Doesn’t Have To Suck: It’s a JRPG. There’s going to be some grinding. And yet, the pacing of the grind in this game seemed about right. Right around the time I got sick of a particular stage, it was over (or, in one case, I just left and came back later). I’m still noodling around the place of grinding in modern game design, but certainly this game showed me that shitty grinding sucks not necessarily because it’s grinding.
Recommendation: This has often been called the best RPG ever. I won’t speak to that, but it certainly has a lot to offer. You can still get it these days (I was able to buy it on my iPhone), so I think people who like these kinds of games or who are building an RPG-style video game should play it if they are one of the four people left on the planet who hasn’t.