2021/04/05

Chronology

Chrono Trigger Day of Lavos

These decades later, 1995's Chrono Trigger stands as the capstone of the 2D JRPG genre. You could argue that Final Fantasy VI, released the year prior, is the better game on aesthetic or technical grounds. But at least in North America, CT marked the end of an era when console gamers rightly expected Japanese developers to outdo themselves with each new release.

Though a stunning artistic and technological achievement, Chrono Trigger owes its enduring legacy to its generational themes - and the uncanny foresight with which it anticipated the future of gaming and the world.

Chrono Trigger Good Music

Perhaps it's inevitable that a game about time travel would deal with cultural transmission - or the failure thereof - between generations. But it's hard to revisit the game and not pick up a number of plot threads that resonate today.

Consider the recurring theme of intergenerational conflict. Marle's rebellion against her emotionally distant father is her impetus for getting involved in the story. The same goes for Magus and his mother, whose power lust rapidly plunges her into madness. A later side quest even reveals tension between Robo and his "mother", who's intent on destroying all humans.

Time and again, the protagonists are shown to be children of an older generation whose failure to master their vices led to global disaster.

Chrono Trigger was released in 1995. Its target audience of late life cycle SNES owners mostly belonged to Gen X and Gen Y. The question that arises now is, did Square Soft create one of the first and grandest anti-Boomer memes?

Consider the game's main character, Crono. He's shown to have been raised by a single mother with no mention made of his father. His mom is consistently depicted as oblivious to the earth-shaking events surrounding her son's destiny. Instead, she's wholly engrossed in a solipsistic world of domestic trivialities. Crono himself is a blank slate who never speaks a single line of dialogue. He's a screen onto which the player projects himself.

And the only time he overtly reacts to a story event is when his mom stumbles into a collapsing time gate - at which point he performs his battle victory animation.

That's not even touching upon the apocalyptic threat looming over the entire game. The characters' jaunts through time eventually reveal a hellish future where mankind, and the whole planet, are slowly dying in the aftermath of a nightmarish cataclysm. 

The cause of the apocalypse is finally identified as Lavos, a parasitic alien that burrows deep into its host worlds like an interstellar tick. There, Lavos feeds off the planet's mineral, biological, and energy resources, growing and building copies of itself, only to burst forth eons later in a civilization-ending event.

Anyone under 60 who's spent time on the internet lately can see clear parallels emerge. Not only is Lavos a parasite that greedily consumes the earth's resources, he stands atop the pyramid with a tyrannical grip on power. Lavos' arrival warps society to unconsciously feed his lusts, forever altering the course of civilization. 

It gets worse. Later generations who set out to end Lavos' destructive reign face a terrible dilemma. Their only hope of defeating Lavos lies in their recently awakened magical powers. However, the source of those powers is strongly hinted to be Lavos himself. The power upon which mankind's most advanced civilization rests will depart with the parasite which is slowly undermining the same society.

If Chrono Trigger has one flaw, it's that the game hand waves that compelling dilemma away. Xers, Ys, and Zoomers won't have that luxury as we grapple with the multifaceted disasters unleashed by the Boomers.


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11 comments:

  1. When CT came out, I was the only one of my friends who was into RPGs. But even just internally, without talking to anyone else, I could tell the game was something special. This was before, as you know, the Internet and the ability to know the genera consensus on things. The only thing we had in that regard was Nintendo and maybe the odd convention or two. Otherwise, it was you and your friends.

    I might also add Secret of Mana to CT and FFVI as a great JRPG from that console's era.

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    1. The Mana games are fantastic. the combat system might take some time to get used to, but they are all very creative games with a lot of fantastic ideas. At least, the first four were.

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    2. Secret of Mana was basically a Chrono Trigger prototype.

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  2. There is a reason why Sakaguchi's first big game after leaving Square was advertised as reuniting much of the dream team that made Chrono Trigger.

    It's not the sort of JRPG that could be made now, especially not an era that needs to have animu stereotypes and the same rehashed plot elements over and over.

    I always thought it was interesting how the present in Chrono Trigger was portrayed as so mundane, as if there was something underneath it that wasn't quite right. Reminds me of a similar take in the massively underrated Live A Live, also done by Square.

    Sometimes I wonder if the reason storytelling in RPGs (both east and west) has stagnated so hard is because it is more interested in delivering safe tropes and endlessly subverted ones than it is in telling any sort of story. Outside of Falcom's games, the last JRPG story that was on the level of the classics was Radiant Historia, a game that desperately needs a proper re-release.

    That advances and comforting acceptance of progress through technology might have contributed to it.

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    1. I've always viewed Radiant Historia as Chrono Trigger 3 (or I guess 4 if you want to count Radical Dreamers). In particular the time travel system feels like a great synthesis of the disparate era and alternate timeline ideas from Cross and Trigger. Sure the tone and plot elements are different, but the same can be said about Chrono Cross.

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    2. David Stewart has been talking about the stagnation in all AAA games. His take is that industry figured out the formula that appeals to the lowest common denominator ca. 2007 and has been rehashing it ever since.

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  3. Akshually Crono did have two lines of dialogue in the joke "Memory Lane" ending. :)

    But seriously, Chrono Trigger is hands down the best RPG on the SNES. The system had many great RPGs, some of which never came to the West (ex. FF5, Seiken Densetsu 3, Live a Live, Star Ocean...) and some of these in individual ways surpass Chrono Trigger. But the dream team made a game where all the parts really clicked, leading to a whole becoming greater than the parts. It's also probably the most character driven game on the system.

    I think that Chrono Cross was trying to grapple with the dilemma that you bring up. The day is saved, but does that mean that we should wipe the slate clean? Can the corrupt past be redeemed? Unfortunately while Cross had a lot of high points, many of its experimental qualities interacted in negative ways. (For example the crafting and element systems had cool ideas, but quickly became a huge pain in a game with 45 playable characters). I confess that I've never actually beaten Cross, every time I've went back to it I've lot interest at Terra Tower.

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  4. Sadly I was too young (a toddler) at the time Chrono Trigger released, though I played it later through emulation (a vice I've since foresworn) and enjoyed it. I didn't really and truly "get" RPGs until I played Final Fantasy 4 in my teens (albeit the Nintendo DS re-release, which was still fairly faithful to the original). One does have to lament at the sad state of modern JRPGs, though. I wonder if, like so many genres, their true successors are being born in the indie game scene instead of the AAA fields. *Undertale* gets a lot of flak for its cringe-inducing fans and for being massively overhyped by said fans, but taken completely on its own merits it's still a thought-provoking game, albeit perhaps not an RPG in the same sense as the classics we've spoken of here (it's also a shame that it promotes sodomy, but what can you expect from the modern era?). Along with its progenitor *Earthbound* it's also been the root of a new subgenre filled with "wacky" and offbeat settings and characters. *Everhood* recently came out and offers interesting combat mechanics and a story (albeit one with Buddhist themes), while *OTHER: Her Loving Embrace* (which I've shilled for here previously) looks fantastic gameplay-wise and is Catholic to its core, albeit not in an extremely overt fashion.

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    1. It is indies that are attempting to do new things with the JRPG style. That Omori game was an attempt to merge '90s nostalgia and life with grief, and I've seen many younger developers attempting to take the torch Nintendo dropped when they abandoned their Mario RPG lines of games.

      There's plenty of life left in the genre, it's just, like most everything now, more likely to be found in the sphere of newer creators with less visibility and corporate backing.

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  5. So CT features a main character that dies to redeem the world and then is resurrected. He's sentenced to death in a kangaroo court by men who resemble members of the Sanhedrin. The enlightened ones of antiquity see themselves as demigods and create a literal Mammon Machine to worship. And the main character defeats the Big Bad by using the power of Light.

    Um...based????

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