I Played Chrono Trigger for the First Time in 2024

Back in September I held a charity stream to raise funds in honor of Gynecological Cancer Month, a time when we recognize the devastating effect that so many reproductive cancers have on women all over the world. As a survivor myself, it’s important to me to not only acknowledge and try to make an impact in the fight against this disease, but to also spread awareness amongst my community and ensure everyone feels empowered to advocate for their own health. As part of that, one of the milestones for our fundraiser was allowing one lucky person to choose a game for me to play in the coming months. The winner was a friend of mine who goes by the moniker AlfadorTheCat. And shortly after their win, we kicked off a conversation. 

They opted to describe a number of games to me without revealing the name of said games, and for me to choose which game I wanted based on their descriptions. Among such choices as “what if Disney was a demonic cult,” or “reverse Guitar Hero,” or “bullet hell game,” was the intriguing “mid 90s Square RPG that isn’t Final Fantasy.” To be honest, I was almost certain it was Chrono Trigger considering Alfador’s namesake (that much I knew about the game to begin with), but maybe there was some other niche Square game I’d missed somewhere in the last 30 years that would surprise me. 

I chose that one, and turns out it was, in fact, Chrono Trigger. 

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Game art by Akira Toriyama depicting Robo leading the charge and followed up by Crono and Frog.

Honestly, I was excited to pick this one up. For years, I was constantly asked if I’d played the game; a fair question, since I do label myself as a “video game professor” and relatively well versed in terms of the range of games I play. People would always be shocked to learn I hadn’t played, which would inevitably end with, “You HAVE to play it!” To which I would respond, “I know, I know, it’s on the list,” upon which I would promptly forget about it again as I worked through my endless existing list. So the time was finally nigh, and I could stop hiding from spoilers or lying to my students that I had definitely played it (I had to maintain my credibility somehow.)

Finally this past February, I booted the game up for the first time. It was an immediate wave of nostalgia as I watched that opening cutscene, with the unmistakable style of Akira Toriyama flashing across the screen as I was introduced to Crono, Lucca, Frog, Ayla, Marle, Robo, and Magus. A feeling that became a mournful one just a few weeks later when news came of his unexpected passing. Growing up a massive fan of Dragon Ball, Toriyama’s style has always been unforgettable and one of the lasting comforts when I think about my childhood. Seeing his mark as I booted up this game felt fitting, and does even now. I’m grateful for the imagination he inspired in my childhood, and I’m forever grateful that he had one more little burst of joy to share with me in my adulthood. Playing the game on stream in the wake of his passing felt right, like a tribute almost, a thank you to a childhood friend. A coincidence maybe that this all occurred the way that it did, but one that still feels like it should be acknowledged.

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Clockwise from center: Robo, Lucca, Ayla, Magus, Crono, Marle, and Frog resting around a campfire.

If you’re new to the story of Chrono Trigger, the most efficient and non spoiler summary I can provide would be thus: set in a fictional and mystical world, we are introduced to a young lad named Crono and his best friend Lucca, a technological wizard who, along with her father, has crafted a sort of time machine to show off at the annual town fair. They meet Marle, a sort of aloof girl with more than a few secrets of her own, and after a strange hiccup with the time machine, they are suddenly transported to the past. This kicks off a series of events that force the trio to travel through time along with various allies in each time period, and to defeat a powerful enemy that would wipe out every timeline as they know it. 

One thing that I found difficult to overcome throughout my playthrough was the gameplay itself. Let’s be real, it’s an almost 30 year old game ported to modern day devices (I played it through Steam on my PC). Navigating the world and trying to figure out where to go next was often a challenge. And I often had to wander around the main map for several minutes before figuring out that the area I needed to go to was right in front of me, and I just wasn’t able to find it because the “entrance” area is the same five green colored pixels as the rest of a given area. This isn’t a knock on the game itself, or its story. I enjoyed my experience when I was immersed in the story and able to appreciate it, but I often became frustrated when it wasn’t clear where I needed to go, who I needed to ask for my “hint,” and the controls being extra sensitive since I was playing on a controller. 

Unfortunately this is just a symptom of playing an old game in 2024, but it does make me wonder about the long term viability of games like this. It makes more sense to me now why we are starting to see remakes of games instead of re-releases. While I absolutely believe this game should be preserved in its original form, I have to say, I would jump at the chance to play this again with more modernized gameplay. I fear the outdated controls and in-game navigation would deter new players, and it would be an absolute travesty for anyone to miss out on a game like this simply because of the challenges of accessibility in 2024. 

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Marle, Lucca, and Crono following their first interaction with Frog in Crono Trigger.

While I won’t go into spoilers, I will say that one of the most pivotal in-game moments, the game’s “shocker” moment if you will, was such an “ah-ha!” moment for me. I realized that so much of the direction that narrative games have taken since then is largely due to the blazing trail set by Chrono Trigger. It challenged its players with being complacent, with the hard truth that there is no such thing as certainty or success, even if you’re “the hero.” That tragedy, and loss, and the uncertainty that plagues us in the wake of these things, is so much a part of what heroism really is. Crono cannot succeed without his allies, and the strength of Lucca, and Robo, and Marle, and Ayla, and Frog, and even Magus, doesn’t rest in their physical prowess or the might of their weapons. It rests in their ability to see through their own pain, to accept the level of sacrifice that they must make to succeed, and go forth willingly with the knowledge that they may not make it out in the end. Chrono Trigger is as much a lesson in courage as it is in dismissing the archaic heroism tropes of the day. And that’s what made the game such a special experience for me, even now, almost 30 years on. 

I guess this means I should go dust off the old Final Fantasy games now, right?

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