It isn't often that we review classic games, but Nick Fortugno's, experience inspired me to give Chrono Trigger a replay. I'm glad I did, because I was one of those cliche'd individuals that this game made an impression on, and on an adult replay I've gained a lot of perspective on mastery of craft. CT is perhaps the genre king of Japanese Role-playing Games (the queen was not so much a game as a moment: Celes' attempted suicide in Final Fantasy VI). It gains this title for three reasons: first it capture the supreme essence of jRPG aesthetics with Akira Toriyama's character designs combined with Square's then budding sense of interface polish, secondly its narrative made use of archtypes in a way that perhaps seems cliche at first (as Nick pointed out skeptically when starting the game) but then deepens to a psychodrama of cuasation that would make Carl Jung want to write an analysis, and three it took the trite grind of jRPG combat and made it interesting through a handful of simple variations that in combination yield distinct boss fights all the way to the Lavos Core.
The character designs are drawn to make you imbue meaning into their pixels, this was a craft temepered on 16x16 and then 32x16 sprite grids, Chrono Trigger let it grow up to semi-perspective drawn characters whose posture is of a human, not a squarish ape. These characters are not as richely developed as those of the queen, FFVI, because the form of the game's content does not provide as many encyclopedic sub-quests to flesh out their lost loves and deepest regrets. It does however, do a leaner job of it, taking FFVI's late-game opening up to character-oriented subquests, but pruning the tree (along with a tighter number of characters) so that your literary experience has the consumability of a BicMac - it tastes more pop but there layers nonetheless. Crono, the ostenible and semi-eponymous main character, is basically Goku but hollowed out for game-time, a second person vessel for the player, not a line of dialogue to convolute the friendly everyman gone superman that Toriyama likes to do (and the whole shonen-genre as well, when it's not doing badass anti-heroes). Who you choose to invest in will vary dialogue, though the recombinations are not so labrynthine as the (arguable) genre-king of western RPGs, Planescape: Torment - this is to be expect considering the linearized format of the jRPG. Magus pulls a Vegeta/Picollo as the powerful anti-hero that - hey cool! - can join your team to fight the greater evil, and Lucca fills the goofy friend role of Bulma, Marle a sort of pluckier ChiChi, Frog is like one of the various animal companions or maybe Krillin, Robo actually stands out as a character perhaps more than anyone else in the cast, ironically, for his touching discovery of feeling and his non-compliance with the usual Toriyama character role, and Ayla is like, an Aryan cave woman with poor grammar. For the same reason that large anime eyes with a little nose makes anime girls seem hot to teenage boys - something to do with evolutionary psychology - so to does the badass and endearing elements make them the most refined vessels of player empathy that any RPG has ever embedded.
The story has a lot of elements that made me raise an eyebrow, knowing what I do now about occult symbolism. You've got, at the core of the script, an alien, trans-temporal, parasitic entity attempting to harvest the world for it's informatic value. The crux of act III involves an Atlantis-like civilization that flies to close to the sun (or in this case, the earth's core) and is destroyed for tempting the dark power. Prior to the arrival of the alien threat, the threat was a bunch of reptilian humanoids competing with humanity for survival. A sort of sacred bloodline defines all major touchstone characters in each timeline, and the main characters either belong to this bloodline (Ayla, Marle, Magus ostensibly) or serve it (Crono marries in, Frog serves the Guardia king, Lucca and Robo and relatively independent and represent the scientific counter-point). Meanwhile, the story offers a lot of cleverly scripted scenarios that give you the illusion of a western RPG-style alignment and consequences system, all the more accented by time-travel effects such as completing a quest, leaving Robo behind, and growing a forest 400 years later, or undoing a time-paradox with the eponymous "Chrono Trigger", an egg which repesents a lot of primale famale principle stuff relating to Isis, Ishtar, Lillith, and whatnot. I'm not saying the game is trying to communicate anything about human history being manipulated by alien superintelligences for the harvesting of our physical or spiritual DNA, but they definetly thread lots of eratz symbolism in a way only the Japanese can, and it holds together as something worth thinking about instead of the usual good vs. evil set-up.
I remember my girlfriend commenting about the music pacing being more relaxed, and during the classic scene around the campfire where the players talk about an "entity" looking back over its life, she commented how it was refreshing to have characters talking about their feelings and regrets. She's not much of a game player but she does work in an auxillary capacity in a major game company that churns out generic material, so I think her perspective provides a good vantage of what the mean is today. And the truth is, I don't think many games to follow in the genre (and if it ain't in this genre, where do you find it?) have managed to achieve a similar poise and care in either the writing or the music composition, excepting a handful of PC games.
The battle system is the same as it ever was, though the game innovated for the time by making the battles: a) play out on the same field of view as navigation, b) be avoidable and c)vary in enemy vulnerability so raw grinding is insufficient. I played this with the speed up, turbo-moding my way through 90% so I could complete the whole thing in a couple of weekend afternoons, and I dare say this is how the game should be experienced for its time-theme to really nail home. When you blaze through these things, never avoiding fights out of a desire to avoid boredom, your sense of not only time but challenge and pacing are completely distorted, triggered if you will. At first I felt like Neo, seeing the matrix, that's all I see in games these days, progression curve, extinsic rewards, ratios, increments and staggered gaps. But the set-ups make you stop and move the cursor at least, by using variable defense power, elemental weaknesses and counter-attack triggers, the game forces you to modulate your A-button holding in such a way that the combats are actually interesting, and stay interesting. Those three tricks are pretty much the whole suite, there are maybe two more, so if you know how the fights work already you ca side-step them and resume your reguarly scheduled A-button holding, but at least they tried dammit. That's why this is the genre-king, not just because it did tings supremely well, but because it got to the core and exhausted the very mechanisms themselves.
The game actually does portent to change your perception of temporal causality and the meaning of consequence, but it does it mostly in a tooth-pick scripting way, unless you turbo-mode through the combats. It ain't Braid, but, to paraphrase Elizabeth Hurley's character in Austin Powers: a lot's changed since 1995.