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Published January 25, 2009

There’s a lot to love about JRPGs. Diverse worlds to explore, the essential feeling of empowerment over time, and debatably, a stronger focus on characterizations and narrative. However, when Japanese bigwigs like Square Enix President Yoichi Wada bemoan stagnant Eastern development, this particular genre receives much of the blame. After all, the core mechanics of the JRPG haven’t changed much in the 23 years since the original Dragon Quest put it on the map.

As I simultaneously play through DQ IV and last year’s Lost Odyssey, I find it striking how similar the game play and pacing are between the two titles. Ditto for most of the other turn-based throwbacks, like Blue Dragon and Sonic Chronicles. To be fair, the Persona series and others have shown that there’s still some life in the subgenre. Going back through my catalog of PS2 RPGs however, I find that they’re usually just chores to play. Too often, I still find myself grinding away at oversized farm animals and “playing for the story,” which in the end usually limps along to some anticlimactic conclusion anyway. Even recent successes occasionally fall into the same obvious traps – all of them, except Chrono Trigger.

After getting acquainted with the characters and world at Leanne Square, you’re suddenly attacked by a gang of green, hydrocephalic imps. However, whereas most of its peers at the time (and to this day) would move the action to another screen, Crono immediately unsheathes his sword and holds his ground. The imps try to strafe around him, but our silent hero is able to maneuver through the forest arena as well. All of this fancy footwork happens automatically, with no actual input from the player. This is instantly more engaging than the dodge ball-inspired inspired lineups found in the Final Fantasy series.

Better yet, these skirmishes never last very long. Crono and company are well-stocked with MP, to the point where any problem can be solved with a powerful Double Tech like “Ice Sword” or “X-Strike.” Grinding is also kept to an absolute minimum. By capping the player’s abilities early (HP maxes out at 999, for instance), you’re encouraged to move swiftly through each dungeon. Some may complain that this makes the game a bit too easy, but I’d take the Chrono Trigger setup over some grueling trudge without hesitation. Besides, there are enough challenging bosses, like the bat-faced Giga Gaia, to keep most players on their toes.

The breezy, accessible nature of the game goes beyond the battle engine though. Much like Back to the Future, Chrono Trigger makes time travel comprehensible for the masses. The story is more adventure than it is science fiction. The time periods may change, but Masato Kato’s writing never confuses in the way that it did with Chrono Cross. There are some startling revelations throughout, mostly dealing with Magus’ relation to Lavos, but nothing as convoluted as Cross’ trek through “Chronopolis.”

As with Back to the Future, the central villain remains the same, despite the frequent time jumps. In this case, Lavos is the game’s (Biff) Tanon line, making life miserable at a handful of key points throughout history. Carrying out this strained analogy even further (because I love talking about BttF almost as much as I do about Chrono Trigger), Magus would be the game’s Principal Strickland. Lavos took something very dear from Magus, causing him to lash out at Frog and others in an effort to undo the past. This is similar to the disrespect Biff shows toward Strickland, which turns him into a bitter man that constantly chides the McFly boys (and points a shotgun at strangers in alternate 1985).

Moving on before this derails any further, Chrono Trigger does a great job of constantly introducing new environments to the player. Veterans can always rest assured that the comparatively lame prehistoric chapters will never last longer than a half hour or so, unless you really want to hang out on the hunting range. You always have the option of backtracking, and there are a bunch of side quests to do before you board the Black Omen, but no section of the game ever outstays its welcome.

I guess that’s the main thing I take away every time I play through a new save file or go back through New Game + – Chrono Trigger is as tight an RPG as you’ll ever find. You can complete it in roughly 15 hours, give or take, which is a far cry from the padded epics lining Japanese store shelves these days. Every element game is handled as succinctly as possible, while retaining a healthy sense of humor. And works more as a charming experience than as a challenge. The modern, dreary grind-fests could learn a thing by going back in time.

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