The idea of a silent hero running into an undercover princess and going off to fight The Big Bad may be perfectly groanworthy by now, but trust me when I say this is one that deserves a closer look if you haven’t experienced it already. Then-Squaresoft’s Chrono Trigger (Out Now, $9.99) went where no RPG had gone before, and where all too few have gone since.
Chrono Trigger starts out looking like your typical, vaguely medieval JRPG, but the surprises start rolling in instantly. Before katana-wielding boy wonder Crono has even had his first turn-based battle, a freak accident has warped him centuries into the past! Luckily the inventor friend who got him into this mess figures out how to master the process, and they end up on a journey through six time periods with hopes of averting the bleak future that hangs over their world.
Chrono Trigger certainly didn’t take the time travel concept to its fullest potential: behind all the bouncing around from era to era lies a linear series of objectives, and the open-endedness it does enjoy results from a few startling choices the player gets during the final leg of the journey. Only by re-playing the game with the option to trounce its last boss at any point does the player get a taste of the fun ways a time traveler might completely screw up history. However, the time travel makes for a magnanimous RPG in this sense: watching Crono’s planet evolve from pre-history to the very End of Time itself lends the game world a certain depth of character that RPGs struggle mightily to attain, and many still fall short of what Chrono Trigger achieves here. This 1995 gem is also notable for an endearing cast of well-defined characters who more than fill in for the silent protagonist; it’s difficult to watch their separation in the game’s dénouement without shedding a tear or two after they’ve shared such a wild roller coaster!
Also innovative – both for its time and in the current market – is Chrono Trigger’s masterful combat system. It one-ups the usual retro RPG fare with its wide range of double and triple attacks, which have the player sacrificing individual character turns in favor of mighty combination techniques. In retrospect it’s unfortunate that each character’s moveset is so slow to build over time, with magic and special attacks unlocked linearly rather than through a skill tree, and with only active characters learning. On the flipside, it keeps the player swapping characters in and out of his or her active party, and there’s always some new special attack or combination technique to look forward to until the end.
Oh, hang on — I almost forgot to mention that there are no random battles here! Seeing enemies in dungeons and being able to evade them is important, because Chrono Trigger’s developers put a metric ton of work into environment design. From carefully hidden treasure chests to secret battles and extra story clues, tons of fantastic little touches await the player who takes some time to explore every nook and cranny.
There’s little question that Chrono Trigger remains a great example for RPG developers to learn from and be inspired by, and that’s why I’m glad Square Enix has brought it to a platform that attracts as much new talent as iOS. That said, even my thick nostalgia goggles can’t overlook serious flaws in the user interface attached to this port. My greatest concern going in was how the port would handle target selection in battle, and sure enough this is the iOS version’s greatest weakness. Enemies often roam around and that affects the player’s options when it comes to the game’s plethora of position-based attacks; wait just a second longer, and the stars could align for that uber double tech you want to pull off. This worked well enough with the multifaceted SNES controller back in the day, but iOS users have to make do with a clunky virtual button that cycles through target options one at a time — and it is so small! Miss it by a hair and you’ll prematurely execute the attack or spell. On far too many occasions did I waste precious magic points while just trying to cycle through available targets.
If you’ve read many of my reviews, you’ll know my mantra for cases like this: just make the touch area bigger, darn it, and call it a day. But you know what? Chrono Trigger’s better than that — it’s literally pre-made for iOS deep down inside, and deserves an interface option to just let the player tap on the desired target after selecting an action. Checking on area effects could be accomplished by holding on the currently selected target; release to execute when other targets have wandered within range of an area attack, and boom — perfect implementation of the game’s battle system on a touchscreen, in my opinion. The menu for selecting among a character’s regular attack, special attack, and item use options works mercifully well as things stand.