Revisiting Chrono Trigger followed by Chrono Cross after 23 years

Images: Square Enix

Images: Square Enix
Chart: Karl Gustavson

When we were children, we simply saved the world.

It was a big part of calling the trigger of a stopwatch, Square’s 1995 SNES masterpiece about a group of bright and colorful young heroes who travel through time and space to undo a gruesome future. Yes, the game might get dark. Yes, heroes could die. (RIP – briefly – the protagonist Crono himself.) But at the heart of the game was a child-friendly moral simplicity: that given enough time and opportunity (and time machines), all evil could be undone by righteousness and will. Crono, Marle, Lucca and their time-gone friends finally triumphed; the apocalypse was averted; and despite the protestations of this nightmarish game on screen, the future has actually consented to change.

And then they all died.

Truer than we knew.

Truer than we knew.
Screenshot: the trigger of a stopwatch

Few sequels have been so radically opposed to the base vibe of their parent material like the 1999 the trigger of a stopwatch monitoring Chrono Cross—so much so that the two men who spearheaded its creation, screenwriter Masato Kato and producer Hiromichi Tanaka, often downplayed the idea that the game could be considered a the trigger of a stopwatch sequel at all. (As both creators have mentioned in later interviews, they deliberately didn’t call the damn thing Chrono 2 triggerafter all.)

Twenty-three years later, and with a shiny new remaster, The Radical Dreamers Editionreleased last week – these protests seem a bit hypocritical. Chrono-Cross traffics abundantly in the imagery of The trigger of a stopwatch, and the resulting love for his characters among fans. There’s a reason the early hours of the game feature off-model versions of fan-favorite characters Frog, Lucca, and Magus (Glenn, Luccia, and Guile, respectively) in quick succession. And though it takes time to reveal it, Chrono-Cross‘ plot is primarily concerned with attaching the biggest and most fanfiction-baiting free end in the history of the original game.

Like someone who had written his own part of the trigger of a stopwatch fan-fiction in the four-year gap between the two games, I could certainly relate to. Eleven was the ideal age for the trigger of a stopwatch to strike for me – even more than my equally beloved Final Fantasy 3it was custom made for a child who loved Back to the future Japanese films and role-playing games. The fact that it was both much easier and shorter than many of its contemporaries meant it was the first JRPG I’d managed to rent by beating. Really, I was obsessed: with the game’s colorful illustrations, provided by dragonball creator Akira Toriyama; with the perfect soundtrack from Yasunori Matsuda’s SNES sound chip; with the quiet nobility of characters like Frog, an honorable medieval swordsman transfigured by an evil curse. (And then lateryou find out that the guy who cursed it isn’t really that evilthen they have to team up to beat the real naughty, and… In hindsight, the trigger of a stopwatch was my first exposure to Anime Storytelling 101.)

At 15, and with some serious attempts to unofficially expand the franchise with my own writing efforts in the rearview mirror, its follow-up left me feeling fresher. I wanted to like it; damn, i wanted to like it. But despite my best efforts, Chrono-Cross never seemed to like me back.

Playing it now, following its re-release, it’s easier to see the game outside of the unenviable context of constantly being compared to the greatest video game a portly preteen has ever experienced. On its own merits, Chrono-Cross is sometimes confusing, sometimes awkward, but always beautiful. Matsuda’s justifiably famous soundtrack hasn’t lost a step in the two decades since, and the game’s battle system – one of Square’s endless tinkerings with turn-based combat – is an interesting approach to imposing risks and rewards on battles. The character art is bright and charming, and the plot’s focus on alternate universes is rich with all sorts of new possibilities, even if it gets twisted in convolution later on.

What surprised me, however, was how quickly I returned to Cross forced me to re-evaluate a thesis I had nurtured for years: that play was an inherently adolescent response to the child-friendly nature of the trigger of a stopwatch. It’s an attractive idea on the surface; Cross is much darker than the previous game, and even if it doesn’t as sinister (or as a psychology freshman) as Tanaka earlier Xenogears (the crown jewel of the wildly convoluted, ambitious, and ultimately somewhat silly PlayStation One Square RPGs), it nonetheless feels like a deliberate, edgy reaction to the monumental success of its predecessor.

Going back to it in my late thirties, however, I was instead struck by the relentless melancholy game it is. Even in the idyllic starting village of Arni, random characters you talk to will mourn the roads not taken or ponder how the ocean will survive us all. The moment I encountered the tomb of the protagonist Serge – whose death in one world and survival in the other is the pivot on which Cross“two parallel realities hang – I had begun to realize that what I was seeing was not a game about angsty teenage rebellion over past success; it was one in which the creators – who were then the age I am now – have developed a deep sense of futility about changing the world for the better.


Picture: Square-Enix

Which helps explain, maybe, the one thing I’ve never forgiven Chrono-Cross because, the cruellest decision that Kato made while writing itone of those story decisions so radical in its implications that it must be consciously ignored in order for the previous work in a series to be received in the same spirit in which it was published. Namely: he rewrote (or perhaps just expanded) the rules of time travel in the stopwatch universe, revealing that changes to the timeline via time travel, which is basically everything the player and main characters of the trigger of a stopwatch achieved – didn’t just change history; it plunged every person in the pre-existing timeline into a dimension of endless cold darkness. Whoops !

Twenty years later, it’s still the one that hurts and the thread that will keep forever Cross of the pantheon of games that I can really like. Because the trigger of a stopwatch is inherently a game about changing the future for the better. In its most memorable scene, the simply drawn, sweet characters speculate that their entire time-traveling adventure has been guided by an unseen entity (implied to be the planet the game takes place on) who wants to give his people a chance to escape. by testifying to the entire duration of its existence.

Chrono-Cross can’t stand the simplicity of this moment, and therefore does its best to destroy it retroactively. In turn, it’s a play on the fact that very little of what we do actually matters. His most memorable scenes center on characters being manipulated, controlled, and moved into position by unseen agents. This suggests at times that the aforementioned, once loving Entity has come to hate humanity so much for its mistreatment of the planet that it has become complicit in our extinction. It reveals, almost casually, that terrible things have happened to the heroes of Trigger shortly after bidding them farewell. (All of this was only pointed out in the 2008 Nintendo DS re-release of the trigger of a stopwatchwhich ties the game more closely to Cross adding scenes and side quests highlighting the ultimate futility of Crono and company’s time-consuming quest.)

At 37, the ideology of Chrono-Cross hits truer for me than ever. It’s dark and well-written, and in replaying it, I often find myself moved by its futile thoughts of death and choice – well above what I mostly remember from dialogue from that era of games. But despite all that, I just can’t forgive him for killing the friends I made as a kid, or turning his back on the idea that a kid with a traveling machine in time could really make the world a better place.