I am not sure how to tackle this game.
Many people will claim this is one of the best, if not the best game on the SNES, and perhaps of all time – certainly in the RPG genre. I played it several times, and enjoyed it a great deal. It was not my first JRPG love (that was Final Fantasy 6, or 3 to me at the time), but I did love it.
These days, though, I have absolutely no interest in JRPGs, and most RPGs in general. But I’m not going to write about that; that’s somewhere we’ve all been, and it’s a boringly well-trodden path.
What can I say about Chrono Trigger? It’s difficult to review an RPG in a format like this, especially when you really don’t want to play through a twenty-hour game to get the full impression. Chrono Trigger starts with the slow-paced idyllic town opening of many RPGs, and it’s not a great way to get a good impression of the game, either.
So I guess I’m not really going to talk about Chrono Trigger directly. I’m going to talk about something larger, something that it was a part of, and that is the SNES JRPG experience.
Back when I was playing on the SNES – god, I can’t even remember how old I was – it was different than my current gaming experience. Now, I am hyper self-aware and meta-aware; I am thinking about games as art, games in terms of design, evaluating what I want from a game and what it’s giving me, what I would have done differently, what other games I could be playing, what’s coming out, what came out before, and so on. Not only that, I’m (supposedly) an adult. I have responsibilities, from the mundanity of laundry and doing dishes to more legitimately grown-up stuff like going to work, balancing my budget, doing groceries, and maybe playing music. I don’t have the time or the interest in sitting down for thirteen hours and playing a game for the whole day.
But back then, that’s exactly what I did. I was riveted by RPGs; I would sit down and just fall into the world of the game, into its story and the strange dual experience that characterizes any third person (and arguably first person) game: both being there and watching it from afar. I would do this from the time I got up until I was forced to take a shower, then until supper-time, then until I had to go to bed. Rarely did I actually get bored; I just beat the game then found something else to do. My parents desperately attempted to ensure that whatever my subsequent activity was, it took place outdoors.
What was this experience? How did it happen? Why doesn’t it happen as often anymore? When I reflect on it, I have a mixed reaction of nostalgic longing and something like…not contempt, but satisfaction in myself as I am now. As that kid, I was unsophisticated and unreflective. I was not aware of the context of the things I was engaging with. I think, maybe it was because I was less real as an individual, as a self, and so it was easier to be absorbed into something else. But I also think that it was because I was innocent, and the critical mode of thought that I find so valuable and enjoyable now actually blocks me from fully experiencing something by dissolving myself into it. Any dissonant chimes in the music of Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy were subsumed in the process of living the game; now, a single off-key note will shatter the whole experience and leave me cold.
But there is a difference between your standard unsophisticated video game story, upon which I now smirk from my ivory tower, and something like Chrono Trigger. Chrono Trigger is a fantasy/sci-fi genre epic translated from Japanese, and it wasn’t written by professionals in either language, I’m fairly sure. This is, generally, not a recipe for the most delicious of successes. But it’s something special. It has a rather intricate narrative of time travel and the alteration of the future through your actions; it has characters that, to some extent, come alive. It has a nasty, big-boss villain who you can even convince to come to your side, if you do it right. It has multiple endings and a terrifying final boss that destroys worlds and waits for you at the terminus of every timeline, like a living, breathing dark god of entropy.
Even the most puerile, unsophisticated game has some power to draw you in by virtue of the medium, especially when you are not glazed over with the veneer of culture and cynicism as we are, drowning in our torrents of media (ha). The experience of a game with a narrative, with a cohesive story and set of characters and events, is powerful. A story in a game that would be absolute drivel in a book, even for thirteen year old anime-obsessed mega-nerds, can become something more than just a sequence of occurrances. It becomes more than a game, too. That is the core of why I think a video game can be more than just a game, through interactivity; it’s also why I think that an RPG doesn’t need a good combat engine or level system to draw in its fans (or at least, it didn’t). The epic scale and hours upon hours of story (though many of those hours consist of traipsing through a desert or forest fighting series of imps or whatever) seem to help any RPG reach closer to the glowing filament that vibrates, elusively, in the medium that we call “video game.” Together with an actually decent narrative and cast of characters, and some interesting innovation, you can make something really special.
And I just ate that shit up.
Right now, I am much more knowledgeable about the medium, and art and games in general. I am smarter, more sophisticated, more able to accurately assess and evaluate and know and, maybe, more able to deeply enjoy something intellectually and emotionally. But right now, it’s hard for me to find that experience again; it’s hard for me to even approach the feeling I got from facing Lavos for the second time, or from finding my favourite character holding up a house to save a child in Final Fantasy 6, after the world has ended.
When I was a kid, playing these games, playing Chrono Trigger, I was electrified. Now, even playing those same games, or any modern games that try to create the same kind of experience, I’m not sure if it’s the memory of that lightning that I feel, or just static from the carpet.