Last summer, Boss Fight Books gave fans the chance to vote for the game they most want to read a book about, and they chose Square's epic Super Nintendo time travel RPG Chrono Trigger.
Featuring new interviews with translator Ted Woolsey and DS retranslator Tom Slattery, Michael P. Williams's book delves deep into connections between Crono's world and ours, including Chrono Trigger's take on institutions such as law and religion, how the game's heroes fit and defy genre conventions, and the maddening logical headaches inherent in any good time travel plot.
From the Magus dilemma to the courtroom scene, find out why many consider this game the high point in the entire role-playing genre in this in-depth examination of Chrono Trigger, a ton of fun and a true work of art.
The Boss Fight Books series is doing an amazing job of book-length analyses for some of video games' seminal titles. Michael P. Williams' tome on Chrono Trigger - including an interview with the game's translator Ted Woolsey and personal reminiscences weaved into the narrative - is another great entry in the series. – Simon Carless
"If writing about video games had always been this good, we'd be having very difficult discussions about the medium right now."–Nintendo Life
"At once an autobiography, an enthusiast’s ode to the early years of gaming, and a coming of age story of boy-meets-cartridge."–Ted Woolsey
"The strength of this book comes from his desire and ability to look at the social codes, the basic assumptions, that enabled specific forms of development for the game he is analyzing. This comes in various forms ... that get to the heart of the material hardware restrictions and symbolic linguistic decisions that ultimately determined the shape Chrono Trigger took for the Anglophone world. 8.3/10"–Paste
"You had me at a 194-page book on Chrono Trigger."–Kill Screen
An hourglass measures the seconds on the screen of a newly purchased big-screen television. The music crescendos. An adventure is about to begin.
My sister and mother are downstairs just beginning a hot summer afternoon's episode of Days of Our Lives. Me, I've decided to forsake the people of Salem for a different kind of saga. No, today will not be full of surprise brain tumors, satanic possessions, and the insatiable desires of the flesh. Today is not a day for small-time drama. Today is an epic day.
A pendulum measures the seconds on the screen of an old rabbit-eared TV upstairs in my bedroom. The music swells. I press start.
I began Chrono Trigger the same way I began almost every role-playing game I eventually fell in love with—by reading about it. North American players had to endure agonizing months of anticipation, lapping up whatever blurbs Nintendo Power or Game Informer dished out until that long-awaited Tuesday, August 22nd, 1995.
By the time I finally got my hands on Chrono Trigger in late 1995, it had already been a year since my last Square fix with the operatic Final Fantasy III (really a disguised FFVI). Don't get me wrong, I devoured EarthBound, which had arrived stateside on June 5th that same summer. It was my thirteenth birthday present, in fact. I reveled in its fractured Americana. I laughed out loud at its zany humor. I scratched and sniffed the vile-smelling cards that came in the guidebook.
But to me, Square was the undisputed king of RPGs. Square opened the nexus of worlds—drama, fantasy, cinema, game. Square summoned the power of totems—sword, crystal, airship, chocobo! These hieroglyphs became the language of my inner fantasy stories, the legends of me I told myself in dreams.
Everything I had read about Chrono Trigger hyped it up to be the pinnacle of all my RPG desires. The sprawling world design of Secret of Mana, the raw emotional storytelling of Final Fantasy, the inescapably appealing art design of Dragon Warrior (really just the repackaged Dragon Quest). Chrono Trigger promised to be the epitome of everything I loved about RPGs.
I can't remember if I bought Chrono Trigger with my own money or if my mom went out and bought me the game for Christmas. Probably the latter. But when I finally broke the seal on that box, popped the cart into my SNES, and slid that purple power switch on, I knew that Chrono Trigger had to be among the most beautiful games that had ever been produced. Armed with my official strategy guide, I was an eager Chrono-naut for weeks, pausing only to use the bathroom or to grab a snack. Or to finally figure out just what the hell my mom had been yelling to me from downstairs.
"Good morning, Crono!"
A cheerful, banal greeting from a bland, nameless mom. Teenager Crono lives a life of relative peace, if not boredom, with his anonymous mother. But the day into which he awakens, the day we meet him, is the special day he's been waiting for. In fact, he's so excited that he slept in his clothes! Today is the first day of the Millennial Fair. Crono's got money in his pocket and he's ready to make things happen.
Well designed role-playing games are replete with missions to be ignored or embraced. Before his date with destiny and a mysterious girl at the fair—conveniently located right by his home—Crono can see the world around him. He can explore the nearby forest and tussle with low-level monsters. He can actually leave his country, traveling from his hometown of Truce to Porre, a town on the southern continent, to go carousing in a café. There is no sense of story urging him onward, no clear path to the next objective.
Even when this foray into tourism is done, there's ample time to play. The fair itself is loaded with mini-games. The most casual of players could dedicate hours to grinding with Gato, the karaoke fightbot, and to earning silver coins to spend at the creepy sideshow tent, where a wager of eighty coins can get Crono's probably already struggling little family another cat. And then cat food. Then more cat food. Which makes more cats, of course. In fact, you could doom Crono's mother to be a pet hoarder by proxy long before you ever discover that Chrono Trigger involves time travel. Before you finally step through that time gate and leave Crono's mom alone with the seven cats you just had to have.
After completing Chrono Trigger in 1995, I wanted to keep adventuring through new worlds like it. But Chrono Trigger ended up becoming Square's last hurrah of high fantasy in North America in the 16-bit era. Secret of Evermore, released a few months after Chrono Trigger, was not the kind of turn-based RPG I was waiting for. It even failed as a follow-up to 1993's action RPG Secret of Mana, to which it was a spiritual sequel. And March 1996's Super Mario RPG, while cute and innovative, was far from the fantasy that I craved. Square's Super Nintendo golden age was at its end.
Final Fantasy VII changed everything. Gone were the fat clunky cartridges I had to spank and blow in to make cooperate. FFVII spanned three PlayStation discs. Square had taken a leap into the future, and so had the series. The industrial revolution in Final Fantasy VI had given rise to a science fiction adventure in VII. Sure, there were magic and chocobos, but now they competed with gun-arms and helicopters. The familiar little character sprites were here too, but their bodies bulged with excess polygons.
As I trudged through the uncanny valley of Final Fantasy VIII—released in my final year of high school—I felt the effects of Square's spell on me starting to dissipate. Maybe it was a fluke. Maybe Square just dropped the ball with this hyper-realistic, over-pretty game. By the time I got to Final Fantasy IX, released during my first semester of college, the magic was gone. I felt ready to move on. In college I had little time for RPGs. Those hours of cola-fueled role-playing had been replaced by occasional spurts of Super Smash Bros. while binge drinking with friends. Perhaps I had outgrown Square—I was an adult after all, and video games are children's toys, right?
After graduating college, I found myself teaching English halfway across the world in that mecca of video games, Japan. I ended up in a budget, backwater Tokyo—Fukushima City. Fukushima was years away from rising to prominence in the news, and before I took the job there, the only information I had had on Fukushima was some tourism websites, a Wikipedia entry, and a rough estimate of its proximity to Tokyo. I had imaged the stereotypically frenetic metropolitan Japan that Westerners tend to think of—streets ablaze in neon, with garish cartoon mascots adorning every other building. Fukushima was decidedly not that.
Still, I grew comfortable there, made friends, fell in love a few times, and somehow managed to work far less than my fellow alumni stuck eternally in the past. Well, twelve hours behind me, at least. Post-college life was supposed to be my first taste of "the real world," but Japan was far from "real" for me. It was an extended vacation, a chance to satisfy my twenty-one-year-old wanderlust. For many of my foreign colleagues, Japan was even more of a fantasy realm—they jumped into anime, manga, cosplay. They gamed.
I had a lot of free time, and as the weather grew colder, I found myself indoors more often than not. I read every English book that my small group of friends collectively owned, watched every VHS tape of The X-Files that had been inexplicably left in my apartment by a previous tenant. I was getting bored. I noticed, though, that the Game Boy Advance I had brought to Japan was gathering dust in the closet. Maybe I'd buy a Japanese game and use it to improve my language skills. I could make this children's toy educational. Adult.
I picked up something familiar but altogether alien—the Japanese Game Boy Advance cartridge of Mother 1+2 (perhaps better known to us North Americans as EarthBound Zero+EarthBound). As I walked through the now Japanese streets of Onett, it all came to me in a flash—this is what I had been missing! Square and I had gone our separate ways. They had transformed RPG characters from little collectible figurines into complex intractable mannequins. I wanted more of what used to be. But new.
And now, back in the United States, playing through Chrono Trigger again, I was afraid. Afraid that playing the game some eighteen years later would ruin the magic. I approached with caution, reaching my hand down gingerly into that abyss of murky memory, wondering if the old abracadabra still had any kick. I can assure you, reader, that there's still plenty of rabbit left in that old hat.
If you're reading this book, then you probably still know the magic words. Maybe your memories of the game, like mine had been, are enveloped by the twin mists of nostalgia and getting older—an expanse of known landmarks hazily illuminated within dark, forgotten patches. There are far more skilled summarists than me, so rather than reproduce the herculean labors already completed by Chrono wiki compilers, let's take a moment to go over the basics.
Crono, a teenage boy from a small town, his techno-savvy gal pal Lucca, and princess-in-disguise Marle end up opening a hole in space-time—a gate. Discovering the link between their own era and others, the trio travels through different times assembling a party of allies: the knight-errant-turned-frog, Frog; stalwart robot Robo; rough-and-tumble cavewoman Ayla; and finally Magus, a dark sorcerer with mysterious allegiances. Learning that their planet—that all life itself!—will be destroyed by Lavos, a sinister force from beyond, the septet travel onward, gathering clues and materials, meeting supporters, and defeating foes to prepare themselves for that final, decisive battle for the future.
The plot is deceptively simple. Condensed even further, it might read as a personal ad in some questfinder's forum: Unlikely hero to save world from cataclysm. Seeks motley assortment of companions. Sidequests guaranteed.
Underneath the surface and the stock RPG trappings of Chrono Trigger are gates into other places and ideas. Many of these gates lead into our world and its curious intersections of cultural understanding. Others lead into different realms of fantasy. Still others are traps, rabbit holes that one can tumble down indefinitely until the real world seems like a wonderland.
I hope this book becomes a key item for you—a Gate Key—that unlocks new ideas and views into the rich worlds within and behind the world of Chrono Trigger. An epic adventure awaits.
Just press start when you're ready.