Somehow, the Nintendo DS has become the number one games console for fans of Japanese role-playing games. For them, it's better than the Xbox 360, PS3, PC and PSP. The DS, a perfect fit for 16-bit graphics, is now, largely as a result of Square Enix's commitment to it, the epicentre of this exhilarating re-invigoration of the JRPG. Chrono Trigger, the latest in Square Enix's growing list of DS ports of its classic games, brings this re-invigoration to its climax.
While most UK gamers might have heard of Chrono Trigger, perhaps when browsing forum threads discussing the best role-playing games of all time, they're unlikely to have played it, and that's because it was never released on these shores. Back in 1995 Square reserved the title for Japanese and US SNES owners only, choosing, as it did with many of its early Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy games, not to give Europeans a chance to enjoy Chrono Trigger's time-travelling brilliance. 14 years later, 14 years later, that wrong has been righted.
Chrono Trigger is considered by many RPG aficionados not only to be the greatest game in its genre, but the greatest game ever. Playing it now on the DS it's easy to see why so many hold it in such high regard. It's funny really. It's brilliant because it doesn't actually feel like most of the JRPGs not only of the SNES era, but somewhat depressingly, of the modern era too.
The plot, an intelligent, breezy yarn that follows the red-haired, katana-wielding Crono and his party of brilliantly designed friends as they travel through time, affecting the future as they tinker with the past, isn't bogged down by nonsensical philosophy as many JRPGs are. The game begins on an earth-like planet in the year 1000AD. Crono, Marle (a tomboy princess) and Lucca (a genius inventor), find themselves travelling through time in order to stop an evil monster from devastating civilisation some time in the future.
The brilliance is not in the plot, but in the structure of the game. You feel like you're breezing through the story because Chrono Trigger dumps so many of the JRPG game design mechanics the genre's haters always point to. There are no random battles, no need to grind in order to level up your characters, no incredibly complicated combat system. Chrono Trigger strips away all that fluff, distilling the 16-bit JRPG into something more pure, more fun, a bit like how tap water ends up after running through a filter.
So, you can avoid fighting enemies because you can see them milling about. When you do get into a fight there's no annoying transition or load screen to suffer. The action seamlessly switches into battle mode as your party members position themselves against the enemy. The game is turn-based, but the active battle system makes it feel real-time. Once you've dispatched the beasties the battle ends, you grab your loot and continue on. It feels like watching a movie fight scene filmed in a single shot.
Because of this Chrono Trigger just doesn't get boring. It just doesn't get annoying, and it just doesn't get frustrating. You don't mind getting ambushed by impossible to avoid enemies because you know that you'll be done and dusted as quickly as your brain will allow. It seems amazing that Final Fantasy VII, a more popular "best JRPG ever made" pick, didn't employ similar design mechanics when it was released on the original PlayStation two years later.
The "Techs", Chrono Trigger's special moves, are fun to play with and simple enough to be accessible. As you kill monsters and gain experience each character gains tech points. Get enough and you'll learn a new tech. Simple as that. Different techs hit differently, one might hit a single target, another does an area of effect, another hits everything in a straight line. The more powerful ones, where two or more party members come together to do a tag-team style attack, are the most spectacular. Fun fun fun.
The breezy combat is complimented by a quite brilliant plot that claws its way under your skin and refuses to budge. The game begins with a Millennial Fair in which Marle is accidentally sucked into a time gate triggered by her pendant interfering with a teleportation device constructed by Lucca. Crono and Lucca follow in hot pursuit and find themselves 400 years in the past, exploring the same area and interacting with characters whose descendants they've left behind. They find Marle, who is believed by the populace to be their princess, has inadvertently created a time paradox. Crono and Lucca then attempt to rescue the real princess and right the time-bending wrongs they've instigated. It's cool stuff and, despite the happy nature, doesn't feel like a cringe-worthy episode of Pokemon as most JRPGs, even in these "next-gen" powered times, do.
While the actual game world is small, the size of the game is massive because there are multiple time periods in which to explore. Travelling back in time and talking to NPCs results in a change thousands of years into the future, allowing you to progress the story in different directions. Time travel isn't a particularly new concept, but its execution in Chrono Trigger is flawless.
Inevitably, the 16-bit graphics show Chrono Trigger's age, but, really, there's more emotion and expression in Crono's red hair than Square has conveyed via the tiresome identikit anime emo leads it's conjured up in recent years. The music is another high point. The score, composed by Yasunori Mitsuda, is fantastic, and up there with the best JRPG soundtracks ever made.
As far as ports go, this one's largely stuck to the original, with a few added menu options and the like. You don't have to use the DS stylus at all, if you don't want to - indeed, you can play the game in classic view if you want the 14-year-old experience. For newcomers, though, the new uncluttered dual screen presentation will be the way to go, which puts the action on the top screen and a map, as well as menu buttons, on the bottom screen.
Chrono Trigger is brilliant for loads of reasons: the unobtrusive combat, the time-travelling plot, the incredible character design, the entrancing music, but what impresses most is how great it plays despite the fact it's 14 years old. It feels fresh, vibrant and innovative. It shines a light on the staleness of current JRPGs - puts them to shame, really. If you're a DS owner and you like JRPGs, Chrono Trigger is an essential purchase. Is it the greatest JRPG ever made? Your answer to that question will be different to mine, but at least now you'll be able to add your opinion to those forum threads you skimmed over in the past.