It’s interesting to go back and view old games through the lens of the modern gamer. As someone who grew up in the PS2 era, many elements of their aesthetics and design strike me as interesting, and I quite enjoy seeing the changes in various design elements as various genres develop and grow older, for better or worse. The JPRG genre has definitely changed in certain ways from the formula it was founded on, but there are many great games that have made use of elements of its old design. A game that I feel strikes a perfect balance between the elements of old design while innovating is the classic SNES RPG Chrono Trigger, widely renowned by many as the greatest JRPG of all time (a compliment I would agree with). Even today, the design and aesthetics of Chrono Trigger hold up marvelously and serve as a brilliant view of what the JRPG used to be and of ideas that could be used to benefit the genre nowadays.
One of Chrono Trigger‘s more striking features to the modern audience is its plot. Most JRPGs nowadays (especially Square’s current fare) go for a more dark, heavy-handed sort of story, stressing themes of angst and loss. Chrono Trigger‘s light-hearted but still very emotionally-engaging plot felt like a breath of fresh air. The characters are all well-rounded, funny when appropriate, sad when appropriate, perfectly painted to allow the audience to feel a bond with them. The plot strikes a precise balance between emotion and humor, knowing exactly when to stress each. Definitely not something you see all that often in today’s more popular JRPGs.
The game also uses a brilliant combat system, possibly the best I’ve ever seen in a JRPG. It’s fast-paced and fun; it’s also easy on the whole, but that’s not much of a concern because it’s just so entertaining. Most of the JRPGs I’m used to have the basic turn-based system, which generally is more slow-paced and methodical, not that that’s purely negative, it’s just not all that fun on the whole. Chrono Trigger‘s system moves fast enough that fights aren’t a chore, but slow enough that the fights don’t boil down to reaction time. Once again, a perfect balance.
A few other elements of the design are quite brilliant too. One of its features I’d love to see used more often is how experience is pooled amongst your party. It’s always pretty annoying when a JRPG forces you to switch to a character you haven’t leveled because you weren’t aware that the game would be forcing you to balance your party (something most Final Fantasys are guilty of), but in Chrono Trigger, the party members you don’t use are always only two or three levels behind your main team, and you’re never really forced to use the ones you don’t like. I got through the whole game with Chrono/Frog/Lucca, never had to switch anyone out, aside for some endgame sidequests. It also adds a bit to the replayability, since the game allows for multiple dialog opportunities with the different party sets.
The game is also much more conveniently designed than most modern JRPGs. Even with doing all of the sidequests, the game only clocks in at about thirty or so hours, a much more manageable length than most 80+ hour RPGs today. The game also features virtually no necessary grinding. In all of those thirty hours, I only had to grind once, and that only took about five or so minutes, enough that what I was grinding for probably didn’t require the grinding. More JRPGs nowadays need to be shorter, with less time wasted through padding out the hours with grinding. I’d much rather play a thirty hour JRPG where each hour is great than a JRPG with 80+ hours, but only a few of them are actually enjoyable and meaningful.
I’d say the most timeless elements of Chrono Trigger can be attributed to the game’s aesthetics. The pixel-work is absolutely gorgeous, the character design (by the legendary Akira Toriyama) is great, the animation is smooth, and the enviroments are all well-done. The soundtrack is definitely the game’s best feature. Yasunori Mitsuda is a genius composer, and Chrono Trigger is one of his masterworks. He puts the SNES sound-chip to great use, creating something even people who aren’t fans of 16-bit soundtracks can adore. Sure, it’d probably sound better with a full orchestra doing it all, but it’s way better than most of the MIDI-based composition that came in the ensuing console generations. As well-composed as, say, the Final Fantasy VII soundtrack is, the sound quality isn’t very good; it wants to be more than what a MIDI-based soundtrack can be and suffers for it. It’s difficult to work within its boundaries and create something great. 8/16-bit sound definitely had the edge on it, and it’s a shame quite a lot of ensuing game soundtracks had to go to MIDI, but Chrono Trigger is a swan song (pun not intended) for the old format.
As someone whose first JRPG was Final Fantasy X, Chrono Trigger really shines as an example of how good the genre was and can be. It’s truly an amazing game, even without the issue of “retro goggles” and such coloring one’s opinions. Most reading this probably know that it’s great, but as a person born the year the game came out, it’s a real eye-opener for an era I wasn’t around to experience at the time.