Depending on who you talk to, Chrono Trigger is either the best JRPG ever released on the DS, the best JRPG ever made or simply the best game of all time. It pops up time and time again on Top Ten lists, usually somewhere near the top. In the fourteen years since its original release on the SNES, Chrono Trigger's halo has been vigorously shined to almost blinding levels, and arrives in Australia borne aloft on a velvet pillow, welcomed by a chorus of angels in full voice and illuminated by a golden shaft of light from the heavens. Or something.
All of which makes approaching the game for the very first time a unique experience. There is no way, of course, that it can possibly live up to its reputation, short of churning out twenty dollar bills, doing your tax return and gently massaging your shoulders while you play the game. It's also difficult, on being handed the 'best game ever' to not immediately start looking for flaws. This at least partly explains why our notes covering the first few hours of Chrono Trigger are best described as a litany of nit-picks. Best game ever? Snort! Not without an in-game journal it isn't! And why are doorways so difficult to see? Not to mention the endless wandering you have to do to find the next story trigger! And so on.
The great miracle of Chrono Trigger, however, is that once it shrugs off its gilded reputation and gets down to the gameplay, it ultimately overcomes its flaws - and it does have a few - and proves that a fourteen year old SNES game can easily hold its own against more recent offerings. It's the story as much as anything that holds it all together. We're hesitant to give away too much because one of the great joys of the game is discovering the many twists and turns of Chrono Trigger's epic yarn. Suffice to say that you play Crono (or whatever you decide to name him) as he and a select group of friends hurtle through time in an attempt to defeat a lurking menace. What you do in one era can have an effect in another and the game constantly, even mischievously, plays with ideas of cause and effect. Leaping between eras also helps keep the game fresh - just as you're tiring of the rather standard pseudo-medieval setting of the early game, you're slung into the distant future. Later in the game you'll be skipping through the years like there's no tomorrow. Or even... (dramatic sting!) no yesterday.
Let's be clear, though - it's not a story that's going to make you sit down and reassess your life when you finish it. The burbling Chrono Trigger hype may have you expecting the video gaming equivalent of Citizen Kane, so allow us to pop that little bubble. It is, more than anything, great fun, roughly on par with a really good Dr. Who episode, or the better installments of the Back to the Future trilogy. It's a cracking time travel tale that's well told without the kind of plodding, angsty navel gazing that so often worms its way into JRPG storytelling. There's a remarkable lightness of touch here that a lot of modern developers would do well to learn from.
On the downside, we did spend quite a while wandering aimlessly about in search of the next story trigger. This isn't so much of a problem in the early game, when you have only a limited number of destinations and it's clear what you're supposed to be doing. Around the mid-point, however, your options increase dramatically and - if you're us, at least - it's possible to head off in entirely the wrong direction, spend a lot of time in the wrong place and have your heroic journey feel more like a constant series of dead ends. There's no in-game story tracker, so if you put the game down and come back to it a week later, you'd better have some sticky notes to hand.
Underpinning the story is a great little RPG engine. Inventory management, the Achilles heel of many an RPG, is deftly handled. It's quick and easy to keep your team well equipped and all your potions and knick-knacks are two clicks (or one stylus tap) away. The game takes care of all character stats and skill learning when levelling up. Some players might miss being able to tweak characters at sub-atomic levels, but we found it kept the game from getting bogged down with number-twiddling and let us focus on the story. This bright and breezy approach works particularly well on a portable platform, where you really don't want to spend too much time shuffling teensy digits on a small screen.
Combat is presented as a unique twist on the standard 'you stand there and we'll hit you' model. When a fight breaks out, both sides are scattered in all directions. How close combatants are to the enemy, and how close the enemy are to each other, dictates how the action will unfold. You can choose to launch either a basic attack, a spell, a tech attack or use an item. Tech attacks can often damage multiple enemies that are huddled close together and, seeing as the enemy are constantly moving about the battlefield, a well-timed tech attack can be a very handy way to even the odds. Certain team members can also also combine their attacks into dual or triple attacks, as long as every one involved has enough action points to spare.
The fact that combat takes place in real time gives it a particularly compelling edge. If you take too long to decide on your action, or get lost in the inventory, you'll find that something has started chewing on your ankle. You can slow down the speed of battle if all gets too much, or even make it so that nothing can happen while you're rummaging through your handbag, but that does rob the game of a certain amount of adrenalin. We will admit, though, that we did slow things down towards the end of the game when there are so many different attacks, potions and spells available.
Any reservations about how attractive an old SNES game can look on the DS can be promptly dismissed. The graphics are sharp, colourful and detailed. There's a hint of Chrono Trigger's age in the rudimentary animation - a few more frames here and there would be much appreciated - but it's nothing you'll notice after 20 minutes with the game. The '2.5D' nature of the graphics, in which 3D objects are represented on a 2D plane, took a little getting used to and caused some early frustrations. What looks like a solid, ground level wall might actually be the second storey of a building, and therefore able to be walked behind. Then again, it might be a solid wall. There are some areas where the only way to make progress is to rub yourself up against every wall until you discover a clear path, a flashback to old school gaming that we could have lived without. Similarly, there are more than a few instances where ladders blend almost invisibly into the background, effectively bringing the game to a jarring, shuddering halt until endless minutes of wall-rubbing experimentation reveals that an indistinct grey blob is, in fact, the door to further adventure. The dark, drab design of the post-apocalyptic future is particularly guilty of this. Still, we did quickly learn that careful observation of the area map on the touchscreen makes it much easier to see where you can go, so it's a quibble that mostly cancels itself out.
The touchscreen is also used to select various inventory and character options, as well as letting you move your team about. Stabbing the touchscreen in the direction you want your team to move on the upper screen never really felt comfortable for us, and we stuck almost exclusively with the d-pad and face buttons. The interface can be customised to a surprising extent, letting you set your own button shortcuts, reorder the various icons on the touchscreen and choose from a range of different colour schemes.
Chrono Trigger's soundtrack has probably been lauded as much as the game itself and, while we found it pleasant enough in a tinkly, MIDI-esque fashion, we wouldn't have been entirely unhappy had there been an option to turn it off. If you do really enjoy the music, there's a Music Box option under the Extras menu that will let you play all 69 of the game's tracks until your ears bleed.
So, then: Chrono Trigger. Best game ever? No, not really, but then what is? Best JRPG ever? Hmmmm... it's certainly one of the best JRPGs we've played, but then there are a heck of a lot we haven't played so who knows? Best JRPG on the DS? There's no doubt that it's a rock solid, wildly entertaining game, but then so are (to name just two) The World Ends With You and Etrian Odyssey II. We didn't find Chrono Trigger to be indescribably better than either of those two games, but it's definitely a worthy companion to them, and all the more remarkable for being fourteen years old.
When you do get your hands on Chrono Trigger, give it a damn good shake until it's free of all the bluster, hyperbole and semi-religious awe, and play it for what it is: a slightly flawed, but ultimately great RPG that's an awful lot of fun. What more could you want?