When we were kids, we saved the world, simply.
That was a major part of the appeal of Chrono Trigger, Square’s 1995 SNES masterpiece about a group of bright and colorful young heroes who cross time and space to undo a horrible future. Yes, the game could get grim. Yes, heroes could die. (R.I.P.—briefly—protagonist Crono himself.) But at the core of the game was a kid-friendly moral simplicity: That with enough time and opportunity (and time machines), any evil could be undone through righteousness and will. Crono, Marle, Lucca and their time-flung friends were ultimately triumphant; the apocalypse was averted; and despite the protestations of that nightmare-inducing game over screen, the future did, in fact, consent to change.
And then they all died.
Few sequels have ever been as radically opposed to the basic vibe of their parent material as the 1999 Chrono Trigger follow-up Chrono Cross—to the point that the two men who served as the chief guiding hands on its creation, story writer Masato Kato and producer Hiromichi Tanaka, frequently downplayed the idea that the game could be considered a Chrono Trigger sequel at all. (As both creators mentioned in subsequent interviews, they very deliberately didn’t call the damn thing Chrono Trigger 2, after all.)
Twenty-three years on—and with a shiny new remaster, The Radical Dreamers Edition, out just last week—those protests feel a bit disingenuous. Chrono Cross traffics liberally in the imagery of Chrono Trigger, and the attendant love for its characters among fans. There’s a reason the game’s first few hours trot out off-model versions of fan favorite characters Frog, Lucca, and Magus (Glenn, Luccia, and Guile, respectively) in rapid succession. And although it takes its time revealing it, Chrono Cross’ plot is primarily concerned with tying up the largest, most fan-fiction-baiting loose end from the original game’s story.
As someone who’d written his own share of Chrono Trigger fan-fiction in the four-year gap between the two games, I could certainly relate. Eleven was the perfect age for Chrono Trigger to hit for me—even more than my also-beloved Final Fantasy III, it was tailor-made for a kid who loved Back To The Future movies and Japanese role-playing games. The fact that it was both significantly easier and shorter than many of its contemporaries meant it was the first JRPG I’d actually managed to rent my way through beating. Really, I was obsessed: With the game’s colorful artwork, provided by Dragonball creator Akira Toriyama; with Yasunori Matsuda’s SNES-sound-chip-perfect soundtrack; with the quiet nobility of characters like Frog, an honorable medieval swordsman transfigured by an evil curse. (And then later, you find out that the guy who cursed him isn’t actually that bad, and then they have to team up to beat the real bad guy, and…. In hindsight, Chrono Trigger was my first exposure to Anime Storytelling 101.)
At 15, and with a few earnest attempts at unofficially extending the franchise with my own writing efforts in the rearview, its follow-up left me cooler. I wanted to like it; hell, I wanted to love it. But despite my best efforts, Chrono Cross never seemed to love me back.
Playing it now, in the wake of its re-release, it’s easier to view the game outside the unenviable context of being constantly compared to the greatest video game a portly tween had experienced to date. On its own merits, Chrono Cross is sometimes confused, sometimes inconvenient, but always beautiful. Matsuda’s rightly celebrated soundtrack hasn’t lost a step in the intervening two decades, and the game’s battle system—one of Square’s endless tinkerings with turn-based combat—is an interesting approach to imposing risk and reward onto fights. The character art is bright and lovely, and the plot’s focus on alternate universes is rich with all sorts of new possibilities, even if it allows itself to get twisted into convolution later on.
What surprised me, though, was how quickly my return to Cross forced me to re-evaluate a thesis I’d been nurturing for years: that the game was an inherently adolescent response to the kid-friendly nature of Chrono Trigger. It’s an attractive idea on the surface; Cross is far darker than the previous game, and while it doesn’t go as grim (or as freshman Psychology major) as Tanaka’s earlier Xenogears (the crown jewel of hugely convoluted, ambitious, and ultimately kind of silly Square PlayStation One RPGs), it nevertheless has the feel of a deliberate, edgy backlash against its predecessor’s monumental success.
Coming back to it in my late thirties, though, I was struck instead by what a relentlessly melancholy game this is. Even in the idyllic starting village of Arni, random characters you talk to will mourn roads not taken, or muse on the way the ocean will outlast us all. By the time I encountered the grave of protagonist Serge—whose death in one world and survival in the other is the lynchpin on which Cross’ two parallel realities hang—I’d started to realize that what I was seeing wasn’t a game about angsty teenage rebellion from a past success; it was one in which creators—who were, then, the age I am now—processed a profound sense of futility at the idea of changing the world for the better at all.
Which helps explain, maybe, the one thing I’ve never forgiven Chrono Cross for, the cruelest decision Kato made when writing it—one of those story decisions so sweeping in its implications that it has to be consciously ignored in order for the earlier work in a series to be received in the same spirit in which it was released. To wit: He re-wrote (or maybe just expanded) the rules of time travel in the Chrono universe, revealing that changes made to the timeline via time travel—i.e., basically every single thing the player and the main characters of Chrono Trigger achieved—didn’t simply change history; it plunged every single person in the pre-existing timeline into a dimension of endless cold darkness. Whoops!
Twenty years later, this is still the one that hurts and the thread that will forever keep Cross out of the pantheon of games I can genuinely love. Because Chrono Trigger is inherently a game about changing the future for the better. In its most memorable scene, the simply drawn, sweet characters speculate that their entire time-traveling adventure has been guided by an unseen Entity (implied to be the planet the game takes place on) who wants to give its people a chance to save themselves by witnessing the full span of its existence.
Chrono Cross can’t abide the simplicity of that moment, and so it does its best to retroactively destroy it. In turn, it’s a game about how very little of what we do actually matters. Its most memorable scenes center on characters being manipulated, controlled, and moved into position by unseen agents. It suggests at certain points that the aforementioned Entity, once loving, has come to hate humanity so badly for their mistreatment of the planet that it’s become complicit in our extinction. It reveals, almost casually, that terrible things befell the heroes of Trigger not long after we bid them farewell. (All of this was only emphasized in the 2008 Nintendo DS re-release of Chrono Trigger, which ties the game more closely to Cross by adding scenes and side-quests highlighting the ultimate futility of Crono and company’s time-jaunting quest.)
At 37, the ideology of Chrono Cross hits truer for me than ever before. It’s somber and well-written, and as I replay it I often find myself moved by its idle thoughts on death and choice—a far cut above what I mostly remember from dialogue from this era of games. But despite all that, I just can’t forgive it for murdering the friends I made when I was a kid, or for turning its back on the idea that a kid with a time machine really could make the world a better place.