When I first went through Chrono Trigger in 1995, I fooled myself into mistaking it for a cheerful game. I played it not long after going through Final Fantasy VI, a game where everything bad happens to everyone, so at that point in time I associated angst with dramatic storytelling.
Couldn’t have one without the other, I thought. And since Chrono Trigger is largely a game about young kids retaining hope in the face of adversary, I had it figured for a lighthearted romp.
It’s taken me years to appreciate the fact Chrono Trigger has some pretty dark pockets. True, the entire narrative isn’t wrapped in despair like Final Fantasy VI’s, but when I replay Chrono’s adventure, sometimes I draw back and say, “Oh, hell. That’s kind of–”
There’s Crono’s death, for instance. When I first played the game, I thought he was somehow sacrificing himself to save his pals from Lavos – his raised arms seem to indicate “Come at me, space-parasite bro.” I never understood how his sacrifice was supposed to save his friends from a weird death at the bottom of the ocean floor, but I figured an attempt was at least being made.
The anime cutscenes from the 1999 PSX remake of the game verify this is not the case. Seconds before his death, Crono is stuck in a good old-fashioned deer-in-the-headlights “hurrr” moment. He smells the black wind coming for him.
He doesn’t just fall over, either. Spiky-haired sombitch atomizes.
What’s more, a translated interview with Chono Trigger story planner Masato Katō (Thanks, PressTheButtons) reveals Crono’s death and subsequent (optional) resurrection was initially planned to be an even darker affair. After watching their friend bite it, Crono’s crew zips back into the past and re-recruits Crono just as he’s starting to enjoy the Millennial Fair.
The plan to pluck Crono from the Fair was deemed too depressing, since the party would have to put him back in his place and say goodbye once the adventure ended. This is a weird revelation from Square, since Chrono Trigger’s main ending is kind of depressing as it is, or at least bittersweet. Crono does wind up saying goodbye as everyone – barring himself, Lucca, and Marle – go back to their respective times.
What’s more, Chrono Trigger in its final form still gets my vote for having one of the most depressing scenarios in a video game – and said scenario has nothing to do with Crono and his friends.
In the year 23XX, the world is a devastated, ever-stormy wasteland thanks to the apocalyptic hatching of Lavos. Survivors are slowly starving and don’t have much to do beyond sit around and wait (pray?) for death to claim them.
That’s all cheerful news on its own, but when the party makes their way to the Keeper’s Dome to grab the time machine Epoch, they learn it was built by Belthasar, the Guru of Reason from 12,000 BC that was flung into the future after a freak accident involving Lavos. The combination of despair , homesickness and devastation (which the peoples of Antiquity indirectly had a hand in – a point that’s probably not lost on a guru) slowly drive Belthasar insane.
In fact, if the party hoofs it through the sewers and visits Belthasar in the Keeper’s Dome before it’s time to grab Epoch, Belthasar will be in the process of transferring what’s left of his sanity to an attendant Nu. In between semi-coherent dialogue (like vaguely warning Crono against climbing the nearby Death Peak because it’s “not yet time”), he talks about how much he misses home – particularly one mysterious “Schala.”
Belthasar was propelled into a scenario so dark and lonely, it gradually stole his sanity. He tried to find his way back home, but ultimately failed.
Even the era he pines for, Antiquity, is controversial: In addition to tinkering with Lavos’s slumber, the enlightened gurus lived in the warm paradise of Zeal while the “Earthbound Ones,” primitive humans, froze through a terrestrial ice age because they lacked the magic powers of the elite.
Chrono Trigger’s writing isn’t celebrated as readily as the Final Fantasy series’ writing, but there’s still a powerful narrative at hand that’s delivered with a subtlety not common for role-playing games, let alone Japanese role-playing games. No wonder the game has stuck with us despite a lack of sequels and merchandising.