Chrono Trigger: Time Travel

Even before you even begin playing, it’s clear that Chrono Trigger‘s chief distinguishing attribute is time travel. I mean, it’s right there in the title. Even the hero is named Crono. But as distinguishing attributes go, it’s not really very distinguishing. Time travel has been present to varying degrees in CRPGs basically since their inception. The ending of Ultima 1 sends the player back in time to kill the immortal villain Mondain before he became immortal, and possibly even before he became a villain. Final Fantasy 1 did something similar, sending the heroes back in time at the end to prevent the events of the game, leaving them in an explicitly paradoxical situation in the end, the only people in the world with any memory of what happened. (The Ultima games, despite having more continuity than Final Fantasy, never address the matter of why everyone seems to remember Mondain’s reign even after you wipe it from history.)

And that’s just the start of it. Time travel is a real cliché in games, and more often than not serves as nothing more than window dressing, an excuse to put the player through diverse environments with varying levels of technology. (Consider Time Commando. Heck, consider Time Pilot.) But some games — adventures in particular — use it as a basis for puzzles. I’ve gone into some detail about this before. There are two basic variants: games where you have to clean up paradoxes by removing modifications to the past, and games where you have to deliberately introduce modifications in order to make a better future.

It strikes me that Chrono Trigger is a little unusual for adopting all of these approaches at once. When you think about it, the games that are greatly concerned with the effects of modifying the past, pro or con, seldom take much advantage of exploring the eons. Instead, you get things like Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, where you can only shuttle back and forth between two time periods that are both within the protagonist’s natural lifespan, or Infocom’s Sorcerer, where the memorable paradox-avoidance puzzle involves traveling back in time a matter of only minutes. But Chrono Trigger has the time-travel-as-window-dressing aspect, with scenes ranging from cavemen-and-dinosaurs-coexisting prehistory to the post-apocalyptic future, and it also has player actions in journeys to the past affecting the future. Moreover, it has both paradox-avoidance — one of the companions accidentally puts an ancestor of hers in danger and starts to fade away like Marty McFly — and deliberate alterations — such as the attempt to prevent the summoning of Lavos, or an apparently optional trick I’ve found to turn a money-grubbing mayor, hated by even his own children, into a warm-hearted philanthropist by intervening in his family history.

The only other time-travel games I can think of offhand with this kind of range are heavy-duty historical works, like Timequest and to some extent Jigsaw. But Chrono Trigger couldn’t be farther from such things in tone. It’s a cartoon of a game, a fantasy of a cartoon. It laughs at historical accuracy.