The opening of Chrono Trigger shows the pendulum of time, swinging away at the fractures breaking history apart. It's been more than two decades since the game's release, but many of its pivotal moments still stay with me, from the Trial of Crono for Marle's kidnapping, to the confrontation with Magus at his castle, all the way to the first time your party enters the Kingdom of Zeal in 12,000 BC.
For this Thanksgiving, I want to go back to a quieter scene that has resonated with me all these years later.
It's the campfire where the whole crew gathers around to celebrate Robo's 400th anniversary. It has all the elements that make Chrono Trigger special; character development, philosophical musings on the nature of existence, and a pivotal jump back to the past sparked by memories of a tragedy.
The 400 Year Journey
Developed by the dream team of Hirono Sakaguchi of Final Fantasy fame, Yuji Horii, creator of the Dragon Quest series, and Akira Toriyama, artist for Dragonball (they should make more games together!), Chrono Trigger is frequently included on many best JRPG lists for good reason.
Yasunori Mitsuda composed a gorgeous soundtrack that remains one of the best OSTs in gaming, and Masato Kato, who was a developer on the original Ninja Gaiden NES cutscenes and one of the scribes for Final Fantasy VII, wrote much of the plot.
In a nutshell, the game is a fascinating time travelling journey that combines the best elements of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest with Dragonball style art to create its own distinctive identity.
In almost every scene, the characters are at the forefront. Whether it's Crono and Marle's budding relationship, or Frog's attempt to uphold his honour after his failure at the hands of Magus, and even Magus's twisted past that has taken him throughout history in an attempt to take revenge on Lavos.
The dialogue always gives insight into what the characters are thinking both on a conscious and subconscious level, betraying emotions they'd rather hide.
The campfire is part a 400-year journey by the party that begins with a woman named Fiona in the year, 600 AD. She lives inside a small house that used to be surrounded by a forest. Unfortunately, during the war between Magus and Guardia, monsters destroyed all the trees and turned the area into a barren wasteland.
Fiona is on a mission to bring the forest back and you agree to help.
Crono and party go to the Sunken Desert to crush the skeletal tripartite beast known as Melphyx who was killing all the trees. After Crono prevails and returns to Fiona, she seems overwhelmed.
"Unfortunately, it will take centuries to revive the forest," she says. "I wish I could live long enough to see my wish come true."
Robo volunteers to help her replant the forest, despite knowing he'll be working for centuries. As always, his nobility transcends his mechanical origins. But unlike Robo, Fiona is dedicating herself to a cause she won't live to see the fruits of.
It's so fascinating jumping ahead 400 years to 1000 AD. Although it's only one minute of my time, over four centuries have passed for Robo. He is deactivated inside the shrine that was built in their honour. Amazingly, their plan worked. In place of the desert is a teeming, bountiful forest.
When you pull Robo from the altar, he sparks back to life. The temple music is playing like a holy chorus. I realised Fiona had passed away and there was something bittersweet knowing that she couldn't be there to witness how her actions had changed the future.
I really wished there was a way I could bring her with me to the future so she could see for herself.
Robo, rusty and just kicking in his life functions, suggests you celebrate the reunion. This is how the campfire scene begins.
What do you talk about with friends you haven't seen in 400 years? Robo breaks the ice/fire by speculating on Lavos and time travel. In the 400 years he was working, he thought about everything that was transpiring and came to the conclusion that it's not Lavos behind the time gates.
Rather, he suggests some being, perhaps the planet itself, has a consciousness.
Memories, Robo theorizes, are a form of time travel.
In a sense, there's a truth to that in that we relive our past through both our memories and regrets. I've had dreams spurred by random memories where I could swear I've travelled to my past.
But what exactly is it that places the time gates of Chrono Trigger at the specific point they're at? Is it the pain of that moment that the planet keeps on coming back to? Ayla makes the connection to people who, at their deathbed, see their whole life flash in front of them.
Is it the planet, realising it's dying because of Lavos, seeing its existence pass by it like a blinding light? Frog too contributes with hints of his own pain, and Marle asks Lucca if there's any point she'd like to jump back to. When Magus, cutting to the chase as he's usually wont to do, asks who the entity could be, Robo confesses he doesn't know for sure.
I love the little glimpses into each of the characters and how it's Robo who asks the most human questions when he's the only non-human of the group. What exactly is time travel in the world of Chrono Trigger? Why is it even happening?
The idea of cycles, time repeating itself, and humanity's follies transcending their era, occur within each time gate. The ensuing scene seems to go a strong way to confirming Robo's speculation that regret is the source of those gates.
The Light At The End Of The Time Gate
Lucca wakes up in the middle of the night and finds a portal beckoning her to her past. What's unusual is that most gates with a physical location are locked geographically to that spot. The one Lucca finds is ephemeral, showing up only this one time.
The usual sound effect for the jump is muted until you arrive and then it becomes an ominous series of shrieks. There are paper notes haphazardly scattered over the floor. When you enter the living room, Lucca's mum, Lara, sets off a machine in which she gets stuck.
A younger Lucca tries to help her, but is unable (depending on if you input the right command, which I didn't know you could do until later). There's a digitised scream from her mum as her legs get crushed.
I renamed Lucca as Beca
Lucca promises to devote her life to studying machines to prevent accidents like this from ever happening again.
It's a devastating memory, and even more difficult to watch. When Lucca returns to her own time, Robo is there and offers up his own mechanical legs to her mum, volunteering to use treads instead.
When Lucca calls him a good friend, Robo is genuinely touched that Lucca could call him a friend. Inversely, it shows Lucca's big-heartedness in growing to love machines, rather than distrusting them, despite what happened in the past.
Chrono Trigger is full of moments like this. Each action leads to a new revelation, both thematically (as in the nature of time travel itself) and from the perspective of character development.
It also makes us feel closer to the characters, seeing directlyhow their relationship is evolving and how the present threads together with the past and the future.
Every time I play the game, I feel like I'm time travelling to my past to spend time with old friends. I love the optimism thematically inherent in Chrono Trigger, a feeling that there's always hope.