I recently played the free demo of a game called Lost Sphear, a game that appears to be deliberately imitating Chrono Trigger, one of my favorite RPGs of all time. The game... did not interest me very much. It felt dull, flat, and lifeless. The mechanics were confusing and complicated. For all the talk about how this game and the one before it from the same studio (I Am Setsuna) are an attempt to recreate the golden age of SNES RPGs, I was hoping not to be so thoroughly disappointed. But here we are.
I wonder whether the problem is a radical misdiagnosis of what it is that made Chrono Trigger so great. Lots of people agree with me that it's a fantastic game (I'm always surprised when lots of people agree with me...), but when you ask them why, I think the answers they frequently give, well, aren't quite right.
So, for your compare-and-contrast benefit, I am now going to list you for "Why People SAY Chrono Trigger is Great" vs. "Why Chrono Trigger is ACTUALLY Great."
Why People SAY Chrono Trigger is Great:
- No random encounters
- No fighting on the world map
- Position-based combat system without going to separate "battle screen"
- Intriguing time-travel paradoxes and puzzles
- Excellent soundtrack by Yasunori Mitsuda
Why Chrono Trigger is ACTUALLY Great:
- Strong, varied, and colorful character and world design choices that make an instant impact
- Simple, straightforward battle mechanics and low difficulty level
- Strong, consistent fun, cartoony tone balanced with a serious weighty story with immediately established stakes and underlying depth
- Time-travel adventure
- Excellent soundtrack by Yasunori Mitsuda
For the record, it's not that the things in the first list are BAD. I like those things, too. It's just that if you were to create a game that has those things and ONLY those things, and compare it to Chrono Trigger in your ad copy, you are likely to come up with a game as dull and lifeless as, say, Lost Sphear.
The "no random encounters" bit is especially tiresome. It's true that random encounters can be problematic for a lot of RPG players, but plenty of RPGs got rid of them before and after, and very few of them came anywhere close to the awesomeness of Chrono Trigger. What's interesting about Chrono Trigger's battle system is not that the encounters aren't random, or that they don't take you to a separate "battle screen," but that a large percentage of them are choreographed, designed, and INTERESTING experiences. Instead of just plopping enemies onto the map to await the hero's coming, a la Final Fantasy XIII, enemies are frequently engaged in activity when you find them - or there's some clever twist to how they hide themselves from you or attack you. A large percentage of the fights in Chrono Trigger have fun gimmicks to them - so it's more than the fact that the battles aren't random. A lot of the time, they're actually NEW CONTENT. They're interesting in and of themselves!
And this goes to the heart of the appeal of Chrono Trigger - a game that almost perfectly follows the Pirates of the Caribbean Principle. It's constantly making interesting LOUD and STRONG design choices, in virtually every apsect of its creation. The five time periods are all radically different from one another - different color palettes, different emotional tones, different designs, different musical arrangements. The six main characters, likewise, are all radically different from each other - different combat styles, different personalities, different shapes and sizes, different colors, different speech patterns. Part of what allows the "dual tech" battle system to work so beautifully is that the six characters are so varied and colorful, that it creates an awesome feeling of SYNERGY when they come together to join attacks. Every location, every character is immediately emotionally graspable and relatable. Story segments and scenes are brief but resonant. Chrono Trigger's design choices READ. They make an instant impact.
Couple this with a battle system that's remarkably easy to pick up and play with, an underlying story full of intrigue and twists (as traditional for a JRPG), and one of the greatest soundtracks in video game history, and you've got a recipe for tremendous success.
The sad part of all this is that a lot of the things that made Chrono Trigger awesome were not unique to Chrono Trigger... back then. Final Fantasy 6 and 7, Super Mario RPG, and Earthbound all followed these principles, just to name a few. To some extent, the Pirates of the Caribbean Principle was ASSUMED in games of that era. Too frequently, nowadays, dialog is interminable, characters are bland and indistinguishable from one another, the tone is either over-serious or over-silly, and battle systems are over-complicated.
And yes, I am trying to get at a little of those old-school values in my own game, but I admit it's challenging sometimes. There's a reason, I think, that these virtues have fallen out of favor - they're hard to achieve! At least I know the goal, however, which is something.
So please... don't tell me your game is "imitating Chrono Trigger" unless you're imitating its design strength, its straightforward simplicity, its melodic score, its vibrant color and variety, and its fun and adventure. More of that, please!