How Is It So Good: Chrono Trigger

in Gamer Thoughts
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All images in this article are of Chrono Trigger, a property of SquareEnix

One of the keys, in my opinion, to making good games is understanding good games. I mean, each of us has games we love, but how often do we stop and think about WHAT makes us love them? What is the component that transforms a good game into a classic?

Today, I’m going to take Chrono Trigger, a game that many of us know and love, and examine what I think it does so well that makes us love it.

The Key

I tend to find that generally, every game I love has one key component. One thing that it does so much better than almost any other game. That isn’t to say that the games don’t have other good qualities, in fact, usually good games are really well rounded and don’t have a lot of qualities that AREN’T good. But there is almost always one key component that pushes it over the edge.

So what is that component with Chrono Trigger? Is it the mechanics? They ARE good. But are they excellent? How about the characters? Also, here the game is pretty competent, but really this game isn’t a character study, and none of the characters have that much depth to them.

Magus has probably the most in depth story, but even he is pretty straight forward.

Magus has probably the most in depth story, but even his pretty straight forward idea.

The key in my opinion to Chrono Trigger’s success lies in one thing: Pacing.

Chrono Trigger is paced nearly perfectly, having a tightly told story that keeps the player moving and interested throughout the whole game. To improve our own games, let’s examine a couple of ways it does this.

Trickle Information

Chrono Trigger avoids doing something that I think is a real weakness with beginner game designers and writers. It never does a real info dump. Everything you learn in the game is done over time, with small pieces that fit together like a puzzle.

Let’s take Lavos for example. This is what we learn about it and when:

1999 AD. Day of Lavos

1999 AD. Day of Lavos

  1. Lavos destroys the world in 1999. This is learned a couple of hours into the game when the party is traveling through the year 2300.
  2. After traveling to modern times, we learn that Magus “created” Lavos in 600 AD.
  3. After defeating Magus, we learn that we were wrong, and that Magus was SUMMONING Lavos, who existed long before that.
  4. In 65,000,000 BC, after defeating Azala and saving humanity from the Reptites, you learn that Lavos crashed down from space during this time period.
  5. Later, in 12,000 BC, you learn that Lavos is the source of Magic in Chrono Trigger, and that it had awoken once in this time period due to humans attempting to use its power for themselves.

All of this plays out over HOURS of gameplay. You don’t learn a whole lot about Lavos at any one time, but you end up knowing a lot. Don’t dump a bunch of info on your players all at once. Spread out how and when you give information. Let them discover it slowly through play.

Always Give the Player Short Term Story Goals

Another part of why Chrono Trigger excels in pacing is its strong use of short term story goals. Even though you get the main story goal a couple of hours in (stop the Day of Lavos from happening), you are always approaching it in shorter term goals.

And not just “if we do this, it unlocks the ability to do that”, you are almost always working towards a short term goal you think will end Lavos in the immediate, which usually then gets changed to a new short term goal soon after.

Progression of short term goals used in Chrono Trigger

  1. Save Queen Leene
  2. Escape prison
  3. Find a way back home
  4. Recover the broken pieces of the Masamune
  5. Find Dreamstone
  6. Recover the Gate Key from Azala
  7. Fix the Masamune
  8. Defeat Magus
  9. … etc.

Its almost never “travel through this zone to get to another zone”, and you are almost always trying to accomplish something directly. Chrono Trigger gives the player lots of smaller quests that can be finished in short amounts of time each, giving the player a sense of accomplishment at regular intervals.

You never feel like the game isn’t going anywhere. You are always heading to new locations, fighting new enemies, and solving new problems.

Gaspar, on the other hand, seems to have the most boring life in existence.

Gaspar, on the other hand, seems to have the most boring life in existence.

Don’t overstay your welcome

Chrono Trigger is a tightly plotted game. What I mean by this, is that it doesn’t have a lot of cruft. We usually think of JRPGs as long 40-50 hour games, but Chrono Trigger is actually somewhere in the 20 hour range.

The game isn’t any longer than it needs to be. It flows from one moment to the next without a lot of filler that just wastes time. There just literally isn’t any wasted time in the game. Every plot point either teaches us something about the world or teaches us something new about what we are facing.

Don’t add length that isn’t necessary. Tell the story you want to tell. If you have something extra, always ask yourself: Does this add something substantial to the game, or is it just wasting the players time.

Just because the characters have a time machine doesn't mean the players do!

Just because the characters have a time machine doesn’t mean the players do!

Chrono Trigger is a wonderful game to study to learn good pacing. Do you have any other examples of why Chrono Trigger is paced well? Maybe another game that is paced perfectly as well? Or maybe you want to tell us about how another game does its thing really well? Tell us about it in the comments section below.

12 comments… add one

  • Esrever April 12, 2014, 8:49 pm

    I think you’re spot on about pacing being key, Nick. Personally, I think another key benefactor which led to the success of Chrono Trigger was the use of alternate endings in the JRPG genre. It certainly wasn’t the first, but it was one of the few of its time that did it right. Actions you made had lasting effects for the duration of the storyline. It affected what characters were playable, and for how long. It allowed for endings being rather somber, to those which were full of cheer.

    It introduced the concept early on during the trial scene occurs and it brings forth witnesses describing your behavior in front of the jury. We get to see how things can have impact, but consequences aren’t severe during this introduction if you were caught off guard. It introduced increased replay value as well, which I feel is a commodity not sought enough for these types of games. I think the game appealed to a larger audience because of this, as it allowed a quick playthrough, but left room for those wanting more.

    • Nick Palmer April 15, 2014, 12:43 pm

      I’ve never actually been super into the alt endings in Chrono Trigger, mostly because the way you get them isn’t really that interesting (outside of the small variations to the main endings you can have).

      Most of them were just “beat Lavos early” endings. Some of them were hilarious though.

  • The Infamous Bon Bon April 13, 2014, 2:27 pm

    I agree that the best part of Chrono Trigger was the pacing. I’ve beat this game a least a dozen times and I don’t usually replay games. I think the pacing is exactly why I can replay it. I think the length was an important part of that as well.

    It also had a great hook with the Tech system. I had not played a game with something like that yet (the first time I played it) and it intrigued me. I think that is why so many people ended up trying it, but the pacing is what kept them playing.

    • Nick Palmer April 15, 2014, 12:44 pm

      Yeah, I’ve played CT a lot of times, and one of the reasons is that it is easy to jump back into and play again, its paced well, there are no parts that feel like dragging, and its not an incredibly long game either.

  • amerk April 14, 2014, 1:31 pm

    The Info Dump… or even better… the Xenogears Dump. I love Xenogears with a heavy heart, but that info dump at the beginning doesn’t help with setting the mood; in fact, it’s enough to frustrate a person, and that’s never a good thing to do at all, let alone at the very beginning.

    If there is a need for a lot of upfront info, do it as a cut scene (preferably one that can be skipped over). A cut scene that moves along is far better than one that’s white on black text that scrolls for several minutes, piling information onto the player they will probably forget soon after.

    • Nick Palmer April 15, 2014, 12:45 pm

      Xenogears is paced well in some ways, and then terrible in others. The opening text is an info dump, and then the whole second disc is just terribly terribly paced due to budget issues. Still, the majority of the first disc is just wonderful.

      • amerk April 17, 2014, 4:00 pm

        I’d have to go back and replay Xenogears again, but from I remembered, I didn’t mind the second disc so much, since by then I was really invested into the story. The big complaint for me was hour long cut scenes without a save and then the disc would freeze or you’d die in the next fight and have to rewatch everything again.

  • ZarroTsu April 14, 2014, 5:54 pm

    Follow-up post suggestion: Golden Sun, and why it’s terrible in contrast.

    Seriously. There’s so much wrong with GS it’s ridiculous, and all the better to dismiss it as such.

    >> Mia could be replaced by a lamp and nothing would change.

    >> Entire dungeons are the result of a collapsed bridge, and having not visited them at all wouldn’t change the plot.

    >> Characters sit around doing nothing when they could be talking and learning. Especially true between games when Felix and Sheba are stuck on a drifting island and neither one of them says a word to one another for the span of implied WEEKS or MONTHS.

    >> Kraden singlehandedly has 70% of the dialog between both games but doesn’t say anything useful, and in fact repeats the same pieces of information as if the player is an idiot.

    >> Every goddamn situation could have been resolved if any hero asked any question to any villain at any given opportunity. In the very, very few cases where they DO ask “Why are you doing this?”, the villains hand-wave the answer away to continue being edgy and mysterious, when explaining the goddamn situation would have stopped any conflict from continuing.

    >> If the heros did nothing, the //happy ending would have still happened//.

    • Nick Palmer April 15, 2014, 12:46 pm

      As much as I actually hate Golden Sun (the game, there is this chinese place in Athens called Golden Sun and it makes the best food, OMG, but that is beside the point), I try to avoid doing negative articles, aha. Also, a lot of people liked the game so maybe we are missing something?

      • ZarroTsu April 16, 2014, 8:23 pm

        I’ve formed the opinion that a lot of people either dismissed its flaws as a hardware limitation (it being on the Gameboy Advance), or simply that they didn’t know how to form opinions one way or the other at the time.

        Hell, I bought both the GBA games myself way back when, and I enjoyed them at the time. But I couldn’t tell you why aside from the battle system being interesting. Maybe that was it? I have trouble calling its battle system ‘bad’ outside of it being too easy.

        • amerk April 17, 2014, 4:04 pm

          I wasn’t a huge fan myself inspite of the positive comments it was getting when it was released. I wouldn’t mind playing it again, someday, to see if it aged well and to see if my appreciation has grown, but I remember something about the game or its story felt off to me at the time.

  • ZarroTsu April 16, 2014, 8:28 pm

    Outside of my previous post, I’d suggest taking a look at Lufia: The Legend Returns. It lives off on the Gameboy Color and was an obscure sort-of-sequel to Lufia 2 from the SNES.

    Aside from its battle system being a very good concept in itself, each of the twelve party characters in the game have their own unique personalities and contributions to the game. Being on the GBC there are a few limitations – dungeons are largely randomly generated to save on space – but I feel like it deserves its own look. The music is still some of my favorite, too.

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