Soapbox features enable our individual writers and contributors to voice their opinions on hot topics and random stuff they've got on their minds. Today, Alana wants to tell you why Chrono Cross deserves a bit of love and attention before an inevitable (well, fingers crossed!) port of the awesome Chrono Trigger...
We're just a few weeks away from Chrono Cross: The Radial Dreamers Edition coming out. After being rumoured for months, the most recent Nintendo Direct stunned us into silence when it unveiled that the once-PlayStation exclusive Chrono Cross was coming to Switch and other platforms.
We in Europe will be getting it officially for the first time. However, not only are we getting Cross, but we're also getting the Satellaview-exclusive never-before-localised side story Radical Dreamers. Yet when the remaster was announced, there was one lingering question in the air for many — Where is the Chrono Trigger Switch port?
It's a pretty valid question, and one I'm equally baffled by. Then again you could equally ask where the Final Fantasy Pixel Remasters are, or dozens of other questions regarding the whereabouts of classics on certain platforms (looking at you, Persona 5). But — and bear with me on this — I think it's a good thing that we're getting Chrono Cross before Chrono Trigger.
Sure, Chrono Trigger is widely regarded to be one of the best RPGs, and video games, ever. It's one of my favourite games of all time, and the fact that it's not on Switch is weird. But it's not like you can't play it today on modern hardware — it's on Steam and mobiles, and it even got an update just a few weeks ago. It's got to be coming to Switch at some point. It has to.
But, just for a second, imagine being the sequel to one of the most critically-acclaimed video games ever. That's the predicament Chrono Cross was, and is, in.
imagine being the sequel to one of the most critically-acclaimed video games ever. That's the predicament Chrono Cross was, and is, in
Chrono Trigger was practically set up for success: created by Square Enix's "Dream Team" (Hironobu Sakaguchi, Yuji Hori, Akira Toriyama, Kazuhiko Aoki, and Nobuo Uematsu), this hive mind of JRPG geniuses came together with a team to create something truly special. Cross, however, was not the sequel Trigger fans wanted, and despite hitting a similar level of critical acclaim, it was a hugely divisive game among fans.
Where Trigger had a tightly-knit cast of seven characters, Cross threw a crowd of 45 playable party members at you. Trigger's world map changed in every time period, but you could still match up locations, while Cross' alternate reality only shifted things in subtle ways. And Trigger's time travel-focused plot was simple and heartwarming, but Cross was much more ambitious, with big plot-dumps at the end. Cross' combat and Element systems were also completely unique, and too much longer to understand, compared to Trigger's more-traditional approach to turn-based battles.
I can see why people didn't like Cross when it first came out, and why they might be upset that Cross is getting that lovely Switch port before Trigger. I honestly don't adore everything about Chrono Cross, either. I don't really like the combat, and I find the Element system obtuse. And I wish many of the ties to Chrono Trigger weren't thrown at you all at once — either go all in or not at all, à la Final Fantasy.
But the biggest problem is that, at the time of release, Chrono Trigger's shadow loomed over Cross' more-solemn seas. This remaster, and the Switch version, is Cross' time to step out of the shadow of its older sibling and bask in the Marbule sun.
Chrono Cross' biggest strength is only a weakness when you compare it to Chrono Trigger; it's entirely unique in just about every single way. The game's writer and director, Masato Kato (who also helped write Chrono Trigger), was pretty adamant about distancing the game as a sequel to Trigger back when the game first came out.
In an interview with GamePro, archived by Chrono Compendium, Kato was asked about how difficult it was to innovate in the RPG genre, to which he replied:
"We didn't want to directly extend Chrono Trigger into a sequel, but create a new Chrono with links to the original. Yes, the platform changed; and yes, many parts changed dramatically from the previous work. But in my view, the whole point in making Chrono Cross was to make a new Chrono with the best available skills and technologies of today. I never had any intentions of just taking the system from Trigger and moving it onto the PlayStation console. That's why I believe that Cross is Cross, and NOT Trigger 2."
While the team on Cross was forced to innovate due to the technology, that was also part of the creative process. Producer Hiromichi Tanaka backs this up in the same interview, saying that "Our main objective for Chrono Cross was to share a little bit of the Chrono Trigger worldview while creating a completely different game as a means of providing new entertainment to the player." Cross was never designed to be a "sequel" to Trigger, but it was still linked through themes, characters, and ideas.
Trigger, for example, looks at relationships over time, how places change, and how people and dynasties change. How actions affect the future and the past, and how that shifts relationships. Cross' examination of relationships is both broader and smaller in scope: it looks at alternate realities, but it also examines the relationship a person has with themself. It's not something I want to dive into due to spoilers, but essentially, the two games look at similar concepts in multiple different ways and often converge.
Chrono Cross holds itself in a different manner to Trigger. While Chrono Trigger — despite spanning centuries and dealing with a world-ending apocalypse — is pretty jovial, with quirky humour threaded throughout it. Chrono Cross is funny too, but in the kind of way that makes you laugh nervously. And it's never afraid to get a little bit weird. I mean, have you seen some of your party members? Poshul is a big fluffy pink and purple dog who lives in a beach town (does it not get hot under all that fur?). Then there's Starky, a literal alien. And Funguy is almost exactly what you think he is. This is just a cross-section of the weird and wonderful people who join you, and each of them is treated relatively normally in the El Nido Archipelago. This is normal to them but uncanny to us.
This unsettling uncanniness is one aspect that makes Chrono Cross so memorable to me. Aesthetically — on the surface, at least — El Nido is beautiful, and anything but weird. It's an idyllic beach paradise, with palm trees, golden beaches, rocks splattered with colours, and sparkling in the sun's radiance. Arni is a quaint little collection of beach huts, where foamy waves tickle the sand and children are running around. Termina is a town laden with shops with all of the buildings built in white-stone.
The game's painting-like pre-rendered backdrops just enhance the eclectic beauty of the world, whether it be the beach, a dark forest, or a volcano. There are travelling musicians and shamans who tell stories of old. It's like an RPG version of a place you'd go on holiday. Even if the remaster does look a little blurry.
El Nido is like an RPG version of a place you'd go on holiday. Even if the remaster does look a little blurry.
But Cross is about alternate realities, and early on in the game, you're thrust into a place called Another World. Compared to your 'Home World', Another World looks almost identical. But there's one glaring thing that jumps out at you — the protagonist, Serge, died as a child there. In fact, that's how you find out you're in Another World, and things start to unravel from there.
I said earlier that the "changes" are much more subtle compared to Trigger's, and that's pretty much true. It's more through dialogue and through quests that you get to discover the intricacies and oddities of both Another World and Home World. People who are kind to you in one world are hostile to you in another. Locations that don't exist on one side do exist on the flip, and some of these different locations are discomforting. Again, no spoilers, because some of the best moments in Cross are when you get to these areas that make you do a double-take at the screen.
It can get pretty convoluted at times, and that's admittedly not going to change with the remaster. But juxtaposing Trigger's simplicity with Cross' much-wider philosophical scope is a mistake because they're trying to achieve different things. It was also something we just weren't used to in video games — introspection, melancholy, and coming to terms with whether you deserve to exist are foundational topics of many an indie darling these days, but hadn't been tackled too often in video games in 1999.
Nowadays it's much more common to pick up a game and have it psychoanalyse you and force you to bare your soul. I'm exaggerating a bit, but the closest example I can think of before Chrono Cross is another game Kato worked on — Xenogears, another PlayStation Square RPG that's stuck on that console. And, weirdly, that one hit a lot better at the time, despite missing huge chunks of its story. Geez, that's another game I'd love to see get a remaster on Switch.
juxtaposing Trigger's simplicity with Cross' much-wider philosophical scope is a mistake because they're trying to achieve different things
People just weren't sure about the direction that Cross went in compared to Trigger, which is a real shame. Even if I don't love everything Cross' plot tries to do — even if it leaves a lot unanswered — it's ambitious, and it tackles existentialism and melancholy in some pretty effective ways. It's meditative, and lets you pause and reflect more often than not. Even with the more upbeat locations and music, there's an undercurrent of loneliness, isolation, and solemnness that is completely different from Trigger's propulsive and determined tone.
Cross is also a game that doesn't let you rest on your laurels. While Trigger always has the solution to a problem, Cross often poses a dilemma where there's no real right answer. At one point, one of your party — the Aussie-accented thief Kid, a crucial character — is poisoned, and the only way you can save her is by getting a type of medicine that only comes from Hydra. Hydra are extinct in the world you're in, so you can travel back to Home to get the medicine, but you have to fight the dwarves who protect her, and after you get the medicine (which involves killing the hydra), you find out she was pregnant. In El Nido, even saving the world and finding out the truth means tipping the balance of morality, and questioning your own actions and existence.
Cross' score does a lot to emphasise the tone and mood of many of the game's themes and locations. Composed by Yasunori Mitsuda, who also worked on Chrono Trigger's soundtrack, it's all parts tropical, ethereal, haunting, nostalgic, eclectic, and emotional. But it also tells a story of both Home and Another, two worlds intertwined with each other.
Listen to the strings of Arni (Home World) — lighthearted, airy, and it evokes the image of a busker strumming their guitar strings while sitting on the beach. Arni (Another World) is a lot slower, and that same guitarist is plucking, looking out at the ocean, reflecting. There's a quiet melancholy to his strings. The same can be said about the world map themes; Plains of Time (Home World) utilises that same chipper acoustic guitar with rainsticks to help up the pace, while Shore of Dreams (Another World) uses synthesisers and violins for a more sorrowful, slow approach.
We're going to get rearrangements and enhanced versions of all of this music in the remaster, and someone might need to come and hold me.
singling out the weirder, younger sibling of the two Chrono games and porting it to consoles before Trigger is pretty in character with Square's strategy at the moment
This idea of reusing and adapting themes within the same game isn't unique to Cross — heck, it's in Trigger, and Uematsu does it frequently throughout the Final Fantasy series — but the way these songs are used in Chrono Cross just enhances the unsettling nature of both Home and Another World. No other game sounds like it, even though Mitsuda's signature style and love of Celtic instruments shines through.
Honestly, singling out the weirder, younger sibling of the two Chrono games and porting it to consoles before Trigger is pretty in character with Square's strategy with its back catalogue at the moment. Last year, we got Legend of Mana and SaGa Frontier — two more former PlayStation exclusive games that were also divisive when they first came out, but their quirks are now admired and celebrated, and their ambition appreciated more. Not most people's immediate picks for a remaster.
The idea that someone at Square Enix is giving these oft-underloved games a second chance is heartwarming. During the '90s and early 2000s, Square was in an untouchable period and could do literally whatever it wanted. These weird games still often got swept away by the Final Fantasy train. In Cross' case, it was already drowning under Trigger's reputation; in Japan, even, Trigger got a PlayStation port two weeks before Cross' release (the NA port came much later).
Now, with Chrono Cross: The Radial Dreamers Edition, we don't have that problem so much anymore. At least, at the time of writing. Chrono Trigger absolutely deserves to be ported to Switch — I want very little else — but I also want people to take a step back and appreciate Cross for what it is. It's a messy, convoluted follow-up to an almost-perfect game, but it's beautiful in different ways, and willing to explore messages and push boundaries in ways Chrono Trigger didn't. Sound familiar?
Of course, if you've played the DS version of Chrono Trigger, you know that the new ending does link more directly to Chrono Cross, but don't think about that for a second. I think it's much more interesting to see Cross as an "alternate sequel", which is just a really pretentious way of saying follow-up. Cross is just one of many games that took themes from its predecessor and did something different with them, approached them differently, and put them in front of a mirror.
Chrono Cross is far from perfect, and I know I still won't enjoy the combat, but as an ambitious experiment, it's a successful one that deserves to be lauded on its own merits. And even though it will never shed "Chrono" from its name, I hope time and distance will be kinder to Chrono Cross, and that players give it a chance and some space to breathe and work its magic. I certainly will be when I revisit the El Nido Archipelago.