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It's over. It's done. The Axe of the Blood God's list of the Top 25 RPGs is finito. Yeah, it'd be nice if the number-one pick is more of a surprise, but there isn't any other way for this to go down. Chrono Trigger is a predictable choice, but that doesn't change the fact it's the right choice.
"Why, though?" you might ask (or weep). "Of all the RPGs released since the earliest days of text-based adventures written on company terminals, why does the top honor go to a silent boy's journey to save the world?"
It's difficult to offer an argument beyond just spreading your hands and saying, "Well, it's just a great game." Beyond the usual laundry list of what makes Chrono Trigger great (amazing graphics, incredible soundtrack, compelling story, great characters), I believe Chrono Trigger is one of the most well-balanced RPGs ever made.
I also have to give major points to the fact its soundtrack isn't just good: It also delivers Chrono Trigger's story straight to your heart no matter which time period you find yourself in. I can't think of many other RPGs past or present that successfully manage to do the same.
Even my beloved Final Fantasy VI has jarring elements, e.g. the blend of super-deformed character sprites against fully-illustrated enemy sprites. By contrast, all of Chrono Trigger's parts work in harmony; there are no discrepancies in its graphics or mechanics. All the "firsts" Chrono Trigger introduces to JRPGs click with the experience. The tech-based battle system (which doubles as a crash course in area-of-effect attacks) is a perfect compliment to the new idea of fighting enemies directly in a dungeon map. The revolutionary "New Game+" option is exactly what you need in a game that offers over a dozen endings.
As I said during our celebration of Chrono Trigger in the 200th episode of Axe of the Blood God, Chrono Trigger delivers on its promise and potential as a "Dream Team" project between Yuji Horii, Hironobu Sakaguchi, and Akira Toriyama. Two of the greatest JRPG game designers partnered with one of the most prolific manga-ka of all time and said, "Let's make an amazing game." And they did. Really, what did we expect?
But Chrono Trigger owes its success to more than its character designs and sharp battle system. Its ambition is also evident in its world design. Here's a game that takes you to a number of time periods with maps and tile sets that are highly distinct from one another, but still share important similarities for story purposes. It's all wonderfully tied together by a similarly varied soundtrack by master composer Yasunori Mitsuda.
I'd go as far as to suggest Chrono Trigger's soundtrack is that all-important spice that really cements the game as a worthy number-one pick. When Kat and I discussed The Best RPG Soundtrack in episode 200 of Blood God, she justifiably gave the award to Final Fantasy VI, but I picked Chrono Trigger after thinking about how much the game's music does for its character and atmosphere.
Crono's adventure starts off with light-hearted tunes like the Millennial Fair and Peaceful Days. Both songs let you know you're exactly where you belong: In good old 1000 A.D., still a thousand years away from the apocalyptic Day of Lavos. Time to chill and bet on G.I. Jogger to win the fair's footrace.
When things go sideways for the first time and you experience your first "Where the hell am I?" moment, you hear 600 A.D.'s Yearnings of the Wind. It's a melancholy tune that goes well with the misty, troubled era you're shunted to. You're not in immediate danger, but you don't know where you are, or what's going on. A lot of people are feeding you weird information about a missing Queen, plus there's a bloody war going on between humans and the magic-wielding Mystics. This is where your adventure truly begins, and boy, you've been thrown into the middle of it all.
Once you mop things up in 600 A.D. to the best of your ability, aimless time-travel throws you into 2300 A.D., 300 years after Lavos surfaces and ruins everything for everyone. 2300 A.D.'s hopeless map music, Desolate World, immediately informs you you're not in Disneyland. It combines with the visual of the barren landscape and perpetual rain to set you wandering in a world that's without hope.
It's a real blow to your senses after spending so much time in cheerier time periods. Sure, 600 A.D. is at war, but at least the landscape is immediately recognizable. There's nothing recognizable in 2300 A.D. beyond blasted rock and mutants. Chrono Trigger is overall a cheerier game than Final Fantasy VI, but it still has a character (Belthasar, the engineer who designed the Epoch and is associated with another emotional piece, The Keeper's Dome) who was literally driven insane with despair and homesickness after being stranded in this post-apocalyptic future.
One of the most interesting music pieces in Chrono Trigger is Corridors of Time, which accompanies you through Antiquity (12,000 B.C.). Part of Antiquity, that is. When you first arrive in the time period, you discover an icebound land populated by the kind of fur-wearing cave-people we're used to seeing in popular media about the Ice Age. When you ascend above the clouds, however, you find a golden kingdom kept aloft by magic powers. Corridor of Time's lilting bells welcome you to a utopia that's polite and curious towards you, but not warm. Your weak mastery of magic grants you entrance to what's essentially an exclusive club located in magic sky castle, but your status is barely above that of the "Earthbound Ones"—the cave-people who lack any kind of magic abilities and are exiled to the frozen wastes below.
Even if Corridors of Time makes you feel uneasily welcome in Antiquity, the song that plays in Zeal Palace immediately tells you your place. You're a kid who's in the company of a Queen who possesses power beyond compare thanks to the sleeping Lavos' influence, and you—and all of Antiquity—are in terrific danger. Your visit to Zeal is made even more unsettling when you see the powerful wind sprites Masa and Mune are welcome guests in its gilded halls.
It'd require tens of thousands of words to pay adequate tribute to all the songs that shape Chrono Trigger's atmosphere. I've only touched on a few map themes that wordlessly set the mood for what Crono and his friends are destined to face in each new world they visit. Even dungeon themes are rarely repeated from one time period to the next: You're only treated to the electric, bass-heavy Site 16 on 2300 A.D.'s ruined highways, and you hear the haunting synthesizers of Tyran Castle exclusively in 65 million B.C.
That's why Chrono Trigger deserves its top spot on our list of the Top 25 RPG of All Time. Its designers, its artists, and its composers—especially Mitsuda—tried a whole bunch of crazy new ideas, and they all work. An immeasurable amount of effort clearly went into Chrono Trigger's production, yet the final product feels as light and frictionless as a dream.
If that's still not a good enough reason for you, then all I can offer is one more reason based wholly on personal bias: The theme for the Undersea Palace makes excellent use of synthesizers. As an '80s kid, I must acknowledge them. Praise!