The date was March, 1995, and the SNES had entered its twilight years. Squaresoft released Chrono Trigger, a new game from a team that included Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, Dragon Quest designer Yuji Horii and longtime collaborator Akira Toriyama, equally famous for creating Dragon Ball as drawing slimes.
Chrono Trigger, which followed the adventures of Crono and his eclectic, ragtag band of allies across several eras in time, was revolutionary. Its list of innovations were like nothing anyone had ever seen before: the battle system had players teaming characters up for special tech skills, an unheard of redress to the relatively staid, one-at-a-time combat that turn-based RPGs, even Final Fantasy, were known for in the era.
More shocking was the fact that battles occurred on the normal playing field, meaning there were no random battle encounters. Anyone who grew up playing RPGs in the ‘90s knows that pain of just wanting to explore any area where you might find enemies; in Chrono Trigger if you didn’t want to get into a scuff and were smart about it, you could run right past most of patrolling baddies. That alone was more than enough to set it apart from any other game in the genre.
Maybe the most revolutionary shakeup that the game offered was in its narrative. The storyline is hardly literary, yet had plenty of charm. More to the point, and perhaps the most fascinating bit you might discover when playing it for the first time, was it contained a number of different endings depending on how you played.
Unsurprisingly, Chrono Trigger was a huge success, the first time Square was arguably at the height of their power as a studio. Despite the legion of fans that have gathered to it over the years (FYI, the original DS port from 2010 remains a stellar experience today), only one sequel had been made, 1999’s Chrono Cross, which is almost as good as the original. No other further games were ever put into production – reasons as to why differ somewhat from developer to developer.
Coming out of nowhere, I Am Setsuna looks to reclaim a bit of the series old nostalgia. Tailor-made by a small team working with Square Enix for fans that grew up playing the RPGs in the 16-bit era, Setsuna appears to shamelessly borrow much of what made Chrono Trigger work so well in the first place.
The battle system has the same team-up style attacks that make its otherwise old-school combat a bit more dynamic, as well as a risk/reward system that lets you store up energy for special attacks and abilities if you choose not to act when your turn starts.
And while not nearly as revolutionary these days, you won’t find any random battles here either, with enemies again seen on-screen as it was in Crono’s heyday. This is intentional, of course. The developers want to invoke the feel of playing a game from 20 years ago. It’s being billed as a classic RPG for modern times.
At a glance it might be obvious that Setsuna must be a straight up spiritual successor; conversely, its premise may be where the modern” bit comes in. Its world is overrun with monsters – unlike most fairy tale-styled RPGs of yore, they need a human sacrifice every once in a while to keep things from getting out of hand. Setsuna, a young girl, has been chosen, and she must journey to the site where the ceremony of her death will take place, accompanied and protected by a sellsword.
Will the girl, resigned to her fate, actually die? It’s anyone’s guess. In any case, the concept is pretty far removed from the expeditions of Crono and his pals, despite the darker elements that eventually cropped up in their tale.
The question is, with nostalgia being such a big draw, how do you hook a modern audience? Allowing autosaves is the only design detail that jumps to mind in a game that wants so badly to be part of the past, and thats as miniscule a detail as it is a given.
The development team has said the game is about sorrow, made to mirror its snowy world; a mature narrative is definitely something that you wouldn’t necessarily have had in older games, unless you’re Yasumi Matsuno. Perhaps that too is an intentional shift away from Chrono Trigger.
In a sea of other RPGs, Chrono Trigger remains timeless for its personality as much as its innovative systems. It had heart the way that few games do, then or now. If Setsuna is going to succeed it needs new reasons to compel players, and hopefully with the advances in localization, and possibly a clever surprise or two in the wings, it may.
I’m pulling for the team at Tokyo RPG Factory. It’s no small task to stand in the shadow of a giant and say, “this is my version.” The potential for its own flavor is certainly there – particularly with beautiful, almost Ghibli-esque piano compositions that make up the game’s soundtrack. That, coupled with the curiosity of this kind of nostalgia in 2016, might be a good sign.