One of the reasons I was so excited about writing “My Idea of Fun” columns is because the way games are written about and viewed critically often seems to be in flux. As an example, when Wind Waker came out, gamers lambasted it. “Too cartoony, too kiddy.” What was cool and correct to like was Twilight Princess, when it came out. Now years later, Twilight Princess (which I rather liked) is “hopelessly derivative and forgettable,” and Wind Waker is the real winner. It’s also now okay to admit that Oblivion was really not worth all the hype, and people are finally coming out to sound a resounding “meh” about Grand Theft Auto IV.
So… help me out here. Is it okay to like Chrono Cross yet?
When I saw a Video Games Live concert a few years ago, and the theme from Chrono Cross started to play, the crowd burst in to roars of applause. Maybe it’s not hard to understand why, because listen to the theme from Chrono Cross:
On the other hand, I was a little annoyed by the cheers and applause. I may have, in fact, shouted out loud, if not under my breath: “BUT YOU ALL HATED IT.” I, myself, have very fond memories of this game. It seems to have pretty good reviews and a really high Metacritic. But that’s not how I remember things shaking out in the past, where heaps of derision and hate were piled on it from all sides on the internet when it was initially released in 2000.
Chrono Cross and Final Fantasy IX came out around the same time. I know this, because I got them both at the same time. Final Fantasy IX was “a beloved return to form” or something like that. I honestly couldn’t tell you because I have yet to make it past the first disc, despite numerous attempts. I have finished Chrono Cross at least a half-dozen times.
Sometimes people say things like, “there’s no worthwhile critical writing about games on the internet.” Those people are obviously not looking in the right places. One place you should probably be looking, depending on whether or not it’s hidden behind a paywall today, is the Something Awful Let’s Play forums, where gamers the world over (many of whom are very talented writers) play games individually and dissect them, bit by bit, through sometimes the entire run of a video game. I’m pointing this out because a recent thread related to the game Chrono Trigger, may be the best critical writing about the game I’ve ever seen. I would highly suggest reading all of it, you know, if you’ve got a minute, but I’ll explain why I mention it. In this thread, LPer Quovak, who is absolutely master-level at Chrono Trigger, spends a little time explaining why the reception for its sequel, Chrono Cross, wasn’t particularly good among the fans. Mostly, it’s because as a second Chrono Trigger game, Chrono Cross fails. It does a really bizzare thing with the Chrono Trigger story, taking it in a direction a lot darker than the original. It’s unfair to some of Chrono Trigger’s original cast, while leaving some fan questions unanswered or at least answered-dubiously. Its story isn’t in the spirit of the original game. As a huge fan of the original game I completely understand this complaint.
Aside from that, Chrono Cross is a really cool game in its own right, and it’s a shame that it had to sit in the shadow of one of the best games ever. Every time I say, “well, it’s really good, though, isn’t it,” it seems to start some kind of Internet Argument. Mostly, all you can get a gamer to admit to is, “well, the soundtrack is pretty good.”
…Sh’yeah. Yeah, it is.
But a lot of things in the game are pretty good. The story is confusing in parts, but has some really amazing twists. It begins in medias res, showing the player a situation that doesn’t actually happen until the midpoint of the game, at a pivotal moment in the main character’s story. It then cuts to the real beginning at a critical time, leaving the player wondering, “Whoa, what happened there?” It does get a little muddled down in metaphysics near the end, leaving some things open to interpretation, which may not appeal to everyone, especially when it gets a bit dark.
On the other hand, the moment-to-moment dialogue is often very good, for a JRPG translation. I understand this is likely to be divisive, because Chrono Cross filtered individual character dialogue through an “accent filter” that caused some characters to speak in different dialects. I always thought of it as the “X-Men via Chris Claremont” filter. Poshul the Pooch had a lisp; Harle the clown a French accent, etc. Through this method, the game could deliver the same line of dialogue in text in a different way, depending on who was actually in your party. Given that the game had a huge cast, the re-use of dialogue was necessary. Some people thought it was irritating; I thought it was really cute and clever. The game has a big enough cast of characters that if, say, Poshul, or that little Pip dude that levels up like a Pokemon, really bother someone so much, they’d never have to use that character for very long anyway.
And the mechanics are fun! The game uses inherent spell colors for individual characters, and each character has his/her/its own specialty attack. Chains of different colors can add power, meaning the order spells are cast in is important. Characters are often interchangeable, but just customizable enough that you’d probably have a few favorites, and could build your party around them for big fights. It’s a neat bit of strategy.
Also, the game had both a NewGame+ and a “fast forward through the boring summon animations on your second playthrough” button. I think these features should be mandatory in all JRPGs forever until the end of time.
I have this pet theory, and that is: people who really disliked Chrono Cross on its release are people who just couldn’t figure out how to wrangle a real ending out of it the first time through. The final boss is actually a puzzle boss, and isn’t defeated in an ordinary way. I thought the trick was incredibly cool, myself, but that’s due in part to having figured it out on my own. I can at least see where missing all the clues, and getting no ending, then finding the real ending later in a strategy guide might leave a gamer feeling a lot more soured on the experience. And I can say that getting it myself the first time is something that colored my whole experience with the game and caused me to leave it on a good note.
So that’s Chrono Cross: it’s got great music, fun battle, and a big puzzle worth solving. Is it Chrono Trigger? No. But it’s still awesome, and my idea of fun.
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