Yes, I know. All of it is amazing.
It was 20 years ago today that Chrono Trigger released in Japan. It’d be months later before North America would taste the complexities of its storytelling and know its now iconic characters. For me, I wouldn’t experience its joy for another 6 years or so.
Time flies. Or in Chrono Trigger’s case, time and its many histories are malleable and accessible on the wings of the Epoch.
Chrono Trigger is not that simple and Yasunori Mitsuda’s breath-taking soundtrack is as equally layered. From the disconcerting opening sound of the clock’s swinging pendulum in “A Premonition” to the triumphant sounds of a new journey of discovery in the closing chimes of “To Far Away Times”, the game’s masterful soundtrack is a timeless classic. Few soundtracks have ever felt so complete, perfect or varied.
To pick just a handful of favourite songs is no easy task but here are just 8 from the many that I will be listening to today in celebration of this wonderful game.
This song has an interesting placement near the beginning of the game, and a necessary one. When games or media delve into time travel stories, for the audience it’s a beginning of what we know and what we should expect, which is far different from true starting points in the story. In Chrono Trigger, there’s an even earlier era to explore in Ayla’s pre-history. Before Crono’s time, there are the knights and magic to explore in Frog’s 600 AD. Before that, Magus’ Kingdom of Zeal in 12,000 BC.
Each era is a new beginning for Crono and his friends. But here in 1000 AD, we join Crono, Lucca and Marle for those carefree days — a song for peaceful times of a young, familiar world that’s yet unaware of the threat that awaits. The dreamlike quality and steady rhythm like a lullaby starts us off in green and untouched beauty before a journey through time. It’d be a long time before these days return, and depending on the paths players choose, these days would be long forgotten.
Some of the best moments in Chrono Trigger come from its carefully laid out comedic interjections. In the case of the trial, there are a series of things Crono can unwittingly do (or not do) with the end result the same. Guilty verdict or not, there’s the hint that this trial is nothing but a farce which reveals itself in the tense expressions of the trial theme. It begins like a matter of fact presentation saying, “here’s everything you need to know” followed by sounds of scrutiny, then moves to a strained emotion that evokes guilt (whether or not you helped that girl find her cat or ate that one guy’s lunch), then to a period of thoughtful questioning. It’s truly remarkable a song can do so much in just under 2 minutes only to repeat the process to maintain the pace of uncertainty of a guilty or innocent verdict.
Johnny and his Robo Biker gang are cool, rebellious surface dwellers. They represent a side of the dusty wasteland of the future that’s all outlaw with no rules binding them; and not much by way of other entertainment in the harsh new reality.
They’re the fun part of 2300 AD.
And the complete opposite when we meet the Dome dwellers and Robo.
Living in rundown domes, having a constant reminder of hunger as food rots away nearby; these are the squalid conditions of this dystopian world. There’s hardly anything to sustain life, and those who are still unfortunate to exist in this time can hardly be called alive.
There’s lots of variety in the soundtrack for this one time period. There’s Robo’s upbeat, hopeful theme which comes as a refreshing take amidst witnessing his bullying at the hands of other robots. Mechanical and methodical sounds in its robot run factories.
But this song, along with its the Dome life residents, and the realization that Lavos is coming to destroy it all, is one that captures the hopelessness of 2300 AD best. It’s sorrowful and never deviates in its composition, which creates even more of an impact in that there’s nothing else to look forward to. The future is bleak and the Last Day of the World sends us off in a depressingly matching fashion.
What will the hub for the End of Time sound like? What will we encounter when we come to a crossroads, with portals leading to various eras in time? A man in a dapper hat would stand a lonely watch over these points in time—”lonely” being the key word here. Like the swinging pendulum at the game’s title screen, “The Brink of Time” starts with that swaying emotion. It introduces that loneliness, but there’s also this way in which it leaves the decision making in your hands. Where to go? How will you shape the future? It’s a heavy, thoughtful theme—one that’s fitting for the poignant emptiness that sits at the end of time.
There’s no escaping talking about this song. It’s one that I’m hesitant to speak about, as really it speaks for itself. Everything leading up to this moment in the game is eerily calm and unsettling as your party members make their way through the castle. And when finally facing the great Magus, his battle theme pays off in a huge way. It’s demanding, requires extreme focus and a level of intensity with a regal flair best suited to Magus and his dark magic.
Few songs, over my many years of playing JRPGs, have struck a chord with me like this one has. It’s attention grabbing from the very first note and full of technical wonder. The synthesizers present such a sharp image with futuristic undertones and advancement in technology—they feel like living, electrifying pulses coursing through the palace and throughout the song. As soon as the synthesizers come in, so do the heavier key strokes that are foreboding. Soon thereafter, there’s a mystical element to it as well, aptly signifying the Kingdom of Zeal’s seedy and ambitious dabbling with magic and science.
There’s so much anticipation in this song, and it frames the pivotal moment for Magus’ and Schala’s history, and your party’s desperate attempt to change an ill-fated point in time.
The Penultimate battle music. “World Revolution” is bursting with decisiveness and determination. You can hear the struggle between Lavos and your party here and it’s a long haul of a fight. There’s a lot going on—fast-paced workings that keep the upbeat tempo beneath dire sounds of your party fighting, and doomed ones belonging to Lavos as he makes his threatening presence known. Parts read like getting the upper-hand on the alien nightmare but it keeps this ambiguity during the length of the song, like a scale that can be tipped in either direction for a win or a crushing defeat.
Lavos’ piercing scream begins the final fight. It’s the most characteristic thing about the song in an otherwise expected final battle theme. Though the scream alone is enough for the entire thing to be memorable. The fight itself switches time lines with Lavos drawing power from each of the areas he cast his life-sucking parasitic ways on throughout the past, present and future. At the final blow, it screams its last and for the long battle across time, it’s like a giant blood curdling sigh of relief.
Chrono Trigger is a pinnacle work in both JRPGs and video games. 20 years later, it still has a story, gameplay and characters that can rival those of its modern counterparts. The soundtrack’s just another way that the game remains a masterpiece—then, now and until the end of time.
Have memories of Chrono Trigger and its music? Feel free to share these thoughts in the comments below
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