It's Saturday morning, and I call Brian's name. He's asleep on the lower half of our cold, metal bunk bed that Mom purchased out of a catalog. He murmurs something like a growl, but I don't ask for clarification. I bolt down the ladder, race barefoot across the hardwood floor and down into the basement where hints of the morning seep through ivy-covered windows. My brother is at my heels. I knew he wouldn't be long. It's time to play video games.
The cartridges stand in a perfect file alongside our old, clunky TV whose colors have begun to bleed red, and whose volume button jams if pushed too hard. They wait at the ready like troops prepared for war: Pilot Wings, Conker's Bad Fur Day, Mario Kart 64, and no fewer than four installations in the Zelda saga. We're a Nintendo family through and through. It's the old game at the front, with its appliqué peeling even more than when it was purchased from Game Crazy that I've come for though.
Brian grabs it before I can.
"I got here first," I say.
"You were the last one to play."
"It's my game."
"You said I could play it whenever I want."
"Yeah, that's not what I meant."
I snatch the cartridge from Brian's hand and load it into the SNES; he shakes his head in disgust. The TV comes on and we plop knee-first into the backward facing couch. If we're not careful, we'll have wave-like indentations in our skin by the time we're done, hours later.
The grandfather clock starts ticking:
Feel free to listen to however much or little you would like. The following contains spoilers.
Chrono Trigger follows a group of unusual, time-traveling allies that attempt to save the world from an Armageddon that's already transpired in the future. Led by the fire-haired Crono, the adventurers encounter mystics, monsters, conspiracies, and class struggle. Humor is imbued into every scene, and streams of time weave in and out, covering the fictional world like spider webs around an orb.
When the menu launches, I choose the first data slot. I'm on the chapter entitled The Final Battle, and my party hovers around level 58. I've completed enough side quests to earn the Rainbow Sword, which players online tell me its the most powerful weapon in the game. I've decided to fight the last boss.
The screen goes black, then illuminates to inside the hollow shell of Lavos—the game's Big Bad with multiple stages. He's the one that has/will have destroyed of the world.
I like doing little things that make the characters feel more real, like deciding which ones get the best accessories based on their personality or leveling them up equally so none of them get left behind. I've chosen Ayla to lead my three-person party into the final battle with Frog and Crono trailing behind. I think she deserves that honor more than anyone else.
It's funny how Ayla is the bona fide bad-ass in the game; I love how her gender is hardly, if ever, questioned. When you first encounter her, 65 million years in the past, she's ruling her ancient cave people as a chief, desperately trying to fix the crap that her male deputy Kino has gotten them into. It's Ayla who witnesses Lavos first, back when the evil entity was just a red, falling star. She's the only character in the party to have lived on the planet before Lavos poisoned it, before he began killing its creatures, before he began controlling their minds. Like a fearless leader, she teaches Crono how to hunt and fly on the wings of dinosaurs. She also has the catchiest character theme song in the whole game.
"Why do you have her in to fight Lavos?" Brian asks me on the other side of the couch. He has a pillow cradled up against his chest.
"Because she has the best attack points when you're attacking a single opponent."
"Why would that matter?"
"Because you can't just attack all parts of Lavos at once. He strikes back with his stored energy. It can kill you in like one hit."
I direct Ayla and the party through the chasms of Lavos's shell until she sees a monstrosity hanging from the ceiling. A light illuminates around a shadowy form, revealing a mechanized creature with metal plates covering every joint, and tubes running energy to its body from the meat of its shell.
"Is this Lavos?" Brian asks.
"Yeah. I got here last night."
The battle begins and Ayla yells "No give up" while Frog the half man, half amphibian behind her declares that a victory here means vindication over Cyrus's death.
"Do you think Frog would actually say that?" Brian asks.
"He wouldn't actually say anything. He's a frog."
"But if he could."
"Well..." I say, thinking for a second.
Out of all the characters, Frog is unequivocally the most grandiose. He's royal, proper and, has a fanfare fit for the forests or Scotland or Arthurian legend. He comes with peculiar traits. First, his frog-like nature, but more than that, a bottomless and insoluble guilt. He watched his best friend and fellow solider, Cyrus, die at the hands of Magus, an evil Mystic, during a war 400 years in the past. Frog was too weak to save him. Though harmed by the wizard's magic, he did not die himself. Rather, the human once known as Glenn, was mutated into his current form and would forever be known as Frog. The pain he felt over the loss of his friend has never left him.
"Yeah. I think he would say those things," I tell Brian.
The synthesized trumpets of the boss battle theme roar a fanfare and my fingers begin strategizing my magic, tech, attack and defensive strategies. Flashes, clouds, whirls and fires fill the screen as I painstakingly trudge through the series of attacks and deflections I've mastered from the night before.
The battle nears its end, and my party struggles to stand. I've gotten this far; I can tell Lavos's core will collapse any moment now, but I know that this stage is only an interlude. His third and final form waits for the grand finale. His inner core is what I've come to vanquish.
Lavos's metal plates fall away, and three discrete lifeforms take shape. They're physically independent but rely on each other for defense, magic powers and healing. The final final boss music starts, and the central core unleashes a blood-curdling screech as the bass line undulates deliberate and cthonic arpeggios.
"So you have to—" Brian says.
"I know what I'm doing!" I bark back.
I grip the Super Nintendo controller tightly in my hands. My sweat has begun to coat it's rounded edges.
"This one is the one that actually matters," I say, pointing at the satellite being on the right. "Only when you destroy it do you win. The one on the left and the one in the center do the most damage—"
"That doesn't seem too complicated."
"Except that the right one can regenerate the other two after you've killed them."
"What happens then?"
"You have to start over the process—left, center, right—and hope you can outlast it until you kill it."
Nearly forty-five minutes of fighting pass, and I think the Lavos core is about to give up. I'm using Ayla's Triple Kick, Frog's Cure 2, and Crono's Confuse as relentlessly as the core will allow. I make an attack and suddenly the central Lavos core flashes. The screen's backdrop morphs, running through each of the time epochs throughout the game. Each of the eras where Lavos had controlled the minds of the creatures and slowly taken over the planet.
I've finally beaten him.
The victory music plays. I smile at Brian, leaping from the couch to jump up and down. I turn up the volume with the plastic buttons. I press so hard I think they'll finally fall off for good. The credits scroll. Crono and his friends fly and walk through time and space. After a beautiful parade, the three characters that started the game are finally back in their own era of 1000A.D and attend the Millennium Festival of Lights in their home town.
I sit and marvel as the screen goes black. I think it was the most fun I had ever had.
Years pass after that victory. I move through into my high school years. I get my own room and leave the bunk bed to my brother. I learn how to drive. Brian and I play other video games on other systems: Ogre Battle 64, Golden Sun, Eternal Darkness. But we always come back to Chrono Trigger.
It has something that all the others don't, multiple endings for one, yet something harder to define. I buy the sheet music of the score, for example, and play it nearly every day on the piano. I draw sketches and paint pictures of the characters. I even mail some to the Nintendo Power offices in Redmond, WA, even though I know they're not good enough to get into the magazine. I trace the paths Crono and his party take as they travel through time, make maps and time charts that show how perfect the string of events was (granted time travel is even possible). I even try my hand at a few fan fiction tales.
My brother and I are obsessed. We play the game over and over and over. We find new endings that sound only like whispers of rumors online. We force our friends to play through the first few chapters. Some concede. Some don't. We always have some new theory to discuss with the ones that do. Brian tries his hand at Chrono Cross when it gets released; even though I don't have the heart to try it. I can hardly believe how every detail in the original fits together so perfectly. Any attempt to add more to such an immaculate story could forever ruin the masterpiece they had so diligently constructed.
Take Lucca and Robo for instance. Mechanical geniuses: one human, one robot. When you find Robo in the future, he's lying helpless and demolished, a victim at the hands of an android gang controlled by an evil super computer. Lucca uses her technical expertise and revives him, albeit with a slightly altered hard-wiring.
He calls her Madam Lucca and can't fully comprehend why she would risk herself to save his own "life." He knows he is only metal after all. As he goes along with the group of time travelers, he begins to adopt characteristics of human emotion. He volunteers to spend four-hundred years revitalizing a desert into a forest. He does his best to show gratitude where he think Lucca would do the same. Alone, Robo contemplates his own existence, how he has changed by being around his friends. At the end of time, after Lavos has been destroyed, he tells Lucca thank you for teaching him how to feel. It's one of the most beautiful moments I have ever encountered in any game, book or film.
Then there's Magus; the evil, misunderstood, wizard and arguably the catalyst for the entire story. As a child —when he was known as Janus—he watches his sister Schala be manipulated by his mother. She's forced to construct the evil Mammon Machine and draw power from the planet. Janus watches how it draws forth power from Lavos and kills his sister.
The cataclysm sends Janus, now Magus, racing forward through time where he devotes all his energy into undoing his past, into bringing back his sister from the dead. He amasses an army of mystics and summons Lavos himself, hoping to destroy it on an earlier timeline before it can destroy his entire family. It is here where he mutates Frog and murders his friend Cyrus, who dare try to stop him. However, he fails in his mission to destroy Lavos, and ironically gets thrust back to his childhood, forced to watch the painful deaths of his family play out again, this time from the point of view of a prophet. As a player, I'm given the chance to either integrate his evil into the party or fight him to the death and return Frog to his natural form. Redemption or execution.
Mulling over the themes, the music, the story, the characters becomes an addiction. The game itself becomes secondary to the story that lives in my mind. The characters feel like friends I never want to say goodbye to, even the ones I'm not supposed to care for. I take them with me when I move out from my home. They're there as I struggle through college. I call up their timeless epic when I feel overwhelmed by the world.
It's a place I can escape to whenever I want to feel small.
So now I write this piece in my bedroom, over 3,000 miles from my childhood home, away from that cold, metal bunk bed I shared with Brian when we were kids. As fate would have it, my career path has led me to share an apartment with him and his friend in Brooklyn where sometimes I get paid to write and where hopefully soon I'll be able to make that my career. Brian is composing music; he likes the sounds of Aphex Twin and Philip Glass. He'd love to get paid for his art too, but he'd be happy if money were associated with the music industry at all in the next decade.
Chrono Trigger comes up between us one day, as it usually does every few weeks or months. Brian purchased a new package of chip-tune sound effects he plans on incorporating into a new pieces. He also wants to try using it in the soundtrack of our indie RPG Maker game we recently and naively decided to create. We knew it would be difficult, just not how difficult. With the new patch, the music will sound genuinely like the mid-'90s era of video games, he tells me.
Brendan, Brian's friend, looks at us puzzlingly as we share memories and lines from the game. He has never played it.
"People have asked me what my biggest influences are," I say to him. "And the more I think about it, the more Chrono Trigger keeps coming up in my mind as maybe the single biggest factor shaping my idea of great storytelling during my childhood. The only other options would be Star Wars or the Bible. And we know that both of those are wrought with their unique set of difficulties."
He laughs and says he really needs to play it.
It's a slightly disturbing realization for me to make, though, that a video game, not a novel, was distinguished by my formative brain as the Best Work of Fiction. Sure, I can say I've read books and short stories that surpass the literary merit of Masato Kato, Takashi Tokita, Yoshinori Kitase, and Yuji Horii's script. And I'm sure that as beloved as it is, Brian would admit that Yasunori Mitsuda's iconic soundtrack does not reach the heights of the modern composers of the last century. But that's not exactly the point.
In one of the most cinematic moments of the game, Princess "Marle" Nadia, Crono's ostensible love interest and perhaps the story's true protagonist, smuggles herself into a medieval courtroom where her father, the King, has been falsely accused of selling a valuable royal heirloom. Her silhouette drifts behind an illuminated stained-glass window, and as the guilty verdict comes down on her father, she bursts through from behind, glass shattering, into the light. She has the evidence to exonerate him. She had altered the past, stored the heirloom deep inside the royal vaults, and now it can be excavated to save her father's life.
That's the fantasy of time travel stories I find so alluring: the suggestion that with a mere tweak here, four-hundred years ago, you can completely alter your life today. We know it's impossible. Yet we never stop wishing for it. Perhaps we don't realize that we don't have to go back in time to change our future, the treasures may be buried inside our memories, waiting for us to rediscover them.
And that's what Chrono Trigger is for me.
The story of a boy who doesn't talk, who accidentally gets on a strange platform at a fair, who finds himself witnessing the end of the world, and who decides to go back and save it, no matter how many times it looks like the future will refuse to change. A boy who makes uncommon friends. Who encounters death more often than one would like. Who sits around campfires and listens to his passel of miscreant time warriors grieve over family members, lovers, and friends. A boy who wanders among the impoverished and infiltrates into the corners of the elite.
In the end, the grand dream that is Chrono Trigger reminds me that the best parts of life, like the best parts of that game, don't happen at the end, with the battle of Lavos. They happen along the way. All you need are some good friends to tell you some silly stories. And with a little zeal, anything is possible.