For all the controller-throwing, off-switch-pushing, mom-yelling-that-if-I’m-not-having-fun-I-should-do-something-else gamer moments in my life, no video game ever pissed me off like Chrono Cross.
But 22 years after I bought it, beat it, cursed its name and vowed never to play it again, I paid Nintendo $19.99 for the privilege of downloading the HD remaster to my Switch.
I played it again.
I beat it again.
Will this review be the furious screed 18-year-old me never wrote, or a nostalgic reconsideration? Even I didn’t know until I wrote it.
[NOTE: This review contains early-game plot details of Chrono Cross and Chrono Trigger, as well as discussion of the games’ themes and storytelling choices throughout.]
[ALSO NOTE: If you dig this kind of stuff, I implore you to pre-order my friend Aidan Moher’s amazing book Fight, Magic, Items: The History of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Rise of Japanese RPGs in the West.]
So, uh, what am I playing this game for?
Decades before NFT-pushers made millions off of artificially scarce digital assets, my local Babbage’s put an $85 price sticker on their only copy of Chrono Trigger.
That was nearly half the cost of the Super Nintendo you’d need to play it–an inflation-adjusted $161.25! But I was flush with lawn-mowing cash, and my favorite magazine had just rated it 95/100. I pounced.
Chrono Trigger was breathtaking to look at, gorgeous to listen to, as accessible to play as it was engaging, and told its beautiful, life-affirming story through a tightly plotted script.
Chrono Cross? Well… I wish I could say three out of four ain’t bad.
Cross‘s graphics were gorgeous on original hardware and CRT TVs, and they mostly still are. The high-res 3D character models are awesome; the remaining blend of upscaled pixel art and retextured polygons is a mixed bag of “amazing” and “fine.”
Composer Yasunori Mitsuda famously worked himself into the hospital wringing Trigger’s classic tunes out of the SNES, but his soundtrack for Cross is next-level. There are beautiful new songs and themes, but they incorporate many of Trigger’s iconic melodies and motifs–now with full, real instrumentation (and all available on Spotify!).
Cross continued Trigger’s legacy of innovative RPG gameplay: Out with Ye Olde Magic Pointes, in with libraries of once-per-encounter spells and skills. Character power still grows with experience, but is capped by how many bosses you’ve beaten–a story-forward way to eliminate grinding as either a necessity or an advantage. The stamina bar adds so much depth and complexity to the turn-based system that it even makes “Defend” a useful option! And the remaster has quality-of-life hacks like Battle Boost just a button-press away.
As for the story? Well, here’s where I do what I couldn’t as a teenager: Pour myself a tall, frosty glass of coping mechanism.
Chrono Cross opens cold, mid-dungeon crawl, with no clue who we’re playing as or why. When we get to the final door, we see a disturbing CG cutscene implying one party member’s about to murder another?! Then the screen goes black, and we’re re-dropped into an opening sequence that deliberately echoes Trigger’s.
A teen boy awoken by his mother, with sun coming in through the windows. A quaint, colorful village with a festive vibe. A meeting with a pretty girl, some expository dialog, and then a spacetime-warping inciting incident that leaves us breathless and our protagonist’s worldview utterly shattered.
But where Trigger warped its self-insert hero into medieval Truce Valley, Cross warps us into the Uncanny Valley.
The girl-next-door love interest is named “Leena,” one letter off of a story-important ancestor of the first game’s love interest. Cross recycles many of its prequel’s names, concepts, and archetypes–and Trigger fans will drive themselves to distraction trying to discern a knowing wink from a plot-critical canon connection from 'whoops, the same guy wrote both games and accidentally pulled from the same spot in his subconcious.’
Trigger had seven playable characters who, for much of the game, joined and left your party of three as the plot demanded. In Cross, what feels like half the NPCs you meet have portraits and voices and backstories and just feel like they could be playable at some point. Tantalizing! But the game eventually just starts throwing people at you faster than you can use them, building up a uselessly huge 42-character bench.
Trigger wasn’t just a brilliant iteration of the boy-with-sword-meets-girl-saves-world story, it was a revolution in iterative storytelling: Once you beat the game, you could start over with your high-level characters and equipment. This “New Game +” mode let players breeze through the story over and over with different character combinations, and beat it in different ways to see different endings. It was an incredible addition.
Both times I played through Cross, it felt like I was missing stuff at every turn. Like huge chunks of story were happening somewhere I wasn’t. I suspect this game was designed to require multiple playthroughs to feel complete, but after one it doesn’t even feel coherent.
It wasn’t until the end of Cross‘s first act–when it takes a big, BIG swing, one of the few things I remember from my original playthrough–that the game makes a clear attempt to stand on its own.
Fine, then. Let’s consider it on its own.
Back in 2016, Kotaku published Peter Tieryas’ definitive take on a meme that’s gained legs over the years: “Chrono Cross Was A Bad Sequel, But A Brilliant Game.” [NOTE: this piece goes 100 percent Full Spoiler with the whole Chrono Cross plot].
Tieryas makes as compelling a case as he can, but there’s only one way to defend the story: It’s meditative where Trigger‘s emotional, complex where Trigger’s clear, and melancholy where Trigger’s uplifting.
All of this is true. But as those who survived the Extreme 90s, the Edgy Aughties and the Gritty Reboot 2010s can tell you, darkness doesn’t equal depth.
Cross centers nihilism and ambivalence from the very beginning. Our little fishing village is full of humble artisans and frolicking children who bring dark tidings and spout bizarre diatribes:
Right behind this guy, a kid JUST screamed "Yippee!" and cannonballed off the dock.
One major plot arc hinges on a trolley problem involving a party member and the last of a dying breed of monster. To save your friend, you must fight your way through a small army of NPC characters begging you not to extinct the beast. It’s a gut-wrenching sequence…the consequences of which the game quickly walks back. And then the triumph of saving your friend is also walked back–they would have been fine either way!
For a game about alternate timelines and causality ripples, sliding-doors moments and second-order effects, Cross is full of false choices. Even though you feel like you’re aimlessly wandering in search of a story, when you’re really walking invisible rails.
The game never stops driving its message home: If you try to do good, you will also cause harm. If something harmful occurs, some good will come from it. We all make choices, but they never really matter. You might be able to literally fight fate, but afterwards someone will just walk up and tell you you were fated to do that.
But Cross‘s unforgivable sin, its worst storytelling decision, also completely undercuts any attempt to evaluate it on its own terms. I’ll post a full-spoiler rant next week–but suffice it to say that Cross not only ties its own plot directly back to Trigger, it deconstructs Trigger’s happy endings and tells you that, if you think about it, maybe they weren’t so happy. Maybe the apocalypse you prevented was also valid, and deserved to exist!
Chrono Cross feels like playing this Dril Tweet for 40 hours:
I enjoyed my second playthrough a lot more than my first, in part because I was just trying to enjoy it–as opposed to holding my breath for updates on the original cast. I genuinely can’t believe more of these battle mechanics weren’t used in other games, because they’re a blast!
There are spectacular highs, including a full original musical theatre production that I didn’t see back in 2000. There are thrilling and devastating emotional moments that will stick with me forever, even if they didn’t add up to a meaningful story.
And, God, I weep for the characters. For Serge, who never got to talk. For Kid, who was the emotional and physical heart of the game and just flat-out not around for most of it. For Harle, who is even more crucial to the story than she appears but goes through her most emotional story beats in alternate endings and Wikis. For Razzly, who I made a core member of my team in both playthroughs–but never got her strongest spell, because in order to do so I’d have had to purposefully let her watch her sister die.
I want to spend more time with these characters, I want to get to know them better. I want to see each one grow as part of the cast’s big collective journey. But I know most don’t have a satisfying arc (if any at all), and the big collective journey is a frustrating, pointless mess.
Maybe if director and writer Masato Kato had cut all the Trigger-related twists in the game’s second half, and instead focused on building out the many interconnecting subplots between the Acacia Dragoons and the Porre military, the game could have stood alone as a darker, more contemplative, Chrono-worthy story in an isolated corner of the same world.
But Kato has admitted that this game was originally about wrapping up Trigger‘s only loose end, a cut subplot about which fans had begged for resolution…only to ultimately cut much of what they made of that for Cross, too!
So: Cross utterly fails as a direct sequel. It can’t stand on its own. It barely engages with the Big Important Questions it asks, offers us no coherent answers, and then asks us to keep re-playing it until it all makes sense.
I now, as then, refuse.
Kid answers Starky: "That's what we're gonna find out. Let's go!" They don't find out.
There’s an nigh-infinite ocean of resources for people who’d like to try to write a novel: classes, textbooks, self-help gurus, Secret Plot Formulas, you name it. For those who have written a novel and would like an agent to represent it, there’s a deep well to pull from: Trackers and databases, entire blogs and podcasts dedicated to helping you make a list, draft the perfect query letter, and get an agent.
But if you already have an agent for the book you’ve already written, and that book is out on submission to editors at traditional publishing houses? Well, there’s practically no information on what to expect, or support for a process that (I’m told, by those in the know) can be every bit as anguishing as it is #goals.
YA author Kate Dylan maintains this compendium of anonymous submission frustrations–and for the first time, one got a post-sob update! And it’s a happy update!
The great Dave Barry once wrote that if you’re pulled over for speeding while listening to the Isley Brothers version of “Twist & Shout,” the cop should be legally required to not only let you off, but sing the chorus along with you.
Fast driving and great music go hand-in-hand, and exploring the limits of a sports car’s grip is safest when the rubber’s meeting your thumbs, not an actual road.
Ismail is a staff writer at Jalopnik and co-host of “Time Extend,” a racing-game podcast–so it’s no wonder that his top 30 runs the gamut of decades, platforms, and game styles.
“Someone, somewhere was browsing this list waiting for the Out Run mention,” Ismail wrote.
Me, Adam. The someone was me.
Video games wouldn’t be playable without QA. But even as game-dev labor practices are slowly improving, and developers keep push back against decades of toxic environments and institutionalized grinding, QA departments aren’t getting the same support–or attention.
GaeaXIV, who per her bio is an 11-year QA veteran, dropped a truckload of knowledge about just how brutal it still is:
Congrats are in order, then, for Raven Software’s QA team, which just formed the first major video-game union–and any team that follows their lead.
I almost didn’t include this one, because it BLEW. UP. well before Gimme Schalter‘s usual pub time. But A), Zhao’s conception, execution, and collation of this was too great not to highlight. Plus, B), I’d just highlighted anonymous authors’ frustration with publishing pros, so why not the other way around?
Zhao, a fashion & lifestyle writer with a forthcoming novel from Penguin Random House, did just about everybody in the industry a huge favor by collecting these tips and airing these grievances.
But then C), I was surprised at how the part that got the most traction on my timeline was cover-design folks suggesting they’re professionals who know what they’re doing and authors should maybe not try to micromanage them. A lot of authors did not like this!
Freelance graphic designers are fighting for rent money shoulder-to-shoulder with writers and editors in the Hustle Foxhole, so asking for a baseline level of respect for each others’ craft shouldn’t be out of line. I do personally know authors whose publisher came up with a cover that didn’t represent their book well at all, and of course writers should respectfully advocate for their work and their vision.
But the purpose of a cover isn’t to visually represent the author’s vision–just signal what kind of book it is to readers who might want to buy it.
Yeah, I made progress on a novel last week. A novel coronavirus!
But seriously folks, COVID did finally make its way to Chez Schalter–and don’t worry, we’re all fine. But being laid on my back for a couple of days pushed a lot of stuff back, including newsletter writing (ahem) and the 1.5 draft of CODEX 17.
[Good Lord, I just misspelled it as COVID 17. Let’s hope neither I, nor anyone else, ever do that again.]