[Games of Summer is a recurring seasonal retrospective highlighting those magical titles that evoke wondrous thoughts of warm weather, carefree days, and discovery. Over the course of the next few weeks, we’ll reflect on said titles and analyze why they meant so much to us then – – and just as much now.]
Chrono Cross came out in August 2000, during a time when Square still made games without the words “final” or “fantasy” in the titles. It was the coup de grâce to Square’s Summer of Adventure promotional program, a fertile time in Square’s life that also saw the release of Vagrant Story in May, Legend of Mana in June, and Threads of Fate in July. Parasite Eve II came out later in September with Final Fantasy IX in November, a year after Final Fantasy VIII and a year before Final Fantasy X. My god, yes, this was most by far the most fertile time in Square’s life.
Of all those games, it was Chrono Cross I looked forward to the most. The controversial is-it-a-sequel-or-is-it-a-side-story to Chrono Trigger was among the first games I followed fervently using the Internet hype machine. At the time, The Gaming Intelligence Agency was the go-to place for my gaming news, where I browsed every day for each new nugget of Chrono Cross info. One of my favorite pieces of news was the character art for goofy scarecrow Lucky Dan, later renamed Mojo in the English release. I couldn’t believe such a stupidly awesome character would be in the “sequel” to my (still reigning) favorite game. Surely, out of the 40+ playable characters in Chrono Cross he would find a permanent spot in my party (he didn’t). The other bit of hype I loved to death was a 50-second-or-so clip of the game’s intro theme ”Scars of Time,” which I just couldn’t believe how amazingly fucking oh-my-god awesome it was. After exhausting MIDIs of the Chrono Trigger soundtrack for several years I must’ve played that high-quality WAV file hundreds of times, getting stupid and smiley each time the recognizable Chrono Trigger theme showed up reproduced with loving violins, just before the clip faded out. Looking back, the lead-up to Chrono Cross was probably more exciting than the game itself.
Not that Chrono Cross was a major disappointment, I just need to air some grievances I have with it after I replayed it not too long ago. It’s arguably still better than any other Square release on the PlayStation One, but it also still isn’t better than its Super Nintendo predecessor, and it shares many of its problems with Xenogears, another PS1 game by the same development team, notably the convoluted, poorly presented mess of a story. To try to sum up Chrono Cross‘ plot is a gigantic chore even with the help of a Wiki article. With so many plot points glossed over, mentioned at the last minute, left up to interpretation, or just lost in the shuffle, it’s only ever possible to remember the broad strokes. Even then, it’s a great strain. Just try if you played it. Wait, an alternate dimension where dinosaurs evolved into the dominant species? No, no, no, that’s the backstory to the live-action Super Mario Bros. movie!
Paradoxically, the game also goes way out of its way to be the most convenient RPG ever. It lets you forge equipment and weaponry at save points and on the beautiful, tropical world map. It lets you escape any battle, including boss battles. It lets you attack, stop, choose another character to attack with for a while, stop, select another character, etc. so long as you have the proper amount of “stamina.” I’m almost surprised it doesn’t let you save anywhere. Problem is, the battle system makes things SO easy, especially when you forge the better equipment later on that makes physical attacks the primary killing method and magic is left to the wayside. Many RPGs are guilty of that, sure, but 99% of battles are a breeze! Given how much priority and control the player has, this game should’ve been balls-to-the-walls hard. Every encounter should’ve been or life or death. At least… bosses should be. Bosses are pushovers. Even Sun of Son, a notorious bastard who switches weaknesses constantly, was a nobody the last time I played. The only time bosses feel like a threat, or like you need to actually think about Elements and Color Grids are the fights with the Dragons towards the end, the final battle/puzzle, and an optional boss fight you’d be lucky to find. And all that is in the final 10% of the game.
But! I still love Chrono Cross. I love the underwater title screen. I love how it starts with the infiltration of some kind of base, a Square trademark at the time. I love (and hate) the way the game takes its time doling out callbacks to Chrono Trigger, even if many of them were heartbreaking. I love the bodyswap twist in the middle of the game. I love the scope of the game’s plot even if it seems like it bites off more than it can chew. I love the party customization even if I had Fargo in my team most of the time because he can steal items from enemies. I love the tropical, summery atmosphere of nearly every environment of the game. You can feel the pebbles of sand on the beach by Serge’s home. You can feel the oppressive heavy air in the poisonous swamp, the heat in the volcano, and eventually, for contrast, the cold steel of the lost technological city. This is a beautiful, beautiful game, thanks to Nobuteru Yuuki’s character designs, which range from beautiful and creative (a harlequin, a space alien, a luchador) to um, questionable at best (Sneff, Sprigg, Funguy). And I knew before the game was even out, but I love, love, love Yasunori Mitsuda’s amazing score, which is among the best, if not the best, soundtracks composed for a video game.
And I love that initial ending. Like another Game of Summer, it finishes on such a strong, gut-punching note that always leaves me feeling — despite the bizarre over-ambitious story and easy-to-break battle system — sad it’s all over. Summer, why must you always do this to me?