Gaming Memories: Chrono Cross

Welcome to “Gaming Memories,” a blog series where I reminisce about my favorite video games. I will slowly but surely get to every game on the list, and speak to why each holds a special place in my heart. That not only means I’ll talk about why I think each is a great game that speaks to my tastes, but also where and how it affected me in a larger context. I hope you enjoy, and thanks for reading.

SPOILER WARNING: This blog contains spoilers for Chrono Cross.

In one world, Fargo is a proud and feared pirate captain. In the other, he is a cheater at his own casino. In one world, Gogh is a painter following his dreams but living in poverty. In the other, he is a successful trader, but neglects his son in favor of his business. In one world, the hydra marshes were pillaged for resources and destroyed. In the other, they still cling to life. In one world, various characters may be alive or dead, be dealing with profound guilt or grief, or embark on daring quests. In the other, it could all be the complete opposite.

One of my favorite things about Chrono Cross is how its two parallel dimensions present two wholly different, yet equally viable timelines for the world and those who inhabit it. And by letting you explore both of them, you get to see firsthand the many points where they diverge. These differences can range from very personal ones, such as Gogh’s life choices mentioned above, to world-spanning consequences, such as the fate of the hydra marshes, and seeing it all side by side leads to many poignant, thoughtful moments. It’s a highly effective way to present one of Chrono Cross’ central themes: any choice made, at any point in time, nudges the flow of time towards one of seemingly infinite possible futures. We often talk about choices in video games, but that usually refers to the explicit choices made by the player. Chrono Cross has those choices, but is more interested in portraying the larger web of cause and effect that results from the collective choices of everyone. It's a sobering and real meditation on our place in the world, and proves to be a fascinating narrative structure that got me to reflect on my own position in life as much as any game has. It also justifies its comically large cast of characters (45 total playable ones) better than it should. Many of them end up in different places between the two worlds, and seeing two different sides of them can be mesmerizing. Through their personal stories, Chrono Cross regularly highlights just how far our choices can ripple.

Chrono Cross had some lofty narrative ambitions, and for me it worked; I enjoyed pondering its existential ramifications, and felt it all fit with the rest of the game. And while it received some flak for being too divergent from its esteemed predecessor, Chrono Trigger, I always felt Cross’ premise of parallel dimensions was the perfect way to follow up Trigger's time-hopping adventure. Where Trigger was about exploring the flow of time along a straight line as you moved forwards and backwards through it, Cross was about exploring time as it branched into multiple parallel lines. It evolved and supplemented Trigger's themes without repeating them, which, to me, gave Cross its own identity while still showing clear connective tissue. One thing Cross clearly retained, however, was the same high bar of audiovisual quality Trigger was known for. Lush environments, a bright color palette, and smooth animations brought the world and its characters to life, and its soundtrack is regularly cited among gaming's best. It's easily one of my personal favorites too, as its simple instrumentation and soothing tones were not only exceptionally beautiful, but they captured the game's somber and contemplative nature perfectly. From sweeping cinematic movements, to mellow overworld melodies, to cultural town themes, to heartfelt story codas, Chrono Cross' soundtrack grabbed me in a way that so few have. It's one I still listen to regularly today, and I hold it as dear as any video game soundtrack.

Chrono Cross was a quirky game. But a good game.
Chrono Cross was a quirky game. But a good game.

In addition to its strong narrative, large cast of characters, and stellar audiovisual presentation, Chrono Cross was simply a fun game to play for numerous reasons. It contained a lot of flavor and personality, such as the way many characters had quirky, endearing speech patterns. It handled its large cast smartly, such as how all characters, not just the ones you used, leveled up after every boss battle. It contained many of the quality of life features fans appreciated from Chrono Trigger, such as being able to see enemies on the overworld before engaging in combat, and then added many more of its own, such as the the ability to automatically use any available magic to heal after battles. Your choices throughout the game could branch the story in cool ways that lead to different items or characters, which, along with its new game plus feature and many different endings, afforded tons of replay value. Last but not least, I enjoyed Chrono Cross’ combat. While not all that complex, the stamina system was more nuanced than the combat of many JRPGs of the time, and also a clever way to balance the use of powerful magic. I also enjoyed the contrasting effectiveness of the six magic elements, and the way those elements tied into the game’s “true” ending was surprisingly touching. It’s those subtle touches that made all the difference in Chrono Cross, and it had a lot of them.

Upon its release in 2000, Chrono Cross had a lot to live up to. It came out at a time when JRPGs were at their peak, from a company that had been on a roll for years, and was a sequel to one of the most beloved games ever made. Yet Chrono Cross carved its own path to create a memorable experience unlike any that came before it. Its thoughtful narrative, fun characters, gorgeous art, legendary soundtrack, and countless smart touches made for a game I couldn't stop thinking about, one that became a part of me in a way few games have. It's the exact kind of artistic expression I love this medium for, and I'm happy I got to experience it in this timeline.