Lately I’ve been meandering through Eternal Sonata, wondering why I ever liked this genre. The pace was slow, the enemy designs uninspired, the dialogue stilted, the story simultaneously overwrought and patronizing. A few days ago, I walked to a local shopping mart and picked up the DS version of Chrono Trigger, against my better judgment. Even more than the recent rash of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy rereleases, Trigger seemed like a quick port for a quick buck. If I had to choose between Trigger and Sonata, I’d go with the former every time, and even today more RPGs ought to steal glances at its playbook.
To ensure that your RPG endures as Chrono Trigger does, you first should make it visually and aurally engaging. Eternal Sonata actually succeeds here – the lush, cell-shaded art style and rousing battle themes are actually among its stronger points. It’s important to make your game look good enough to endure the test of time – Trigger’s detailed spritework and varied environments make it interesting to look at, and its music is some of the best games have to offer. Game music of late has been taking too many cues from the movie business – occasionally you’’ll get a memorable theme, but the rest of it is forgettable incidental filler. Game music from the NES and SNES days remains beloved for a reason – it'’s more like popular music than classical. I like classical music just fine, don’t get me wrong – I particularly like cleaning my apartment to Beethoven’s 6th. Popular music is simply more digestible, hookier, and more memorable, though it is still capable of being musically interesting. Your RPG’s soundtrack should definitely be more Chrono Trigger than God of War. More hooks, less ambiance.
Next, keep it simple, at least on the surface. A common criticism of Chrono Trigger is its low level of challenge – a hard game this isn’t. I see this as more of a point in its favor as far as accessibility goes. Games like Dragon Quest and any of the many many Atlus-developed RPGs that make it over here all pride themselves on being old-school, bringing with them the old school’s tendency toward archaic and obtuse menus and systems and deep but often convoluted game mechanics. Not so Chrono Trigger. There is little by way of character customization left up to the player, and each character has its own set list of attacks and combos that he or she learns in a set order. This frees up the player’s brain to actually play and enjoy the game, which I’m definitely not doing when I’m level-grinding some characters in Final Fantasy Tactics.
This leads me to my next point, which is that you need to keep your game moving. Because Trigger requires little by way of level grinding and stat-building, the game moves at a brisk clip. In Dragon Quest V I once circled a town for two hours fighting monsters for the experience and gold. It’s important to keep your game lively because it (1) keeps you interested and invested in the game – one of my favorite tactical RPGs (and the only one I’ve ever seen through to the end) is the PSP’s Jeanne d’Arc because it has specifically tailored itself not to drag out for eons. Its battles always last for a set number of turns, certain characters can strike multiple times in a single turn, and a handy power-up system keeps you from having to do too much power-leveling.
The other reason keeping your game moving is important is that (2) it makes it so that people would conceivably want to play it again. Chrono Trigger clocks in at somewhere around 20-25 hours, even as its peers were already moving into the 40-hour range considered the bare minimum for modern RPGs. It was also one of the first games to feature multiple endings based on decisions you made while playing – combined with the “New Game+” mode, which allowed you to start the game using the powered-up characters from a completed game save, people regularly played through multiple times just to see all there was to see. Trigger also features a healthy number of hidden items and sidequests – another game that does this well (and is similarly replayable in spite of similar problems) is Super Mario RPG, which has hidden items that I still haven’t figured out how to get.
If people are going to be playing your game again, extra stuff is great, but the game still has to be fun to play. To this end, mix it up a little. This may sound like it conflicts with keep it simple, but bear with me – while Trigger does cut out most of the more meticulous customization aspects of other RPGs, it also throws enough different equipment your way to make playing the game completely different depending on the characters you choose to play and the equipment you choose to give them. Also, the number of combo attacks is dizzying in number – you can play the game by sticking with one or two of the most useful basic spells, but taking the time to look through each character’s special move list can be very rewarding. Pokemon is actually a game that handles this very well – sticking to well-known Pokemon with good conventional moves will certainly beat the game, but coming up with more strategic ways to use its more obscure critters can definitely be more rewarding.
There, I did it. This is how to make your RPGs not suck. I’m going to go back to playing Eternal Sonata now – I keep hoping it’ll improve before the end. The outlook is not excellent.