Before Square Enix there was Square Company. From its inception Square released 145 titles before its merger with Enix in 2003. Many of these games were released under a given ‘Squaresoft’ brand name, such as the ever-popular Final Fantasy VII for PS One, which was one of the west’s first taste of Squaresoft magic, which paved the way for world-wide RPG dominance. However this series, and other famous Square properties such as the Front Mission and the SaGa series all in fact began on Nintendo platforms, albeit mostly Japan-only releases.
Following Nintendo’s failed SNES-CD venture with Sony and then Phillips, and subsequent continuation with cartridge games with the N64, all these properties moved onto the Sony PlayStation. And, despite Final Fantasy VII being the most famous RPG of all time, and subsequent remakes for today’s platform, it’s often the SNES titles Squaresoft produced that remain firmly in our hearts.
The SNES has the best anthology of RPG’s, and in my opinion are still the most accessible to this day. The afore-mentioned series’ may well be the most recognised due to their ongoing adventures, but 2 in my mind stick out as the 16-bit generation’s best: Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana.
Potential spoilers, be warned.
The superlatives for Chrono Trigger are never ending, echoed by many, with good reason. The brainchild of A-List creators Hironobu Sakaguchi (Final Fantasy), Yuji Hori (Dragon Quest, from fierce rivals-come eventual partners Enix) and Akira Toriyama (DragonBall creator, and Dragon Quest artist), it’s incredible to think this game could even happen. It did, and it is a magnificent package. The SNES proved to be the platform that showcased both graphical power and fully conveyed stories and characters by their creators, and Chrono Trigger has both in spades.
You play Crono, a young boy whose chance meeting with a young woman named Marle at the local fair, leads to a series of time travel adventures. He makes friends while ripping back and forth through time, uncovering the plans of an evil force laid dormant for centuries.
Presented in typical top-down RPG view, Chrono Trigger at first seems like no more than a typical Final Fantasy affair, but it’s active time battles keep the action flowing perfectly, and none of the battles feel forced into, which Final Fantasy games can certainly be guilty of.
The heroes assembled throughout lead you through like any great fantasy novel; you connect with them and want them to win, not just because it’s the aim of the game. One such hero is Frog, who is (surprise), a frog. But, you just know from the first meeting there is something more going on, and you have to know. This is typical of all the hero contingent, and it’s what separate’s Chrono Trigger from the pack. Chrono Trigger’s further uniqueness from other RPG’s of this nature stems from its time trial plot device; there are no less than 13 different endings possible in this game, and a typical run through is around 20-30 hours, unlike similar RPG’s that can clock in double that easily. It’s not very often that JRPG’s warrant a replay, but Chrono Trigger does exactly that. It has been re-mastered and re-released numerous times, but never strayed away from its 2D blueprint. If it isn’t broke, why fix it?
Secret of Mana
Another Squaresoft classic, and is actually a sequel (Final Fantasy Mystic Quest for Game Boy being the original), Secret of Mana is a grand adventure. There is more of a Link to the Past feel to it, but with key JRPG elements being the backbone. The combat system is the best example of this; like Zelda, you are free to move, attacking enemies when you wish, however to land the heavier blows you must allow your weapon gauge to recharge 100% first.
You control any one of 3 three characters; Randi, the main protagonist and holder of the Mana Sword), Primm, a princess on the run from an arranged marriage) and Popoi, a ‘Sprite’ who has no memories of his past, so joins the quest to seek them. The quest is almost Zelda-like; the Mana Sword must be re-energized by acquiring the power of the 8 Mana Seeds. Compared to Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana is indeed much more clichéd and simpler in its story. But its unique mixture of real-time battles, epic bosses, excellent use of the Mode 7 graphic technique, and seamless flow to the adventure make it near flawless. Additional to this is the intuitive and superb Ring Command menu system; options such as equip, using items, etc. appear in a circle around your controlled character, leaving you to simply access the desired options without the arduous, multi-layered menu system JRPG’s often have.
Both Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana have been released for touch screen mobile platform in recent years, and even with the initial bedding in process of touch-screen joysticks, little of the magic is lost, 20 years on from their inception. Although of the same genre, they are different adventures in so many ways, and easily 2 of the best RPG’s of all time. They are also 2 of the most treasured items to own for retro-collectors, easily fetching over £100 each if boxed. If you haven’t experienced either, I suggest you do. Prepare to be dazzled.