te Reverse Design: Chrono Trigger - 2
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Chapter 1: Quests One through Four

Quest 1 - Saving Marle (or, Dungeons for Dummies)

Stat of the Quest:This section is set aside for a variety of statistics that explain something about the quest or the game, using mathematical analysis. (Some stats are more mathematical than others.) But because there's not a whole lot going on in the first quest, we've saved this space for you! Email your request for some kind of stat to submissions@thegamedesignforum.com and we'll put it up. Make sure you read all the other Stats first, so we don't get a lot of repeats. Cheers!

For the most part, dungeons in Chrono Trigger never get much more complex than the Cathedral, but they do get bigger and they certainly get tougher. There are two zones in the Cathedral; the first room with--adjoining balcony rooms to the right and left--is the first section. With the weapons found in chests in the first section, the damage floor (minimum) for Crono and Frog's attacks is around 25 and 35 respectively, even at a low level. Thus the two of them will be able to take out the Diablos (50 HP) and Naga (60 HP) enemies in merely two hits. If Frog and Crono do not finish it, one shot from Lucca ought to finish the Gnasher enemy nine out of ten times. Most battles will be short and easy, just the way you’d expect them to be in a first dungeon.

The important thing about the first section is that if the player fights every group of enemies on screen once, it will earn the party 30 tech points. Not coincidentally, this will be just enough for Lucca to learn Flame Toss and Frog to learn Slurp and Slurp Cut. This is important because in the second room we are going to be introduced to one of the game's enduring lessons: the two types of enemies.

There are two types of non-boss enemies in Chrono Trigger: enemies that can be defeated with normal attacks, and enemies that require tech attacks to defeat. There are many different reasons why an enemy might fall into one group or the other, and we'll see each of those reasons as we progress through the game, but the most important thing for a player to know about an enemy is which group it falls into. In the second section of the Cathedral, the player is introduced to the Hench enemy. (If the player has been very observant, it's possible to fight 3 Henches in the first room. It's hard to find the right spot your first time through the game, however.) The Cathedral Hench is highly resistant to normal attacks. In each Hench battle, the Henches tend to stand close together, making them a very easy target for Crono and Lucca's new dual-tech attack, Fire Whirl. This attack will dispose of the whole group of Henches easily. The player learns two important lessons: (1) some enemies need to be killed with special attacks, and (2) the dual-tech attack is a low-cost solution to all of your enemy-killing problems.

Fire Whirl

Dungeon difficulty can be measured, in some cases, by the number of enemies that require tech attacks to defeat, because the player will have to ration their MP, pick the right attacks, and even the right party combination. But not right now--Henches only make up about 27% of the total number of enemies in the dungeon. This number will go up a lot in later dungeons, when the player’s skill at choosing, using and rationing tech attacks needs to be developed and tested.

Finally, we have Yakra, a boss that defines one of the major types in Chrono Trigger: attrition/spike. Attrition/spike bosses in Chrono Trigger generally work like so: the boss spends 2-3 rounds dealing small amounts of damage to every party member, before launching a high-damage, single-target attack. There are variations on this theme as well that we’ll see in other bosses, but the attrition/spike design is used often. Although this design repeats, Chrono Trigger’s designers did a good job of making sure it would provoke a different response each time. In the case of Yakra the player will probably resort to a dual-tech-and-heal strategy (X-Strike plus items), but this won’t be the case in every boss fight--not even others like this one.

Quest 2 - Action, Consequence and Deception

Stat of the Quest: Quest two introduces the 3-piece boss. 9 bosses (about 22% of all bosses, depending how you count repeats) are made up of 3 parts. Three out of these nine bosses feature regenerating parts. Five out of these 9 bosses feature parts that can act independently of one another. Only one (the Lavos Core) features parts that can both regenerate and act independently.

The most important part of the second quest is not its dungeon but the trial that precedes it. Both parts, however, perform the same deception. The goal is to convince a first-time player that they’re playing a different kind of game than they’re actually playing. To explain what this means, we’ll go in reverse order, starting with the dungeon, because it is simpler.

Guardia prison is a confusing and somewhat open-ended dungeon that gives new players the impression that upcoming dungeons will be complex and have multiple options for dealing with them. This isn’t true. Guardia prison is the game’s only true maze, although you could make a case for the Blackbird having a slightly maze-ish quality to it. Even the dungeon called “Forest Maze” is nothing more than a straightforward walk with a couple of branching paths. On first playthrough, the structure of Guardia Prison’s connected towers is confusing and its exit is counterintuitively placed. Only one dungeon in Chrono Trigger (that’s the Blackbird) will ever be like this again. There are two entirely different ways to get out of the dungeon, either by exploring or by simply waiting for rescue. The game never again offers that kind of choice. Crono is alone in this dungeon (unless you opt for rescue), though there will never again be a true solo dungeon. There are chests which you can see but cannot seem to reach; this too will never be a feature of other dungeons. Finally, there are enemies that can be defeated outside of battle. This, as you might have guessed, never happens again.

For toying with player expectations, the trial scene is even worse. The trial attempts to convince the player that he has far more choice and agency in the world than he actually does. First time players will almost certainly commit a number of errors at the Millennial Fair which the Chancellor will use against them. There’s the obvious, bright pink lunch that seems like an easy snack. There’s the option to convince Marle to sell her pendant. For that matter, there’s the pendant itself. It’s a very easy mistake for a new player to make, grabbing the pendant first before talking to her. But the one almost every player makes is pulling Marle away from the candy store. How are you supposed to know that even one small move would be used in a trial, later?

The Trial

New players are meant to think that these kinds of small actions will be meaningful throughout the rest of the game--that their decisions matter. That would make a lot of sense for a game about time travel; decisions made in the past can affect the present and future. The Tragedy of the Entity does not ever come to this, however; it is decidedly linear for the majority of its length. As it turns out, even the quests that the players must take on are historically meaningless, until the Comedy of the Sages. The trick that the designers use is that the players cannot see their lack of significance until after the Tragedy of the Entity is complete. The trial scene is, in a sense, the designers’ way of pulling the wool over the eyes of the player, preserving the shock of the realization until it is thematically appropriate.

Quest 3 - Meet the Antagonist

Stat of the Quest: Lead with art! By the end of this quest, the player is finished with 14% of the quests, and 14% of the battles (crazy coincidence, huh?). But in that short span the player has already heard 47.8% of the music tracks, seen 41% of the game’s map tilesets, and fought 34% of the game’s repeating enemy sprites.

The third quest is, in a sense, inside-out. There is a two-stage dungeon; it's just that there happens to be a town in the middle of it. Neither Lab 16 nor the Info Center are terribly long or challenging. Combined, however, they make for a reasonably sized dungeon, and they have only one boss between them. Or consider it this way: there are exactly 20 battles and 1 boss to be had in the Cathedral. There are exactly 19 battles and 1 boss to be had across Lab 16 and the Info Center. The reason for this split in the dungeon structure is that there is so little exploration to do in the future. It would be a shame if you had to go from the annoying Guardia Prison to the ruined Info Center with only a few despairing NPCs in between. Double the number of NPCs by putting another town (Arris Dome) in between dungeon segments, add a save point, and you've got a 2-stage dungeon. It’s just enough combat and exploration to keep the player engaged.

As for the boss in question, this is the first real challenge the player will face until they figure out one of the common 3-piece-boss pattern. The Guardian may well decimate the player the first time, because it counterattacks with a high-powered, multi-target attack each time it gets hit--as long as both of its sidekicks are alive. Eliminate the sidekicks and it's more or less helpless. In this, the player learns two lessons about future bosses. One, they learn how to face a tripartite boss. This is something that will happen more than a few times, as you can see.

Three Part Bosses

The other lesson is about temporary vulnerability. This is a very prevalent feature in CT bosses. The Heckran, both Nizbels, Magus, the first Tyrano, the Retinite and the last form of Lavos all benefit from some version of temporary/triggered vulnerability. We’ll see how each of those play out in the quests to come.

Quest 4 - Four's a Crowd

Stat of the Quest:Chrono Trigger doesn’t really have mini-bosses, but the sequence of battles introduced in this quest can sometimes serve that purpose. Of the four proper sequences of battles, three have stats very close to what an extra boss might have. The first sequence of battles at the Factory Ruins sees the player fight a bunch of Debuggers and Proto 3s, whose total HP is 1488. If you multiply that by 2/3 (because only 2/3 of the party actually fights the boss, with Robo out) you get 992. The R-Series boss has a total HP of 900. In the Ocean Palace elevator sequence, the player fights various monsters totalling 8490 HP. The Golem Twins each have 7000 HP (and the whole point of the battle is figuring out how to attack them both at once; because of their shifting abilities). Last and most interesting, the sequence beginning the Geno Dome throws enemies totalling 18432 HP at the player. Atropos, whom Robo fights alone, has 6000 HP. Multiply that by 3 for the full party, and you get 18000. In each case, it’s a pretty close substitute for an extra boss, although it’s tactically different for the sake of variety.

The fourth quest is much shorter than the third, although the fourth dungeon can feel longer than the third for a few reasons. The quest starts with a somewhat ill-advised minigame: the jetbike race. There is not a lot of nuance to the bike race; the only real strategy is to try and bounce off Johnny as many times in sequence as possible. He moves to block the player in a straightforward but occasionally haphazard manner, although if someone were to figure out his AI, we would gladly add it to this analysis. Nevertheless, the bike race isn’t very deep on mechanical or meaningful level, so there isn’t much to say. Attempting to cross the mutant ruins of Lab 32 is more difficult, and not rewarding. The bike race is the lesser of two mediocres.

The dungeon of the fourth quest, on the other hand, is quite interesting for a variety of design reasons. The foremost reason is that there is a new character! This opens up all kinds of tactical decisions and options for party composition. After two dungeons in which Crono was the only strong physical fighter, it’s nice to have Robo’s power in the party. Moreover, Robo has what Marle and Lucca don’t yet: powerful elemental attacks. Laser Spin isn’t canonically magical, but it is (shadow) elemental, it is powerful, and it hits every enemy on screen. What’s more, it combines with Crono’s Cyclone to form the powerful dual tech Rocket Roll. He’s got a lot of HP, he’s got a healing ability--but on the downside he’s quite slow. The takeaway message is that he’s very different from Lucca and Marle in the way that he plays, and that novelty will carry the player some distance.


Two Halves of the Factory

The Factory Ruins test the player’s ability to use Robo’s combos frequently, and by extension, multi-target attacks in general. The right side of the factory is the first place where the party will encounter another important feature of Chrono Trigger’s design: the sequence of battles. Although it is possible to navigate the conveyor belt maze without fighting anything, newbies aren’t going to manage it. Upon contact with an oncoming robot, the players will be forced into 3 consecutive battles, of increasing numbers of Proto 3s and Debuggers.

Factory Sequence Battles)

These battles will be quite difficult unless the player uses Rocket Roll at the beginning of the second and third battles. Even at a slightly lower level, the damage floor for Rocket Roll is still about 90, while the damage floor for Crono and Robo’s physical attacks is just above 50. This means that after one rocket roll, the Debuggers have only one hit left of their 120 HP (if they survived at all) and the Proto 3s will have about two shots left. This is a big improvement over the 5+ rounds of attacks that would otherwise be necessary. The boss fight against the R-Series is quite similar: Crono’s Cyclone has a damage floor well above half the HP of the R-Series robots, and will dispatch a row of the R-Series in only two uses, but only if targeted properly. Without learning how to use multi-target attacks and combos, the player won’t be able to progress.

R Series Area Damage

Next - Chapter 2: Quests Five through Eight.

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