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Chono trigger's music: echoing across time

Chrono Trigger’s Timeless Soundtrack

Be sure to continue the fun with our Chrono Trigger 25th Anniversary Celebration by checking out all our other posts.

The Chrono Trigger OST, many of its official arrangements and orchestrations, and a wealth of unofficial fan rearrangements are all available on Spotify and other major digital music platforms.

This article references specific pieces of music; the entire Chrono Trigger Soundtrack from the Nintendo DS version is embedded at the end of this post as a point of reference.

It's not hard to get players to agree that Chrono Trigger knocks it out of the park in about ten different ways. Its gameplay and story are two of those pillars, easy peasy. But it's almost more astounding how much people champion another element: its musical score.

When people talk about video game music that sticks with them, it's almost always music from a beloved series. Everybody loves the main theme of Zelda in its various forms, the prelude from Final Fantasy is classic in the traditional sense, and recently Persona has made known its distinctive sense of style. But all these are built on reputations, brought to us time and again across many installments and even more years.

Chrono Trigger is notable in how it stands alone: a single game that didn't quite take off as a long-running franchise. One heralded both at the time and since as one of The Greats in its genre, sure. But a single game nonetheless.

Chrono trigger 600ad map

And to boot, Chrono Trigger‘s lead composer was fresh off a promotion from a sound engineering role. Yasunori Mitsuda was hardly a freshman to the field, but this was his first time helming a commercial soundtrack, even with Final Fantasy veteran Nobuo Uematsu taking up a few tracks. And to start on grand adventure with a story that literally spans eons? The directors surely had a lot of faith in this guy.

It was Faith Well-Placed

Role-playing games can thrive or die based on their how well their soundtracks sell an experience – especially the tighter, more constructed JRPG subgenre. It's as much a testament to Mitsuda and his sound crew as it is to the story-writers, hyper-recognizable concept artist, and programmers that Chrono Trigger works so well as a package.

And let's not forget that the game's presentation was operating under some real mechanical constraints. Tiny character sprites on a 240-pixel screen are charming, but they can only visually emote so much. Grander storytelling required that each vignette be carefully crafted, sometimes pulling tricks to cut corners. Likewise, the SNES' sound chip was just at the cusp of where the music would feel limited by technology.

Sure, it wasn't like the original NES or Game Boy with their four sound channels. On those little systems, only four “instruments” could be loaded at a given time, including any sound-effects. While it was miles more flexible, its mere 64KB of active memory and eight sound channels still necessitated careful choices. Pick just the right sound samples, warp them in just the right way, and you could mostly simulate an orchestra.

On the other hand, Chrono Trigger came out in 1995, after the original Playstation had taken stage. Square Enix definitely had a lot of tools under the company belt by then to wring the most out of the little SNES. And how close they got to a rich, instrument-driven score feels reflected in how often and immediately the Chrono Trigger soundtrack was officially recreated with live performers.

Seriously, think of how many other standalone titles have had seven unique releases of their soundtrack.

So how is Chrono Trigger‘s soundtrack so remarkably flexible? How does it hold up across a hundreds of re-arrangements by fans and professionals alike?

By Being Iconic

And I don't even mean that as a platitude. I mean that Chrono Trigger‘s score feels like a collection of arrangements that truly define the game that they stand for.

You want examples? Of course you do.

Let's start from the top, in the order they appear in on the SNES & DS versions' official soundtracks.

And – to be clear – I'm not an expert in music theory. I'm just a hobby-writer who took a fair chunk of elective music classes back in school. So this is what Chrono Trigger‘s OST comes across as to me – and if it can come across that clearly to someone with a faulty memory of how music really works, then it's clearly doing something right.

Chrono trigger: the break of fast
<em>Youre also clearly doing something right if you can trick the studio assistants into cooking you breakfast under the guise of an album cover<em>

Selections from the Chrono Trigger OST

Pressentiment plays like a thirty-second mission statement for the Chrono Trigger soundtrack. Opening with the familiar tick-tock of a clock (or perhaps a metronome?), it quickly fades into a drumroll, and then a grandiose three chords, carried underneath by bright chimes. Chrono Trigger‘s soundtrack itself is slipping straight out the timestream and into a high fantasy story, if you will.

Then we get the main theme.

This thing is the piece that gets people excited, and for good reason. It has this driving drum underneath it that's just neutral enough to be read in five different ways. Is Frog at the reins of a galloping horse? The pumping of steampunk-y magitek circa 1200 A.D.? Beating drums played by Ayla's tribe?

It's all of them and none of them; doesn't matter. Every last one of them sounds heroic.

Then you have the main melody. Easy enough to follow – it's the kind of repeating structure that you see everywhere from pop music to lullabies, and it's moving very deliberately in long strings up and down a scale. Slow and steady build-up, then a clear resolution. Textbook construction.

But as used in the game, it loops insistently while the opening movie shows scenes from various places across the game, linking them all together before you've even pressed a button. And this is desperately important.

Time travel stories get messy, especially ones like Chrono Trigger that pull robots and dinosaurs together into an anachronistic soup. But here, we're set on one clean path, with all the different characters and epochs reflecting the same energy. The world feels consistent and cohesive and like a place where divergent champions can band together.

And, very much by design, you can map that same feeling onto any kind of protagonist that your mind will conjure. When I hear it, I imagine a Wild West scenario. Doesn't the driving percussion and flourishing end to each phrase conjure a rider and horse galloping in front of a sunset?

The main theme to Chrono Trigger‘s soundtrack stands outside of time and space, which is exactly what the game is about.

Crossing the Dreams

Given enough time, I could go into as much detail on nearly every other track in Chrono Trigger‘s soundtrack. But that'd take forever, so let's hit some quick highlights:

Morning Sunlight distinctly features a harp and flute, and feels not unlike Final Fantasy‘s already-recognizable Prelude. It's a perfect way to open the game as the main character awakens from a nap into a fantasy world.

Chrono trigger lucca portal

Guardia Millenial Fair evokes the air of “street music”, with a dancing tambourine lending a jovial energy. The core melody has an earnest, upbeat feeling to match, with a harpsichord and flute evoke Renaissance flair. But my favorite element is some smartly-used samples of clapping and vocal cheers to emulate a town square. You absolutely cannot mistake it for anything but festival music.

Battle 1 shares tropes and a mood with a high-energy car chase scene from an action movie. Secret of the Forest features a lower instrument whose arpeggios sound not unlike the similarly-secretive X Files‘ theme. Frog's Theme just smacks of a knight's distinguished determination.

And, for all of them, you can immediately understand their context within the game. Chrono Trigger‘s OST is evocative even if you've never played a minute of the story it's built to accompany.

It speaks to just how clearly Chrono Trigger‘s core ideas come through in Mitsuda's arrangements. And that kind of clarity of purpose is the kind of thing that really doesn't age.

It's why people loved this music then, and why they still love it now despite the sound in even the recent Steam release sounding very much like the 1995 version. That's really all it needs to communicate everything it needs; your mind will fill in the rest. And if you want that extra oomph, you can always seek out one of the aforementioned orchestral releases. But it'll just reinforce what the music has always been saying from the beginning.

It's not because Chrono Trigger‘s soundtrack is fundamentally simple, or has a distinct style. It's driven and clear in how it brings out ideas that we can all identify.

And music that can get a response like that really is timeless

Be sure to continue the fun with our Chrono Trigger 25th Anniversary Celebration by checking out all our other posts.

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