Great Game UX: Encounter Design in Chrono Trigger

Ajai Raj
Ajai Raj
Aug 17, 2020 · 7 min read
Chrono Trigger box art
Chrono Trigger box art
In a stylized way, the cover art for Chrono Trigger shows off how battle seamlessly occur in the exploration environment. Even if Marle is wearing a bathrobe for some reason.

Chrono Trigger (SNES, 1995) presents one of the most curious cases in the history of the RPG genre. It’s widely considered one of the greatest RPGs of all time, if not one of the greatest games, period. One of its most beloved aspects — the lack of random encounters — clearly demonstrates user-centered design thinking, even if that idea had not been applied to games back when it came out. This feature alone is enough to draw wistful sighs from fans reflecting on their experience with the game. The temptation is to say that Chrono Trigger was ahead of its time. But, as I’ll demonstrate, that’s not at all accurate. Despite its critical and commercial success (both on the SNES and in numerous ports) and its indisputable place in the pantheon of all-time great experiences in gaming, Chrono Trigger is nevertheless a living fossil of a game, a cherished coelacanth with virtually no known descendants.

The Typical User Experience of Turn-based RPGs

FF1 Warmech
FF1 Warmech
The original Final Fantasy on the NES featured a battle screen layout that would remain virtually unchanged until Final Fantasy 7, the first 3D entry in the series.

To fully appreciate what sets the encounter system of Chrono Trigger apart from not only its predecessors, not only its contemporaries, but from virtually every other turn-based non-tactical RPG in existence, we have to look at the user experience of other games in the genre. We have no shortage of examples to work with, from the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series, the Breath of Fire series — I could go on, but suffice it to say that random encounters are all but baked into the cake of the genre.

It’s not hard to see how and why this convention originated. In the old days of 8-bit consoles, random encounters were a handy way to conserve precious memory. In fact, this limitation was also present well into the 16-bit era — Chrono Trigger came on a 32-bit cartridge (though the art and music would also have played a role in that) that would have been expensive to manufacture.

What began as a technical limitation became a calling card of the genre; it was easy enough for designers to stick to the usual formula, and players got used to suspending their disbelief at locales that were crawling with an improbable number of diverse enemies that sprung out to attack them unawares, much in the same way that they accepted that the protagonist could walk around with their allies neatly folded up inside of them without experiencing any intestinal distress.

When Chrono Trigger broke with this formula, it was a breath of fresh air — a quality of life improvement that most players probably didn’t even know they wanted until they got it.

The User Experience of Chrono Trigger’s Encounter Design: A League of Its Own

CT battle against Oozes
CT battle against Oozes
The French version of Chrono Trigger, maybe? If anyone knows, please do tell.

Chrono Trigger handled enemy encounters in a way that very few RPGs have, before or since. It wasn’t just that you could see the enemies onscreen before you fought them — a couple of contemporaries, notably EarthBound and SuperMario RPG — featured that as well. But in those games, when you collided with an enemy on the world map, you transitioned, per convention, to a separate battle scene. (My point is not to knock either of those games — they’re among my favorites, and given the way their battle systems worked, the design choice made sense.)

In Chrono Trigger, the transition from exploration to battle was virtually seamless. Once you collided with an enemy (mostly by player choice, with some deliberately chosen exceptions), the battle UI popped up, and you were in battle. Then, once you won — and it was hard not to win, by design — the transition out of battle was just as seamless. The use of music reinforced the smoothness of the experience, owing to its quick tempo and lack of victory fanfare.

Not only did this neatly sidestep the problem of random-battle fatigue, but it also heightened the sense of immersion. If the enemy had friends that would join the battle, the player could see them actually do so. The painstaking animations in the game certainly helped in this regard, lending each enemy its own individual charm.

Image for post
Image for post
One beast/ Two beast/ Red beast/ Blue beast

The design process of Chrono Trigger — including, but not limited to the encounter system — seems to have flowed from a very modern UX-style sensibility, a root-cause analysis of sorts, a deliberately crafted answer to the question, “Why haven’t RPGs gained significant mainstream appeal in the United States?” (Remember, this was 1995: the trailer for Final Fantasy VII hadn’t aired yet.)

The answer(s)? “Random encounters suck.” “RPGs are too hard.” “They’re not accessible to most players.” “Not enough time travel.” (Maybe not that last one.)

And on the other side of the coin, the game asked, and answered, the question: “Why do players play RPGs?” “The sweeping, epic stories.” “The satisfaction of seeing your characters progress and become stronger.” “The strategic flow that comes with well-designed turn-based combat.”

The genius of Chrono Trigger was realizing that, much people buy the promise of holes, not drills, people bought RPGs for the experience of adventure, not because they enjoyed being interrupted every ten seconds while wandering through a dungeon or field. The dev team at Square reasoned that if they could deliver the meat of the RPG experience — the adventure, the attachment to the characters, enjoyable turn-based combat — without the unnecessary fat of random encounters and the need for repetitive grinding — the gaming public would respond.

They were right.

The Paradox of Power: Why Chrono Trigger Was Not Ahead of Its Time

Image for post
Image for post
Despite the undeniable success of Chrono Trigger — as a game, as a product, as a user experience — not even its sequel (Chrono Cross) followed in its footsteps.

I have a theory about why Chrono Trigger, despite being a commercial success, widely beloved by players and critics alike, did not herald a sea change in the way turn-based RPGs were designed. The reasons, I think, were twofold.

First, there was inertia. With the release of Final Fantasy VII in 1997, RPGs broke into the mainstream anyway, random encounters and all. So between the genre veterans who were used to putting up with random encounters and other conventional quirks of the genre, and newcomers who were seduced by the (at the time) groundbreaking graphics, there was no strong impetus to change things up. Not even Chrono Cross, the follow-up to Chrono Trigger, implemented the same encounter system, opting instead to show enemies on the map but transition to a separate battle scene. (This almost certainly was down to Cross’s unique battle system, but that’s a topic for another day.)

The second, and I think the more interesting reason, is that Chrono Trigger came out at the exact right time for its design to be likely to be implemented. Just as technical limitations made such an encounter system in the years before the game came out, the years that followed imposed technical constraints of their own. With the advent of 3D graphics, implementing a seamless transition from seeing an enemy in the world and fighting them using a menu-based interface would be a nightmare.

In other words, Chrono Trigger’s encounter design is really only practical for a 2D game with a fixed camera. Once that constraint is gone, and you’re dealing with a 3D world and a dynamic camera, a CT-style battle system becomes next to impossible to implement.

Conclusion: It’s About Time

If my theory holds, then the question changes from “Why didn’t more games copy Chrono Trigger,” but “How did Chrono Trigger even come to exist?”

To my thinking, Chrono Trigger was the product of an exact time and place — shift the timeline of the console generations that preceded or followed it forward or back, respectively, and the game might have vanished without a trace, like Marle from Guardia Castle in 1000 AD. Thank the Entity that it didn’t.

But whether or not its specific design caught on, Chrono Trigger still has something to teach us about good UX. Just because players will put up with something, that doesn’t mean that they like it. And it certainly doesn’t mean we can’t try to do better.

Games R UX

Points About Experience

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