Expiring Spam-Attacks: Combat in Chrono Trigger

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I’m playing Chrono Trigger for the first time and it’s making me think about how RPGs deal with damage. In a lot of RPGs, you pick a weapon type, continue to get better and better weapons, and increase stats that make you better at using those weapons. All of this is done in order to increase your base damage.

You might also learn abilities that help you boost that attack, a critical hit, or one that lets you deal out more damage like a double shot. Once you find your best abilities and develop strategies for specific groups, you’re often just left spamming a certain attack until all the enemies are dead. You can beat a lot of RPGs by brute force, doing damage with little thought behind it. (If you play a magic class, a lot of this goes out the window.)

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Once I learned magic in Chrono Trigger, the game’s combat became about more than doing damage, it’s became about doing damage with finesse. Bosses and enemy types have strengths and weaknesses. The boss Zombor had two halves. His top half was weak to ice, his bottom half fire and lightning. But it wasn’t just about exploiting weaknesses, Chrono Trigger takes it a step further.

For one, if I attacked one half of Zombor with the wrong element type, I’d actually heal him. All of a sudden, I can’t just spam an attack, I have to think about whether or not I might be helping the boss against me. Yes, this design requires player experimentation but, once you learn a boss, it feels a lot more satisfying to take him down with a series of specific, calculated attacks instead of spamming the most powerful attack or ability on all of your characters.

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Another element of the bosses is the importance of counterattacks and timing attacks to interrupt moves. Certain enemies will always counterattack. While not as powerful as their regular attacks, it means that sometimes it was better for a character to not attack, especially if they aren’t dealing out as much damage as they take from the counterattack. Boss Heckran alternated between a counterattack pose and an attack pose. If I wait for him to switch, I could attack without fear of immediate retaliation. This is another way in which the game punishes players for mindless spamming of attacks.

And while this design is featured most prominently in the bosses, I’m finding it emerge more and more in the enemy mob encounters. There are the Ogan enemies that deal much more damage and are much harder to kill when they are holding their metal hammers. I discovered that if I hit an Ogan with a fire spell, its metal hammers get so hot that it drop the hammer and it become much easier to fight.

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In another instance, the ecology of the enemies comes into play. In the jungle there are Edible Frogs that have an obscene about of armor and are difficult to kill with base damage. However, they’re almost always accompanied by Fangtooths. If I attack a Fangtooth, it eats one of the edible frogs to gain back health. All of a sudden, I’m able to use the food chain as a weapon.

And then there’s the fact that you can interrupt certain buildup attacks that enemies telegraph with a basic attack. This means that sometimes the most powerful attack might not be the best option, making your basic attack a better option in some circumstances. This design means that you must consider all your combat options instead of just relying on one or two powerful abilities.

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All of this means is that Chrono Trigger’s combat feels elegant. Yes, there’s a frantic speed to the active turn combat, but it’s often forces to to find the right openings and timings instead of frantically tapping the a button to make sure you attack before your enemy does. It’s about making sure you take on enemy mobs in the right order. It’s not just about doing damage, it’s about doing it with grace, in the right way, at the right time.

These design choices make Chrono Trigger’s combat a lot more dynamic and thoughtful than most RPGs. As I progress, I’m finding that any one strategy spammed doesn’t work. It’s a game that’s constantly forcing me to be deliberate and thoughtful about how I engage in combat. In a lot of RPGs, combat can feel like busywork, but Chrono Trigger creates engaging and interesting ways to make combat consistently fresh, dynamic and fun.

© 2014 James Blake Ewing