Chrono Trigger Soundtrack, Noriko Matsueda / Yasunori Mitsuda / Nobuo Uematsu, 1995
Yes, they don’t make them like they used to. Consider how Chrono Trigger, one of the greatest RPGs of all time, came about more or less by chance – not something you would see in today’s world of multi-million dollar productions that need to please stakeholders. Hironobu Sakaguchi (creator of Final Fantasy), Yuji Horii (creator of Dragon Quest) and Akira Toriyama (creator of Dragon Ball and Dragon Quest character designer) attended a computer graphics convention in the US. There, they got talking about their work in console RPGs, started to trade ideas back and forth – and the result was the appropriately titled “Project Dream”, spearheaded by a true all-star team. However, equally as important was the work of a relative industry newcomer – Masato Kato, who would write the script for one of the stranger and more mind-bending SNES RPG narratives out there.
Still, the fact that Chrono Trigger turned into one of the most fondly remembered SNES games of all time was also due to the work of Yasunori Mitsuda, making his scoring debut with this title. Mitsuda had previously designed sound effects for Square titles like Final Fantasy V, Secret of Mana and Romancing Saga 2. Frustrated with the lack of opportunities to actually score a game, Mitsuda threatened Hironobu Sakaguchi to leave Square. Surprisingly, that led to Sakaguchi somewhat nonchalantly offering Mitsuda scoring duties on the company’s new major title (another situation unlikely to be reproduced these days). Working on the soundtrack for one year, Mitsuda threw himself into the role, losing around forty in-progress tracks to a hard drive crash and working to the point of being hospitalised with stomach ulcers – leading to Nobuo Uematsu and Noriko Matsueda contributing additional material.
Such ambition was also manifest in the stylistic approach that Mitsuda took for the Chrono Trigger soundtrack: “I wanted to create music that wouldn’t fit into any established genre… music of an imaginary world.” One particular interest of Mitsuda’s was the use of leitmotifs: “As a game player, I always felt there was no consistency in the music [of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest], and I wanted to use the Chrono Trigger main theme as much as possible, like they do in film.” While in retrospect, Mitsuda found his work on Chrono Trigger “rough around the edges”, his score quickly turned into a game music classic. Just consider the soundtrack’s several re-releases, an acid jazz arrangement album, many orchestral renditions of Chrono Trigger’s most popular pieces – and hundreds of fan remixes.
In fact, the Chrono Trigger soundtrack has topped more than one ‘greatest game soundtracks of all time’ list. However, that’s probably an overly enthusiastic view of the score’s artistic merits. Mitsuda’s inexperience as a composer shows on many occasions throughout the soundtrack. Many of Mitsuda’s compositions are repetitive, under-developed and feel like filler (as do most of Uematsu’s contributions). Even initially promising pieces like “Zeal Palace” and “Black Omen” fail to stick the landing, losing their intriguing atmosphere halfway through the cue. “World Battle” develops a striking mood with its eerie, aggressive sound design, but its melodies are perfunctory, while “Epoch ~ Wings that Cross Time” skirts dangerously close to elevator jazz stylings. However, let’s also keep in mind that this would have been a challenging assignment even for an experienced artist, given it required underscoring a multitude of different time periods with various musical styles.
All things considered, out of 150 minutes of music on the soundtrack, a bit less than an hour of material is truly outstanding. However, that is still enough to secure the Chrono Trigger soundtrack a space in the annals of game music, such is the quality of Mitsuda’s stronger compositions.
One of the soundtrack’s greatest strengths is its ability to evoke scenes of otherworldly mystery and intrigue in far more creative and subtle fashion than almost any other SNES score. Take “Wind Scene”, which relies on the long-spun interplay between thin, divided violins (a rarely heard orchestrational touch on a 16-bit score). Mitsuda develops the resulting ethereal, uneasy mood with immense care for a whole minute as his fascinating melodic content patiently unfolds. “Secret of the Forest” is more expansive still, showcasing Mitsuda’s creative use of non-functional harmonies to evoke a hazy, dreamy atmosphere with remarkable ease – striking the perfect balance between melody-focused writing and atmospheric musings.
Meanwhile, “Corridors of Time” and “Schala’s Theme” weave non-Western instruments into their orchestrations, lending the music an aura of mysticism and awe that perfectly fits the entrancing atmosphere emanating from many of Chrono Trigger’s highlights. Among other things, this heady mood sets the soundtrack apart from many of its contemporaries. Realising Mitsuda’s ambition, this is indeed music that defies easy genre descriptions and brings an imaginary world vividly to life.
Not all of these compositions are concerned with delivering instantly accessible melodies, but there are still many occasions when the Chrono Trigger soundtrack successfully tucks at the heartstrings. It does so in a somewhat restrained manner at times, particularly during the soundtrack’s more sombre moments. Mitsuda is one of the few JRPG composers who can write an affecting (rather than prettily plinking) music box melody. This benefits “At the Bottom of Night”, another composition that carefully develops its narrative arc, this time from near desolation to resilience and hope. “Singing Mountain” similarly lands on a simple but memorable piano/choral melody (with similarities to Joe Hisashi’s main theme from Laputa: Castle in the Sky). The tune’s warmth turns the melody lead into the flickering light of a lone candle, constantly threatened by the icy textures and wind sound effects surrounding it.
Elsewhere, Mitsuda’s melodies flow more freely. “Peaceful Days” opens the Chrono Trigger soundtrack on a warm, welcoming note. Throughout the score, Mitsuda travels through an impressive array of musical genres (not always successfully), but “Peaceful Days” is a prime example of his ability to write in a more traditional style as well. Here, he truly masters the kind of romantic-era orchestral music so closely associated with fantasy game and film scores. “Guardia’s Millenial Fair” and “First Festival of Stars” are equally delightful, with their jovial, carefree melodies clad in detailed orchestrations – and subtle hints of melancholy, as if the celebrations are about to conclude soon. The heroic bombast of “Frog’s Theme” never feels hollow thanks to the substance of its proud trumpet lead, while “Robo’s Theme” delivers the score’s catchiest melodies that are alternately soaring, stomping and yearning. And with “World Revolution”, Mitsuda even delivers a rousing, multi-tiered battle cue.
However, the Chrono Trigger soundtrack’s most under-appreciated quality is the surprising subtlety of its thematic structures. True to his intentions, Mitsuda uses his main theme – first heard in various renditions on “Chrono Trigger” – extensively. However, he does so in a far more creative way than most 16-bit composers, who usually restate a theme in its entirety while changing the tempo or orchestrations. Mitsuda – once again – takes a more innovative, detail-focused approach. On several occasions, he significantly reworks the theme’s melody, quotes only a fragment of it or adds new material. And so we hear the main theme briefly alluded to on “Morning Glow”, hardly recognisable in this floating rendition; trying to withstand the force of domineering organ chords on “Lavos Theme”; subtly finishing the choral line on “Zeal Palace” – and emerging on strident violins on “World Revolution” to make a defiant statement of purpose in the face of evil.
Most importantly, the theme leads to one of the most emotionally charged finales in all of game music. After reprising the sweet music box melody from “Chrono and Marle ~ Far Off Promise”, “Epilogue ~ To Good Friends ~” bursts out into a gushing violin melody. It perfectly encapsulates the bittersweet realisation that the adventure of a lifetime is over and that our group of friends will soon need to break up again, everyone returning to their own time period. “To Far Away Times” takes the same sentiment and renders it on an almost cosmic scale. Its unforgettable, gorgeous lead melody – yes, another clever variation on the main theme – encompasses all of the longing and fulfilment one could feel at the conclusion of an epic journey. Mitsuda cried watching the game’s ending for the first time, and it’s not hard to see why.
So, no, Chrono Trigger is not the greatest game soundtrack of all time. However, its highlights are among the best game music ever written, taking listeners on a journey through lush meadows, into hitherto unknown realms, through the utter depths of night and ultimately amongst the stars – reconciling the personal and universal into one in elegant, heart-wrenchingly moving fashion.
- 01 - Chrono Trigger Mitsuda, Yasunori 2:02
- 02 - Peaceful Days Mitsuda, Yasunori 2:49
- 03 - Guardia's Millenial Fair Mitsuda, Yasunori 3:17
- 04 - Wind Scene Mitsuda, Yasunori 3:23
- 05 - Secret of the Forest Mitsuda, Yasunori 4:46
- 06 - Frog's Theme Mitsuda, Yasunori 1:50
- 07 - The Trial Mitsuda, Yasunori 3:44
- 08 - Robo's Theme Mitsuda, Yasunori 1:33
- 09 - The Brink of Time Mitsuda, Yasunori 2:32
- 10 - Singing Mountain Mitsuda, Yasunori 3:06
- 11 - At the Bottom of Night Mitsuda, Yasunori 2:31
- 12 - Corridors of Time Mitsuda, Yasunori 3:01
- 13 - Schala's Theme Mitsuda, Yasunori 2:48
- 14 - Undersea Palace Mitsuda, Yasunori 3:24
- 15 - World Revolution Mitsuda, Yasunori 3:49
- 16 - First Festival of Stars Mitsuda, Yasunori 2:45
- 17 - Epilogue ~To Good Friends~ Mitsuda, Yasunori 2:35
- 18 - To Far Away Times Mitsuda, Yasunori 4:20