Day of the Tentacle

The first adventure game I've played (it's a year of gaming firsts for me). This one was cute but it did make me feel stupid a lot of the time. Some of the time it made me feel clever. And some of the time I felt frustrated because adventure game logic is not real-world logic and certain things that should solve puzzles just don't because the creators didn't think of them that way. My experience was of a lot of dead ends and bewilderment when I looked up the solutions. The logical leap required to get the horse's dentures for example is just wild – like, how were you supposed to get that??

Day of the Tentacle's innovation is to use time travel as a puzzle mechanic. You control three characters that are transported to three different eras within the same building, and getting them back together requires collaboration across the past, present and future. The most fun you can have in the game is changing history for your own trivial reasons – from having the US constitution mandate that every basement should have a vaccum cleaner to turning the American flag to a windsock. Some of the puzzles that involve depositing items in the past so they can be dug up and used in the future are also particularly satisfying.

The game is very funny, in a wacky Cartoon Network sort of way. There aren't very many pure dialogue puzzles in the game – conversations are an avenue for humour and your dialogue options are usually just a choice between different jokes you can make. The animation is beautiful and the voice-acting is pitch-perfect. It's a very charming game – and the remaster (which I played on my phone) is a labour of love. Although I had a hard time playing it, it feels like a great entryway into the genre. The genre just might not be for me.


Chrono Trigger

The first JRPG I've played (unless Pokemon counts) and I went for the best one of all time – a unique collaboration between the developers of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, which I understand are the two pivotal series in the genre. Although western RPGs and computer RPGs probably aren't quite synonymous, I find it a useful shorthand when contrasting them with their Japanese cousins, which were developed with the limited capabilities of consoles (and a younger, less tech-savvy audience) in mind. While WRPGs could rely on computer processing power to dramatically expand the scope of game mechanics, side quests and player choice, JRPGs streamlined everything to fit on a cartridge, and you get a much more linear experience. The stories can still be epic and the characters you meet might still be interesting and well-rounded, but the role-playing element is refined almost to non-existence (beyond the strange convention of being able to rename your player characters).

That's ok though. Games don't have to be complicated to be good. Chrono Trigger's battle system isn't quite as pared down as a Pokemon fight, but you don't need a Dungeons & Dragons manual to make sense of it either, and that sweet spot is appealing. The game innovates in having encounters occur within the map, rather than on a separate, abstracted battle screen – and positionality is of some (albeit minimal) relevance. You have a menu of attacks, special attacks, buffs, consumables and healing to chose from, and the different members of your party will allow you to use different combinations of these. This is probably where the most player choice is exerted in the game. A different party make-up will change the experience of your play-through, although this is still only a matter of degree. My biggest irritation with the game was that battles were not fully turn-based – there is still a timer forcing you to make decisions under pressure, and when playing with touch controls on a phone that just leads to you making stupid errors that make you feel bad. 

Thankfully the fights are by and large pretty easy. You get huge sums of money relatively quickly and consumables will tide you over in most dungeons. Bosses have their gimmicks and once you figure them out it's quite satisfying to beat them, although some may require you to change your party load-out in order to do so. The game doesn't really have random encounters so progression is finely tuned to the point where grinding isn't really necessary. Levelling is quick and the typical RPG dopamine hits of learning new special moves and finding cool treasures are very regularly administered. In my play-through, I decided Chrono would just bring his girlfriend and best friend along, so I had a physical attacker, a healer and a damage-dealing mage crush everything in their path. The biggest tactical breakthrough for me was discovering just how overpowered Marle's haste skill is, giving her two turns for every enemy's turn and allowing her to heal the party faster than they were attacked. Lavos is supposed to be a Galactus-level threat to existence, but my three teenagers stomped them in one go.

Chrono Trigger's story is as elegant as its progression. Chrono is a blank slate who never speaks, but in the course of the game he pairs up with a group of sweethearts and oddballs with their own little short stories. Almost every character is painted with a streak of melancholy – Marle has a strained relationship with her overbearing father, Lucca feels guilty for her mother's accident, Frog has to recover his self-confidence after the death of his mentor, Robo has to strike out on his own after being rejected by his community. Resolving these inner conflicts require acts of kindness and encouragement that are deeply affecting. They also create a sense of this group of NPCs as an actual gang of friends taking on the world and overcoming its darkest features. Other aspects of the game's characterisation are less successful – Ayla is little more than a female Conan the Barbarian and the evil queen manifests basically every evil villain cliche. It is in the exchanges within the player's party that the game's emotional pivot points are found. They are what secure its legacy.