With a unique cast of characters, a deep and touching plot, and immersive environments filled with fierce enemies, you can see why RPGs are one of the most beloved genres in gaming. From Final Fantasy to Pokémon, most gamers will admit to at least one RPG they have a place in their heart for, or at the very least, a spot on their shelf. But although each era has had its strengths and weaknesses, many agree that RPGs peaked, or at the very least, blossomed during the early-to-mid 90s.
The SNES and Genesis could now support games that felt limited on the NES and Sega Master System. Dragon Warrior and StarTropics were certainly fun, but there was only so much your imagination could do for the music, graphics and plot. Unsurprisingly, as technology marched on, all of these things improved, and on the SNES alone, several RPGs were released that have stood the test of time to still be considered some of the best RPGs to date. Final Fantasy VI, Super Mario RPG, Breath of Fire, Secret of Mana, Lufia, Star Ocean, Illusion of Gaia, Seiken Densetsu 3, all of these were tremendously well-received.
But two in particular have become cult classics over the years. Chrono Trigger, released by Squaresoft in 1995, is regarded as one of the most advanced RPGs ever made, and it certainly pushed the SNES to its absolute limits. Earthbound, released by HAL in 1994, was slower to get the ball rolling, but is now legendary amongst RPG fans for its quirky humour, interesting plot, and funky music, as well as being my favourite game of all time. Chrono Trigger allowed your character to travel through six eras between 65 Million Years BC to 2,300 AD, whereas Earthbound broke the trend by setting its story in the modern day, letting Ness rummage through bins to find burgers, and beat up hippies with a baseball bat.
Let’s have a little background information on our competitors. Firstly, Chrono Trigger.
Chrono Trigger was developed by Square, a company who at the time had already produced Secret of Mana, Breath of Fire, and more than half a dozen Final Fantasy games – so nobody had any doubts that they could make RPGs of the highest quality. In particular, Chrono Trigger was worked on by 3 designers Square nicknamed the ‘Dream Team’. Hironobu Sakaguchi, creator of the Final Fantasy series, Yuji Horii, creator of the Dragon Quest series, and Akira Toriyama, a manga artist with works on Dragon Ball and Dragon Quest under his belt.
The game begins with Crono being woken up by his mother on the day of the Millennial Fair. A normal (albeit obviously heroic due to a severe case of ‘Spiky Hair Syndrome’,) boy of the year 1,000 AD, Crono heads to the fair and enjoys the attractions before making a new friend in the mysterious Marle, and meeting up with Lucca, his childhood friend and plucky inventor, who has just managed to invent a teleporter! However, when Marle volunteers to use it, a reaction is sparked by her necklace, and she is dragged through a wormhole in time. Deciding to rescue her, Crono follows her through time, and his quest begins.
Reception was overwhelmingly positive. It scooped a handful of titles in Electronic Gaming Monthly’s 1995 Video Game Awards, including ‘Best SNES Game’, ‘Best RPG’, and ‘Best Music in a Game’. IGN have had six different ‘Top 100 Video Games’ lists, and each time, Chrono Trigger has finished in the Top 20 – in the most recent list, it was number 2, beating every game other than ‘Ocarina of Time’. Having sold almost 3.5 million copies worldwide, Chrono Trigger has earned its reputations as one of the best games of all time, along with several perfect scores from IGN, EuroGamer, and X-Play.
Now, let’s look at Earthbound.
Earthbound was released for the Super Famicom in 1994, and the SNES in 1995. It was developed by HAL (Kirby, Super Smash Bros) with a little help from APE (Pokemon Diamond / Pearl, Black / White.) It was designed by Shigesato Itoi, who had worked on the Japan-only NES Prequel, Mother. For this reason, Earthbound was known in Japan as ‘Mother 2’. Useless but entertaining fact – Shigesato Itoi’s other entry into gaming history is the Super Famicom exclusive ‘Shigesato Itoi’s No. 1 Bass Fishing’!
The story of Earthbound begins when a boy named Ness is woken in the night by a meteorite crashing into the hill behind his house. Heading off to investigate, he’s promptly blocked off by the police, and his annoying neighbour Pokey. However, when he returns to his house, Pokey interrupts before too long, begging Ness to help him find his little brother, Picky, who also went to see the meteorite. Heading off with his pet dog and a baseball bat, Ness finds Picky, and meets a creature named Buzz Buzz at the crash site, who warns him that he is the chosen one, the hero to defeat a cosmic horror, Giygas who attacked the future that Buzz Buzz came from.
Earthbound was received much more positively in Japan than the US, and sold almost twice as many copies compared to American sales. Nevertheless, less than half a million copies were sold worldwide, and while it wasn’t a flop, it was received lukewarmly in the states. The slogan ‘This Game Stinks!’ probably didn’t help matters, especially since it accompanied a Scratch’N’Sniff campaign in Nintendo Power. Since then, it has achieved the status of a cult classic, being the most requested game on the Virtual Console for 2 months in a row, and prominently featuring in the top half of the aforementioned ‘Top 100 Games’ lists by IGN.
So when compared to each other, which will come out on top? Let’s line up the graphics, gameplay, music, plot and more, and see which one claims the title of greatest SNES RPG.
Right off the bat, Chrono Trigger’s graphics will blow you away. Few other games on the SNES pushed the boundaries of graphics as far as Chrono Trigger did. For me and many others, it’s the most visually impressive game on the console. On the other hand, Earthbound looks more primitive, but it’s also more traditional, and frankly, the graphics wouldn’t have been fitting for the game if they were any more advanced.
Chrono Trigger has scene after scene with the most beautiful graphics on the SNES – some seen in scrolling landscapes, some seen on the expansive overworld, and some seen everywhere you go. Each area is so meticulously detailed that you can’t help but acknowledge the effort that each screen required. Several areas are only explored once, but are still held to the same standard as those seen dozens of times. Although it’s hard to compare with more modern games, given the time of release and the limits of the console, Chrono Trigger remains one of the most visually impressive games of all time.
On the other hand, the best thing you can say about Earthbound’s graphics is that they’re… well, to be positive, charming. To be blunt, suitable. Then again, charming is a surprisingly accurate way to describe the way Earthbound looks in general. The graphics were bright, amusing, and just appealing to the eyes. Everything was satisfactory – you could tell what something was by looking at it, there were dozens of differently designed NPCs to communicate with, and although there weren’t exactly many complaints during the era regarding colour schemes or an overreliance on murky black and dark brown, Earthbound still managed to be impressively colourful. Forget a joy to play, it was a joy just to see.
All in all, a lot of beloved SNES games, like Super Mario World and A Link to the Past, were ported to the Gameboy Advance – even the visually amazing ones like Yoshi’s Island and Donkey Kong Country. Chrono Trigger was ported to the DS. Nothing less than it deserved. Earthbound may have given each character different graphics for all 8 walking directions, but it managed to be ported to the GBA for a Japanese release – in a compilation cartridge with Mother, no less. All in all, Earthbound’s graphics are better than I’ve made them sound, but Chrono Trigger’s graphics were arguably the best on the console. Round one to Crono.
The gameplay in each game follows the traditional style of most RPGs, with the differences you would expect from games so uniquely amazing. For example, in Chrono Trigger, there were no random encounters, and instead each battle was scripted. In Earthbound, the appearance of enemies was random, but it gave gamers the deceptively simple trick of walking off-screen and back again, which would somehow change the amount of enemies. This doubtlessly gave more control to the player, but for battles in an RPG, was this really a good thing?
The battles themselves will be mentioned later in greater detail, but just starting the battles is different in these games. Chrono Trigger’s scripted battles tended to take 3 forms. The unexpected scripted battles occur when you’re walking through an area, you cross an invisible line, and suddenly your party stops as enemies appear and a battle begins. Then, there are battles you can avoid where, like Earthbound, the enemies are visible and you can time your runs to get past them. The last kind are sort of the ‘mega-scripted’ battles, like bosses, triggered through longer cutscenes that warrant little explanation. In Earthbound, you’re only really required to fight the bosses and one or two mooks and grunts in unavoidable places, but if you do, the game will become genuinely impossible, and you’ll miss out on a lot of the humour the game portrays in its choice of enemies, from crows to UFOs to hippies.
When it comes to general exploration, the main difference between games is that Earthbound, unlike many RPGs, doesn’t have an overworld. Instead, it cuts out the middleman and has each town link directly to the next. Whilst the overworld in many games can be an entertaining place, often with great music, you really don’t feel like you’re missing out on anything in Earthbound. Similarly, Chrono Trigger does have an overworld – several if you count each era in time as a different map, but aside from providing some nice background music while you travel, it doesn’t exceed any expectations.
Overall, both sides are too similar for a clear winner – both games have perfectly responsive controls, and fairly clear goals at all times. The swaying point has to be the setting for me though. The same gameplay can seem more interesting in different locations, and although Chrono Trigger let’s you explore such a wide variety of places, Earthbound’s gameplay is just more interesting to me due to the modern time the game is set in, with burger bars, hotels and drug stores rather than inns and markets. Earthbound takes gameplay for the original area design.
This is a tough one. Music and graphics are the two areas Chrono Trigger pushed the SNES to its absolute limits, but Earthbound was filled with some of the catchiest tunes in gaming. This was back when anything beyond blips and beeps hadn’t been around for long, and so for games to have tracks with distinguishable instruments was new and exciting. Chrono Trigger’s music sounded remarkably clear and elegant for the time, whereas Earthbound had a mix of traditional music from the series, and the occasional song of such high quality that it was clear that the soundtrack could’ve matched the instruments of Chrono Trigger. Let’s take some tracks as examples.
From Chrono Trigger, the Guardia Castle theme. One of the reasons this track is a good representative of the game isn’t just because it’s an overall great tune, but also because of the point it comes in the game. After the initial shock at how good the first few tracks in the game are, this is the tune that made gamers realise that Square weren’t using all their good music in the beginning to make a good first impression – every tune in the game was as high-quality as the last. The tune itself is perfectly fitting – it’s official, it’s important, trumpets are blaring, fanfares playing, a tune fit for a castle fit for a king.
From Earthbound, I love the opening music from the first time in the morning Ness opens his front door and sees the sun rise, which leads from a happy jingle into the theme for his hometown, Onett. Everything about this tune is symbolic of Earthbound itself – it’s odd, quirky and unusual, it doesn’t take itself seriously as a tune, the sound quality isn’t aiming to impress, but for some reason, it’s still unbelievably catchy.
Back to Chrono Trigger, I’ll pick the fight tune ‘Boss Battle 1’. It’s kind of repetitive, but it’s also excellent at raising tension, partly due to the fast-paced and jumpy nature, and partly because after a few hours of gameplay, you already know that when this track plays, you have a challenge ahead of you. That being said, the soundtrack contains so many more excellent tracks that just mentioning them all would be worthy of another blog. Some of the best contenders though are ‘Wind Scene’, my favourite track which plays in Truce Valley, ‘Enhasa (Time Circuits)’ a futuristic and experimental track, ‘Undersea Palace’ the last dungeon for many, and the perfect tune for a climactic ending, and ‘World Revolution’, a fitting final boss tune.
As for Earthbound, although it has an almighty share of incredibly varied pieces, I have to go with the simplistic ‘Eight Melodies’. Not only do the designers manage to create a tune with plot relevance, but it’s one of the most beautiful, delicate pieces of music out there. It’s the kind of tune that makes you think of a single teardrop of dew forming on a single rose, tall in a plain field, at midnight, dropping in slow motion as the music plays in its entirety. Other amazing tunes from Earthbound include the shockingly dramatic, and appropriately worrying ‘Pokey Means Business’, the bustling, ambitious city life of ‘Fourside’, and the chilling entrance of a Winter Wonderland mixed with a traditional tune from the series in ‘Snowman’, one of my favourites.
In short, although both soundtracks are amazing, there’s only one winner. Earthbound had one of the best soundtracks on the SNES, and one of the best soundtracks from any RPG, ever. But Chrono Trigger has one of the greatest gaming soundtracks, full stop. I cannot emphasize enough how small the number of games with a better soundtrack than Earthbound is, but Chrono Trigger just happens to be one of them.
Even by the high standards of SNES RPGs, the storylines in these games are amazing. Then again, since the plotlines are so amazing, it’s hard to talk about them in too much detail without ruining them, and I really wouldn’t want to stop you from experiencing these plots in full. Nevertheless, they both have their strengths and weaknesses. Mostly strengths, but they do suffer from a problem that games in general suffer from when the plot can’t resolve itself in the first few hours.
Keep an eye out for it the next time you play a game with a large plot – you’ll nice that rather than advancing the main story frequently, they introduce a number of mini-plots. Chrono Trigger and Earthbound have plenty of these, although they take different forms – Chrono Trigger has a different story going on during each era, each one having a small impact on the overall plot, whereas in Earthbound, you travel from city to city, starting by exploring a hillside in your hometown, then moving on to meeting a thief and paying off a band’s debt, then moving on to… helping the next town fight off invading zombies. It’s like that. It’s much more humourous, but there’s little relevance to the overall plot.
To look at each game in more detail, Chrono Trigger’s individual stories are more detailed, although some play a much bigger role in the overall story than others. Queen Zeal in the 12,000 BC timeline has a much bigger part than Ozzie in 600 AD, or Azala in 65 Million BC. Nevertheless, several storylines are memorable, and it’s really original to go from exploring a fair to travelling through time to rescuing a princess to exploring an apocalyptic future, to fighting dinosaurs. No game can really match the variety that Chrono Trigger’s plot manages to include, successfully no less. There’s even alternate dialogue depending on which characters you have in your party at the time of events or cutscenes – that’s dedicated game design.
Earthbound has a slightly smaller cast considering that your party consists of 4 people rather than a maximum of 7, and most of the minor characters have smaller relevance to the overall plot, but every small plot in the game seems to have a little more detail, whether it’s the rise and fall of Monotoli in Fourside, the aforementioned zombie outbreak in Threed, or the village of Mr Saturn, the greatest race of video game characters in the history of gaming. The bosses aren’t as plot-relevant though, and most of them aren’t even mentioned before appearing. Then again, it fits the quirky humour of the game that the bosses would include a strange living mushroom, a sewer rat, and a humongous ant. Or would that be, a gig-ANT-ic ant. (I’m sorry.)
Anyway, although the plots are both incredible, the final boss makes the difference in this contest.
In both games, the final boss is ‘kind of relevant’ throughout the entire story. Lavos is introduced fairly soon as an unknown alien creature which can best be described as an ‘evil indestructible hedgehog’, and it troubles you throughout the game by… erm, well, most of the troubling is done by random creatures in the wild. Never mind. On the other hand, Giygas in Earthbound has the better-than-it-sounds power to manipulate the negative feelings in people and drive them to act on his behalf. This is why random beings, from dogs to bears to hippies, will attack you.
Lavos has a massive impact on certain eras – in 65,000,000 BC, you see its actual arrival in Earth, and in 2,300 AD, you see what the future looks like if it surfaces and brings its rain of destruction onto the planet, but it’s otherwise a completely unknown character. Rather than making Lavos flat and boring, this actually makes it all the more fearful – NOTHING is known about this giant, intimidating, alien beast, other than it wants to rain destruction on the planet, and to do so is fully within its capabilities. Literally the only thing you know before facing him… her… it, is that it wants to cause the destruction of civilization, and since you’ve been to the future and all, then you know Lavos has the power to back it up.
Giygas on the other hand is given slightly more backstory – he was the villain in Mother, although it’s hard to call him a villain when even though he’s the bad guy behind everything, he’s ultimately defeated when the good guys sing a sentimental song that remind him of the human parents who cared for him (even though he’s still an alien, who – just play ‘Mother’, ok?) In Earthbound, he’s actually mental. His power has driven him insane, and he’s just returning to destroy the world, along with influencing every enemy who inconvenienced you. He’s not given much detail before the end of the game, but the way he manages to singlehandedly turn an otherwise silly game into a genuinely creepy one, with one of the most memorable boss battles ever, is unforgettable.
Lavos’ lack of a character definitely adds to the intimidation when facing it, but Giygas steals the round due to his effect on the plot for Earthbound. With Giygas and the Mr Saturn, Earthbound just had to win this one.
Even though RPGs make me think of traditional, turn-based, ‘maybe chuck in a few spells and that’s it’ battles, it’s difficult to think of an RPG like this that doesn’t have some kind of original flair. Pokémon have one on one battles for a team of up to 6. Skies of Arcadia had Spirit Points. These two games have their own unique spin on the two main kinds of RPG battle – Chrono Trigger and the time-based attacks seen earlier in SNES Final Fantasy games, and Earthbound with its simpler turn-based combat from RPGs past.
Chrono Trigger’s original idea that’s not all that original is that not only does each character have their own set of magic skills, but also team-attacks. You have to wait for both characters to be ready to use their go, but the attacks are more powerful, the healing spells are spread out over the entire party, and the tri-attacks are amazing at taking care of the strongest bosses, if you’re able to keep your characters alive in the meantime, and with 7 different characters to switch around in your group of 3, even if you keep Crono in at all times, that’s still 15 combinations of character, and that’s a big variety of team-attacks!
It took me a while to remember the original twist that Earthbound gave the traditional RPG battle system, but if there’s one interesting idea, it’s the rolling HP-meter. It doesn’t play a big part early on, but when you’re hit for say, 35 damage, you don’t take it instantly – your HP rolls down until it reaches the amount it should be. This means that you can sneak in a few attacks, or even heal yourself, even if you take mortal damage, and in any other game, would be defeated. It’s not good to rely on it, but it’s a really nice twist.
Other than the originalities, both games are great examples of the traditional RPG battle system as well. Chrono Trigger has the expected equipment and spells with a few differences – there are dozens of different advantages you can give yourself going into a battle, from mail that makes you fire-resistant to studs that halve the cost of spells in magic points. Although most are appropriately outclassed and discarded as time goes on, there’s a lot of variety, and you should still be keeping the odd dozen that you know could come in handy.
Earthbound has less to offer in terms of variety, but there’s still quite a bit. Some of the status afflictions are interesting – there’s poison and paralysis, but there’s also being ‘diamondized’, crying, and in a nice touch for Ness, considering he’s only 13, is that he’ll occasionally feel homesick, and miss a turn in battle due to wondering how his family’s doing, or catching a whiff of Steak. This horrific affliction can be cured by… finding a phone and letting Ness talk to his Mom. Aww.
Anyway, both combat systems are faithful to RPGs, whilst adding their own quirks, but overall… well, Chrono Trigger’s quirks are more plentiful, but Earthbound’s quirks are quirkier. As much as I can’t find a single flaw in it, I’m going to have to give Chrono Trigger the loss here because it’s just a little bit similar to other Squaresoft games of the time, whereas the combat in Earthbound is a completely fresh experience.
So, which game do I think should win this, the first edition of Game Wars? Well, Chrono Trigger was a technological advancement of epic proportions. Earthbound is currently still my favourite game of all time. There’s no easy choice here, but even though the games can be evenly matched in separate categories, I have to pick one winner here.
I was thinking of whether or not to just tally up the scores out of 10 for all categories and just let that decide, but that causes more problems – I love games with a detailed plot, but that can’t be as important as gameplay. Anyway, enough stalling, I’ve picked my winner.
Chrono Trigger VS Earthbound
The winner is…
I hate to hand a loss to my favourite game, but although it sounds weird, I think Chrono Trigger deserves the win. Truth be told, I’m saddened that Earthbound wasn’t immediately met with the critical acclaim and praise from reviewers that it deserves so much, but now that it has such a large cult following, it can hardly be considered underrated. Chrono Trigger on the other hand, has never been considered underrated, because everyone’s opinion of it seems to be consistent – it blew our minds when it came out, and it’s still mind-blowing to play today.
I know that Earthbound is still my favourite game, so in a way I prefer it to Chrono Trigger, but that’s my preference, and I can’t let that get in the way of the fact that the graphics and music accompanying Crono’s adventure were impossible to improve upon, and that everything else was amazing throughout. Earthbound may still be waiting for the full amount of fans who have yet to discover the incredible fun awaiting them, but there was a reason why Chrono Trigger didn’t have to wait to gain momentum – from the moment it was released, it has deserved every praise, every compliment, and every player it gets.
So congratulations to Chrono Trigger, king of the SNES RPGs.
Next up, two PS2 survival horror games find out it’s a dog eat dog world.