I remember hearing about a sequel to my then-favorite game of all time when I was in middle school and not knowing how to handle myself. Finally, after years of dreaming up my own stories about the characters in Chrono Trigger, Squaresoft would finally continue the epic tale themselves, setting in stone what would happen to the Chrono universe. Sure, my tales would be rendered obsolete, but that didn’t matter—how could anything be better than the original creators’ minds?
Originally, I thought that I first learned about the game via demo. I bought Vagrant Story for PSX, which included the demo disc, but according to Wikipedia, that game was released on May 15, 2000, and Chrono Cross was released on August 15, 2000. I was dumbfounded by these dates because I remember waiting. And waiting. And waiting. And waiting for this game to come out. Three months didn’t make sense to me.
Then, I saw that the game was released in Japan on November 18, 1999, almost a year before the North American drop date. That made more sense: I had likely read about it a year or more prior, got ultra psyched, and then suffered for so long that my memory wouldn’t allow me to remember such times. It’s nice that the feeling of eternal wait can be explained practically instead of with the excuse that time seems to flow for children much slower than it does for adults (which was my back-up excuse). Anyway, I had picked up Vagrant Story because it was a new Squaresoft game and not because I was expecting a demo. But as soon as I read that such a thing was included, I squirmed all the way home and popped that disc in ready for action and…!
The demo was not playable. I surely felt a pang of disappointment, but it was really nothing. All I wanted was whatever I could get my hands on. All I wanted was Chrono Cross. Every morsel of it. I was a seventh grader who grew up with video games and spend countless hours imagining what it would be like to see and hear and play a new Chrono game.
That is what it means to anticipate a game. Back in those days, the internet was only half-helpful with game information. Videos weren’t sprawled all over the place willy nilly—viewing them cost enormous amounts of precious bandwidth! Instead of using that means of obtaining news, I was still buying gaming magazines like candy whenever new articles about certain games came out. I anticipated getting my GamePro every month so that I could see if there were any updates about these things that I was drooling over. Playable demos? Feh. Text. Pictures. If that’s what I got, that’s what I cared about—and if I got video…?
I was ecstatic. I clicked to start the video and…
…what I got…
… was a masterpiece.
I might have claimed at the time that this video was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. It was the sequel to my second favorite game of all time. The graphics were colorfully brilliant. The content was mysterious and literally gave me no sense of what to expect from the game. And the audio. That music.
I’m going to come out and say it right now: the Chrono Cross soundtrack is the best game soundtrack that I have ever heard. I had thought Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VII and VIII were unbeatable. In fact, Nobuo Uematsu had seemed untouchable, even after Chrono Trigger was so good. Yasunori Mitsuda, though… the Chrono soundtracks are enough for me to crown him as king.
But enough about these empty praises. What makes this song so damn good? Why is it the epitome of game music?
I almost stopped myself and erased that last sentence. Some of you may be thinking, ‘is it really the epitome of game music? It’s not even in the game—it’s a video, a trailer,’ and that’s completely legitimate. But, it definitely serves an important function within the game as its intro video.
Whereas I might more readily associate great intro videos with RPGs, a lot of games of different genres have them now, like fighting games such as Smash Bros. Brawl and even sports games like MLB: The Show. Some act like the back cover of a book, giving the player a taste of plot, and some have an introduction via the history of the universe in which the game is set (Final Fantasy Tactics); others just showcase their characters and scenery in a more artful and/or graphically intensive manner (Street Fighter IV). In any case, the intro video is used to suck the gamer in and get him or her pumped to play.
It is also important to note that intro videos to games have a distinct sound to them compared to most movie trailers. Even though some games’ intro videos may serve as trailers (such as in my demo disc), the music’s purpose isn’t the same. Trailer music is often atmospheric and is used to cushion the words and visuals of a film so that the plot comes across to the viewer. Game intro music is more like a television show theme: it combines with the visuals to create a feeling of the show, but as a theme it requires a memorable melody. Compare Star Wars: A New Hope’s John-Williams-less trailer to the theme song from Angel. ‘Nuff said.
Anyway, the point is that the intro video is a storytelling element that’s effective in video games and thus any piece written for such a thing is still considered part of the “game.” It needs to be of substantial quality as much as any theme to a town or a particular character. Under that requisite, “Time’s Scar” exceeds expectations.
First of all, “Time’s Scar” is a what-you-hear-is-what-you-get track for the whole game right from the get-go. The first fifteen seconds—a sort of pre-intro—has this beautifully enchanting quality to it that quickly introduces the listener to two of the important instruments in the game: the acoustic guitar and the electric bass. The former supports, often through countermelody, a number of tracks that give off folksy and Latin vibes (refer to “Plains of Time” and “Dreams of the Shore Near Another World” below), and the latter is just a staple of Mitsuda’s throughout both Chrono titles.
Mitsuda’s bass really stands out and is deserved of its own paragraph. Listen to the above tracks again or “Secret of the Forest” from Chrono Trigger for more supplements to “Time’s Scar.” It has a very distinctive quality in that it moves a lot and has a full tone that is able to hold its own above the other instruments. Mitsuda claims to have gotten a lot of influence from jazz, and it really shows in how the bass grooves and plays cool melodic fills. In fact, I’ve always equated it to Eddie Gomez’s bass sound from when he was with Steps Ahead and Chick Corea’s Three Quartets band in the eighties because of all of said qualities. Gomez plays upright, but his tone is remarkably distinguishable and his lines blatantly take command in the mix of the group, much like Mitsuda’s bass.
Then, in comes the flute, another important instrument in the game (reference “The Girl Who Stole the Stars” above), a second later and it dances around the folk theme just as the light of the lantern in the background flickers over the pages of the open book. After a very melodic passage that further develops the enchanting quality of the tune, the key switches to its relative major at :46 and allows for the flute to sound very childlike. In hindsight I thought for a second that maybe the addition of the flute atop the other instrumentation gave it that quality even before the switch, especially with the acciaccaturas, but listening back on it, the modulation to major really makes a shift (as it tends to do).
And what perfect timing with the words:
“Yet even then, we ran like the wind,
Whilst our laughter echoed,
Under cerulean skies…”
They really pair strongly with the music and imbue within the listener feelings of innocence and nostalgia.
Also of note is the way that Mitsuda seems to slow down the time while pushing forward harmonically. The flute melody is altered from playing moving lines within flowing phrases to doubling the bass with a string of longer lines that weigh heavily on beats one and three in the measures. The weight on one and three, also put on by accents and the placement of chords by the guitar, whips the listener out of a floating, dream-like state into definite traps, or moments, in time. It’s disrupting and tugs on the listener, prompting him or her to pause. This disrupting and tugging is the nature of this small section in most every melodic aspect—even the most moving melodic part, the quarter-note triplets, pulls back. The countermelody by the guitar, in between the aforementioned spots of weight, is the only thing besides the harmony that is still flowing.
Mitsuda effectively sets the listener up for the next section. The music is sustained for what seems like forever (but is only three beats!) before it bursts from the introduction section into the incredibly exciting and emotionally jarring body.
Onward! To Part II!