There are many imposing forms a boss can take, but I don’t know I’d count a bucket among them. And yet, that’s what Chrono Trigger does. It puts a bucket in front of you and asks if you think you can beat it. It’s a question that’s lingered every minute since.
I’ve been playing through Chrono Trigger for the first time, nigh-unspoiled on what makes this role-playing game such a legend in the genre. (So if you’re scrolling down to the comments already, please be chill.) I’ve already been majorly impressed with how Squaresoft’s team signals to the player that their actions, big and small, ripple out through the story.
So imagine my surprise when I’ve been brought to The End of Time, Chrono Trigger‘s equivalent of the archetypal RPG campfire, and there’s a few anachronisms lingering around. The area itself is strange, floating in some kind of void; a man stands alone in the center, underneath a modern lamppost. Golden fencing runs around the edges. And in the corner, there’s a bucket.
I’m told what this place is, and how my party members can rest here while I travel. I can meet Spekkio, the Master of War, who teaches my team the ways of magic. Further out, I can see portals in a grid, letting me travel through all the holes in time I’ve ripped open.
And in the corner, there’s a bucket. What’s in the bucket? The end of the world, apparently.
Mr. Bucket’s Wild Ride
There are a lot of ways to build out narrative tension, and dangling a looming threat overhead like an axe is a great one. The bucket in Chrono Trigger is a little different, though. As the old man tells the player, inside that bucket is the gate towards Lavos, the big bad I’ve only just learned about. Lavos is coming, and will end the world. I need to time travel around and find a way to beat him.
Or, theoretically, I could just go there now. I’ve already fought a dragon tank and slain hordes of monsters. How bad could one measly world-ending calamity be?
An easy comparison to draw here would be the hot stove; you touch a hot stove once, get burned, and you’ve learned your lesson. For me, this is a little more like that shock button experiment that was making the rounds again on social media. Men, left alone with their thoughts in a room with a button that would shock them, still hit the button. One pressed it 190 times. Not only do dudes rock, but we want to know what’s up with that shock.
I, too, wanted to know what was up with the bucket, Chrono Trigger‘s proverbial hot stove/shock button. The old man warned me, but I needed to know. And you know what? I learned real quick. I didn’t make it more than a few fights into what turned out to be a boss rush of everything I’d fought, up to that point. I even got a glimpse of a boss I hadn’t fought yet, who proceeded to wipe the floor with me. Lavos wasn’t even a factor; I still wasn’t ready for the breadth of what this game was going to throw at me.
The burden of knowing
The bucket in Chrono Trigger is the sort of narrative tension I adored in another adored game, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. After completing the Great Plateau and acquiring its tools, Nintendo gives you the single, main objective of the entire game: Defeat Ganon. You can do this at any point in time, right now or 100 hours later.
Every time the calamity-ridden Hyrule Castle peeked out over the horizon, I thought of that. As I rode by the fields, fleeing Guardians who could send Link back to a long sleep in one laser, I was reminded how unprepared I was. For hours, I built up both my arsenal of weapons and my knowledge, until I was ready to tackle the looming evil before me.
This tension sits in the bottom of that bucket, too. I’ve only wandered back to the End of Time a handful of times now, as I’ve gone back to the Medieval era and even further to a prehistoric age, learning a lesson about partying with my ancient ancestors.
All the while, the bucket looms. It is an ever-present reminder of Crono and crew’s end goal, the evil we are seeking to defeat. It is always there, and we still aren’t ready. The one advantage we’ve got is time, and we have to make the absolute most of it, because right now we can’t even get through the front door. We’re barely rapping our knuckles on it before the world’s end kicks us out.
Even in the short few hours I’ve spent picking away at Chrono Trigger, it’s these design decisions that feel inspiring. Like seeing the Millennial Fair, I’m seeing years of development stemming out; I don’t know if Breath of the Wild‘s team was thinking of Lavos and that bucket when they built the narrative framework of their game, but I’d like to think Chrono Trigger was on at least person’s mind in that process.
I know that, eventually, I will level and grind my way up to match Lavos’ power. Maybe I’ll even see if there’s more to this fight than the brief glimpse I’ve seen. But for now, that bucket looms in the corner.
Every time I’m back, I can ask myself, “Am I ready now?” It’s a compelling question to push Crono and crew further. How do you know you’re ready to fight the end of the world? Can you ever be ready? Or do you just decide it’s time, and let the chips fall? The future refusing to change is, after all, one possible end.
I’m looking forward to seeing where my journey takes me. What events must transpire, obstacles overcome, and power gained to stop something I still, frankly, don’t comprehend. I just know the end of my Chrono Trigger journey lies at the bottom of that bucket.