CHRONO TRIGGER / Squaresoft / SNES
Chrono Trigger is not a perfect game, but it's a great one, and it's certainly aged well.
First of all, it began as a collaboration between the creator of the Final Fantasy series (Hironobu Sakaguchi) and creator of the Dragon Quest series Yuuji Horii, who at this point in time had split from Enix to form his own company Armor Project (they all ended up mushing together later anyway when Square acquired Enix to create the Squeenix RPG Juggernaut Machine). Both FF and Dragon Quest aren't to everyone's tastes, I admit, but that's a lot of console RPG experience in this project right there alone. Trigger's engine isn't perfect, but what technical flaws there are are very minor, and the atmosphere and art/music are quite top notch.
This is one of those games that is already firmly enshrined as a classic in gaming, so I don't really want to waste words restating what's already out there. The main thing I want to point out about this game is that it has aged very well as compared to many of it's 16-bit peers, and really will continue to be enjoyable for likely as long as gaming is possible on this troubled earth. (I'm also hoping against hope that, if there's sustained "buzz" about it on the Internet Tubes, maybe someday Square will see fit to revive the series).
The art is probably the first noticeable quality about the game that is really timeless. Lord knows I'm no fan of Dragonball Z and I never found Dragon Quest/Warrior's art to be overly inspiring, but Akira Toriyama definitely was the right choice for this project. Great 2D art will always look good; the clunky 3D polygons that gaming mags of the time were shooting their loads over have long since been swept into the dustbin. The backgrounds feature a lovely amount of detail, the enemies are a lot more mobile and expressive than the typical Final Fantasy style, and the larger-than-average character sprites also sport more animation than average. The whole game is just a joy to look at, very sharp.
It's also a joy to listen to, thanks to a young Yasunori Mitsuda's heroic efforts. The man shit blood over this soundtrack, there's so much love in it. For a first soundtrack it's a pretty unbelievable effort, and you really have to play this game and then immediately play other Super Nintendo titles of the time to appreciate just how advanced the audio was in this one. And it's so well done it's still a pleasure to listen to over ten years later.
Also more enjoyable than average is the Active Time 2.0 Battle System. It's actually at its most boring during the first hour or two of play when you have little else to do but Attack, but as soon as your party expands and you start developing Dual Techs it gets really interesting and there's all kinds of room for individual battle styles. It's pretty well balanced and there's really no "dead weight" characters ... well maybe Lucca ... however via a plethora of stat-boosting tabs you can pump up your favorite character and use parties of personal preference rather than parties of necessity most of the time.
I can't find much fault with the structure of the game either. The first couple of hours work as an extended seamless tutorial to get you adjusted. As mentioned, fighting with just Crono at the beginning is initially a little boring, but you don't actually have to do that much of that and it picks up quickly once Lucca/Marle jump in and you begin learning Dual Techs. You can see enemies, and avoid many of them, and battles take place on the same screen in a manner that looks a little goofy sometimes but works fine as long as you don't have issues with suspending your disbelief for the sake of fun. The pace of the game is crisp. It could be said it's a little too easy, but on the flip side there's absolutely no grinding required - if you play through the game and do most of the side-quests you'll level seamlessly and always be ready, making the battles more an issue of you learning to use the battle system well than of how many hours you are willing to spend running around tediously offing the same fodder enemies. Battles are also way faster than the average RPG from this time as well - commands come up quickly, attacks look nice but don't take long to bust out, most of the enemies don't jerk around too much and make you impatient. Very satisfying feel to the fights all around.
A couple of other things the game does very well, that Square was pretty good with in the Super NES era but then seriously backslid on later - first, in terms of plot, it strikes an excellent balance between "serious" and lighthearted. It's not always consistent with it's own rules and pulls out some deus ex machina stuff from it's butt sometimes, but - any game that can take a goth magician, a frog, a cavewoman, a robot and a bunch of teenagers as the main characters and make a compelling experience out of it is executing much better than you probably even realize. This was prior to the Evangelionization of console RPGs (thanks largely to Square's FF7 and Xenogears) and it's refreshing to go back to these not-too-self-serious games like Trig and FF6 after having been through almost a decade now of overdramatic bullshit. The other thing I like about Trig is the crisp speed at which it operates, and how the visuals have a lean beauty that doesn't sacrifice gameplay (again, FF7 and beyond and their two-hour elemental summon animations and battle loading times spring to mind here ... not to mention the literal hours of tedious cutscenes and poorly written exposition).
You've also got the New Game Plus mode when you finish, which is a common thing now but was a fairly new idea when Trigger first came out. This adds quite a bit of replayability, with something like 12 extra endings that you can play for after you've completed the game once (but not requiring twelve separate play-throughs to see). The game also does non-linearity just about as well as Final Fantasy 6 did - a little over halfway into the game, you can challenge the final boss whenever you like and it's no longer compulsory to have the main character in the party anymore.
Fun, flexible, fast, pretty, satisfying, and aurally pleasing. Chrono Trigger really is one of the great ones, an RPG that does well at being a game and not some half-baked attempt at a new form of literature or something. Highly recommended, but you probably already knew that.
Chrono Trigger OVA Anime (16 min.)
Chrono Trigger Retranslation Project
Chrono Compendium - excellent fan site with tons of downloadables