RADICAL DREAMERS / Squaresoft / SNES
Radical Dreamers is an odd duck. It's the follow-up to massively popular RPG Chrono Trigger, yet it's not a real sequel, just a little side-story that deals with what was probably the most prominent dangling plot thread from the original game. It's also a text adventure, something almost never seen on a console (offhand this and Famicom Detective Club are the only ones I can think of for the Super NES). And it wasn't even really released on the console - it was a downloadable item on the Stellaview modem peripheral, which was only available in Japan and for a relatively short time at that. Never officialy released in any other form, it is now only playable by scrounging up a ROM from somewhere and applying Neo Demiforce's excellent translation patch.
Chrono Cross showed us that the design team at Square never really had a clear, strong concept for a sequel to Chrono Trigger yet felt tremendous pressure to capitalize on it's popularity somehow. I believe this explains most of the odd mystery of Radical Dreamers existence; give the fans a little something that requires only a short development cycle yet addresses the much-speculated-about Schala/Magus plot thread, and make it a downloadable item as a sort of snack for people to munch on while they tried to figure out what they wanted to do for a sequel proper. (and of course, if it's not congruent with what the team decides to do later plotwise, just claim it's "not intended to be canon" and dispose of it).
Radical Dreamers is a fairly simple game, giving you only about two hours or so of gameplay and really not posing much of a challenge, but it is still quite an interesting play for a number of reasons. Of course, for the established Trigger fans, you have the direct inclusion of Magus in the story and a more precise and compelling epilogue to the story of Schala than the rather confusing mess that Cross offered up. It's also a rare return to the text adventure format. It's short on length and complexity, but long on atmosphere, and the use of text necessitates a writing level that is a bit better than what is usually on offer in console RPGs, which fans of story-driven games should enjoy.
The story follows Serge, a different version from the Cross protagonist (now some sort of a troubadour dressed like a stereotypical mage, and fairly inept in combat), as he and Kid and Magil storm Lynx's Viper Manor in pursuit of the Frozen Flame. Serge is rather infatuated with Kid, and doesn't really seem to know why they're going after it or how they're going to get it, but goes along anyway. Kid's motivations and her backstory are gradually revealed as the game unfolds.
The whole of the game is confined to the grounds and interior of Viper Manor. There's something like twelve or so rooms in total, and the whole of the game is basically figuring out which rooms to visit in what order to progress the plot. Sometimes you'll have to make the right choice from a menu option, for example when you stumble into a trapped room or have to remember where something is hidden. When travelling between rooms, there are certain passageways where you stand a random chance of being attacked by monsters. Combat, like the rest of the game, is just a matter of picking the right choices from a menu. There are only two statistics to worry about - Serge's health, and Kid's level of affection for him - and neither is visible to you. You can get a general indication of both at the end of each battle, where Serge will comment on how he feels and then Kid will make some sort of comment about your fighting ability. While the game is fairly easy and because of it's short length you're more likely to stumble through to the finish even if you're not really sure what's going on, it is very possible to die as healing opportunities are limited to a small handful of fixed non-repeating events (as far as Kid's affection for you goes, I read somewhere that it effects the ending somehow, but in two play-throughs I didn't see what the difference was).
The game is definitely very simple and there's not a lot to challenge you outside of the random battles, which repeat themselves thus allowing you to memorize the right sequence of events once you've been through it once or twice. There is a bit of replayability in the form of some goofy bonus endings, but for the most part this is a short little one-off curiosity of an experience. It is a worthwhile experience, however. The game is atmospheric and even sometimes creepy in a way you won't expect, and Yasunori Mitsuda turns in his usual better-than-the-game-that-it's-in (see also Xenogears) soundtrack. Most of the songs went on to be re-used in Chrono Cross, but there's something I like better about the versions present here, and it's one of the best uses of the Super NES sound chip that you can hear. The game is also surprisingly emotionally affecting, much more so than Cross would wind up being, which I think is largely the result of having to rely on text to convey so much.
Relaxing End Credits