It was to be less than a month until four young men, spread across the world but united in purpose, would do something almost nobody gets to do: fix a part of their life that a major media conglomerate had callously abandoned.
If their obsession had been a favorite film, one with a few plot holes and loose narrative threads, it would have been daunting and unrewarding to obtain a film crew, funding, and the time off to shoot their own incongruous pick-up scenes. The same goes for albums, which require master copies and a talented ear, or books and board games, which demand immense time and skill to improve on or extend in a meaningful way.
But this team’s particular obsession was a Super Nintendo game, and they had learned what made it tick through five years of crowd-sourced scrutiny and endless trial and error. From the core of the acclaimed game Chrono Trigger, they had built an epic, unofficial sequel: Chrono Trigger: Crimson Echoes. It had 23 chapters and 13 possible endings, and added up to 35 hours of gameplay. They would release it for free, and give Chrono Trigger lovers something rare: a chance to go on new adventures with characters they deeply cared for, and to finish the story they knew so well.
There was ZeaLitY, a Texan writer with a rabid hunger for Chrono knowledge and continuity; Chrono'99, a French modder with a knack for tricky choreographed scenes who had one ROM hack hit under his belt; Agent 12, a West Coast professional developer who programmed and bug-fixed at a seemingly inhuman pace; and a handful of others, including FaustWolf, an eloquent and fastidious graphics worker and beta tester. They were mostly college or graduate school age, and they had kept their work under wraps, with a few teases here and there.
But on May 9, 2009, with three weeks to go until launch, Agent 12 spoke with a lawyer from Chrono Trigger’s maker, Square Enix, who explained the details of the cease-and-desist letter the firm had sent with clipped yes-or-no certainty: delete everything or be bankrupted.
They complied. Their reward for destroying their dream was to become the targets of account hacking, social engineering attempts, and seemingly endless online harassment by former fans. They were branded incompetent cowards, forgers, liars, and, perhaps worst of all, betrayers of the Chrono legacy.
How had fandom come to such a punishing result?
Forward to the past
The company then known as Squaresoft (and sometimes just “Square”) released Chrono Trigger in 1995, at the height of its creative powers and during the “golden age” of Japanese role-playing games. Akira Toriyama, the artist behind the best-selling manga series Dragon Ball, crafted the characters and visual style. The score by Final Fantasy stalwart Nobuo Uematsu and Yasunori Mitsuda became an instant gaming classic, spawning hundreds of orchestral and fan remix versions. Most significantly, the main writer, Masato Kato, brought a novelist’s touch to an intricate, epic time-travel plot. Many fans have yet to see a story anything like what they saw in Chrono Trigger.
Lifehacker writer Adam Dachis, who has played through Chrono Trigger at least 20 times and witnessed every ending, says the game “follows classic film story structure better than any other (role-playing game) I’ve played.” Chrono Trigger mattered so much to Phill Spiess that his girlfriend played through it to get to know him — and he proposed to her by hacking a part of the game. Crimson Echoes leader ZeaLitY credits his obsession to the game’s “tenor and spirit.” (ZeaLitY spoke on condition that his offline name not be used.)
“It’s crammed with a vigor that most games, as most movies, have a hard time maintaining through the entire story,” ZeaLitY writes via email.
The storyline follows a trio of spirited youths who accidentally travel through time, learn of a great disaster in the future, and set out to stop it, meeting companions and enemies along the way. But such a quick summary leaves out an inventor father who accidentally cripples his wife, imbuing their genius daughter with a desire to fix both devices and people. It ignores the child prince who becomes a conflicted, revenge-driven villain. And it says nothing about a moment, roughly halfway through, when the tone, gameplay, and goals all change.
Chrono Trigger sold two million Super Nintendo cartridges in Japan, a solid performance for the time, and roughly 280,000 in the United States, where it could cost up to $80. A 2000 PlayStation follow-up, Chrono Cross, was set in the same world and written with Kato’s help, but was a loosely connected non-sequel. A 2001 trademark that Squaresoft registered for “Chrono Break” expired after a decade’s time. Meanwhile, Trigger continues to be re-released for new platforms and mobile app stores, with very minor changes or upgrades.
Trigger’s key craftsman seems haunted, or maybe tortured, by the idea of returning to his creation. He wrote a dark and quirky text-based adventure, Radical Dreamers, for an obscure satellite-based Super Nintendo add-on, but later tried to halt and disown it.1 Interviewed for a guidebook to Cross, Kato said there were Trigger elements to build on, but “the sense of dancing you get from exploring (those) worlds is a little more difficult to capture than I initially thought. … If we try to do a sequel, I want to perfect that completely,” Kato said.
And that, roughly, is where Crimson Echoes came in.
In 2003, ZeaLitY created the wiki-style Chrono Compendium site, a truly comprehensive take on all things in the Chrono continuum. It quickly became a hub for discussion and complaining about the lack of new projects. Excitement built up for two attempted 3D remakes, Chrono Resurrection and Remake Project, until they were both shut down by cease-and-desist letters from Square Enix, a merger of Squaresoft with Enix, best known for Dragon Quest.
But then, in late 2004, a hacker named Geiger released a stable version of Temporal Flux, a tool that made it far more of a step-by-step process to hack the ROM in Chrono Trigger to isolate its game engine than had previous complicated stabs in the dark.2 An engine sits at the heart of any game, and it renders elements onscreen, controls interactions, and manages the physics, among other tasks.
It still wasn’t easy, and could feel like fixing a car engine through a glove compartment, but Geiger put most of the original developers’ powers into the hands of fans. Ideas, goofs, and a coliseum-style battle game showed up on the Compendium, but nothing substantial until 2007. That’s when ZeaLitY posted the plot and scenarios he had spent years refining, and made some earnest pleas for help. He assembled a team, created a private forum, and everybody’s free time took a big hit.
ZeaLitY wrote thousands of lines of dialogue, both for big plot moments and for one-time interactions. Agent 12 programmed and tore through many, many bugs, along with managing the project. Chrono'99 staged scenarios and worked out the if-then mechanics. FaustWolf helped with turning fan-generated art into pixels and polishing the game’s rough patches. They released a one-off, two-chapter game, Prophet’s Guile, mostly to give themselves a break and generate excitement, and it saw roughly 25,000 downloads. By early 2009, ZeaLitY says, the team was cranking. “We were looking at a workable [Crimson] product.”
What lies beyond?
The plot of Crimson Echoes picks up five years after Chrono Trigger’s ending. There is no elevator version of this plot. Understanding the quests and character motivations requires robust familiarity with the original. There are striking sequences, touching bits of dialogue, winking nods, and clever uses of time-travel logic, but also some odd creations and plot directions. It tackles, ZeaLitY says, “mysteries and unexplained plot points, and (missing) character development” from the original. Like most Chrono fans I spoke with, I found it intriguing, and satisfying for its connection of disparate Trigger and Cross elements, but the show/tell ratio is heavily imbalanced toward the latter.
Crimson Echoes feels unfinished, in part, because it is. I played though about five hours of a “98 percent finished” beta version, and viewed the rest of the narrative on a “CEMemorial” YouTube playlist. The cease-and-desist letter sent from Square Enix on May 8, 2009, threatened damages of “up to $150,000 per work.” It was a not-for-profit project, and the finished game would have required a copy of an original Trigger ROM (theoretically a backup copy) to play, but nobody could afford the legal fight.
Some aspects of ROM hacking, such as the legality of backup copies and modifying games for accessibility and interoperability, remain to be defined in the courts. There was, for example, Galoob v. Nintendo, which found that Game Genie’s creation of “new variations of play” was a fair-use case. But nearly every attorney I asked about the case of Crimson Echoes noted two issues: that of unauthorized derivative works, and the license agreements that accompany game purchases.
“If the ‘mod’ constitutes a modification of the game…and it includes substantial portions of the original game, then it may constitute a derivative work or a reproduction which may constitute copyright infringement,” says Kurt E. Anderson, an attorney at the New Jersey firm Giordano Halleran and Ciesla who specializes in software and copyright issues. “The terms of the license may (also) prohibit hacking and modifying the backup copy, and would likely prohibit further distribution of copies.”
Square Enix’s attorney didn’t explain that, or much of anything, when he spoke to Agent 12 on a Friday night in early May 2009. The lawyer said the letter had “come down from Japan,” but initially offered to push Square Enix into making an official statement — if the Crimson team could stay mostly silent. The team took the mod forum down with a terse announcement. But, after days of back and forth, the company changed its tune. There would be no statement and no game. The Crimson team felt it couldn’t name names at Square Enix for fear of destroying their last chance of dialog with the company after those employees “get the entire 4Chan treatment,” ZeaLitY said, being harassed and ridiculed online.
The end of time
Instead, the team itself received the threats and hacking attempts, and they were accused of faking the Square letter to get out of a full release. Very few fans approached with constructive help; many more pointed out mistakes in the Crimson Echoes team’s legal and coding strategies. One beta tester, Ryan Lester, leaked his alpha-level testing copy on Reddit’s gaming section, allowing a smaller team of programmers to release it in 2011 as Flames of Eternity. Lester, now a developer at SpaceX and creator of music streaming service Peer.fm, tells me via email that no pseudonym is necessary; he gladly owns up to leaking Crimson Echoes, despite understanding the risks and somewhat sympathizing with Square Enix’s legal obligations.
“The reason why I was ethically okay with releasing it was that I considered it in very poor taste to kill such a large project that was so close to completion,” Lester explains. “The finished project is nothing short of brilliant, 100 percent worthy of being accepted as canon.”
For its makers, Crimson Echoes has a multi-headed legacy. Most members of the team have distanced themselves from the game (and would not speak for this article). It doesn’t help that a different cadre of ROM hackers eventually released a modified version of Crimson under a different name, with just enough changes (and errors) to disgruntle the Crimson team. Yet there is chatter about an outside team still working on finishing Crimson Echoes to the original design specifications.
There is another project that learned a lot from Crimson Echoes — especially its potential legal liability — and is trying to remake Chrono Trigger using modern graphics, but the team has no Web site and is strictly pseudonymous. And while Square Enix killed the project, Crimson Echoes at least forced the firm to acknowledge the hunger of Chrono fans for more gameplay, more answers.
The five-year effort might also serve as a waypoint marker in the history of game development, and of Japanese role-playing games in particular. A place where, to paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson, you could see where the creative wave finally broke and rolled back.
“In the past you had the big names, like Hironobu Sakaguchi and Masato Kato and high-profile artists, who could push through a project and be supported,” ZeaLitY says. “Nowadays you have this faceless kind of franchise development model: hire all the gaming team, and as soon as the product ships, fire them all, or wait for the next project from the board of directors.”
If nothing else, ZeaLitY says, Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross have been united in story, and crucial bits of backstory explained. Most people can’t see it and don’t know about it, but the fixes are in. And enough code has been spread around that somebody might still be revisiting and revising this quirky piece of gaming history.
Other members of the Crimson Echoes project, along with members from Flames of Eternity, Chrono Resurrection, and Chrono Trigger: Remake Project, could not be reached for comment. The press team at Square Enix did not return multiple emails requesting comment, and developers of Chrono Trigger did not return requests for comment. A Twitter account for “Square Enix Community Members” did respond by direct message that the firm “can’t confirm legal actions to third parties one way or another,” and that “it would be a violation of copyright to create content using our materials without our express permission.”
Incidentally, that obscurity, and the rarity of Satellaview games in general, makes Radical Dreamers one of the most valuable games in Tokyo’s Akihabara used-game district — roughly the 13th most expensive, according to Wired. ↩
Although ROM (read-only memory) chips are permanently burned with a program’s software, the software can be loaded and patched, and it can then be used on an emulator or even burned (via EEPROM or other means) into a new cartridge. ↩
Kevin Purdy is a freelance writer who lives in Buffalo, New York. He writes for Fortune, The Wirecutter and The Sweethome, ITworld, and Buffalo Spree, among others. He is a former contributing editor at Lifehacker.