Twenty years ago this month Square released Chrono Cross, a big, beautiful mess of a game bursting at the seams with style, atmosphere, and Japanese RPG minutia. But it wasn’t the only major game Square released that summer. The publisher also delivered Threads of Fate and Legend of Mana, two other games that riffed on the classic Square JRPG in fun and interesting ways. It was a lovely time and I miss everything about it.
Square (which didn’t merge with Enix until three years later) had billed the summer of 2000 the “Summer of Adventure,” beginning in June with Legend of Mana, followed in July by Threads of Fate, and topped off in August with Chrono Cross, the long-awaited follow-up to one of the best JRPGs ever made. All three games had come out the previous fall in Japan and were finally being localized for the West. To mark the occasion Square even put together special-edition soundtrack compilations that you could only get by pre-ordering each game, and gave Squaresoft Summer of Adventure 2000-branded knapsacks to anyone who pre-ordered all three. The knapsacks looked like trash but if I had one now I would put all my PS1 Square games in it and cherish it until the end of my days.
As USGamer’s Kat Bailey and Nadia Oxford explained on this week’s episode of the Axe of the Blood God podcast, the Summer of Adventure was Square near the height of its popularity and creative influence. Following the success of Final Fantasy VII, the company was churning out more games with Final Fantasy Tactics, Xenogears, Parasite Eve, SaGa Frontier 1 and 2, and Final Fantasy VIII all released in the two years that followed. The quality was all over the place, but so were the creative visions, with games taking chances on esoteric stories and unusual gameplay systems, sometimes arguably shipping before they were even ready.
It was probably not great for the brand or the business, but as a result of this Icarus period we’ve been left with a trove of quirky and distinctive late ‘90s, early ‘00s JRPGs that all have something special to offer, and the Summer of Adventure was by far one of the most solid runs during this period (the promotional event itself was bookended by Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy IX).
Let’s check out these games.
Threads of Fate
An approachable action-adventure game with RPG-lite elements, Threads of Fate has you hack ‘n slash your way through dungeons in search of an artifact that grants wishes. Instead of one hero’s journey though there are two, with Rue trying to revive his dead partner and the princess Mint trying to oust her sister from the throne. The mechanics are simple but fun, and the vibrant polygonal art and nimble soundtrack by longtime Square composer Junya Nakano make it into a breezy adventure with a satisfying emotional gut punch or two (if Threads doesn’t tug on your heartstrings you need to get checked).
Legend of Mana
Secret of Mana was a huge hit on the SNES, and since its sequel didn’t get localized until, let me see, uh, just last year, everyone was expecting Legend of Mana to build on the twitchy real-time action and giant top-down world of the earlier game. Instead it was slow, small, and incredibly obtuse. Where Secret of Mana almost could have been played in an arcade, Legend had you selecting stages to play through, collecting artifacts from them, and then plopping them down on a grid-based map to create new stages. It’s an extremely modular game, with characters, story beats, and big battles coming in all different orders depending on how you build out the map. At the same time its lush watercolor backgrounds and deep crafting systems make it one of the denser JRPGs of the era. It also had local coop and, surprise, an amazing soundtrack by Yoko Shimomura, who has contributed music to some of the best JRPGs out there but is probably most widely known for her work on Kingdom Hearts.
Another sequel to a famous SNES game, Chrono Cross was also a dramatic shift from the direction and sensibility of its predecessor. Instead of learning magic by leveling up, players equipped colored gems whose spells could only be used once each battle. Instead of a small, intimate cast of characters there were dozens and dozens, many of whom could be recruited, some with extremely involved sidequests. And instead of time travel the game mostly focused on traveling back and forth between two alternate realities. Some people say the story doesn’t make sense, but some people also find Christopher Nolan movies confusing. Chrono Cross is a sprawling, gorgeously animated web of mythmaking and philosophical introspection that lets you chew on the meaning of time, space, and free will while beating up on some tough bosses and hearing Yasunori Mitsuda’s top-notch soundtrack bring life to two rich, tropical worlds. (You should also read Oxford’s deep dive into masterfully the Chrono Cross’ atmosphere and mood underline the tragedy at the heart of it).
None of these games are perfect—Threads of Fate, by virtue of its more grounded ambitions, has the fewest obvious flaws—but each offers a radically different spin on the core concept of smacking a monster in the face with a sword as numbers get bigger and bigger. Threads of Fate’s Rue could take monsters’ powers and transform into them, Legend of Mana let me farm tomatoes and then use them to temper a broadsword and improve its stats, and Chrono Cross, I mean, have you ever dipped a toe in that game’s wiki? I went for a late night dip last night to refresh my brain and fell in love all over again with its twisted, time-traveling, dimension-hopping revenge tale. It’s the original video game equivalent of the German sci-fi soap opera Dark, but with random encounters and 45 playable characters to collect. Long hot days are perfect for sitting in front of a box fan and a TV poring over strategy guides trying to figure out how to defend against the dragon who keeps one-shotting your party, and Chrono Cross delivered better than most.
Nothing lasts forever though, and 2000’s Summer of Adventure was followed by 2001’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within which lost Square millions of dollars. A year later the company restructured, and a year after that merged with Enix and for better or worse things have never been quite the same since. Recent years have seen plenty of great JRPGs come and go, from big ones like Persona 5 and Dragon Quest XI to smaller productions like Octopath Traveller and this year’s summer indie hit, CrossCode.
Many have been excellent. Some, like The Alliance Alive (which somehow keeps getting re-released each year) have been duds. But for me none of them have hit with the same momentum, cadence, or level of depth as that original Summer of Adventure. Maybe the stars and release calendars will align to give us another one of those someday. In the meantime I’d settle for getting good versions of Threads of Fate, Legend of Mana, and Chrono Cross on modern consoles, or, dare I say it, PC.