Chrono Trigger At 25: The Enemy Of My Enemy

Something that I think a lot of people hold in high regard when it comes to Chrono Trigger is the game's cast of characters. It's small – you only get a total of seven party members over the course of the game – but I think that somewhat limited focus allows for better characterization on the whole. Since you're traveling through different time periods as you play the game, naturally your party members come from all the eras you visit.

Note: There are heavy spoilers for Chrono Trigger ahead. This article series assumes readers have completed the game, so if you haven't yet, stop reading here.

Of course, we have the trio of Crono, Marle, and Lucca that's together from the start of the game, and when Crono and Lucca travel into the Middle Ages to save Marle, they meet Frog – a man-sized, talking, sword-wielding frog in armor who speaks like he belongs in one of Shakespeare's plays. In the future, we meet Robo, a robot that was originally constructed before the apocalypse to assist humans.

The party member we meet in the prehistoric era is a woman named Ayla, who serves as the chieftain of the Ioka Tribe and is heading up a never-ending war against a race of sentient, bipedal reptiles called Reptites. Crono, Lucca, Marle, Robo, Ayla, and Frog comprise the party for most of the game, and indeed, they're the only party members that you're guaranteed to have join your throughout the course of a playthrough.

There is a seventh, though, and part of the genius of Chrono Trigger is that this final potential party member spends much of the game as its most visible villain. From the early stages of the game, you're led to believe that Magus, a sorcerer who lives in the Middle Ages and is embroiled in a war with the Kingdom of Guardia, is the one responsible for creating Lavos and bringing about the apocalypse. In fact, you spend a decent chunk of the game preparing to confront Magus, reforging a legendary sword called the Masamune so Frog can wield it and stop Magus before he can unleash Lavos.

During that confrontation, though, Magus's role in all of this becomes muddy. You eventually learn that Magus did not create Lavos and is not responsible for the end of the world. By the time this conflict with Magus comes to blows, Lavos has already been sapping the world's energy for tens of millions of years. Magus, then, has been attempting to summon Lavos so he can destroy it. Just as well, he was going to war with the Kingdom of Guardia to amass power before his confrontation with Lavos.

Magus is not a good person. He's a cold, ruthless sorcerer who has done more than his fair share of evil deeds to get closer to his (admittedly noble) goal. While it can be argued that Chrono Trigger is guilty of the black and white morality trope with some of its characters, Magus doesn't fit that lens at all.

For starters, there's a lot of bad blood between Magus and one of your party members. Magus is the one responsible for killing a knight named Cyrus and turning his squire, Glenn, into a human-sized frog – our human-sized frog. Because of Magus's actions, Frog spends much of the game doubting his abilities, hiding in the forest and running from his destiny as the hero meant to wield the Masamune.

Frog's story is one of redemption and finding confidence in yourself – it's just that the source of his self-doubt is embodied in Magus, who exists as a constant reminder of Frog's failings. It's easy to hate Magus too, because simply put, he's a smug jerk. But even he has layers, just like a certain, beloved Scottish ogre, and his story is probably the most complex out of the entire cast.

Magus is actually Prince Janus from the Kingdom of Zeal, a floating civilization that existed in the Age of Antiquity. Magus has seen what Lavos is capable of first-hand, as his mother, Queen Zeal, discovered the alien and used it as a source of power for the kingdom.

While magic and science flourished in the Kingdom of Zeal – it's arguably the most technologically advanced setting you'll visit throughout the game, despite the fact that it existed in 12,000 BC – this attempt to draw ever-increasingly amounts power from Lavos ultimately led to the kingdom's downfall, with the monster awakening and not only destroying the kingdom, but sending many people associated with Queen Zeal into other eras of time.

Janus was sent to the Middle Ages, where he grew into an adult, took up the name Magus, and – being able to use magic, an ability that was lost to the people of Earth after the destruction of Zeal – grew an army of monster followers and went to war with the Kingdom of Guardia in an attempt to amass power and destroy Lavos.

Magus is basically the polar opposite of Frog, yet they ultimately pursue the same goal. They do that side-by-side if you decide to let Magus join your party after the truth of who he is and what his goals are become clear. You don't have to do that, though, and you can decide to fight him instead. After all, Magus isn't guiltless in his quest to stop Lavos. He still killed Cyrus and he still went to war with the Kingdom of Guardia, definitely causing the deaths of many more knights and soldiers.

Frog still has plenty of reason to hate the sorcerer too, and if you want to side with him and resolve to stop Lavos without the help of Magus, you've got that option. Choice in video games is nothing new, but I would say that meaningful choice in games can still be a rare thing, even today.

The choice of whether or not to recruit Magus is meaningful not because it dramatically changes the game from that point on, but because it's asking you if evil actions are justifiable when they're done for the benefit of the greater good. It's a play on the classic trolley problem thought experiment, which asks if it's okay to sacrifice one life to save a larger number of lives. The game is asking, and you're in control of the answer.

Throughout the years, Chrono Trigger's characters have stuck with me in ways the characters from other games have not. I've played and enjoyed a number of RPGs in my time, but in looking back, it can be hard to distinguish the characters of one game from those of another. I think that oftentimes, RPG writers can be guilty of leaning too heavily on established tropes, and while Chrono Trigger certainly isn't immune to that itself, I think the game does more to buck the trend than others have in the past.

Each of the characters have their own little side-stories that you complete as the game goes on, but the stories of Frog and Magus are by far the most engaging. All of the stories are good – we have a princess running from her life of royalty, a robot trying to understand human emotion, and a sharp inventor who struggles with tragedy in her past – but the way Magus and Frog's stories intertwine is where the success of Chrono Trigger's characterization becomes clear.

Throughout this week, SlashGear is publishing a series of articles commemorating the 25th anniversary of Chrono Trigger. There are more articles to come on Thursday and Friday, but for now, you can get caught up on the series so far by checking out the links below.

Chrono Trigger at 25: The best game I've ever played

Chrono Trigger at 25: A story for the ages