Welcome back to the replay of Chrono Trigger! Last time we covered the first section of the game, leading up to the battle with Magus. Today we’ll get to the single greatest moment in my 16-bit gaming experience—discovering the Kingdom of Zeal 12,000 years into the past. Coming right after the plunge into a prehistoric 65 Million BC and stopping the Reptites attempt to wipe out humanity, this ice age was a cold awakening. Snow blasting across your face, a destitute, miserable arctic landscape. Then, paradise, a city in the heavens, grander than ‘a castle in the sky.’
The music was arcane, mysterious, and yet full of hope. The technology and artistry complemented each other perfectly, just as magic had driven the culture to new heights. Zeal was where “dreams could come true.” I was both confused and in awe. How did this world connect with the rest of Chrono Trigger? Sages and strange creatures challenged me with ontological questions about existence. Trivial human needs were scoffed at. Objects I’d seen in the future had their roots here. More than any world in gaming, I wished I could travel here.
It’s a rare game that’s able to connect these disparate worlds so seamlessly while maintaining their individual identity. I was surprised to discover that my battle with archvillain for the first half of Chrono Trigger, Magus, had its beginnings all the way back to this strange wonderland.
Magus and the Reptites
The battle with Magus was the most difficult boss battle in the game up to that point with all of his elemental shifts and the literal need to defeat the hundred monsters residing in the castle to get there. The first time through the game, I presumed Magus was the final boss and that vanquishing him would fix the future, since it would stop Magus from creating Lavos. With the aid of the Masamune, multiple X-Strikes, a stream of Lightning 2s (as Magus kept on going to the lightning barrier), I was able to defeat him. I thought the game was over. But that’s when things took an unexpected twist.
“Don’t wake up on me now,” Magus states in frustration and anger to Lavos.
“YOU’RE the one who CREATED him!” your party yells back at Magus.
Magus then reveals that he wasn’t the creator, but rather that he summoned Lavos to try and destroy it. The villain who had killed Glenn’s master and transformed him into a frog while wreaking havoc in Guardia actually had the same goal as the heroes. It made no sense, but was also part of Chrono Trigger’s trend towards bucking RPG tropes. In this case, the villain wasn’t even the villain, and the story was only getting warmed up. Before you can get to the bottom of Magus’s conflict, you’re sucked into a time gate and thrown “forward to the past.”
More specifically, to Laruba Village in 65 Million B.C., which is inhabited by the prehistoric humans. They’ve been attacked by the Reptites in retaliation for Ayla having helped you retrieve the Gate Key earlier. Your party now has to rescue the humans who’ve been taken captive and eliminate the Reptite army once and for all. It’s a grueling slog as you defeat Reptite after Reptite. The final confrontation pits you against Azala, queen of the Reptites, and the Black Tyrano—essentially a tyrannosaurus rex with fireballs.
After you beat her, the sad theme (“At the Bottom of Night)” plays and Azala tragically asks, “Could the heavens truly have sided with the apes? Listen, primates, and let it be known. We Reptites fought bravely to the bitter end. We… have no future.” That’s when it hit me—I’d helped exterminate a race of sentient beings. Even when Ayla offers to save Azala, she accepts her fate and knows that her peoples’ end is near. What could one Reptite queen do against Lavos (the “big fire,” as Ayla translates)? Crono and company have devastated their cold-blooded ranks; they couldn’t rebuild now even if they wanted to.
When the party leaves Azala, it’s basically the end for the Reptites, especially with Lavos crashing into the planet. Since the humans are the dominant species now, they evolve, grow, and expand their knowledge, eventually founding the Kingdom of Zeal, with the Reptites relegated to a historical footnote. The disturbing aspect of all this is that Zeal wouldn’t exist if you hadn’t wiped out humanity’s Reptite rivals and their leader in the first place. Without your interference, it’s possible that the Reptites might have even defeated the humans, especially because only you wielded the lightning magic that they were so vulnerable to. While technically Lavos’ arrival via meteor is what crushed their existence, you certainly expedited their extinction.
This is explored further in one of the alternate endings where the Reptites rule the world, and in the sequel, Chrono Cross: in that game’s parallel timeline, Azala was not defeated and went on to create a whole new civilization called Dinotopia, their version of Zeal. It’s a kingdom that has harnessed the power of nature into a dragon god and created a utopia for reptilian life.
Crono is the chief agent in an extermination that would reshape history. Which begs the question, is advancement only possible in the face of catastrophe? After all, if dinosaurs hadn’t gone extinct, could humans have taken their place?
Janus and Zeal
Shortly after playing through Chrono Trigger, I came across Colin Wilson’s book, The Occult. For the most part, I presumed Zeal had been a world made up by the developers. But I was in for a surprise as I learned that it was actually based on folklore and myth (even if some of the sources are considered dubious).
Wilson cites two writers in writing about the ancient Atlantis: “According to Noel Langley, the Atlanteans, who date back as far as 200,000 B.C., were immensely headstrong, commanded powers of extrasensory perception and telepathy, and had electricity and had invented the airplane. Their energy source, the ‘Tuaoi Stone’ or terrible crystal, was eventually so misused by this iron-willed race it brought about the final catastrophe.” And citing another writer, Cayce: “their civilization was highly developed and they possessed some ‘crystal stone’ for trapping and utilising the ray of the sun.”
12,000 BC was an important date in history as the beginning of the end for the glaciation from the last ice age. It seemed like the perfect period for humanity to rise from the ashes, or the cold in this case. But in the world of Chrono Trigger, barely any traces of Zeal remained in the “present” era. Despite all their advanced technology, something had destroyed them. I figured it was Lavos, but the truth was more insidious.
As your party explores more of the celestial Zeal, the citizens’ pride and their limitless zeal for all things magic is unmistakable. The trope of hubris rears its ugly head in the form of a queen bent on harnessing Lavos to earn immortality. But it’d be too pat to solely blame her for their ways. All the citizens of Zeal believe and support her cause, despising the earthbound humans. They believe they are superior beings who deserve to live forever and relish in the powers magic gives them, and it never even occurs to them that Lavos might be manipulating and using them. They are certain they can harness it completely to their advantage. The environmental message is both damning and a warning in light of the eventual destruction of Zeal.
We’re also introduced to a snotty kid, Janus, and his older sister Schala, the children of the queen. Schala wields a great deal of power, even if Janus (named after the deity of gateways) is the superior magician. Eventually, the Queen’s machinations cause the destruction of the entire kingdom, including Schala’s absorption into Lavos (creating the Dream Devourer). But the big twist is that the bratty kid, Janus, is actually a younger Magus, the villain from earlier. When Schala is essentially killed, Janus was hurtled into the future, where he renames himself Magus and becomes the leader of the Mystics. From there, everything he undertook, including taking over Guardia, was driven by his desire to save his sister—though destructive, the emotional undercurrent of his time-distorting actions were actually noble in cause.
On a base level, Magus is emblematic of Zeal, ruthlessly killing Guardia’s soldiers in pursuit of his ambition without regards to the cost and those who have to suffer for it. But going even further, Zeal is like a human Lavos, a parasitic existence whose sole purpose is to exploit. Only by destroying the planet can Lavos thrive. Likewise, Zeal’s pursuit of ultimate power is dependent on the slaves they utilize to build the sea palace. Just as the survival of Ayla’s village necessitates the destruction of the Reptites.
The broader theme is the relationship between civilization, catastrophe, and rebirth, connected through time. Those are stages that embody your relationship with Magus, one of the most complex and interesting villains in gaming. I can’t think of any other games where the villain is also given the option of permanently joining your party. Even after he becomes part of the team, he can’t perform dual attacks with any of your members. He’s a lone wolf, an outlier who never fits in. But he’s still a badass, and years before Alucard floated in his Symphony of the Night dash, Magus led the way.
Writing sophisticated villains is a tough balance to maintain. To some extent, Chrono Cross attempted this by actually making you become your archenemy, Lynx, for a short time. But the narrative threads never reached the level of cohesion and unity achieved in Chrono Trigger.
It’s because at his core, Magus is a brother who loves his sister and wants to save her from death. Warding off mortality, whether an individual or the planet itself, is the common theme that binds the story together. It’s even implied in a later campfire scene that the time gates are ways the planet is reliving past memories after the trauma of its future destruction, like neurons sparking nerves of longing that humans, as extensions of the planet, experience. The planet is reminiscing.
Banpos and Lavos
One aspect I’ve always wondered about is Lavos’ actual origins. Where did it come from? Are there other Lavos beings? If one can wreak so much destruction, what would happen if more came?
At the same time, it’s implied that humanity’s advancement only happened as a direct result of the rise of Lavos—without it, the Reptites would have dominated. So its arrival portended both humanity’s progression and eventual destruction.
I’m surprised that the flippant comments the people of Zeal make in light of impending doom remind me so much of contemporary life, specifically in the face of climate change. There are those in our own world who take it seriously—like Melchior and the other sages in Zeal—who are putting up all the warning signals. But they’re either ignored or regarded with a great deal of skepticism by much of the populace. Even if a Zeal-like fate awaits us, is there anything that can prevent the catastrophe? As Chrono Trigger shows us, even time travelers are met with suspicion. Even if someone came from the future, would we pay heed?
A few years ago, I visited a site in Xi’an, China, an archaeological site that contains several Neolithic settlements from over 6,000 years ago. They had a language, culture, art, customs, rituals, beliefs, all of which have been lost. I saw their remains, wondered at their secrets, their histories. At best, the researchers can only guess, theorize, and imagine.
I am haunted by the threads of this forgotten past, the futuristic metropolis of Zeal, a young Magus, and Crono’s role in wiping away the Reptites. Decades and hundreds of games later, coming across Zeal is still one of the greatest moments in my gaming experience. I wish I lived there, until I realize, in some ways, I do. We live in what would comparatively be considered a utopia, with lots of great food, entertainment, advanced medicine—things that would seem like magic to people of the past. I sincerely hope in our zeal for progress, we don’t become the Lavos of our own world.
Update like whoa: *A few reddit users have pointed out that in the Nintendo DS remake, there’s an alternate dimension called the Lost Sanctum in which a village of Reptites survived. There’s also a slight difference in translation during Azala’s death that softens the implications of her death, even though I still think it was your party’s actions that ultimately led to their defeat (Lavos was just the final stroke). The developers are still tweaking the game and it’s pretty interesting to see it evolve. Hopefully, the effort going into these small shifts will be channeled into a Chrono Trigger 3.
Peter Tieryas is the author of United States of Japan (Angry Robot, 2016) and Bald New World (JHP Fiction, 2014). His work has appeared in Electric Literature, Kotaku, Tor.com, and ZYZZYVA. He travels through time at @TieryasXu.