Why Chrono Trigger's Magus remains one of the best RPG villains ever
It's more than just the cool cape.
March 11 marks the 25th anniversary of Chrono Trigger, the landmark Super Nintendo RPG from Squaresoft that arguably perfected time-travel narratives in video games.
The game boasted an incredible team of creative talent, spearheaded by Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi and Dragon Quest creator Yuji Horii, along with Yoshinori Kitase and Tetsuya Nomura, currently two leads of Final Fantasy VII Remake. The iconic character designs were done by Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama. The trio of Sakaguchi, Horii, and Toriyama was referred to as the "Dream Team."
It's not just about the pedigree. Chrono Trigger remains a fixture of all-time best lists thanks to its memorable story, iconic setpiece moments, and enormously flexible gameplay. There are more than a dozen endings, a substantial chunk of late-game content can be done in any order, and any trio of the game's seven playable characters are viable. Chrono Trigger was a major step forward for active combat systems in RPGs, and introduced the now-ubiquitous concept of New Game Plus. Also, the soundtrack still absolutely slaps, a quarter-century later. It's been released for SNES, PS1, and Nintendo DS, but there isn't an easy way to play it on current-gen consoles. (Hint hint, Square Enix.)
The game follows a group of time travelers fighting to save the world from a calamity in 1999 AD. For the first half of the game, Magus is the baddest dude in any era. Sure, Crono, Marle and Lucca learn pretty early on that Lavos is the nefarious alien monster hell-bent on destroying the world. But Magus is the one knowingly striving to unleash that monster on an unsuspecting populace.
The more we learn about Magus, the worse he seems. He transformed our new friend Frog into... well, a frog. Back when Frog was just a plucky medieval fanboy known as Glenn, Magus murdered his best friend Cyrus in front of him. He often, perhaps too often, talks about hearing "the black wind" howling. Magus is in many ways the pixely progenitor of Final Fantasy VII's Sephiroth: Goth and broody, with gorgeous flowing locks and a formidable cape game.
Like any RPG villain worth his salt, Magus has a sick-ass lair and fantastic trio of henchmen: Ozzie, Slash, and Flea. They're named after iconic rock musicians in the English localization– Ozzy Osbourne, Slash from Guns N' Roses, and Flea from The Red Hot Chili Peppers. In the Japanese version, they're named after vinegar, soy sauce, and mayonnaise, in keeping with Toriyama's noted affinity for naming characters after food. They are legitimately funny: Flea is a diva who blows kisses your way, Ozzie looks like an obese pickle and routinely blunders into his own traps.
When you finally, finally get the chance to infiltrate Magus's Castle after hearing about it for so many in-game hours, you'll be greeted by Ozzie, who mirthfully tells you that you'll have to defeat 100 enemies. In reality, it doesn't take that long, and it's not even particularly difficult. But as a kid playing a hand-me-down copy, I was completely gobsmacked. 100 enemies?! In a row?
What is "particularly difficult" is fighting Magus himself. During your first showdown with him, he has stronger attacks than anything you've encountered so far, and can easily wipe the floor with your party even after you've bulldozed dozens of his most expendable meat shields. You'll learn more about Magus's backstory once you get to the Antiquity period, AKA 12,000 BC, but you will still hate his miserable guts. You will meet the child version of Magus, who's called Janus, and realize he's a creepy little shit too, even if his sister Schala seems pretty nice.
After dozens of hours spent despising this dude and his cool hair, just as you're on the brink of the endgame, you encounter Magus alone. He's on a cliff, gazing out to sea at a ruined world, the epitome of windswept and interesting. You brace for a fight. If you decline, whether to see what happens or because you haven't saved recently, something pretty amazing happens.
He becomes one of the good guys. He's a playable character for the rest of the game. This plot twist is an open secret now, sure. But if you don't know it's coming, it rocks your socks off. Sure, his arsenal of attacks isn't quite as destructive as when you faced him as a foe, but once he joins your squad, you'll never want him to leave. You will wince at the thought of removing him. Even his walking animation is cool, because he doesn't walk, he hovers, cape billowing with the aid of an unseen wind.
I struggle to think of any modern JRPG that's done anything close to this. Persona 5 kind of attempts this with one character, but they aren't on your side for all that long. Chrono Trigger has so many twists and memorable moments: Crono's trial, all the stuff with Lucca's mom, making poor Robo schlep away in the desert for 400 years just because you felt like doing a sidequest. But Magus's face turn might be the best one of all.
Now can we get this game on Switch, already?