“Time is the most valuable thing on earth,” said labor champion Samuel Gompers. “Time to think, time to act, time to extend our fraternal relations, time to become better men, time to become better women, time to become better and more independent citizens.” In the 1995 role-playing game Chrono Trigger, time is a more quantifiable commodity, and the class divide that preoccupied Gompers rears its head in surprising ways.
Applying the concept of “levels” to a nonlinear game like Chrono Trigger is difficult. Like the time traveler character in The Cave, actions undertaken in one time period have consequences—sometimes drastic ones—in other eras. The landscape of one level could become a totally different place with some tweaks to the space-time continuum. One could argue that these are, in fact, completely separate and distinct “levels” in themselves (I’m sure physicist and television personality Michio Kaku has some appropriate theory concerning parallel universes), but that doesn’t make it any easier to discuss specific chapters of the game.
Chrono Trigger centers on a red-haired mute named Crono and his odd group of friends. After discovering the secret of time travel, they inadvertently learn of their planet’s dark fate. Now it’s their job to stop it. The first half of the game sees these temporal freedom fighters trying to thwart Magus, a charismatic rebel leader who’s leading an army of monsters against humankind. Your crew believes that Magus is somehow responsible for the coming holocaust. But his motivations are murky. The clues make him out to be a silver-haired Friedrich Engels or Antoine Lasalle—a firebrand from a well-off family who fights for those disenfranchised souls below him on the social hierarchy.
To the powers that be in the Chrono Trigger world, then, Magus is an existential threat that must be first discredited and then militarily defeated. One character has a particularly vivid flashback of Magus callously murdering a gallant knight. But the flashback lacks a historical context. How else but force was Magus to dislodge the entrenched landed gentry?
Issues of class and race pervade nearly every epoch in the game (except for the bleak far future, where everyone dresses in rags and eats vermin). The seeds go all the way back to prehistoric times, where primitive humans vie with a more advanced lizard people for dominion of the planet. That the humans improbably won—with some help from Crono and his future-altering cohorts—has consequences that echo throughout Chrono Trigger’s timeline.
Rather than unite after their existential triumph, though, people find new ways to segregate and divide among themselves. Many years after humans first defeated the reptiles, an oppressive ruling class—defined by its access to an arcane and alien power—has set itself up in floating palaces floating high above the earth. The denizens of Zeal, as this hovering Gomorrah is known, literally and figuratively look down on the “Earthbound Ones.” This underclass lacks magic and lives a bare subsistence level in the frozen wastes below.
Still, when you’re launched through time and end up on its doorstep, the kingdom of Zeal is a sight to behold. (And to painstakingly remake in Minecraft.) The knowledge that slave labor built the Egyptian pyramids doesn’t diminish their awe-inspiring power, and so it is with Zeal. It makes the brick-and-mortar castle of Chrono Trigger’s “present day” look like a well-decorated outhouse. Zeal consists of four magnificent floating islands, and all under the rule of a power-mad queen. Her enemies are subjugated. There is peace.
This unchecked decadence virtually ensures its own destruction. On the Zealian island of Enhasa, for instance, many of the inhabitants drift seamlessly between dreams and wakefulness, exploring the magical limits of the unconscious world. They’ve lost touch with reality. Their city could be burning around them, and they would die in bed with smiles on their drooling faces.
Not all of Zeal’s people are willfully ignorant of the coming cataclysm. Upon first meeting Crono and his friends, the queen’s son—a sullen boy named Janus—greets them with a warning: “The black wind howls… One among you will shortly perish…” Janus is, no doubt, quite popular at Zeal Elementary. Janus’s regal mother, meanwhile, sees nothing but glory ahead. A hooded figure known as the Prophet has her ear, and she’s moving ahead with her plans to activate the Mammon Machine and achieve immortality.
The word “Mammon” is suggestive of the forces at work. Popping up throughout the New Testament, Mammon describes a demonic incarnation of gluttony and greed. The Zeal engineers might have chosen a less ominous name for their biomechanical marvel, but their expertise is in magic, not marketing. A more fitting appellation, it turns out, may be the Moloch Machine, as the queen will soon learn that this thing runs on fuel derived from the tears of children.
This is where the intricacies of time travel can really make your head spin. Crono and company, after a brief banishment from Zeal, return to put things right. The Prophet—in a move lifted from the Children Of Dune playbook—reveals himself to be Magus, who is actually the fully-grown version of the boy Janus. He’s come back in time to avert the catastrophe he knows is about to unfold. After the Mammon Machine incident occurs in the original timeline, Janus is flung forward in time, where he is raised by downtrodden monster people and later, through his awesome magical skills, comes to lead them as Magus. But all of this feeds into Janus/Magus’ effort to get back to Zeal, save his sister, and avert cataclysm by defeating the immortal outer-space lava monster from which the Mammon Machine mines magical energy. Time travel. Simple.
Magus fails. The lava space monster is still too powerful. But Magus unwittingly succeeds in pulling down the barrier between powerful and impotent, rich and poor. The battle causes Zeal to go crashing into the ocean. Its dandified survivors go to the Earthbound Ones for help and shelter, and balance is restored, for the time being.