The characters in Chrono Trigger are pretty one dimensional. They all have a defining character trait, and they play that trait to the hilt from introduction to end credits. Lucca’s the nerdy, brainy one. Marle’s the empathetic one who makes sometimes rash decisions. Frog’s the knight errant, Robo’s the stoic robot who’s learning about humanity from real, live humans, Ayla’s the purehearted cavewoman who remains loyal to her friends through everything, and Magus is the cool jerk who never really learns from his mistakes because when you can open up black holes to an eternal void you don’t need to be bothered with learning to work well with others.
The supporting characters are pretty much in the same boat. Any NPC you meet will have a very simple personality that reflects their defined role in the larger narrative. Lucca’s father is a crazy inventor who gives you cool stuff when you go see him. Magus’s sister Schala is the tragic heroine of the game’s final third who doesn’t get the same happy-ending-if-you-want-it treatment that Chrono does. Azala, the leader of the Reptites in prehistory, is a zealot who’s determined to win the war of dominance with the emerging human race.
This kind of characterization is perfectly okay in a game that was working within the pretty strict limits of the day’s technology that precluded writing a more developed, nuanced script. It also provides an interesting testing ground for looking at how the writers treat gender (you all knew I was going to write about this eventually; don’t act surprised).
One thing I love about the setup for Chrono Trigger is that none of the female leads fit into the typical awful “girly girl” trope (I should point out that my issue with this trope isn’t in its inherent femininity, but it’s absurdly high correlation with a character lacking agency within a story’s larger narrative). Marle comes the closest with her princess background, but even she prefers doing things over being a shrinking violet (when the party learns about the Day of Lavos in the future, it’s Marle who first comes to the conclusion that they have to do something about it). Our other two heroines, Lucca and Ayla, don’t get anywhere near the trope, as Lucca’s the team brain (she learns how to repair a robot based on technology from 1400 years in the future in a few days!) and Ayla’s the team muscle (she doesn’t know how to use magic, but she hits everything super hard with her fists because weapons are for civilized people… or something). Back when I was a kid, this was probably the first game I ever played where I discovered that I really wanted to use the girl characters, because they were just as awesome as the boy characters (protip: Ayla makes a great replacement for Chrono as your bruiser while Marle and Lucca can rain down absurd apocalyptic destruction with their magic; the only drawback is having no light element attacks for those enemies who aren’t weak against anything else).
Of course, all the really interesting bits come from the portrayal of NPCs. Chrono Trigger did some very unusual things for its time. There’s the transvestite Flea, who’s notable simply because he’s a trans character in a game from the mid-’90s that didn’t get rewritten during localization (although his gender identity is used as a joke in the script, it’s a scenario that is surprising when compared with the erasure of the trans character Poison from the western localization of Capcom’s beat ’em up series Final Fight from the same era). Flea proudly identifies as male, and flaunts the fact that others read his gender as female. Aside from the unfortunate implications that come from Flea being a campy villain, his inclusion strikes me as rather progressive for its time.
Another surprisingly complex NPC comes in the form of Azala, Ayla’s nemesis in the distant past. What I find most interesting about Azala is that I never knew she was supposed to be female until I played the DS port of Chrono Trigger a few years ago (that version features an updated translation that takes advantage of better data management to flesh out the characters’ dialogue so it’s not so stilted as in the original). It’s a simple throwaway line from one of Azala’s minions, but the revelation that she’s female forced me to reexamine my assumptions about gender and positions of power (I’ve done that a lot in the intervening years, and I still find myself getting tripped up by my own prejudices sometimes). I had always operated under the assumption that Azala was male because she was the Reptites’ leader, because male is our cultural default for characters that lack apparent secondary sex characteristics. Learning that Azala’s female was a pretty big deal for me.
Things are not all great, though. Chrono Trigger‘s most problematic character is probably Schala, the princess who has tragic ending written all over her from her very first scene. She’s stuck in a horrible situation where she has to please her mother, who’s been brainwashed by extensive exposure to Lavos, while also wanting to help Chrono and company stop the obviously imminent threat to the kingdom of Zeal’s well-being. Nothing goes right for her, and she ends up pulling double duty as both a damsel and shallow character motivation for Magus, who does all the evil stuff he does just because he wants to find and save his sister (bonus points for the new ending the DS port sports where you can learn that Schala not only doesn’t die after Lavos does its apocalyptic dress rehearsal in 12000 B.C., but she ends up being merged with it to create the thing that’s the big bad for the sequel, Chrono Cross). She’s a sympathetic character, but the story doesn’t allow her to do anything for herself, and just wallows in the how sad that is for her. Considering that she’s probably the most prominent character in the series (unlike virtually all the other characters from Chrono Trigger who get cameos or shoutouts in the sequel at best, the big mystery of Chrono Cross revolves around Schala’s fate), it’s pretty unfortunate that she also represents the most problematic depiction of a woman within the game.
Besides the specific problems, you do have a few of the other general complaints that pop up in depictions of women in fiction. Ayla, while a great character, is designed to look like a supermodel in a fur bikini rather than someone who should be physically imposing, and Marle does get struck with the damsel hammer in the game’s first arc (it’s at least a somewhat interesting take, since no one actually kidnapped her, but the same can’t be said for her ancestor Leene, who really is kidnapped and in need of rescue). Still, when everything’s totaled up, I find that Chrono Trigger does a lot of things very well in its depiction of women.