When I first got my Game Boy Advance in 2010, Golden Sun (2001) was one of my first games. My younger brother told me it was a GBA-exclusive RPG that I would really enjoy.
I fired it up, felt like the intro was a little slow, got distracted, and—as is the case with many RPGs—lost steam and didn’t come back to it for years. I returned to Golden Sun a few months ago and, while I’m happy that I saw the game through, the problems that turned me off to it the first time around remained sticking points throughout my 30+ hour playthrough. Golden Sun is a solid RPG but requires patience…not least because its story ends with an annoying “To Be Continued” that leaves everything to be resolved in the sequel, Golden Sun: The Lost Age (2002). Golden Sun is a game that feels at home on the GBA alongside (updated SNES) titles like Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy VI and, especially, Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire. Like the Pokémon games, Golden Sun is an E-rated game featuring a crew of plucky adolescents collecting cute little monsters that help them fight.
RPG gamers will be able to jump right into Golden Sun but will still find enough innovation in its combat and Pokémon, I mean djinn, collecting to make this title worth a look. While there are a lot of random battles, they are at least well-paced so that the player who goes through the main story peeking into the occasional corner won’t have to take several hours to go grind for its own sake in order to progress (and the player who explores or uses a walkthrough to find all the optional djinn will be very comfortably positioned to beat the game). I went for djinn completion (there are 28 total), so the fights were rarely a challenge for me with the partial exceptions of the optional boss Deadbeard and the game’s final fight (and even then, having all the djinn meant I didn’t even have to replay either fight to beat them). Djinn assignments function as a sort of class system, changing the spells (psynergy) your characters can use and affecting their core stats and HP, too. To be honest, I didn’t mess with the class combinations much, instead opting to have each of my characters stick with their intrinsic elemental specialty, which worked fine, so I didn’t see a whole of incentive to experimentation and the combat difficulty didn’t really force me in that direction.
Djinn-based stat bonuses lead to an interesting balancing act, though where if you keep the djinn ready to fight, they up your stats, but if you use them, you lose those bonuses…but every used djinn can add its power to a very powerful summon (you can stack up to four djinn of the same elemental class to get increasingly powerful summons). So fights for me were often about choosing between powerful characters and powerful summons. This made the combat relatively fun in longer fights, but fighting regular dungeon denizens was still usually a slog.
One feature that annoyed me was that you don’t get any sort of Revive ability until several hours (10?) into the game, meaning that if a character goes down in an early dungeon and you don’t have a precious (and expensive) Water of Life item, you have to retreat to the dungeon mouth, revive them in a town, and start all over, or else try to push through the dungeon without them. This latter option is more interesting but, frustratingly, least practical during this stage in the game when you don’t even have a full party yet and so can least afford to have a character down.
One last element of gameplay I want to point out, though, is the dungeon puzzles, which were a pleasant surprise. The puzzles in Golden Sun come in a handful of types which were varied enough to keep them fresh throughout my playthrough—mostly because of the wise design decision to not have random encounters occur on most puzzle screens. If I’d have had to fight random battles every time I screwed up a puzzle, I probably would have thrown my GBA out the window, but as it was, puzzles provided a fun change of pace, and I enjoyed solving the ‘bonus’ puzzles to get to tantalizing chests in view but out of reach. As far as integration of puzzles into RPGs go, this game really does it well.
The rest of the gameplay is standard RPG fare. There’s a world map and towns full of NPCs. Often you know more or less where to go and sometimes the game does a poor job explaining and you have to wander or check a walkthrough. There’s a bit of back-and-forth among a few regions in the mid-game but mostly you’re progressing into new and somewhat different areas (though the towns all feel pretty similar). A couple desert areas introduce new environmental challenges, which are fun, but otherwise the overland areas are all pretty interchangeable. Dungeons are a bit better with variety, though there are quite a few that aren’t particularly customized, too. All in all, Golden Sun’s gameplay is a decent innovation on RPG traditions while falling prey a bit to the genre’s tendency to force grinding through random battles. (Eventually you can get items that let you either avoid or increase random battles, but this happens very late in the game, and the game would punish you for not continuing to level up, so I never found either useful.) Each character only has 15 inventory slots (including for their equipped items), which is again probably about memory limitations, but is pretty frustrating in practices, ESPECIALLY because the game saddles you with at least 2-3 items (Shaman rod and Mars stone come to mind) that you can neither use nor drop, and that apparently just get traded off as plot points…in the sequel. Note to developers: DO NOT MAKE ME CARRY A BUNCH OF CRAP IN MY SMALL INVENTORY THAT I CAN’T USE SO IT CAN APPEAR IN A CUTSCENE IN YOUR NEXT. GAME.
Graphics and Audio:
Golden Sun offers no surprises here. Graphics are pretty well done within the limitations of the GBA system, and they retain that retro charm, so I was pretty happy with how the game looked. I wished the icons for cities on the world map weren’t almost always the exact same one. Seeing the exact same city icon over and over across two continents detracts from the intended impression that I am encountering many different cultures with unique histories and traditions. Character and enemy sprites were pretty good, though, and summon graphics were fun. The djinn sprites and fight graphics leave something to be desired, though. This is really where the Pokémon comparison breaks down—whereas Pokémon gives its little monsters a bit of character, the djinn are practically interchangeable. You get the same menu sprite for each djinn of the same elemental class, and you barely see them in battle, so you never get a sense that one earth djinn is different than the next. This seems like a pretty obvious missed opportunity. It may be that the game had maxed out its capabilities elsewhere, however—that’s the reason they took what was originally supposed to be one game and split it into two, after all (more on this below).
The music in Golden Sun was pretty forgettable, in my opinion. When I’d take the game with me on public transit, I felt no qualms about just turning the volume down instead of putting headphones in as I prefer to do with Final Fantasy titles, for instance. The mixing seems fine for the GBA’s capabilities, I’m just not crazy about the music itself. It wasn’t particularly annoying, though, and it gets at that fantasy-RPG epic feel, so on the all it’s a neutral or a slight plus.
I feel very ambivalent about Golden Sun’s story, a topic I address in more depth in a separate article. At first, the ‘kiddie’ feel to it was a bit off-putting to me as an adult doing a retro first playthrough. But after awhile, that started to feel a bit charming and I didn’t mind it as much. However. The story of Golden Sun is only half a story. Maybe this was obvious to everyone purchasing it new in 2001, but it was a surprise to me in 2014-15. This isn’t intrinsically bad, but as my other article explains, I think Golden Sun does it pretty poorly, abandoning the first game’s quest and protagonists…and thus making your investment in them a sunk cost. Again, not having played the second game yet, maybe the first game’s quest isn’t as wasted as it seems when the credits roll (and during the important post-credits scene that you should stick around for), but why leave players feeling like their quest was futile for a year and make them buy another game to see if that’s true?? Especially since it seems it IS true, and it takes another protagonist to do the right thing—these guys are only secondary players in the ‘real quest’ of the sequel? I’ve rarely felt so disappointed and cheated after finishing an RPG. Maybe Borderlands, but that’s barely an RPG, so it’s not the same kind of disappointment.
Most of the standard RPG story conventions are here, however, and they work fine. You can chat with NPCs, and you have a cool Mind Read ability which allows you to hear things they don’t intend to tell you—this is the most successful innovation in Golden Sun’s storytelling. The story itself, once you get past the between-games twist and into ‘what’s really happening’ in the sequel, is pretty standard. They just send you off on another, wrong quest in the whole first game. Which sucks.
Conclusion: Would I recommend playing Golden Sun?:
Golden Sun is a game I can’t recommend to everyone. There’s a lot of good to it—the puzzles and the Mind Read storytelling are great, the combat is good and innovative enough, and the adolescent protagonists are kind of charming, if a bit flat. But in the end, the poor ending may be a dealbreaker for gamers who care about an RPG’s story. I’d recommend Golden Sun to gamers who want to know the RPG genre well—there’s some good and some bad here that’s unique. But more casual RPG players may be better off going elsewhere, unless you’re sure you want to invest in both Golden Sun games and don’t mind the characters and quest from the first being largely abandoned in the second. Casual players might be best advised to just try the sequel, Golden Sun: The Lost Age, and skip this title. On the other hand, it’s a very kid-friendly title, so it might not be a bad intro title for a young RPG gamer…unless they’re likely to be frustrated by the clunky ending!
I wouldn’t recommend a replay unless you’re a diehard fan. If you’ve played this already and basically liked it, I’d suggest the sequel (or the third title on DS).
Game Review Score: 7 out of 10.
Golden Sun is good at a lot of things, but falls well short of greatness.