The Good, Bad & Ugly in this Ultimate Golden Sun Review

When I first got my Nintendo Game Boy Advance, Golden Sun was one of my very first GBA games I played on the system. 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

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

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 Golden Sun Reviewalongside (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.

The Gameplay: 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

dungeon puzzles golden sunWas 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

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 IV and other 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.

The Story: I feel very ambivalent about Golden Sun’s story

A topic I address in more depth below. 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.

This isn’t intrinsically bad, but, 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.

Is The Storytelling in Golden Sun, A Waste of Time?

My above points briefly touches on the game’s major storytelling blunder alongside consideration of other elements of the game, many of which are quite well done. Here, though, I want to spend more time analyzing what went so terribly wrong with Golden Sun’s storytelling, especially the ending.

I also discuss other minor storytelling failures and, finally, Mind Read, the storytelling innovation that is the silver lining in Golden Sun’s cloudy story.

Some Failures: Toward the endgame of Golden Sun

I started to realize the game couldn’t possibly have time to wrap up everything it had been setting up. This is indeed the case. The game establishes early on that you need to deal with four elemental lighthouses, but Golden Sun only Golden Sun The Lost Age GBAsees you through two of them...the other two, and a lot of other things teased by the first game, are in Golden Sun: The Lost Age, which came out a year later in 2002 and was actually the second half of a game that simply got too big for one GBA cartridge.

Can You Split the Story?

Splitting an epic story between two titles can work fine. Lots of games tell a story across two or three different titles and do it well. Golden Sun does not do it well, at least from the perspective of someone who has only played the first game (so far).

And a player should be able to judge a game based on itself.

If you pay for a major game and sink dozens of hours into it, the story should offer some sense of closure on its own, even if it’s clear there’s more to be told.

Assassin’s Creed, Gears of War, and Mass Effect are all the beginnings of trilogies, but you could walk away from the first game satisfied you’d seen a complete sub-story anyway. Fire Emblem, Advance Wars, and Summon Knight: Swordcraft Story all have GBA sequels, but are standalone titles, too. There is very, VERY little closure at the end of the first Golden Sun.

Your party doesn’t accomplish their goal

It’s not clear that something else good has come out of what you HAVE accomplished, and your protagonists don’t reach some new insight or maturity…nothing. The game essentially ends with your crew pressing onward without you because they’re only halfway through with things and haven’t achieved anything yet. There are also plenty of mysteries and questions about NPCs and essentially none of those are answered either.

How long does it take to play Golden Sun? 

Well it has to be one of the most dissatisfying endings to a 30+ hour game I can remember.

The Sequel - Golden Sun The Lost Agae

From what I’ve read, the second game switches things up in really frustrating ways. In the sequel, you don’t keep playing as your original protagonist/party (though they do show up eventually), but rather as one of the first game’s antagonists. Which could be interesting if it wasn’t done in such a way as to suggest that everything your first party worked for in the first game wasn’t a complete waste of time! Which it turns out it was. Your first party was trying to stop bad guys from doing a good thing, as it happens.

So in the second game Golden Sun The Lost Age

Your job is actually to continue the job you were trying to stop in the first game. This COULD make for a fascinating story, but the way it’s split between the two games undermines what’s good about it. I don’t want to play a full 30-hour game only to learn at the end/in the sequel that I’ve been doing the wrong thing the whole time and switch to another character who’s doing the right thing. If you want to have Isaac (and crew) realize that things are more complicated than they thought, change their minds, and take on a different quest, that’s kind of exciting.

If you have Isaac and crew struggle for thirty hours to do the wrong thing but fail at it and then ditch them, that’s frustrating and a betrayal of however much you’ve gotten me to care for the characters. Which was kind of a low-medium amount, for me—there’s not a lot of characterization going on—but still. I’ve fought with them for dozens of hours, and now the story tells me that was futile, ill-advised, and over. This surprise reveal—awkwardly positioned between games—is Golden Sun’s most ambitious story moment, but it’s a bad failure, in my opinion.

What went Wrong with Golden Sun

Golden Sun has one other, lesser, frustrating story element, which is the yes/no choices that pop up in dialogue. Often during conversations, someone asks Isaac, the player-character, what he thinks about a plan, or ethical issue, or choice or something. You can say yes or no. But don’t worry! Your choices are completely meaningless and affect nothing.

In fact, they don’t even lead to persistent characterization for Isaac, and the rest of the conversation will proceed as if nothing has happened after a single ‘response’ dialogue box. And even these responses often undercut the illusion of choice by essentially telling you ‘…you didn’t mean that’ if you choose the wrong option.

This comes up often when you’re asked ‘Do you remember X?’ If Isaac’s supposed to remember, they’ll remind him or think he’s joking or something. Other times you’re asked ‘Is Y the truth?’ You usually know the answer, so there’s a right answer, but you don’t get particularly interesting responses either way, so these tend to be a waste of time, too. I honestly don’t know what the developers were thinking with this mechanic, because it’s the opposite of meaningful choice disguised as choice.

Golden Sun partially redeems its storytelling

With one clever innovation, however: Mind Read. Maybe 6-8 hours in, you gain the ability to read minds. You can do this with any NPC you encounter. If you read a random innkeeper’s mind, it’s probably just extra characterization, but every once in a while, you’ll stumble across a villager with a secret (usually hinted at in some way) that you can read to lead you toward a treasure (usually). This is a fun mechanic because it lets you get to know the towns and people better, and it actually provides a few side quests. Using mind read on important characters helps you learn about them, too.

There’s one section where you decide to suspend your main quest to go save this king

Even though his queen tells you she and the guard can handle it, and you don’t have time (I think you have to do this, even though supposedly it's a digression). When you get back with him, the queen yells at you for stopping your quest to save her husband.

But if you read the king’s and queen’s minds

(or talk to a couple of the villagers), you realize she’s being hard on you because it’s what a responsible ruler should do—but the greater good first—but personally she’s incredibly grateful that you saved her husband. This was my favorite use of Mind Read, but there are other variations on this that were also cool.

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!

Is Golden Sun a Good Game? 

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).

Golden Sun Review Score: 6 out of 10.

Golden Sun is good at a lot of things, but falls well short of greatness.

What do you think?

Am I being too harsh on Golden Sun’s storytelling failures? Did the abrupt shift between games work for you? Did you feel the first game DID have closure in some way I missed? Is the story perhaps more palatable if you played it as a kid?

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Comments 2

Guest
Guest - Mattics on Wednesday, 19 October 2022 10:40

Man I can't believe golden sun just got compared to pokemon, and the commentary on story - the best game is lost age for sure, but its one of the few very good games out there with a great storyline that requires two games. Maybe because I played it at the time it was made and newly released but Golden Sun was one of my all-time favorites growing up in which I replayed many times. You sunk a story into those characters and its everything in the next game as well, you just play as felix- which also took me by surprise when I first played the 2nd game as well. But it was SO good.

Man I can't believe golden sun just got compared to pokemon, and the commentary on story - the best game is lost age for sure, but its one of the few very good games out there with a great storyline that requires two games. Maybe because I played it at the time it was made and newly released but Golden Sun was one of my all-time favorites growing up in which I replayed many times. You sunk a story into those characters and its everything in the next game as well, you just play as felix- which also took me by surprise when I first played the 2nd game as well. But it was SO good.
Guest
Guest - matticus on Wednesday, 19 October 2022 10:43

I also want to add that the combat system is great, each djin unlocks different powers and classes by mixing and matching who carries the djin spirits, you can get a totally different fight experiance from switching it up and its super cool. It its interesting that there are hiddin djin around the world map and in towns ect, and its super fun trying to locate them all- in lost age 2 you can collect them all and unlock a really cool bonus area and cool summons. Id reccomend it, cool to see reviews on GBA games none the less!

I also want to add that the combat system is great, each djin unlocks different powers and classes by mixing and matching who carries the djin spirits, you can get a totally different fight experiance from switching it up and its super cool. It its interesting that there are hiddin djin around the world map and in towns ect, and its super fun trying to locate them all- in lost age 2 you can collect them all and unlock a really cool bonus area and cool summons. Id reccomend it, cool to see reviews on GBA games none the less!
Guest
Saturday, 04 February 2023