Old-School Will Never Die
If there was one thing that had me in tears of joy and fits of happiness during the 16-bit days, it was an RPG. Sure, they may have cost anywhere between 60 and 80 dollars a pop, but they were well worth it. The experience is hard to describe, yet I'm sure anyone who has played Breath of Fire, Final Fantasy II, Lufia, Shining Force, and the like knows the feeling all too well. The sense of awe and adventure, the relation to squatty sprites, and the challenge involved in saving the world…yet again; it's enough to make any gamer have fond memories of "back in the day."
For what it's worth, Golden Sun instantly brings back all of those memories.
Making of a Legend
Let's do a bit of backtracking. Camelot is a relatively new developer within the house of Nintendo. The first games these talented folks made were sports titles- two golfing and one absurdly fun tennis game, if I'm correct. They had established themselves as being able to create remarkable sports games, even to those who abhor the genre (myself included). Needless to say they built a good reputation, but it was based on the likes of golf - and a role playing game is a far cry from hitting the skins. Likewise, how would an original handheld RPG contend with next-gen epics and portable ports of revered classics? Travel a few more paragraphs and you'll find out…
The Strong, Silent Type
Story makes up a great deal of how well an RPG will do. Even in those with the tightest, most intricate gameplay devices, if the game's plot is dull, the overall presentation falls flat. In Golden Sun, the story is interesting in concept and whimsical in execution, though downright cheesy at times. The epic starts off with Issac who, like many heroes before him, doesn't seem to talk a lot. Almost mute, our gallant lad pretty much sums up everything in a series of yes-or-no headshakes. Everything begins one dark day when the volcano near Vale becomes unstable, causing random avalanches and throwing the peaceful town into chaos, ultimately ending in the loss of some villagers and changing the town forever. Fast forward a few years and Issac has become a young man. Trained in the arts of alchemy and harnessing Psyenergy, he and his two friends, Garret and Jenna, follow their mentor Kraden into the temple near Vale. A common excursion turns into the most important day of their lives, setting up the game for an adventure that will span the entire world.
The plot is pretty standard "boy saves world" fare, but is fun enough in execution to keep you playing through. Sometimes, though, characters tend to act kind of goofy and out of character, and at other times they will repeat the same plot device over and over and over. For example:
"So we have to save the town?"
"As long as the town is safe, we can proceed."
"Then let's save the town."
"It's settled; we're going to save the town."
I don't know about anyone else, but being told once on what to do is fine enough. Yet this brings up another oddity with the story: for all the times you're told repeatedly where to go or what to do, there are just as many instances where you are given no clue as to what is supposed to be done next. I hope that this kind of imbalance will not happen in Golden Sun 2, but, fortunately, it's not bad enough to ruin Golden Sun itself.
"I Like Swords."
Another important aspect of an RPG is the battles. Have a setup that's too boring or drawn out or both, and even the best of storylines won't be enough to see you through to the end. This is an aspect where Golden Sun shines though, offering a battle system that's not overly complex and has a fast enough pace to keep even the most titanic fights down to about 20 minutes a pop. Throw in the fact that random encounters are greatly toned down in areas where it counts, and you have a battle system that isn't the least bit annoying. Basically each skirmish consists of turn-based battles where your party can attack, use items, and cast magic - standard stuff. Yet, there is one gimmick that spices things up: Djinn. These magical creatures reside all over the world of Golden Sun, and help Issac and his crew on their quest. Their function is, basically, fourfold: they help party members' stats, teach them new spells, change their classes, and they can be used for powerful summons. The fun in the Djinn comes not only from the power they possess and the difference they make in fights, but also from the difficulty in finding them. As in any other non-battle portion, you'll find that Golden Sun's challenge lies predominantly in the puzzle/dungeon aspects.
Brains Over Brawn
In every town and dungeon, there are likely to be multiple items, paths, Djinn, and treasure just lying outside of reach. At first glimpse, some places may seem inaccessible, but don't let looks fool you. Just about every area in Golden Sun is a challenge to get to in itself, asking that you tax you mind in little stints of block-pushing, switch-flipping, Psyenergy-using feats. What makes puzzles so interesting, too, is the fact that Psyenergies can be used to get to your goal. See that puddle of water? Use Frost to turn it into an ice pillar. See that shrub blocking your way? Use Tornado to blow it aside. There are plenty of instances where a lot of thinking power is involved to get past an obstacle or reach a certain point, and personally I find it to be the highlight of the game.
Bells, Whistles, and the Rest
With all of the above explained, it looks like all that's left to discuss are the superficial aspects - graphics and sound. Thankfully, neither is a slouch when it comes to flaunting the power of the GBA. Graphically, the game is a nice mix of old-school backdrops and sprites, pre-rendered elements, and new-school special effects. Main characters, enemies, and the like are done in a pre-rendered style that looks different from the hand-drawn norm of Golden Sun, but doesn't stand out enough to look awkward. Animation is decent and fluid, from your party's attacks down to the spells and summons. Speaking of which, summons tend to be the tour de force of visuals. Large sprites, transparencies, scaling, rotation, and every other trick in the GBA's book is exploited to the finest degree. Simply put, Golden Sun is by far one of the most impressive looking games yet for the handheld wonder.
Audio shares the same fate, with a nice mix of ambient, classical, and "game-y" music. I've heard complaints against the soundtrack before playing Golden Sun, but now I can't fathom why there would be any. From towns to dungeons to the world map and beyond, all of the music has a deep-rooted 16-bit feel which is totally enjoyable. The only problems are the length of each tune and the quality of sound. The GBA's speakers tend to do little justice to any of its games and this is no exception, so headphones are always a better alternative. Also, each track is quite short, which means there's quite a bit of repetition and looping. Then throw in the fact that some music is used in more than one area, and you have a recipe for redundancy and boredom. It wasn't bad enough to mute the volume entirely, but your mileage may vary. ;)
What's the Verdict?
If you have a Game Boy Advance, a penchant for RPGs, and you want to get an all-around quality package, Golden Sun is the game for you. It has a lot of elements of old, from challenge to gameplay, plus a few new aspects you would've never witnessed during the 16-bit days. As the first RPG for GBA and Camelot's first outing in the genre, I can't possibly complain.
Screens courtesy of Gamespot.com
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