Historically, hand-held consoles have held much weaker levels of processing power and technology than their home counterparts. So perhaps it’s not too surprising, then, that traditional RPGs on hand-held consoles have been mostly unimpressive in terms of their presentation and depth of gameplay. However, Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance displays hardware of a level previously unseen in a portable console, and it was only a matter of time until an RPG as impressive as those on home consoles was released for it. That RPG is Camelot’s Golden Sun.
Golden Sun revolves around the adventures of Isaac, a teenage boy living in the secluded village of Vale. The denizens of Vale hold a secret from the rest of the Golden Sun world: they are Adepts, meaning that they can use Psynergy (in other words, magic). As the game begins, Isaac is awakened by his mother Dora one night. A violent storm has befallen the general vicinity of Vale, and it has caused an avalanche on the nearby Mt. Aleph.
Emerging from his home, Isaac learns that a giant boulder from the avalanche is headed toward Vale, threatening to decimate everything in its path. A handful of Adepts are able to hold it at bay temporarily, but the rest of the village has an even bigger problem to worry about: Felix, the brother of Isaac’s childhood friend Jenna, has fallen into the turbulent river and is hanging on for dear life to a rock.
The townspeople near Felix are out of magic power from holding off the boulder, so they send Isaac and his friend Garet to find someone with some Psynergy left. Isaac and Garet comb the town furiously, but before they are able to retrieve help, they are attacked and defeated by a mysterious pair of magic-users. Immediately afterwards, the boulder breaks loose, ravaging the village, and Felix is washed away by the violent river.
Three years later, Felix has been given up for dead, and Isaac and Garet, vowing to never let a disaster like that occur again, have dedicated themselves to their Adept studies. One day, their teacher, Kraden, is approached by the magic-users who attacked Isaac and Garet during the storm 3 years before and asked to be their guide to Sol Sanctum, a ancient shrine just outside of Vale. Kraden refuses, but after they leave, he decides to take Isaac, Jenna, and Garet into Sol Sanctum to find out what the sinister couple might be looking for.
After searching thoroughly through Sol Sanctum, the intrepid quartet finally discovers the shrine’s secrets in a hidden room. However, they’re not alone; the evil magic-users, along with a mysterious masked man, suddenly emerge in the secret room, kidnapping Jenna and Kraden and stealing some key items from the room. As it turns out, the intentions that the antagonists declare threaten the viability of the world, so it’s up to Isaac and Garet to chase after them, recover Jenna and Kraden, and ultimately prevent the destruction of the planet.
In spite of a reasonably auspicious, albeit clichéd, introduction, Golden Sun’s storyline ultimately fails to impress on any level. In addition to a cliffhanger ending that leaves much of the game’s story unresolved, the event-based portions of the plot lack depth and complexity and fail to rivet the player. The characters are left almost completely undeveloped, and even their primary personality traits are poorly conveyed in most cases. The translation does a good job of steering clear of grammatical errors and typos, but the text is worded so patronizingly that I felt like I was in special ed reading through most of the conversations in the game. The storyline of the sequel Golden Sun: The Lost Age promises to enhance the plot here, but by itself, the Golden Sun storyline is by far the weakest of the RPG’s individual facets.
Fortunately, Golden Sun plays a lot better. Most of the game’s mechanics revolve around typical traditional RPG play concepts, such as randomly encountered battles and the ability to use items and magic in the turn-based combat. A plethora of well-designed puzzles is thrown into the mix as well. The execution of these elements in the game is quick, smooth, and among the best that RPGs on the GBA have to offer. Perhaps the only significant weakness with Golden Sun’s gameplay is the archaic lack of auto-targeting in combat; in Golden Sun battles, characters defend instead of attacking new enemies when their original target is defeated.
Golden Sun does bring one interesting gameplay system to the table, which involves the Djinn, elemental creatures that bestow summoning abilities to the playable characters. These Djinn, which are found scattered throughout the game, can be equipped on characters to raise their attributes and affect which spells are available to the characters. In combat, the Djinn can be released, offering a variety of beneficial effects to the party, and once released, they can be summoned for a powerful attack on the enemy. Unless they are set free outside of combat, each Djinn has to be released individually, but the more Djinn that players summon, the stronger the elemental attack that’s unleashed.
The Djinn system, unlike most innovative RPG gameplay systems, works extremely well. It’s highly useful, yet it doesn’t make the game too easy. One of the limitations that Golden Sun puts on this system is the fact that the Djinn need time to recover after they are summoned, leaving the characters in a weakened state and forcing players to be judicious in terms of when to summon them. This limitation adds strategy to the otherwise straightforward battles in the RPG.
Similar to its gameplay, Golden Sun’s control is one of its strengths. The onscreen characters move responsively and quickly in 8 directions with the aid of a dash button. The menus, reminiscent of past Camelot games, are simplistic but well organized and easy to navigate. Perhaps the only weakness in control, and it’s a relatively minor one, is the fact that the onscreen characters do tend to bounce off of objects in the backgrounds that you are trying to examine.
Visually, Golden Sun is the most impressive GBA game yet released in the US. Ranking a bit above the best graphics that the SNES had to offer and a bit below the best 2D visuals on the PlayStation, Camelot’s GBA RPG is detailed, colorful, and painstakingly animated, offering a plethora of zoom and rotation effects. The animation is at its best in combat, where the spell and summon effects, though not on the level of present-day Final Fantasy games, are among the best ever seen in a 2D game.
Golden Sun also impresses, though to a lesser extent, with its sound. The sound effects are more robust and substantial than anything I’ve ever heard on the GBA, especially during the explosions in battles. The Motoi Sakuraba-composed soundtrack isn’t particularly compelling or memorable, but it is well composed and it fits the setting and events of the game near-perfectly, if not a bit repetitively. There is no voice acting in Golden Sun.
Golden Sun, along with its sequel The Lost Age, is by far the best RPG yet released on Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance, as well as the first original hand-held RPG to match current console RPGs in overall quality. If you own a GBA, don’t miss out on this one.