Review by darthjulian
"The first RPG for Game Boy Advance and possibly still the best the console has to offer"
The key to success for a console in Japan definitely is the RPG genre. Depending on how many and especially WHAT games are available, this genre alone can make any console crush its opponents or fall into obscurity itself. Nintendo should have known best when they released the Nintendo 64. After all, the Super Nintendo had become some sort of a holy grail for RPG fans, providing us gamers with classics such as "Chrono Trigger", "Final Fantasy VI", "Tales of Phantasia" or "Star Ocean". However, the Nintendo 64 could be considered to be the exact opposite of the N64 when it comes to Japanese RPGs, and part of the reason for this surely is the infamous quarrel between Squaresoft and Nintendo due to the use of cartridges as the medium for Nintendo 64, after which Square switched to Sony and helped the PlayStation to gather the no. 1 spot in Japan thanks to the release of "Final Fantasy VII", while Nintendo had to settle for the second place due to the shocking lack of any interesting role playing games whatsoever (apart from Nintendo´s unique "Paper Mario"), and the reason for this was quite obvious: Squaresoft was right about Nintendo´s cartridge medium lacking the space for an appropriate presentation of RPGs they wanted to create as well as the sheer size games of this genre usually have. With Nintendo´s next console, the successor to the ever-popular Game Boy, the Game Boy Advance, the company knew what to improve in order to be more successful this time around, and Nintendo´s first asset was an RPG called "Golden Sun", developed by Camelot, famous for their work on the "Shining Force" franchise and the several Mario sports games such as "Mario Golf" and "Mario Tennis". And even though this game just represented the beginning of the RPG era on the Game Boy Advance, "Golden Sun" alone already was able to make up for the horrible RPG situation on the Nintendo 64.
The story of "Golden Sun" takes place in the fantasy world of Weyard. Centuries ago, an elemental force called Alchemy provided entire civilizations with unimaginable powers, like the power to cheat death, to turn items into gold or of course as a means of attacking opponents. But of course, as in so many other cases, some people are overcome by greed in view of this power, which lead to destructive struggles between different tribes and forces. Eventually, the so called Sages decided to rid the world of this threat and sealed away Alchemy seemingly forever in the Stone of Sages inside Mt. Aleph, with the four elemental lighthouses and crystals being a complex system of locking the Alchemy for good. Ages later, a town called Vale has developed at the foot of Mt. Aleph, with its inhabitants being the guardians of the Sol Sanctum inside Mt. Aleph, the place where the key to the solution of the secrets surrounding Alchemy lies - the elemental stars. However, one day, two mysterious figures, Saturos and Menardi, arrive in Vale in order to steal the elemental stars that are hidden inside the Sol Sanctum, but in doing so, they triggered a trap hidden within the sanctum, causing several large and heavy boulders to dislodge from Mt. Aleph and to fall onto the village beneath, killing some of the inhabitants in the process. Amidst all this, two young local boys named Isaac and Garet witness a conversation between Saturos and Menardi, finding out that they are behind all this, but the two fiends notice the boys, and after a short fight, they leave the two heavily injured. We then also witness the death of Isaac´s father, as well as the tragedy surrounding the family of Jenna, Isaac´s and Garet´s best friend, who seemingly loses her brother Felix and her parents due to the boulder disaster. Three years later, our three friends help a scholar named Kraden to travel into the Sol Sanctum in order to do some research, but they are being faced with some unpleasant surprises there...and that´s where your adventure gets going. The story itself is pretty interesting, featuring a rather complex background story revolving around the history of the "Golden Sun" world, a fact that actually helps you to get more interested in the plot. The characters, while not being overly intriguing, are at least likable, and some of them even manage to be more than mere stereotypes. It is also necessary to mention the fact that Isaac, the main character of the game, does not speak a single word in this game, much like Ryu in Breath of Fire or Crono in Chrono Trigger, for example, but he somehow still remains a rather good character. The only aspect I didn´t like about the story were the pointless yes/no answers you sometimes have to give to your comrades, but fortunately, it does not harm the flow of the game. Overall, I found myself being entertained by the story in "Golden Sun", and the cliffhanger ending made me long for "Golden Sun: The Lost Age" back then even more.
Camelot decided to take quite an interesting route with "Golden Sun" in terms of gameplay, mixing classic RPG elements with some new and interesting concepts that have been implemented into the game perfectly. In general, the game follows the same formula as nearly every other RPG, which means that you´ll have to travel from town to town over the world map, help the villagers to solve a certain problem, visit a dungeon or cave from time to time, battle your way through lots of random encounters, and of course to follow the plot of the game to unfold. What makes this tried and true concept really interesting here is the use of the so called Psynergy. Psynergy practically serves as magic in "Golden Sun", but unlike in other RPGs, the use of Psynergy is not reduced to the battles alone. Instead, you can use Psynergy in towns and dungeons as well in order to solve puzzles and for various other means. And that´s what makes dungeon exploration in "Golden Sun" a lot of fun instead of a chore, as it can be seen in certain other RPGs. Most of the puzzles are extremely clever and require the gamer to really think about a solution - gone are the days of pushing boxes or finding keys only. It´s really the way you have to use the various types of Psynergy that makes the puzzles so great, for example by using a wind-spell in order in order to remove brushwood from a wall in order to reveal a secret passage, and there´s indeed a lot to discover in the various locations of the game. But as I said, you do not just use Psynergy in battle and in dungeons, as you sometimes also have to use this ability in towns in order to proceed - in some rather unique and interesting ways, with a good example being a spell that allows you to read the minds of other people, an ability you already need early in the game in order to find a thief. In general, Psynergy is divided into four elements: Venus (allowing you to manipulate the element of earth as well as plants), Mars (fire and heat spells), Mercury (water and ice spells) and Jupiter (wind and electricity spells), and of course, each of the four main characters represents a user of each type of Psynergy, and you can learn more and more different Psynergy spells throughout the game by acquiring certain special items or simply be levelling up. Another equally important new aspect of "Golden Sun" is the Djinn system. Djinn are magical creatures that can be found throughout the entire game, be it in dungeons, towns or even on the world map, and sometimes you even have to fight a Djinn so he joins you on your quest, with Djinn belonging to one of the four elements. Their purpose in this game is quite varied: for one, equipping a Djinn to a certain character can enhance some of his or her statistics such as attack, defence or speed, depending on what class a character belongs to. Each class provides a character with certain advantages and disadvantages concerning his or her statistics, and it also depends on what class a character belongs to what Psynergy spells he can use or not. You can change a character´s class by equipping Djinn of different types, and getting into a higher character class is the key to success in battle. The Djinn also contribute to the use of summon spells by setting them on standby in the menu or in battle, and depending on how many Djinn you set on standby, you are able to summon some powerful elemental creatures, much like the summon spells in the Final Fantasy series. The more Djinn you set on standby, the more powerful the creatures you can summon actually are, and sometimes, it is wise to set the Djinn on standby even before the battle, so you can summon a powerful spirit right at the beginning of a battle, either in order to enhance your own stats, provide your characters with a protective spell or to simply start a devastating attack on your foes. However, setting a Djinn on standby also has its disadvantages, since some of your stats will decrease as long as the Djinn remains in standby mode or when he is recovering after a summon attack. And now for the battles. As in a majority of modern RPGs, they play a major role in "Golden Sun" too, and unfortunately, you once again have to deal with random encounters, even though they´re not as frequent as in, say, "Breath of Fire". The layout of the battles mainly is a reuse of well known concepts based on the turn based combat system. As always, you have to choose the actions for your characters before each round, with your enemies being able to attack you during each turn as well, but that´s quite similar to other RPGs. The commands you can choose from are pretty much familiar as well, providing you with the "attack", "defense", "item" or "guard" commands, as well as the "Psynergy" and "Summon" commands. What makes the battles exciting is their considerably high pace as well as their presentation, but more on that later. Overall, "Golden Sun" offers nearly perfect gameplay for an RPG, and to me, it did not get boring for even a second with so many things to discover and explore, and with an ability system as innovative as the use of Djinn.
When it comes to the visuals in "Golden Sun", there´s only one word for me to describe them properly: awesome. Simply awesome. The performance Camelot managed to get out of the Game Boy Advance hardware even in this early stage of the console´s life cycle is beyond remarkable - it´s an achievement nearly every other developer should look on and turn their heads in shame at what they got out of the hardware. But let´s start with the ingame graphics. They resemble the typical style of late 16-Bit RPGs, showing the characters and locations from the familiar top-down view. Another similarity to other 16-Bit RPG titles would be the chibi-look of the characters, which works perfectly here in this game. But despite the similarities with 16-Bit RPGs like "Tales of Phantasia" or "Star Ocean" in this regard, "Golden Sun" might very well be one of the best looking 2D RPGs ever, perhaps even beating these Super Nintendo classics. The amount of detail you can see in the design of each and every character and location is remarkable, with a good example being the insides of a simple house, for example, being full of small but nice graphical details that make the game world seem more complex. On another note, the graphics are also extremely colorful and vibrant, underlining the anime influenced style of the game and serving for a gorgeous presentation of each location. And the characters themselves are not just some flat sprites, but vivid seeming figures even some PlayStation RPGs were unable to show. But the aspect that really steals the show in "Golden Sun" are the terrific battle sequences. They are being presented from a 3D-like view, resembling the ones seen in the PSX Final Fantasy games (even though not as complex as in those games), and although they appear slightly pixilated at times, they feature amazing spell and attack effects one would have not expected to see that early on the Game Boy Advance, and for their time, they were easily the best ever seen ony any handheld console in terms of visuals. Especially the summon spells are eye-poppingly spectacular, and they´re practically the handheld equivalent to Squaresoft´s fantabulous battle scenes on home consoles. I can only take a bow and applaud Camelot for the terrific job they did in the graphical department in this game.
The music, much like the graphics, are yet another testament to the abilities of the developers at Camelot, showing yet again what can be done even with the weak sound chip of the GBA if you put some effort into it. The compositions have been created by none other than Motoi Sakuraba himself, and as in most of his other games, they are absolutely terrific and perfectly fitting for the setting of the game and for each and every situation as well. The battle themes for example are fast paced and dynamic, and I especially loved the "Battle with Saturos" theme, being one of my favorite pieces by Sakuraba-san. The audio quality of the pieces of music is truly outstanding and almost too good for a Game Boy Advance game, and if you use headphones, you might feel like you´re listening to a Super Nintendo soundtrack - it´s that great. The sound effects are very nicely done, too, having a somewhat cute approach, with even the text boxes popping up having their own sound effect (kinda weird, but it does not really annoy), with the text boxes for female characters "sounding" softer, for example. All in all, the soundtrack can be called a true masterpiece, and even years after its initial release, it remains possibly the best you can hear on the console.
I guess I don´t even need to recommend this game anymore, since every RPG fan with a Game Boy Advance should already have this game in his or her collection. It´s by far the best GBA RPG in terms of presentation, rivaling a majority of PSOne RPGs, and it´s still one of the most enjoyable RPG experiences in general. Only its successor "Golden Sun - The Lost Age" and "Tales of Phantasia" can rival the brilliance of this title as a classic RPG for GBA (and perhaps the upcoming port of "Final Fantasy VI" as well). It´s an incredible achievement for a handheld game that definitely is one of the best games on the GBA in general - perhaps even THE best.
Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 12/18/06
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