Review by clarkisdark

"All that glitters is not gold"

RPGs are everywhere. What with all the RPGs available, it's amazing fans of the genre still have time to eat, drink, and be merry. RPGing on a handheld console is nothing new, but for those of you who just got a Game Boy Advance, you're probably looking for a good adventure. Camelot, the company behind the Mario Golf and Tennis games, produced one of the first GBA RPGs, Golden Sun. Does the fact that it's first make it good, though?

Golden Sun is of a quality not seen since the Super Nintendo era. Its isometric view is crisp, distinguishable, and very breathtaking on a tiny console like the Game Boy Advance. I also enjoy how the battles are visually set up. It isn't your standard "line the enemy up on the right and the heroes on the left." Nor is it a first-person view where you can't even see your characters (that one really bugs me). No, no. Instead, Golden Sun opts for an almost 3D effect. The battle camera is positioned to the left and back of your characters, so you're watching the fight like a spectator on the sideline. When attacks are made, the camera pivots slightly to allow for greater depth. The camera also rotates slightly when you are walking around the overworld. When I first saw the camera move, I thought, "Wow, is this camera going to rotate all over the place and be really cool?" No. It just likes to tease us.

This music is amazing. I find it dumbfounding that so much effort can be put into a "simple" GBA score. It isn't the best RPG music to ever grace the gaming world, but it is one of the best Game Boy Advance soundtracks. Very epic and involving in nature. My only problem with the soundtrack is how the composer, Motoi Sakuraba, insisted on using compressed, digitized choruses in some songs. On less capable systems, like the GBA, these choruses sound really bad. In most cases, they completely ruin a perfectly good melody. It's too bad there isn't an uncompressed version of this soundtrack, like Final Fantasy Tactics Advance offered. Regardless, it sounds darn good. I find the sound effects to be a sloppy job, however. They're ill-fitting and sound like they were just grabbed from a bag of used .wav files. It even makes the classic Nintendo start-up sound whenever a character gets an idea. How lame is that? To further this attempt, when the characters jump, they make an annoying boing sound. I don't know why, but it seems Nintendo thinks everybody should make a boing sound when they jump. It feels way out of place in a game like Golden Sun.

It's not unlike any other RPG. If you're not familiar with this genre, let me bring you up to speed: visit town, wander, explore dungeon, repeat. You'll travel across a rather large overworld, pursuing the antagonists of the game. Since you're a hero, you'll spend a lot of your pursuit doing quests that seem rather irrelevant. Most of these have to be done, though. There are only a few optional side quests. To complete these tasks, as well as find certain items to help you later on, you'll have to do a lot of tedious backtracking. There is no boat, airship, or warp function to make traveling any easier. Along the way, there are a lot of items and artifacts and weapons available. So many, in fact, that your characters won't be able to hold them all, forcing you into a never-ending juggle. On a similar note, unlike most RPGs I've played, I found myself working with a small budget in Golden Sun. This meant I often times had to skip out on the better equipment because I couldn't afford it. Staying at inns gets increasingly more expensive, too, but oddly, staying at an inn does not revive downed allies. To bring someone back from the dead requires rare magic/items or expensive "surgery."

What's nice about Golden Sun is that it borrows elements from the Mario RPG series. That is, you don't just wander around and fight enemies. You'll have to use your magic and wit to solve different puzzles throughout the game. Some of these are rather simple while others are quite refreshing. Unfortunately, the whole time you're doing one of these puzzles, you're still afflicted by random battles! The battle system is reminiscent to every other typical RPG battle system. Via icons, you tell your characters what to do and then everyone takes a turn hitting each other. A questionably nice inclusion are these creatures called djinn. They come in four classes (fire, water, earth, wind) and are scattered across the world. When you find them, they become "equipped" to your characters, boosting their stats and giving them access to different spells. Each djinn can be called on during battle to do something special like attempt to knock a monster's defense down or bring a fallen ally back to life. Once unleashed, the djinn enters "stand-by" mode. The more djinn in stand-by mode, the more powerful summons you can make. Clearly, these djinn become crucial to winning. However, they also become troublesome. The djinn cause your characters' stats to constantly waver, and sometimes spells you think you had are no longer available. While djinn offer a lot of customization, it comes at the price of never knowing just what your characters can do.

A feature I must make mention of is the ability to save anywhere, any time. Of course, with someone like me, this probably isn't a good thing, because I'll save my game every chance I get. (Walk up to chest. Save game. Open chest. Save game.) Anyway, it's nice because you don't have to worry about dying and starting from the save point at the beginning of the dungeon. Now-- onto the actual controls. The L and R buttons aren't even used in this game. I really like that since it allows you to hold the GBA comfortably. Everything you could possibly want to do is done with the A button. If you press it while standing out in the open, a sub-menu pops up allowing you to look through items, stats, djinn, and the likes. However, if you're standing next to an NPC and want to bring up this menu, you have to press Select, instead, which can be a little annoying. In battle, the action is continually halted by text messages which don't go away until you press A. This makes some battles feel like nothing more than an exercise in button mashing. A, A, A, A, A, A, A. I guess that's enough to hold you over until Mario Party Advance comes out.

One thing I find very aggravating about the game is how speech is handled. Characters tend to hop up and down, wiggle in place, and/or display stupid emoticons above their heads before they talk. It seems like a silly thing to complain about, but in-game, it really slows even the simplest of conversations down to the point where you don't care what's even being said. What's worse, you are constantly presented with yes/no questions. I would love for these questions to play a crucial part in the game, but no matter how you answer them, events will still pan out the same. So why did they even bother?!

A few problems really hamper the battle system, too. First, it is hard to successfully flee from a battle. If you make the attempt to run and it doesn't work, every monster on screen then takes a turn beating the tar out of you. Also, if the monster one character was supposed to attack dies before his/her attack, that character doesn't do anything that turn! It's so lame, it hurts. Battles are also frustrating in the sense that the bosses are extremely hard. I like a good challenge, but I don't like being treated unfairly. No matter how much time I spent leveling up, it never seemed to make a difference, and every major battle made me feel like I wasn't making any progress. It was usually a stroke of luck, while I'm on my last few hit points, to beat a boss.

Lasting Appeal:
Golden Sun should take anywhere from 18 to 24 hours. That's impressive for a GBA game, but because of the way the ending is set up, it leaves you feeling empty, like your time with the game had been wasted. This is due, in part, to the marketing scheme of wanting you to buy the sequel. Golden Sun has very few side quests, as noted earlier, so when you beat the game, the only thing left to do is start a new one. There's a multiplayer mode that allows you and a friend to battle each other. I haven't tried it, but I can see this becoming a disaster already. One player will totally humiliate the other and then nobody will want to play anymore. But at least the feature exists.

I was addicted to this game. I told myself I was only going to play it at certain times, but we all know how that turns out. Despite how attached I was to Golden Sun, though, I couldn't ignore its many problems. The battle system bugged me. Conversations bugged me. The djinn bugged me. The story isn't even that novel, but I kept playing anyway because it's a good enough RPG to make you want to play it. If you're a more casual gamer, then definitely go for Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, instead. If you can't get enough of that RPG lovin', go ahead and play some Golden Sun.

+ Great production value
+ Save anytime I want!
+ Definitely a good challenge
+ Djinn create more to balance
-- And more to worry about
-- Irksome battles
-- Imperfect world setup
-- Annoying speech nuances

Score: 7/10

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 09/28/04, Updated 11/07/04

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