In the world of cult JRPGs, perhaps one of the most vaunted names you come across is Golden Sun. This tiny franchise remains a series people remember with fondness, despite not getting a game in over a decade, and without any real sign of any future installments. I confess to having been a part of the Golden Sun faithful as a youth, but it’s been many years (about a decade, funnily enough – I’m pretty sure the last time I played a Golden Sun game was the release of the last game) since I last played the franchise, so I thought now seemed like as fine a time as any to return to Weyard and see if this cult classic still holds up.
Golden Sun (GBA)
Released Aug 2001 | Developed: Camelot | Published: Nintendo
Genre: JRPG | HLTB: 22 hours
Let’s get this out of the way first: one bugbear is that the game is actually only the first half of a story. This and the sequel, The Lost Age, is supposed to have been one whole game but the entire package was too big to fit on a single GBA cartridge, necessitating cutting the game in half and releasing the second part a year later. This means that the story has a limp end precisely because it doesn’t actually end. I think it’s been long enough that many folk can go into Golden Sun aware of this fact, but if not I do genuinely think it’s worth warning people that this is the case, and to try and get ahold of both GBA titles so you don’t miss out. Of course, back in the day we had no such luck – you can imagine my disappointment when the credits rolled and I was left thinking, “that’s it?!” – but thankfully we live in an enlightened future world where we know about Golden Sun and so any patient gamers looking back on JRPG history can be spared that crushing blow.
If you are a JRPG fan, wading back through the annals of gaming history, you’ll probably find plenty to enjoy. Golden Sun’s narrative is in almost all respects an entirely traditional experience, and sometimes that’s all you want from a JRPG. Weyard is our fantasy world of choice here, and you’ll know what to expect: we’ve got a medieval fantasy setting with any number of villages that are broadly analogous to real-world places, everyone goes around waving swords and staves, and our heroes are a bunch of magical teenagers off questing to save the world. That adherence to tradition might well be one of the reasons why Golden Sun was popular at the time, and why it retains some of that popularity: sometimes you just want the comforting hold of the familiar. Our heroes are Adepts, rare users of the magical force of Psynergy. Their quest revolves around a band of villains who are threatening to rekindle the four elemental lighthouses and in doing so seek to bring back the sealed power of Alchemy. Golden Sun is vague and wooly about its understanding of Alchemy, but given the world runs on the balancing and manipulation of the cardinal elements of fire, water, earth, and wind, it’s safe to assume that our villains want the kind of godlike power that would surely come from an absolute mastery over the fundamental forces of the world.
If there is a genuine criticism I have of Golden Sun, it’s that the character writing is largely mediocre. As much as I always want my games to be well-written, Golden Sun remains a very enjoyable game to play largely because of its dual strengths of mechanics and presentation. It’s a good thing too, as the dialogue is rather bland and tropey, and it also has a crippling addiction to overlong cutscenes which can’t help but fail at being entertaining. There’s an attempt to create a bit of suspense as our cabal of baddies kidnap our heroes’ childhood friend and their mentor, and they keep them captured through employing a lad called Felix who seemingly holds a grudge against our cast for failing to rescue him as a child, but nothing ever really comes of it. Obviously since this game is only the first half of the story no real resolution of any kind happens, but also the sense of threat and danger never truly manages to materialise, at least in part because the characters can’t convey any of it in their tepid dialogue.
No, the real reason I think anyone remembers Golden Sun is chiefly to do with the mechanics. It uses classic JRPG turn-based battles, which are notoriously hit-or-miss for people, but I personally love them. As usually is the case with turn-based fighting, I prefer the feeling of control you get over your tactics and actions, and Golden Sun’s combat isn’t too slow-paced, so battles are over quick enough, which helps them from being too onerous. One very old-fashioned aspect is that if one of your characters has targeted a creature that is dead by the time that character gets to act, they simply default to defending, which means that you need to plan your attacks a bit more carefully in order to avoid wasting a turn.
The unique selling point of Golden Sun is the djinn, elemental sprites that can be found and recruited during your adventure, in a kind of vaguely Pokemon-style monster gathering mechanic. These are definitely the things anyone really remembers about Golden Sun, and with good reason. Djinn can be set to a character, changing what class they are and what spells they can cast in combat. Although each of your 4 characters has a single base elemental alignment, you’re encouraged to mix and match djinn of different elements, and doing so can often be the only way to unlock hugely powerful classes and unique spells.
Djinn are more than just a class augmenting mechanic though; set Djinn can also be used in battle to unleash a single powerful effect, each of which is different depending on which Djinn you use; some are buffs and debuffs, whereas others can be attacks or even healing spells. Once used, Djinn are rendered inactive for a number of turns, and it also causes your stats to decrease as each character’s class reverts to its previous state, all the way down to the base class once each of a character’s Djinn have been used. This creates an exciting dynamic between knowing when you can afford the trade-off between a powerful effect and the stat drop.
Used Djinn that are recharging aren’t totally useless though, and that trade-off comes with a huge bonus that makes it worth it – summons. You gain access to different summons in Golden Sun based on how many Djinn you have recharging at any one moment. For example, having one Earth Djinn on recharge allows you to summon Venus, a weak Earth elemental attack; however, having 2, 3, or even 4 Djinn of the same element recharging gives you access to progressively more powerful summons with devastating effects. These are some of the most enduring attacks from the game as they make full use of the GBA’s graphics to create truly stunning visual effects.
The effects aren’t just restricted to the summons though as often even regular spells are accompanied by some lovely graphics, usually in some form of gratuitous particle effects, which make Golden Sun’s battles a gorgeous affair. The way this game handles critical hits is also an excuse to shower the player in flashy graphics as instead of just hitting for more damage, many weapons have an “unleash” effect where they cast a powerful attack spell rather than just smacking someone really hard. It all combines to make Golden Sun an exciting game even just in the regular random battles.
Spells in this game are called Psynergy, and many of them are not just usable in battle, but in the overworld as well. This means there are a lot of overworld and dungeon puzzles that rely on using your spells, which I love. Sure, sometimes these just boil down to using your Move spell to shift things from a distance but occasionally you need to use a few more interesting options. It’s always quite simple though; perhaps Camelot might have explored some more complex space with this, but it might also be for the best that it never asks too much of its players when solving puzzles. Not all spells are used solely for puzzles though, as some have other kinds of utility, such as Mind Read, which can be used on pretty much every being in the game, from people to animals, and even with sentient trees during one memorable section. I’m a sucker for that kind of stuff, so you bet I was hammering the Mind Read shortcut constantly.
I think it stands as a testament to how much I rather like the worldbuilding of Golden Sun that I thought it worth reading pretty much everyone’s mind just to see what else they might have to offer. Speaking of enjoyable worldbuilding, one of the other tiny details that Golden Sun is known for is the extensive amount of comments you can glean from looking at bookshelves and ovens. Each town will have volumes on all sorts of relevant stuff, and (it must be said this really is one of the tiniest, most pointless bits of detail ever in one of these JRPGs and I honestly adore it) looking at ovens tells you what the local cuisine is, with each one cooking something different. I can’t emphasise how extraneous this is, and yet how lovely it is to see the time was taken to do it.
I think going into this review I was expecting my opinion of Golden Sun to change in some way. It’s often the case; games that were incredible in our childhood sometimes do get dulled by time, and replaying them isn’t always wise as we run the risk of souring a fantastic memory with the reality that our favourite games of the past aren’t always as grand as we remember them to be. But with Golden Sun I didn’t really get that sense. I might not hold it with exactly the same boundless love as I did as a child, but in general I still found Golden Sun to be great on the replay. It might be 20 years on but a lot about Golden Sun feels timeless, and I think much of that comes down to its adoption of hyper-traditional JRPG norms, but prettied up with the gorgeous GBA presentation. It might no longer set the world alight, and perhaps I’m no longer clamouring for another sequel, but Golden Sun remains a game worth your time.
5/7 – GREAT.
Damn fine stuff, a game that doesn’t quite make the top echelon of games but sparkles regardless and holds the interest expertly. Make the time to give this a play.