Back in December of 2001, my family was getting ready to begin our Christmas vacation to Florida. Before we left, I asked my father if we could go to Best Buy so I could use the last of my October birthday money to purchase a game I’d be able to play when we were on the plane. He graciously agreed.
When we got to the store, I headed right to the Game Boy Advance aisle. I knew exactly what game I wanted: a colorful looking Japanese role-playing game that had just come out the previous month. The game? Golden Sun.
The game had initially caught my eye with its gorgeous, faux-3D graphics and vivid color palette. What I didn’t realize though was that what should’ve snagged my interest was the game’s pedigree.
Golden Sun comes to us from Camelot Software Planning, a partner of Nintendo known for its Mario Tennis and Mario Golf titles. This wasn’t always the case though. Camelot was originally known as Sega CD4 (standing for Consumer Development Studio #4), a part of Sega. Before their first release, they changed names to Sonic! Software Planning.
That first title would be Shining in the Darkness, a dungeon crawler for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive that would kick off the Shining series of games, all made by Camelot before they jumped ship to Nintendo after they finished up Shining Force III for the Sega Saturn.
You can easily see the Shining influences in the Golden Sun series. Text boxes, fonts, and battle perspectives all make the jump over, but the newer franchise eschews the Shining series’ Fire Emblem-esque tactical combat for something more in the traditional RPG realm.
“Traditional” is an apt term, as it can be used to describe most aspects of Golden Sun. You’ll get four, fantasy-themed protagonists with spiky hair and a “we can do it if we all band together” philosophy, pretty run-of-the-mill turn-based combat and a save system that takes a page straight out of the Dragon Quest book.
But in addition to these staunchly traditional elements, Golden Sun also brings with it two big coups: Creative and intelligent puzzle design, and a commitment to style and flair.
Truly clever puzzles aren’t usually something you usually find in JRPGs, but in Golden Sun, there are all manner of traversal puzzles that will test your wits in various ways. The closest analog I can come up with it something akin to Pokemon’s Strength Boulder puzzles, except much more complex and rewarding.
But my favorite aspect of the game (and the series for that matter), by far, is the cool stuff being showcased at all times, with no drawbacks whatsoever. If you play games like me, you’ll find yourself constantly hoarding resources for the right moment (which usually never comes). Often, I will save the TMs in Pokemon waiting for the best creature to give it to. In Fire Emblem: Awakening, I am yet to use a weapon with greater than a “B” proficiency (despite crossing the 200-hour mark this last week). In Final Fantasy games, I’ll grind until I can beat things with vanilla attacks because I don’t want to waste mana for the boss. It’s a nasty habit I have, and one that robs me of possible enjoyment from flashy sequences. (Somebody needs to play Hyperdimension Neptunia — Pete)
But Golden Sun does everything it can to subvert that way of thinking. You’ll often find specially named weapons that will sometimes “let out a howl” and instead of using a normal attack in battle, will bring forth a free summon that does an area-of-effect attack, or imbues status effects to their victims. Each of these special abilities has its own, unique animation and costs nothing to activate: it’s just a happy, little bonus.
And while there is a conventional magic/mana system in place, Golden Sun finds a way to subvert that too with the Djinn system.
The Djinni are small creatures representing one of the four elements (earth/Venus, water/Mercury, fire/Mars and wind/Jupiter. Catching these creatures will add them to one of your characters where they will enhance that character’s stats. In battle, each Djinn also has a special move that can be used. These moves vary from Djinn to Djinn, but include stat buffs, healing, negative status effects for enemies and attacks that can hit one or multiple foes.
After pulling off these special moves, the Djinn will be set to standby mode. In this mode, they offer no stat bonuses to the characters on which they’re equipped, but they may be used for the game’s summons, which cause all sorts of giant, mythological-based carnage. And none of these Djinni moves or summons costs you any magic energy so you can still pull off you own magical attacks on another turn. This turns combat against even the most boring of enemies into a battle with the potential for something awesome.
Fire Emblem: Awakening has a somewhat similar system, with powerful skills you can equip that will activate on correct dice rolls, but even it fails to compare to the visual feast you’ll get from Golden Sun.
I suppose other than a look into a couple of the interesting systems available in Golden Sun, I haven’t really told you very much about the game. And you know what? I’m perfectly fine with that. I think I covered the real selling points of the series.
If you’re interested in playing the Golden Sun games, the first two are available on the Game Boy Advance. The third game in the series, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn, is for the DS. Despite all the games in the series being absolute winners, I’d suggest playing the original first, as I think it has the best story and characters of the three games (though if you want something real easy and casual, the DS iteration is the way to go).
Golden Sun, for me, is right up there with Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest in the JRPG elite. They prove that Camelot has earned its place as handheld game development royalty.
Golden Sun was originally going to be an N64 game, but when it was clear the Gamecube was going to make the N64 obsolete, Camelot shifted development to the GBA.
Golden Sun and Golden Sun: The Lost Age were also originally planned to be a single game, but due to GBA cartridge limitations, as well as the developers’ expanding ideas, the game was split into two.
Isaac, the main protagonist of the first Golden Sun, is used as an assist trophy in Super Smash Bros. Brawl. He uses the spell Move, creating a huge hand that shoves opponents off the stage.
The world of Golden Sun is actually flat. The oceans on either side of the world eventually spill over into nothingness.
The idea for the TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender was conceived in 2001 according to co-creator Bryan Konietzko. The very same year Golden Sun came out. I realize that earth, water, wind and fire mages aren’t necessarily the most original idea, but I’d be surprised if the creators hadn’t heard of Golden Sun.
The DS title, Dark Dawn, has a really innovative encyclopedia feature in which names and terminology can be selected and link to pages that give definitions and background info, cutting down on repeated lines of dialogue a bit.