As it infused a traditional RPG with cartoonish cuteness that is usually exclusive to products made by Nintendo, it is clear Camelot did not forget to back up those visual fireworks with deep strategic layers and great gameplay experiments
With so many Mario sports games under their belt, it is almost easy to forget that Camelot got their start as a division inside the walls of Sega. Likewise, given most of their output as one of Nintendo’s closest partners has involved colorful characters either smashing balls with rackets or hitting wild shots in crazy golf courses, an average fan may look at the Golden Sun property as a role-playing detour that the company is allowed to pursue once in a blue moon. However, the adventures of Isaac and his friends in the world of Weyard are not that big of an oddity; and their high quality is not a stroke of luck by a group of developers that often has its Mushroom Kingdom creations rightfully bashed by fans and critics alike due to an overall lack of content. Golden Sun is strong because it is the product of a studio that spent a huge slice of the initial decade of its life honing its skills as a maker of RPGs through numerous installments of the Shining Force franchise; and, in that process, learning what worked and what did not click via the most effective method for both personal and professional growth: trial and error.
That is why Golden Sun feels so mature and complete. It did not come out of nowhere; it is not a miraculous magic trick. And Camelot spends the twenty hours that it takes for gamers to reach the finish line of the title’s quest proving time and time again that they have full control over the basics that make an RPG great. Sure, Golden Sun is not perfect, for it does falter at points. But it is such a tight package of irresistible charm, incredible production values, smart battle mechanics, and even a few twists that challenge the mold usually followed by games of its kind, that it is impossible not to rank it among the best Game Boy Advance efforts and the strongest showings of the genre on a Nintendo platform. A work that is so close to what one would expect of the Japanese gaming giant in terms of lightness and tone that it feels like the kind of traditional RPG Miyamoto and his creative army would come up with if they decided to tackle the style in its most orthodox format.
The world of Weyward was, once, a world of Alchemy, a kind of magic that was intimately connected to the four basic elements of nature: fire, water, earth, and air. All around the continents, people made use of this power and many civilizations flourished. Eventually, however, as humans began to be consumed by greed and hold wishes of total conquest, wars broke out. In order to bring them to a halt, a group of wise men decided to seal away the Elemental Stars, four special artifacts – each related to an element – that enabled the use of Alchemy. They were enshrined in a place called the Sol Sanctum, which in turn lied within a large mountain, Mt. Aleph. Around that location, a village started to grow and its inhabitants, who universally developed magical powers because of their proximity to the resting place of the Elemental Stars, dedicated themselves to not allowing others to disturb the sanctuary and to keep their magic a secret.
Isaac is a child from that village and, during a rainy night, he wakes up as his mother desperately tells him they should leave their home. The strength of the storm is threatening to make a huge boulder that sits atop Mt. Aleph roll down into the houses, and as the more powerful adults try to keep disaster from striking, other people are to take refugee at the main square. Isaac gets up, but as he is walking to the meeting point he overhears a conversation between two sinister figures; as it turns out, the rain and wind are not natural phenomena, but traps activated by the shrine when the two strangers tried, without success, to break into it. Three years after that day, Isaac and his friend Garet are walking to the house of an aging scholar, named Kraden, that has taken residence by the peak when, once more, the boy spots the same two mysterious folks from that terrible night and hears them say they will attempt to enter the sanctum again. He reports the matter to the old man, who decides to head to Sol Sanctum to investigate.
Needless to say, the mission goes sour, and due to a combination of cunning by the villains and innocence by the well-intentioned trio, the volcano erupts, launching thousands of minor magical stones into Weyward; while the bad guys walk away with three of the four Elemental Stars. Their desire is to activate the four elemental lighthouses with the stolen relics, therefore reawakening Alchemy. Burdened by his mistake, warned by a sacred entity of the potential danger of having the ancient locked power return, and watching as one of his best friends is taken as a hostage by the evil gang, Isaac sets out on a journey to stop them. And as he chases the villains through the entirety of two of Weyward’s continents, he will not only have to try to beat them to the lighthouses, but also deal with the many problems that villages and other places around the world have been facing ever since the volcano’s eruption caused magical stones to corrupt creatures and people alike.
With that setup, Golden Sun plays like a series of unfortunate events that are only occasionally related to the overarching plot, as Isaac is constantly being asked by people in trouble to go out of his way to solve their problems. In the end, naturally, these detours bear fruit, because they ultimately give the party powers that allow them to move forward. Nevertheless, even if the minor stories that Isaac and his peers bump into are generally interesting, it is easy to get the impression that the fact the main mission is put aside for what may sometimes be a couple of hours of gameplay causes the core script to go a bit underdeveloped. Consequently, in spite of how Golden Sun has various great characters, overall solid dialogue, and intriguing occurrences that connect to one another smartly, the pieces of its central plot are a bit raw, generating a story that does its job of hooking players in, but that is not truly remarkable; an issue that is likely accentuated by how the game ends on what is effectively a cliffhanger to its sequel.
If in writing Golden Sun could have used an extra level of polish, the same cannot be said about its visual and musical presentation. In its character models and scenarios, the game exudes a lovely cartoonish aura that is thoroughly unique, creating an alluring charm that is only held by the finest Nintendo products. It is an artistic work that is unparalleled in the Game Boy Advance, for it often seems like pixels were manually put together one by one to make sure the conceptual traces drew on paper would be perfectly translated onto the screen. Furthermore, from a technical standpoint, it is hard to think Camelot could have done better, because in light, colors, and movement the world of Weyward comes alive in a way that resembles a well-animated cartoon that conveys emotions with precision. Despite that overflowing cuteness and personality, the game never forgets its goal is to bring life to a world of medieval fantasy where tragedy, happiness, danger, darkness, good, and evil exist side by side, and – in this particular task – Golden Sun’s visual spectacle is aided by a marvelous soundtrack.
When not in towns, fields, deserts, dungeons, and other enclosed spaces where the game’s graphics shine bright, the heroes will be traveling through a very large overworld. In that case, Golden Sun pulls heavily from Chrono Trigger, in the sense that it displays major locations that can be entered in a scaled down format. Pleasantly, such a configuration is beneficial to Golden Sun not just in how it turns traveling into a relative breeze, but also because it brings a good degree of exploration into play. While it rarely leaves the party without any clues, the game is occasionally a bit open-ended regarding where one must go. At times, characters are given the general direction where their next destination is, leaving it up to them to explore the map and track down the landmark; and sometimes, especially when more than one new area can be reached, it is necessary to do some reasoning, exploring, and talking to strangers in order to figure out what must be done. It adds a somewhat uncommon dash of freedom to a genre that is often a bit stiff, and it is an approach that works wonderfully well.
On a similar note, Golden Sun also expands upon what RPGs of its kind tend to do on another front: the gameplay found in moments when characters are walking around the game’s locations. And that is because the magical abilities, called Psynergy, of the four members of the starring party are not useful only inside the battlefield: they actually play a major role in how the heroes advance in their exploration. The world of Golden Sun is filled with blocks to be moved, puddles of water that can be frozen into pillars, saplings which may be grown into climbable vines, characters whose minds are available to be read, and many other assets with which players will be able to interact via magic. Truthfully, that gameplay component does lead to a couple of minor issues; namely, the relatively long menu path it takes to activate the magical powers (at least four button presses), and the fact the controls to the skill that lets players move blocks around can be a bit picky regarding the required precision. Nonetheless, the good that it causes far outweighs these minor bad spots.
And that is because developers use that feature to create a myriad of interesting situations throughout the quest. There are a couple of dungeons that have so many puzzles they recall, to a humbler degree, the eponymous mazes of The Legend of Zelda franchise. There are some unusual gameplay scenarios, at least for an RPG, such as having to sneak into a fortress by becoming invisible. There are plenty of hidden riddles that if found and solved will open the way to valuable collectibles. And there are times when impassable obstacles indicate to players they should go to a nearby place to look for the ability that is necessary to proceed. As a consequence, although the puzzles involving magic are never astounding in their cleverness, they do succeed in adding a unique flavor to Golden Sun, one that goes a long way towards forging the adventure’s lovable identity.
Besides both its graphics and an intimate link between magic and exploration, Golden Sun is also defined by its battles. At heart, there is nothing too unique about them. After all, Isaac and his friends can, like the protagonists of any other RPG: attack with their standard weapon; employ one of their many mana-consuming magical abilities; use items; go into a damage-reducing defensive stance; and try to flee. Additionally, enemy encounters take the form of traditional turn-based combats, with a stand-by phase where all of those involved in the skirmish choose their move, and an action phase where actions are performed in an order determined by each character’s speed stat. Over those absolutely mundane basics, though, Camelot put together two elements that yield outstanding value: an eye-popping presentation and magical creatures called Djinn. The first item is a sight to behold. The mesmerizing attack effects and the constantly shifting camera perspectives of Golden Sun’s battles – allied with the gorgeous character models – transform every turn into a breathtaking action scene that flows beautifully, making it hard to find, be it on a console or handheld, an RPG with such cinematic battles.
The second feature, meanwhile, places flooring strategic layers on the table. In total, Golden Sun has twenty-eight Djinn; that is, seven belonging to each of the four basic elements. These powerful beings are mostly found around the explorable areas of Weyward, usually behind magic-related puzzles, hence giving extra incentive for exploration. And although gathering them is optional, players will want to locate and grab as many of them as possible for a trio of reasons. Firstly, because when used in battle each creature is, effectively, a magical move that either boosts one of the party’s stats or attacks enemies while having the chance to cause a status effect. Secondly, since it is possible to give up to seven Djinn to each character, doing so allows gamers to not just configure the sets of attacks all members of the party have, but also change their class and – consequently – their available Psynergy moves, lending the game gigantic room for customization and strategy-building. Finally, whenever a Djinn is called upon, it generates an orb of the element to which it belongs; and when accumulated, these can be spent to summon mighty deities that deal huge blows to foes and are especially useful against some of the quest’s hardest bosses.
As it infused a traditional RPG with a brand of cartoonish cuteness that is usually exclusive to products made within Nintendo’s own walls, it is clear Camelot did not forget to back up those fireworks in presentation with deep strategic layers and opportunities for gamers to toy around with characters and their skills. Therefore, Golden Sun is a balanced game that knows how to appeal to the two audiences it could possibly reach: those that are experts in the genre and want to experience a competent and large handheld adventure; and those that, lured in by its charm, will fall into the grasp of a compelling role-playing quest they would have probably stayed away from had it lacked the Nintendo seal. And in both cases, Golden Sun will please, because its polished mechanics, lovable characters, and gameplay experiments are successful enough that it is clear they were created by a company that had spent a good portion of the decade that preceded its release fine-tuning their skills as RPG creators.