"Despite the attractive environment that the game immersed me in, what dawned on me quite early on into the adventure was that Golden Sun actually seems to purposefully conspire to make the process of playing it as mundane and drawn out as possible."
Innovation may come slower to role-playing games (RPGs) than to any other genre, but it does eventually happen. Ever since the polygonal characters and rotating camera of Final Fantasy VII, this pseudo-3D perspective has steadily become the norm in virtually every genre of game coming out on the current generation of gaming consoles.
Yet among RPG fans, who are at heart a conservative bunch and resist change like the old man on the porch with a shotgun, there is a significant faction who maintains that the best RPGs were the old-style games that featured flat, 2D perspective sprite-based graphics.
Venues that provide old-school gamers with their 2D RPG fix are fast drying up as the switch to 3D is all but complete. Indeed the only alternative left for gamers, besides exploring the hacked ROMs of Japanese Super Nintendo RPGs, is to turn to the Game Boy Advance.
In terms of technological capabilities, the GBA is basically a mini-Super Nintendo anyway. It offers music and visuals of comparable quality (even better on the high-end games), a similar button layout to the Super Nintendo’s controller (minus X and Y buttons, unfortunately) and, most importantly, 2D graphics.
Imagine, therefore, the drool flowing down veteran RPGers’ chins when Golden Sun was announced for the fledgling GBA. This was not just another console port or gaiden from a well-known series, but an all-new Super Nintendo-style RPG taking place in an original universe.
The protagonist of this particular RPG is Isaac, a young boy from the village of Vale. Disaster strikes Vale in the game’s introduction in the form of a terrible storm where boulders rain down on the city from a nearby mountain. While the village elders struggle to contain the rocks using a form of magic called synergy, Isaac and his friend Jenna witness the presumed death of Jenna’s young brother Felix as he is carried off in the flood created by the torrential rain.
Three years later, the town is still rebuilding from the disaster, and Isaac is still troubled by the events of that fateful day. He and his friend Garet are training as adepts so that they too will be able to harness the powers of synergy.
Synergy is the Golden Sun equivalent of mana or magic points. It can be used to cast various elemental-based spells and to manipulate certain things in the overworld environment such as pushing boulders and columns, grasping faraway objects and causing vines to sprout up out of the ground – to more complex things like invisibility and mind-reading.
Isaac and Garet’s adventure begins in earnest when Jenna and their mentor, the alchemist Kraden, are kidnapped by a couple of freakish demon-like creatures who appear to be in league with Jenna’s long-lost, presumed dead brother Felix. What intrigue could have been spun around this turn of events is squashed by the fact that Golden Sun then shies away from anything as dangerous as trying to push the envelope of RPG storytelling.
Instead, like a comfortable old pair of jeans, Golden Sun eases us through a clichéd plot wherein Isaac and Garet travel across a monster-ridden overworld and visit various towns along the way, with the ultimate goal of retrieving some special magic stones For The Goodness of Mankind.
Of course they meet a couple of stalwart companions who decide to join them for the duration of the journey and who come with their own trite little back-stories. Truthfully, though, there isn’t a lot of difference between the four protagonists. They function more as a collective group of misunderstood kids who are underestimated by everyone at the beginning but who eventually win over their critics with their spunk and fighting skills. It’s been my experience that the average RPG hero is about seventeen years old, which I have to admit as I get older myself it’s getting harder and harder for this to seem plausible. Isaac and friends seem more like thirteen or fourteen, and there is no “grizzled magician” or “mature warrior” archetypes that join the party to offset this imbalance of youth. I found that the party’s youthful cluelessness and silly bravado quickly became annoying.
The bland non-personalities of the characters (with the slight exception of Garet, who just seemed to want to do obviously stupid things on purpose) meant that I simply didn’t care what happened to them at all. To me, a game that elicits such apathy towards its heroes is in serious trouble; especially an RPG, which forces the player to invest larger than average amounts of time with these characters. Isaac is one of those videogame leading men who never actually speaks, but allows others to put words in his mouth for him. The extent to which the “decisions” Isaac makes based on a multiple-choice of possible answers seems to actually have a minimal influence on how the plot progresses. Sometimes. Other times the game clearly forces a certain path upon us despite giving the illusion of choice.
One mildly interesting thing that Golden Sun does offer is monster-collecting, though it never approaches the scope and intricacy of Pokemon and other games of that ilk. The monsters, known as Djinn, have their own elemental affiliations and can bestow magical abilities on the character who equip them. Multiple Djinn can be equipped at the same time to change a character’s class and open up different summoning possibilities. Djinn are powerful allies in battle and have their own attack as well as lending the player the ability to summon more powerful elemental creatures.
Those who were blown away by Golden Sun’s impressive production values may not have spent so much time analyzing its faults as I did. Admittedly, the game is gorgeous to look at. The sprites and backgrounds are colourful and relatively light (for those without the SP’s screen illuminator). The game also has attractive summoning sequences that are worth watching more than once, although thankfully there is also the option to skip them. The music, as well, is in a style that many old-skoolers will find comforting: simple, melodically driven melodies that hearken back to Final Fantasy (though not as masterfully composed as Nobuo Uemetsu’s work).
Yet despite the attractive environment that the game immersed me in, what dawned on me quite early on into the adventure was that Golden Sun actually seems to purposefully conspire to make the process of playing it as mundane and drawn out as possible. Character dialogues are absolutely painful to sit though, not only because there’s too much redundant and pointless sentences being batted back and forth, but because the text boxes themselves are extremely small (thank you, tiny GBA screen). In other words, one decent-sized sentence could be broken up into four or five boxes that are revealing piece by agonizing piece with delays in between them no matter how frantically the player clicks the A button. Not only that, but the characters’ reactions to the dialogue are documented by various sad face, happy face, ! and ? symbols that appear over their heads, taking up even more time.
Then there’s the pushing. As I mentioned earlier, Golden Sun uses an admittedly neat feature by which characters can manipulate their surroundings to a certain extent. For example they can push or pull boulders and columns around in the vein of Zelda: A Link to the Past, among other things. But instead of smoothly pushing a block to the other side of the room, the character pushes it one step. Then stops. Then pushes another step. Then stops.
One other thing that should be mentioned is that Golden Sun has one of the least satisfying endings of any RPG. In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I’ll just say that it ends more abruptly than Matrix: Reloaded and doesn’t even give us a rage against the machine outro to soften the blow. Golden Sun is half a game, incomplete, To Be Continued. However unlike the .hack series, there was no “Part 1” label to let us know that going in. It’s also pretty brash to leave us hanging and bank on us wanting a sequel considering that Golden Sun: Part 1 frankly wasn’t that compelling to begin with.
To say that Golden Sun is a bad game would be going too far. It has, as I’ve said, remarkable production values for a portable title. It’s a decently long advanture, though one can’t help feel that some of that time was stolen by tedious dialogues and too many puzzles that involve moving objects. (Push. Wait.) Yet to call it “revolutionary” or even “above average” simply because it was the first original RPG to come out on the Game Boy Advance seems far-fetched to me. It would be more realistic to say that Golden Sun offers a comfortable and familiar experience for all those conservative RPG fans who secretly curse the dawning of the 3D revolution. And nothing more than that.
-beautiful graphics and music for a portable title; takes full advantage of the GBA’s capabilities
-a few live-action elements interspersed with the RPG adventuring, i.e. pushing rocks, etc.
-the ability to save the game anywhere (except during battles)
Flaking Gold-Painted Tinfoil
-bland characters and yet another “strong, silent type” lead character (as in, he doesn’t talk)
-clichéd story concerning…wait for it…searching for magical crystals
-slow pacing and hefty dialogue interspersed with character emoticons
-unfulfilling and incomplete “ending” in a cheap bid to force the player to buy Golden Sun: Part 2
Staff review by Erin Bell (June 20, 2003)
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