Golden Sun (GBA) Review

Click here to view the Golden Sun (GBA) description page for walkthroughs, save files, and more information.

Quick Review

Score: A-

Here’s a short breakdown of Golden Sun’s strengths and weaknesses, scroll down if you wish to read the full review.

Pros

– Puzzle based dungeons. 

– Classic RPG soundtrack.

– Great graphics. 

– Impressive magical effects.

– The ability to equip Djinni makes heroes more customizable.

– Some weapons have special powers that can be released in battle. 

– Story feels consistent, good lore.

– Good RPG for beginners or people looking for a fun casual adventure. 

– Impressive magical summons.

– Bonus dungeon.

Cons

– Constant dialogue becomes bothersome. Much of it is inane. 

– Player is frequently asked questions that have no impact on events. 

– Dialogue sound can be grating, luckily it is possible to turn it off. 

– Little in the way of challenge for veterans. Monsters are too easy, even if the player is fighting them at low levels. 

-Having to constantly push A to scroll the combat log makes battles last longer than necessary.

-No way to quickly travel between areas.

-Feels like half a game, because it is.

Full Review

All that Glitters is not Gold, but it’s Close Enough

    I’m going to warn my readers: I’m hard on this game in this review. It’s not that I do not like Golden Sun. To the contrary, I think it’s a good game. The problem is, Camelot took a great game and chopped it in half to fit onto the GBA. While I respect Camelot’s decision to remain true to its vision immensely, they could have undergone the process more delicately or perhaps sold the game as a two cartridge deal. As it stands, Golden Sun is almost totally reliant on its sequel, Golden Sun: The Lost Age for closure. My advice to anyone interested in this RPG is to grab both titles and hunker down for a long adventure or they may find the first game disappointing. This also forces players to tackle the series in its proper sequence in order to understand what’s going on, which is a bit unusual for a video game series.

Get your ass back to Lord of the Rings you Treebeard wannabe!

Story 

    The adventure starts in a village called Vale, which is home to a secretive group of magic users called Adepts. A lot happens in the first hours of the game, so I’ll just say the heroes, Isaac and Garet, are tricked into unleashing a powerful magical force on the world by a gang of mysterious ne’er do wells. The village elders order Isaac and Garet to find four lighthouses scattered around the world before the bad guys can get to them. It’s likely my description seems vague, but this is because I don’t know a lot about the plot. Many of the questions brought up in the beginning of the game go unanswered in the end, so I can’t really say much about the premise until I complete the sequel.

    Camelot likely left a lot of loose ends for the sequel to tie up, but I did not like this decision. After the credits roll, players still do not know anything about the nature of the villains or their mission, nor do they know why magic had been sealed away in the first place. While a little mystery can enhance a story, the devs went too far in the case of Golden Sun, and they could have at least thrown us bone by revealing one of the plot’s secrets at the end of the first game. This leaves a lot of built in hype for Golden Sun: The Lost Age to live up to, which isn’t always a good thing. I will say that Camelot did a good job of creating an interesting plot.

They keep talking and talking and talking and talking…

    While I’m on the fence about the actual story, Golden Sun has some really fleshed out dialogue, for better or worse. There’s a ton of NPCs to talk to and the story at least appears to be something more than the usual RPG plot about saving the world from bad guys, but it has so much dialogue that it gets bogged down in long cutscenes that say very little. The game also gives players a false sense of agency by asking them yes or no questions that have no impact on the outcome of events, which was pretty annoying. Character development of any sort was severely lacking and the characters were bereft of personality, so much so that I would have had difficulty telling who was talking if not for the portraits that display with the dialogue boxes.

Gameplay

    If you’ve played a turn based JRPG, Golden Sun will seem very familiar. Players will fight random battles, explore dungeons, and search towns for clues. Camelot did a decent job at spicing this formula up by putting puzzles and interesting items in the dungeons. The djinni system also gives this game a kick, since players can hunt for magical creatures that boost their hero’s powers. These creatures can also be unleashed in combat for special effects. Additionally, unleashing djinni makes it possible to cast powerful summons, which breathes life into the rather antiquated combat system.

    Exploring dungeons, fighting monsters, and collecting treasure were the highlights of this game. Camelot did a good job of designing the puzzles that are present in most dungeons, though they can get a bit repetitive at times, especially when it came to those that had me rolling logs around. However, there was enough novelty and variety to keep things fresh most of the time. The magic system even included spells that could be used to solve these puzzles by creating pillars of ice or moving giant boulders with telekinesis. That said, some of the magic was barely used and it would have been good to see a few more puzzles that incorporated underutilized spells. Exploration is usually quite rewarding, since the devs did a good job of hiding djinni and magical equipment all over the game.

    I also enjoyed the combat system. In an age where just about everything that comes out is some variant of action RPG (for the record, I like action RPGs) it was fun playing something that uses a slightly more modern take on the turn based system. This was mostly thanks to the aforementioned djinni and summons, which added some strategy to combat, since unleashing djinni makes it possible to pull off powerful attacks, but also temporarily weakens your heroes. Even with Camelot’s innovations, the combat system has a few problems. First of all, the game was too easy and I was able to breeze through it without having to level up or use much strategy. While not having to grind levels to survive was nice, a little more challenge would have been welcome, since I did not have a single Game Over. Secondly, the battle text would stop after each turn and I had to constantly push A to keep fights moving; this got old pretty quick and was unnecessary.

    There was quite a bit of variety to be had in this game, from weapons that have magical powers to a large roster of monsters. Players also get to visit dungeons and towns that have their own themes. Along with the tried and true caves that pop up in nearly every RPG, there are mysterious lighthouses, deserts, and magical forests. Care was put into creating just about all of the locations in Golden Sun, which makes up for some of the more disappointing aspects of the game. Providing players with a lot of equipment choices also improved the overall experience as I often felt that I was making important choices when it came to selecting weapons and armor, because they often varied from each other in terms of bonuses. For example, a Steel Helmet may offer high defense, but some players may want to hold onto their Adept’s Helm for the magic bonus, so there’s often a trade off when upgrading gear.

As an aside, a teleport spell or vehicle would have made traveling to previously visited locations more convenient. 

Graphics 

    Golden Sun looks really nice, especially when you consider the Game Boy Advance’s limitations. The monsters, NPCs, and playable characters were all pre-rendered as far as I can tell; this makes for detailed pseudo-3D sprites that look great on the GBA’s tiny screen. Golden Sun’s environments are detailed and many of the areas are quite distinct from one another, though they seem to have been designed using more traditional means. This combination of traditional tiles and pre-rendered sprites creates an almost dreamlike atmosphere that makes the game all the more memorable. Spell effects and summons steal the show visually. In fact, I was shocked to see the humble GBA crank out huge sprites for summons and generate spell effects that pop off the screen. That said, the GBA is nearly 20 years old, so don’t expect too much.

Just one of many cool summons.

Music and Sound

    I often lament over the state of music in gaming today, but Golden Sun’s soundtrack is a ray of light in an era where music was becoming increasingly bland and cinematic. The overworld theme, which is a variant of the game’s theme song, is worthy to sit among the great compositions of video game history. It’s one of those tunes that makes you feel like you really are setting out on a grand adventure. The battle music is also really nicely done, but my favorite piece was the one used for the last dungeon, which really got the point across that the final showdown was about to take place.

    The sound effects were also good, but they could get bothersome at times. This was especially true for the text sound, which constantly bloopped away as characters spoke. On one hand, it was annoying, but it also added something to the dialogue and gave the game a bit of old school charm. Camelot was wise enough to make it possible to turn the text sound off in the options, so you’re free to turn it off if it bothers you or you just need a break from it, which was very thoughtful on the dev’s part.

User Interface

    Camelot did a lot of things right with the controls, but also made some poor choices. At least walking around the game and interacting with objects is a fairly seamless experience. They even included multiple ways to bring up the menu screens and added shortcuts for spells. The battle menu is also laid out logically, so it’s easy to issue orders, though there’s no auto-combat option for lazy gamers like myself. Yeah, everything is pretty good until you get to the inventory, which is one of those systems where each character has his or her own personal storage space that’s limited to a few items. This means you’re going to have to go about the unpleasant business of swapping items and gear between heroes. Sometimes this type of inventory can enhance a game, especially if it’s tough to begin with, but Golden Sun isn’t particularly difficult, so having limited room just wastes the player’s time and annoys competitionists who like to collect gear.

Final Thoughts

    This is not an easy game to approach critically, because it was not designed to stand on its own. Consequently, I can’t make conclusions about certain aspects of the game, particularly the story. With that in mind, Golden Sun does a lot of things right, but it demands a lot of patience and faith on the player’s part, since the other half of the adventure is on a separate cartridge. At worst, Camelot banked too much on a gimmick designed to sell more copies, at best they slightly bungled an attempt to make a title that is huge in its scope for a handheld JRPG. In fact, it took me about 40 hours to complete this title, though a lot of that can be attributed to me leaving the game idle while I took notes for the guide I wrote for it. Still, Golden Sun is probably going to take most players about 30-35 hours to complete, which isn’t bad. 

Recommendations 

Be prepared to commit to the series if you are interested in Golden Sun, because this game lacks any sense of closure. At the same time it’s quite fun and (as of the writing of this review) both games only cost about $6 a piece, which is quite a deal.

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