I’ve been recently mourning the fact that I had not yet found a Gameboy Advance cult classic worthy of the name, and lo and behold! Such a game came my way, to my utter delight.
The cult classic in question is none other than Golden Sun, the debut instalment of a relatively young RPG series. Developed by Camelot Software Planning and released in 2001(jp/na) and 2002, this incipit met immediate critical success and was praised vigorously. It was initially planned as a single game, supposedly on the Nintendo 64, but focus shifted during development and the game was moved to the GBA. Because of the system’s limitations, what was initially a single game had to be cut in two and ended up as a pair of games instead, Golden Sun being the first half of that pair. Golden Sun: The Lost Age came out a couple of years later, followed by Golden Sun: Dark Dawn on the DS, another couple of years later. You could nearly say that this trilogy came to life by accident: planned as a single game, it finally became a series of sort. Worse things have happened, especially in an industry where countless games are cancelled during development and never see the light of day.
More classic than you’d wish
Truth be told, while Golden Sun boasts all the necessary qualities to be hailed as a cult classic, it still remains a very, well… classic RPG at heart, in the slightly disparaging acception of the word. More specifically, Golden Sun dutifully follows templates laid down by 8-bit and 16-bit era RPGs, graphically as well as in terms of gameplay. As a matter of fact, the same could be said of most GBA games, so much so that it’s easy to view the system as a portable SNES of sorts. While emulating the style of a console six years dead is hardly a way to establish a system’s own brand of gaming, the limitations of the GBA left little choice in the matter; on the other hand, such a style must have delighted the then burgeoning retro scene that was rediscovering bit-era classics through emulation. But I digress; let’s go back to Golden Sun and its heavy dose of early ’90s RPG classicism.
Golden Sun’s presentation, for one thing, is pure 16-bit RPG fare mingled with a touch of 8-bit-ness. The gorgeous and lush pixelated graphics, all vivid colours and smooth stylized shapes, would not have been out of place in an SNES game, all the more so as the world map boasts some rotating effects reminiscent of the SNES’ famous Mode 7. Interestingly enough, said world map is also heavily reminiscent of 8-bit RPGs: not only can it be roamed freely, but it only accommodates a single way of travelling, namely your characters’ own two feet. No boat or airship to make your roaming easier and faster: if you want to rally a place, you’ll have to do so by trotting around on the world map. (As you’d expect, this can take an awfully long time, and I was quite surprised to see such a retrograde take on travelling in what was supposedly a high-profile GBA game. Oh, well.) Then there is the soundtrack, which, in pure 16-bit tradition, is a pure gem designed with great care, a splendid collection of ear-candy. All tracks are gorgeous and convey deep emotions, and they are used in a perfectly apropos way, subtly enhancing storytelling as well as the player’s feelings. Some of the tracks ended up fastened in my memory, playing in my head every now and then: this is certainly a nice change from some more modern games I’ve played lately, with their soundtracks so vanilla and/or irritating that I had to turn off the volume eventually.
Golden Sun’s gameplay, for another, borrows heavily from 16-bit era templates. The strongest influence is definitely the Legend of Zelda series: with its heavy focus on exploration, regular gain of new abilities allowing you to progress further, puzzle-solving and backtracking to explore areas that were unreachable at first, Golden Sun could aptly be described as a turn-based take on the Zelda gameplay mechanics. A somewhat looser take, though: puzzles and the acquisition of new abilities are not nearly as systematic and streamlined as in the Zelda games, leading to a more sprawled structure in which both puzzles and new abilities pop up at random. The pure RPG side is not forgotten, though: from classes to elemental invocations to good old random turn-based battles, without forgetting the obligatory geographical variations—the remote location buried in snow and ice, the dry and hot desert, the mysterious and vaguely dangerous forest, the bit of ocean sailing and so on—everything that defined and made 16-bit RPGs famous can be found in Golden Sun, whole and untouched. And yet, inside all this RPG classicism hides an unexpected dose of originality: invisible at first sight, it reveals itself as soon as one pores over the game in earnest.
More original than you’d think
Golden Sun’s most prominent twist to the classic 16-bit RPG formula is to have successfully paired random turn-based combat and a class system with Zelda-lite puzzles and ability-based progression, thus bridging the gap between traditional RPG and Action-Adventure games and creating a hybrid of sorts. That was quite a risky move, for these elements do not necessarily go well together: being interrupted every couple of second by a random fight that takes away your overall view of the action is not exactly conducive to efficient puzzle-solving—as anyone who played Tales of Hearts R surely knows. Yet Golden Sun manages to circumvent that obstacle by a simple and neat trick: puzzles rooms are entirely devoid of random encounters, allowing you to focus on the puzzle at hand.
But there is more: the fighting system and class system are both intimately tied to exploration and ability-based progression rather than to good ol' level-grinding. This boils down to the presence of the “Djinns”: these tiny and rather cute creatures spread all around the game world—some in plain view and others cleverly hidden—can grant you access to new classes, the general rule being that the Djinns of one element are tied to one specific class. The more Djinns you collect, the more classes you can access, which in turn gives a great incentive to explore the game world and leave no stone unturned. This creates a virtuous circle in which careful exploration—including assiduous backtracking, as some of the Djinns can be reached only later in the game after gaining some specific abilities—allows you to strengthen your party and thus to progress smoothly, discovering more Djinns on the way—and so on. Level-grinding takes a huge step back: sure, you still gain levels and see your stats rising, but those levels will only be useful if you have the necessary Djinns to don a given class and the specifics attacks and abilities that go with it. This can actually create some minor issues, as we will see very soon; but minor issues or not, this system is brilliant and well-crafted, tying together elements that have been somewhat at odds since the dawn of the Holy Realm of RPG.
Of course, such a new and daring formula had to present a couple of flaws: first tries are hardly ever perfect, after all. Golden Sun’s Djinn-based class system has a weakness that can have dire consequences: should you miss some Djinns, you may not access some classes and thus some spells that could be tremendously important at some point in the game. As you probably guessed already, I landed in this very situation over the course of my run. I ended up being stranded in the final boss fight, of all places; all that because I had missed one Djinn. One single Djinn, and the only one I missed during my run; but this was a Mercury Djinn tied to Mia, and not having it entirely prevented Mia from learning any Group Healing spells. Given that no other character has access to such spells and that there are no group healing items, I was basically stuck at End Game’s doors, unable to beat the final boss because I was missing those precious Group Healing spells. (I tried to make do without, mind you; unfortunately, it became obvious quite quickly that I stood no chance without a good, solid Group Healing spell.) Of course, I was not entirely stuck: I could have backtracked in order to find that precious and elusive missing Mercury Djinn—even though I had no idea where it hid—and I would have gained the Group Healing spells as soon as it was added to my pool of Djinns. However, I had already played a good 25 hours at that point, and the thought of adding a couple of hours solely devoted to backtracking was more than I could bear, so I purely and simply gave up. I’ll do better on my next run, I promise.
Another minor issue is the use of Djinns in battle, which is too complex for its own good and ends up being counter-productive. Here is an overall view: while fighting, you have the choice between regular spells tied to your class of the moment, weak but available at every turn, and Djinn spells and invocations, more powerful but only available every couple of turns. To put it simply, this is a case of “you cannot have your cake and eat it too”: somehow, you have to choose between focusing on your regular spells or on the Djinn-based attacks. Unleashing both at random may put you in hot water, because using the Djinns in combat can change your class, replacing a set of class-tied spells by another one entirely. I won't go into the technicalities of how this can happen, if only because I am not quite sure I fully understood them; suffice it to say that it can happen indeed. Just imagine losing your Healing spells all of a sudden in the middle of a boss fight and you’ll have a good idea of how impractical this can be. In most RPGs, the unleashing of invocations or any other devastating attack is tied to a special gauge that fills up gradually as you fight, which is both more convenient and more rewarding; why the developers of Golden Sun chose rather to go with this unserviceable system of sacrificing your class to gain access to the most powerful attacks is beyond me. I guess it was designed as a way to introduce a dose of strategy in the fighting, but it comes across as messy and unreliable. As a result, I focused mostly on the regular class-tied spells, using invocations only in case of dire need—i.e. during boss fights—while grinding my teeth at the unpracticality of the whole thing. This was hardly conducive to enjoyment, and I can honestly say that Golden Sun’s fighting system was the most tedious part of the game as far as I was concerned. I put up with that unsatisfactory fighting system because I adored all the rest—the puzzles, the exploration, the enticing atmosphere of the whole game—but I definitely wish it would have been simpler and more fulfilling, and I can only hope that all things fighting have been bettered and honeyed in the series’ subsequent entries.
That being said, neither of these flaws is a deal-breaker: there are more akin to minor issues, as I mentioned, and they certainly do not significantly tarnish the brilliance of Golden Sun. This is a gloriously good game, a true gem that packs some unexpected depth and is certainly worthy of the title of cult classic. Not only that, but Golden Sun is typically the kind of game that gets better with every re-run, just like the Zelda games: the first run may be a trifle tedious because it involves a lot of fumbling about and trial-and-error, but once you know how to solve puzzles, overcome obstacles and collect Djinns, you can enjoy the game significantly more and revel in your ever-growing mastery of it. All in all, I certainly got more than I bargained for by picking Golden Sun, and I’m delighted by this turn of events. I am firmly planning to do a second run in which I will collect all the Djinns and clear the game for good—in fact, I would have done so already, had Golden Sun been a shorter game; but I have to admit that after 25 hours of play, I was really not eager to start again from scratch. I’ll come back to the game sooner or later, when the mood is right; for now, thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!