Retro Review: Golden Sun (GBA)

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Today, I have a classic game that happens to be one of my favorite turn-based RPGs. The game is Golden Sun for the Game Boy Advance, first released in 2001, and it may be forgotten by many as this series hasn’t had a new game since 2010.

I had first heard of the game from an issue of Nintendo Power, which grabbed my attention with its impressive graphics (for a handheld at the time). The game’s system sounded complex, and at the time I was greatly drawn to turn-based RPGs, and I was craving my next epic adventure. After playing the game the first time, (and using a player’s guide to get through it) I was fascinated with the game. Now I would like to share with you why I like this game so much.

Now, the first thing I have to warn any player that wants to pick this game up is that it features a lot of written dialogue. Even at the beginning, there is a lot to read. Luckily, the game does grab your attention in the opening scene by showing the protagonist’s (Isaac’s) mother using some sort of magic to grab his coat before he has to go out in a storm. It is later revealed that this “magic” is known as “psynergy”, and it is used by the people in Isaac’s village (Vale) to control the elements. Psynergy is a key part of the game’s story and puzzle solving portions of Golden Sun. Psynergy can even be used in battle to fight enemies, and functions similar to magic in other RPG’s.

Long story short, Isaac eventually goes on a quest with his friend Garet to stop a group of thieves who seek to unleash a force called alchemy upon the world, which is forbidden by the people of Vale. Along the way, they gain two new allies, Ivan and Mia who wish to help out.

The Golden Sun games have one major interesting twist to the turn-based RPG formula. This twist involves finding creatures called Djinn, who attach themselves to the heroes to power them up, change their classes, (which changes their psynergy options, and stats), and enable the party to summon deities for powerful attacks. While the full explanation of this system is kinda complex, the gist of it is that you can use an attack to remove a Djinni, which can change a character’s class mid battle, while simultaneously preparing a summon for an even stronger attack. You do get weaker as you remove Djinn from characters, and summoning means you can’t access the Djinn used for a set number of turns, but the game is built with this system in mind. As long as you have all the Djinn available at any given point in the game, you should be able to fight off the random monster encounters you face. You can adjust your Djinn outside of battle too.

goldensunpuzzle
In this puzzle, you have to freeze puddles to form pillars of ice to reach a new area.

Another perk of Golden Sun is the puzzle solving. Many puzzles require thinking about spacial relationships, and how the elements interact with each other. One example involves freezing a puddle to it to turn into a pillar of ice. You can then use the nearby higher ground to jump onto the pillar and reach another ledge otherwise inaccessible. Many of the puzzles may stump you until you realize how each psynergy action interacts with the game world. Yes, psynergy points (PP) are used to solve certain puzzles, but walking around does slowly regenerate these points, so you are never fully stuck without being able to progress. Once you know a solution, the puzzles are quite brilliant, rivaling those found in the Legend of Zelda games.

There is some level of exploration in this game, but most of it helps you find treasure or Djinn to make the party more powerful. There is some amount of backtracking that isn’t mandatory, but is a good idea to complete your Djinn collection. Luckily, the game world is relatively small, so this isn’t too painful to do. No, there isn’t a fast way around the game world, so you have to walk by foot and you can’t avoid the random encounters.

goldensunbattle
The battles in Golden Sun are stunning, especially for the Game Boy Advance.

It is really hard to mention much more about this game without spoiling the plot, so I will leave you with the best feature of the game: the battle arena. Here, you can fight monsters you have already fought and try to get a huge winning streak. This mode can be reached from the title screen at any time, and if you have two Game Boy Advances, two copies of the game, and the required link cable, you can challenge a friend too (a feature I never had the luxury to try)! This mode is a great way to try new strategies and further explore the Djinn system. You could spend hours just playing this mode once you are done with the game, and it adds a lot of value to Golden Sun.

Here are some game play recommendations:

  • It might not be obvious to first time players, but you can jump short distances and push certain objects. You should get used to how this feature works so you can solve puzzles.
  • Use the Djinn mid battle to understand their effects. Try out the summons in tougher fights.
  • Collect every Djinni as early as possible. The game is more difficult without them. Some appear randomly in certain parts of the world map, so read a guide for finding them the first time might be a good idea.
  • The arena mode is fun to play periodically, and can help you understand the game more thoroughly.
  • Players that know the game well may want to try different strategies with the Djinn. Give them to different characters on future play throughs for a different experience.

Now for the Pros and Cons:

Pros:

  • The game has clever puzzles.
  • Graphics and sound are impressive considering the hardware.
  • The Djinn system is unique to the series, and isn’t seen elsewhere in the genre.
  • Most battle actions are useful in this game, a rarity for RPGs.
  • Fun battle arena mode adds to the playtime of the game.

Cons:

  • Long dialogue sequences.
  • If multiple characters target the same enemy, and one character KOs that enemy first, the rest of the allies who targeted it will defend instead of redirecting their actions, unlike most RPGs.
  • Backtracking is awkward, but isn’t mandatory, plus the world is small, so this may not be an issue.
  • Djinn system can make the game too easy, but if you miss too many of them, the game is too hard.

So, what is the verdict?

9/10 an excellent and unique game! 

Golden Sun is a rare breed of game, and is worth exploring if you like RPGs and reading. I will be covering the next two games in the series, so look forward to those reviews when they are ready.


So that was what I thought of the game Golden Sun. How about you, have you played it and had a different opinion? Would you seek out a copy of the game if you never played? How many wins did you get in the monster arena? Did you ever play the multiplayer? Let me know in the comments below!

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