While Role-Playing Games (RPGs) may have gained mainstream acceptance during the 32-bit era of gaming, most serious fans of the genre would agree that the best games invariably came into existence on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). For a number of years, the SNES was the RPG fan's system of choice—boasting a line-up of games that are still considered classic in this age of 3-D polygons and life-like graphics. Considering that the Game Boy Advance is essentially a portable version of the SNES, it's probably no surprise to learn it's also developing a reputation as a veritable haven for excellent RPGs. With ports of older SNES titles such as Capcom's Breath Of Fire series and entirely new creations such as Golden Sun, this genre is already well represented on the fledgling handheld.
Golden Sun is the latest creation from Camelot Software Planning. Fans of RPGs will no doubt recognize that Camelot was also responsible for the popular Shining Force strategy RPGs that appeared on the Sega Genesis system. This previous experience with the form pays off in spades during Golden Sun—a game that is incredibly well designed and conceived.
Golden Sun's main character is Isaac, a teenager from the village of Vale. Vale has been the guardian of Sol Sanctum, a sort of metaphysical temple located on nearby Mt. Aleph, for a number of years. One day, Isaac and several friends (including his alchemy professor, Kraden) travel up the mountain and explore Sol Sanctum. The group finds some rare elemental stones that offer up amazing power—but of course, they wont get to keep them. The elemental stones (along with Kraden and another of Isaac's companions) will be taken away—meaning that Isaac must set out to recapture the stones and save his friends.
While the plotline could be summed up as RPG-plotting 101, there's something comforting in that familiarity. In many ways, that comfort factor applies to all the facets of Golden Sun. Its not a game that strives for innovation or originality, but it takes the staples of the genre and does them all quite well. Plus, its bound to inspire more than a bit of nostalgia in those of us who were gaming in the 16-bit era.
The title's gameplay mechanics are essentially what one would expect from an RPG. Most of the game is spent interacting with a small army of non-playable characters who populate the towns, exploring various dungeons, engaging in random battles, testing your skill at several different mini-games, and solving a variety of puzzles. If you've played a Japanese console RPG, then youll know exactly what to expect from Golden Sun—it doesnt tweak the RPG formula at all.
So, if the games not innovative, and features a fairly predictable story, what makes it so good? Thats a difficult question to answer, but I think the old maxim about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts fits particularly well here.
While there isnt anything blazingly original at work in Golden Sun, what is there are things that the game designers have obviously thought about and fine-tuned to make them work as flawlessly as possible. Instead of trying to re-invent the wheel, Camelot has simply taken the traditional RPG and added a flourish here and there to keep things interesting.
A prime example of this is the battle system. At its core, Golden Suns battle system is a standard turn-based affair. Characters line up on one side of the screen, the monsters on the other, characters attack, and then the monsters attack—its traditional to a fault.
However, Camelot then adds some unique touches that make the standard turn-based battle system seem a lot more interesting and exciting than it should be. The first thing they do is add a sweeping, cinematic camera to the mix. When battles are waged, the camera tends to shift perspective to better capture the action. Instead of staying static, it roves about, following each player's movements, and gives the battles a much grander feel. The second thing they do is offer up an icon-based selection menu. Instead of giving gamers a traditional text menu from which to choose character actions, theyre given icons. Minor thing, right? But it makes the game look just a little different, which in turn keeps things interesting. Finally, the game offers up some strategy elements. Gamers can choose from the standard attack, defend, magic, and flee options, but choosing attack opens up a lot of choices. Do you want to do a standard physical attack? Do you want to use an attack thats enhanced through one of your equipped Djinn? Do you have your Djinn set so you can summon a powerful spirit to aid you in battle? All of these are potential options that can be decided while in the heat of battle, or beforehand. Again, its not anything that we havent seen before—but it's integrated into the game so seamlessly you dont even really realize it's there until youve moved onto another game that doesn't work nearly as well.
The game's graphics work in much the same way. While the bulk of the game is simply a 16-bit era RPG (complete with sprite-based characters and a 2-D world), Camelot chooses different spots to take the graphics to another level. When these moments come (almost always while in battle), the game once again transcends being a simple retro-RPG. Instead of taxing the GBA hardware with a game comprised completely of lush visuals, Golden Sun instead saves its most jaw-dropping graphics for the moments when they truly matter. Spell effects and summoned creatures are amongst the most impressive Ive seen in a cartridge-based game, completely surpassing anything on the SNES, yet the town, dungeon, and world screens are completely traditional–right down to the nifty Mode-7 effects (Mode-7 was a function performed by the SNES hardware that allowed for background scrolling and rotation depending on where the character was on the screen. It was used to create the illusion of 3-D in 2-D games) on the world map. Golden Sun is better because of this—primarily because it makes the quality of the work more noticeable.
While praise for the GBA has been abundant, the one area where the system seems to fall short (aside from not having a brighter screen) is in the sound department. Fortunately, though, Golden Sun demonstrates that high quality music can be attained despite the systems modest sound hardware. The music in the game is comprised of a variety of different tunes, some light and airy flutes in towns, others more dark and somber when things get serious. At any rate, Camelot demonstrates that GBA games can, indeed, have good music and sound.
Ultimately, Golden Sun works because of the little things—a fact that makes it a refreshing gaming experience in this day and age where everyone seems bent on completely overhauling the basic tenets of what makes a good game. Titles like Golden Sun and Capcom's Maximo nicely demonstrate that while systems have gotten more advanced, the core gameplay elements that make games fun still apply. Innovation is nice, but if the games arent fun, whats the point? Golden Sun might not have all the bells and whistles of today's console RPGs, but it is certainly a fun title—and at the end of the day, thats all that really matters.
A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.
Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.
In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.