Review: Golden Sun

This is a review that took a little bit longer to complete than I originally intended. I’ve had Golden Sun on my short list for quite some time. But rumors of its impending release on Nintendo Switch Online kept me from dusting off the physical copy I had stored away. Every time I came close to giving in and popping the cart into my GBA, Nintendo would drop another hint. Last month, the moment I had been waiting for arrived. In fact, Nintendo pulled a sneaky on me and released not only the original Golden Sun, but also its sequel Golden Sun: The Lost Age on its Nintendo Switch Online service. Well, I’ve spent the last month playing this game from start to finish and I’m finally ready to share my thoughts.

Golden Sun is a JRPG-style game designed with a look and feel similar to games from the 16-bit era. The game was initially conceived as a project for the N64. However, that console was soon reaching the end of its life and the development team found that porting their work to the disc-based GameCube would be too cumbersome to pursue. In the end, they decided to break the game into two parts and turn their attention to the Game Boy Advance. The first game, Golden Sun, was released for the GBA in 2001. (The second half of the game was rebranded as a sequel and released a year later). The game has been re-released digitally two times.  First in 2014, when it was ported to the Wii U Virtual Console and again in 2024 as part of the Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack service. As I mentioned above, it is the Switch release that I played for this review.

Having never played Golden Sun before, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. What I discovered was a classic JRPG experience that surpassed my every expectation. To clarify what I mean, let’s start with my first impressions. Right from the beginning I could that this game was designed to capture the magic of the classic 16-bit era JRPGs. The graphics are bright and colorful and music has that airy, magical feel to it. It also follows a number of tried-and-true gameplay conventions such as random battles and an experience point-based leveling system. But putting all that aside, it is the story that is the focal point of the game. The story focuses on the character of Isaac, a young man from Vale, a small village that sits at the bottom of a dormant volcano and hosts an ancient shrine. Vale has a secret. The villagers there have the ability to use a mysterious power called Psynergy. The source of this power is largely unknown and the villagers keep their magical nature a secret from the rest of the world. In the prologue of the game, the village is visited by two mysterious travelers. During their visit, the village is struck by a strange storm and the volcano begins to erupt. Fast forward three years later, Isaac and his friends accompany one of the village elders on an expedition to the shrine at the base of the volcano. It there that the elder, Kraden, explains the true nature of Psynergy and the hidden secrets of the shrine. However, during this visit the two strangers from three years ago return and manage to steal the prized artifacts from the shrine. They also take one of Isaac’s friends and also Kraden hostage. Thus begins Isaac’s quest to find the mysterious strangers and recover both his friends and the stolen artifacts. As the game unfolds, Isaac meets a number of new companions and the truth behind the strangers and their intentions slowly come to light.

As you can already tell based on what I’ve outlined above, Golden Sun takes the proven formula for a successful JRPG (deep storyline, random battles, artistic visuals, and memorable music) and uses it for its foundation. However, it is the refinements and tweaks to the formula that really make this game shine. For example, it’s not uncommon in JRPGs to purchase and sell equipment when visiting a new town for the first time. Usually this means buying new weapons and armor, unequipping the old stuff, then equipping the new stuff, and finally selling the old equipment to try to recoup some money. Golden Sun makes this easy by prompting the players during the purchase of new equipment with options to both equip the new items being bought as well as selling the old equipment that is being replaced. It’s a very simple concept that really adds a nice, convenient touch to the game.

But the game is full of other refinements as well. For example, certain spells and abilities that might be used outside of combat can be macroed to buttons on the controller that have normally have no use. A good example of this is the Mind Read ability. This ability lets players see the hidden thoughts of various NPCs. By binding this ability to one of the shoulder buttons on the controller, players can use it with the simple touch of a button instead of bringing up the menu, selecting the character, and then scrolling through a list of abilities. It’s a huge time saver.

Speaking of spells and abilities. Golden Sun handles this sort of thing in a way I’ve never quite seen before. Each of the four playable characters that make up the party have a base class that they start off with. Each class in the game is represented by one of the four basic elements (Earth, Water, Fire, and Air). Throughout the game, the player will encounter various creatures known as Djinn. These creatures serve a bit like Pokemon in that they can be collected and assigned to a specific character. Every time a player “equips” a Djinn, they can level up (or change) that character’s existing class. Leveling or changing your character class also unlocks new spells and abilities. It’s also possible to mix and match Djinn of various elements on a single character to unlock new classes. On top of that, Djinn can be summoned to battle where they unleash various effects (attacks, party buffs, or abilities). Once a Djinn has been used in battle the party’s affinity that Djinn’s element increases. This elemental affinity can then be used to summon a special elemental god to aid them in battle. The stronger the affinity, the more powerful the summon.

Hunting down Djinn and and learning how to mix and match them with various characters is a big strategical part of the gameplay.

So, with all that said what we are left with is a game that not only capitalizes on the best elements of previous JRPGs. But one that improves these elements with an attention to detail and quality-of-life enhancements. But, it doesn’t stop there. Golden Sun also made sure to capitalize on the newest technology that was made available to it by its original hardware. Players who each had a copy of Golden Sun could link their Game Boy Advance handhelds together with the Link Cable and do battle with each other. The Nintendo Switch Online service actually brings this functionality to the new release of the game via Link Cable emulation. It’s important to note that Link Battles don’t impact the main game scenario in any way. But it’s still a fun option to have.

It’s also important to note that the Link Cable functionality doesn’t stop here. Aside from enabling players to do battle with each other, the Link Cable also served another very important function for Golden Sun. It allowed players to transfer their items and stats from the first game to its sequel! This is something that brings a smile to my face. Importing save games from one title to another is something that I enjoyed about many classic PC-based CRPGs  (Wizardry, Bard’s Tale, etc). It’s an option that simply isn’t used enough in my opinion. So seeing it here, on a handheld console, is nothing short of fantastic. Like many RPGs, once you’ve completed the game, you have the option to save your Cleared Game data and start over. Well, when Golden Sun: The Lost Age was released, players could use the link cable to transfer their Cleared Game save from the original Golden Sun into the sequel. This allowed players to pick up right where they left off. The Nintendo Switch Online service also allows for this functionality. Of course, if you don’t want to mess around with Link Cables (or Link Cable emulation), the game will also generate a lengthy password that you can enter into the sequel that grants the same benefits.

To say that I enjoyed my time with this game is an understatement. I never expected Golden Sun to capture my attention the way that it did. In a way, I feel bad about it. I was so busy playing this game that I barely posted any updates to my blog in the month and a half it took me to complete it. I just couldn’t stop playing! On average, it probably would have only took about thirty hours to play the game from start to finish. But, once I started, I felt compelled to hunt down every Djinn, fight every optional boss, and max out my characters. I wanted to see everything this game had to offer. That is the sign of a really great game. This is one that I recommend to any JRPG fan.

Version Reviewed: Switch

Difficulty: Medium –  As far as JRPGs go, I found this game to be about middle of the road in terms of difficulty. Like many games of this type, a big part of the challenge can simply be grinded away. However, if you don’t take the time to grind out a bunch of levels, the challenge provided by the game seems to be just about right for most players. The only exception to this is the final battle of the game, which is pretty tough unless you take the time to prepare for it in advance.

Multiplayer: Local (GBA) or Local and Online (Nintendo Switch)

Story: The main focus on this game is the story. While the game certainly follows a handful of established JRPG tropes, there’s also a number of unique and original elements to be found here as well. Overall, the storyline is expertly crafted and engaging. Admittedly, it can get a bit muddy at times if you aren’t paying attention. With that being said, put your phone away and focus on what’s going on. Trust me, it’s worth it.

Originality: Nearly every aspect of this game is an idea that’s been seen before in one form or another. But the way it’s presented and the tweaks and refinements made to these familiar elements really make this feel like a new experience. For example the combat and ability systems are nothing new on the surface. But the deep levels of customization and all of the options that come from that are just fantastic to behold.

Soundtrack: Golden Sun features a fairly solid soundtrack. But, it doesn’t quite reach to levels of what you might find in a Final Fantasy or Zelda title. Still, the music is catchy and appropriate and it fits in the with the game perfectly.

Fun: I had an absolute blast playing this game. In fact, I could hardly put it down. That’s particularly impressive because I’ve played a ton of RPGs in the last few months and, quite frankly, I was started to get a little worn down by the genre. This game turned my whole attitude around.

Graphics: When it comes to Game Boy Advance titles, this is about as good as it gets. The sprites are detailed and colorful and really looks great on a backlit GBA. Somehow, the Nintendo Switch version looks even better. Usually when you play a handheld game on a big screen television, you expect it to look a little off. I don’t know what Nintendo did with this conversion, but the scaling is just spot-on. No matter if I played on the Switch screen or on my living room television, this game still managed to look fantastic.

Playcontrol: As far as the button mapping goes, I have no complaints. This is a turn-based game that doesn’t rely too heavily of precise controls. The game is comfortable to play on the GBA. When it comes to playing on the Switch, personally, my hands have a bit of a problem with the Joy Cons when they are attached to the side of the Switch screen. I find my palms start to ache after a while – but that’s just me. This is always relieved by switching to the pro controller. But again, that’s a problem I have with the Switch and not with the game itself. I only bring it up because I found myself playing this title for several hours on end.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content:  N/A

Value: If you want to score a physical copy of the original game be prepared to shell out a lot of money. Used/renewed copies usually sell for anywhere between $70-$140. Factory sealed copies are often in excess of $500! Thankfully, the game is now available as a part of the Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack. Which means for $50 a year, you can play it and a slew of other games.

Overall score (1-100): 95 – This game is a love letter to classic 16-bit era JRPGs. Everything that players love about those types of games can be found here (and often with improvements that players never even knew they wanted). I won’t claim that Golden Sun is as iconic as Final Fantasy VI or maybe even Final Fantasy IV. But now that I’ve finally experienced it, it is certainly a contender for one of my top five JRPGs.

Original System: Game Boy Advance

Available today on: Switch  – (Updated as of Early Winter 2024)

Best Experience: Switch  – (Updated as of Early Winter 2024)

Other Reviews In This Series:

Golden Sun    –    Golden Sun: The Lost Age    –    Golden Sun: Dark Dawn

Old Game Hermit

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