The 90’s and early 2000’s were a golden age for the JRPG genre. Games like Final Fantasy VII and Xenogears redefined video games as a storytelling medium with their rich characters and deep themes. But these games can often be tough to get into, due to their dense plots and obtuse battle mechanics. That’s what makes Golden Sun, Camelot’s 2001 title for the Game Boy Advance, still feel fresh 20 years later. It strips the genre to its essentials, delivering a wholesome package that’s great for both newcomers and longtime fans.
Presentation is top-notch, even considering the game’s age. The pixel art is nostalgic and vibrant, and battle animations look more flashy and epic than you’d expect on the GBA. Composer Motoi Sakuraba (famous for the Tales and Dark Souls series) delivers one of the best soundtracks of his career, an eclectic mix of orchestral background pieces and hype prog-rock battle themes. Despite their technological limitations, Camelot still made Golden Sun as cinematic and ambitious as any console games of the time.
Unfortunately, that ambition did not extend to the story and characters. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Four chosen warriors: Isaac, Garet, Ivan, and Mia, must protect the elemental crystals from a group of evil fire wizards who want to (of course) take over the world. It’s the most generic setup you could imagine for this type of game. Characters are similarly tropey, but at least the small cast makes everyone feel important. Really, the story isn’t bad, it’s just a bit underwhelming compared to the fantastic music and gameplay.
The character customization and battle mechanics, the bread and butter of any RPG, are what make this game hold up. Basic combat is your standard turn-based fare, but with the unique mechanic of elemental Djinn. These cute little monsters are like a mix between Pokémon and Final Fantasy summons. Once you catch one, you can equip it to buff your stats – or unleash it as an awesome summon spell at the risk of making yourself vulnerable. You can equip Djinn to characters of the corresponding element, or mix and match them to unlock dope class changes like the Dragoon and Samurai. Battles are very easy overall, but the Djinn add depth and nuance to make them fun. Besides, I just finished freaking Hollow Knight, so it was nice to sit back and let Thor kill everyone for me.
The game is short and sweet, just under 25 hours if you do all the sidequests. Some may find that disappointing, but I love a game that doesn’t overstay its welcome. There’s still lots to explore, from dungeons filled with Zelda-esque puzzles, to towns with distinct cultures and histories, to a coliseum that mixes fast-paced minigames with tense boss fights. Unfortunately, the game’s age hampers the exploration a bit. There’s no fast travel at all, and some Djinn are easy to miss because they only spawn in random encounters on obscure parts of the world map. This makes backtracking more tedious than it needs to be, especially if you’re like me and can’t leave an area until you’ve explored every nook and cranny for loot.
But the Golden Sun experience doesn’t end with the first game. That’s just the halfway point! Camelot wanted to make one sprawling epic on the Nintendo 64, but were forced to split the game into two when development switched to handheld. The sequel, Golden Sun: The Lost Age, takes place right where the first game left off, but with supporting characters Felix and Jenna taking the lead roles. You can even transfer your save data from the first game via a convoluted password system. The Lost Age expands upon the original, with a new item crafting system and a larger world map, but the core gameplay is the same otherwise. They’re meant to be played back to back, as two distinct halves of one delicious RPG sandwich.
Sadly, the franchise’s success wouldn’t last long. Camelot dropped a belated sequel, Dark Dawn, in 2008, but they’ve mostly been stuck making Mario sports games for the past 20 years. It’s a shame, and I think the games could really benefit from a remake. With an HD skin and a few gameplay updates, Golden Sun could fit right in the modern gaming era. As it is, though, these games offer a satisfying and quintessential JRPG experience. Even though I missed them when they first dropped, they’re so well made that I couldn’t help feeling nostalgic for the genre’s golden (heh) years.