Golden Sun – A Loving Retrospective

Picture the scene: a young Ryan and his family cramped inside a Pontins chalet in Blackpool at the height of summer. He has just come back from a day out at looking at weird stuff in the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not and has immediately booted up his GameBoy Advance SP, and today he finishes the first RPG of his life that isn’t a Pokémon or Final Fantasy. A beautiful memory.

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Box art for the two GBA games, featuring all eight playable characters.

Golden Sun is a series of RPG games released initially on the GBA (Golden Sun and Golden Sun: The Lost Age, both of which formed a neat duology) and the Nintendo DS (Golden Sun: Dark Dawn, a 30-years-later sequel). They have gained something of a cult following thanks to a very high-quality entry into the market, somewhat great replayability, a fantastic pushing of the GBA’s limits in both sound and graphics, and being ignored by their developers for nigh on 10 years now. It’s a series owned by Camelot, who made the Shining Force series before Golden Sun, and many of the Mario Sports games after it, such as Mario Golf and Mario Tennis.

Golden Sun is set in the world of Weyard, a land where the four elements (yes, obviously fire, water, wind and earth) are very important. This world has certain people who can use these elements called Adepts and each game gives you a set of these adepts to use, and always an equal amount of each element. They do something a little different and equate each element to a planet: Venus is earth-aspected, Mercury is water-aspected, Jupiter is wind-aspected, Mars is fire-aspected. It’s something that makes Golden Sun a little more distinct from the hundreds of other pieces of media who lean heavily on the ‘four elements’ thing (Final Fantasy V, Avatar, Tales of Symphonia, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and so, so many others). It works well, and is used heavily both in the story and in the gameplay in a great example of integration – your characters are so powerful because they are adepts, and this is shown by all of their elemental attacks being super-effective against human enemies.

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Here we can see that Isaac and Ivan (the two blond dudes) have only Djinn of their element, while Garet (red-haired dude) and Mia (the gal) have swapped their Djinni around for the most point. They will be more versatile fighters as a result.

Related to that point are another big selling-point of Golden Sun: Djinni. Djinni come in four flavours, one for each element of course, and you collect them as you progress through each game. You equip these to your characters and they will get stronger and stronger classes as you collect more, giving them access to more powers. In the first game there are seven of each element to collect: this is upgraded to 18 of each element in both The Lost Age (many of which come when the [spoilers] party from the first game join your current party) and Dark Dawn. There is a lot to do.

What makes this system far more interesting however is that if you mix and match your Djinni, you can end up with far more powerful, exciting classes! For example, your main character in the first game is Isaac, a Venus (earth) adept. If you equip only Venus Djinni to him he will get more powerful and learn better earth-elemental spells and some better healing spells but if you say, give him some Mars Djinni, he will gain the ‘Brute’ class and learn both earth and fire spells! The game heavily incentivises experimentation and the class-system is one reason that the games are so replayable and popular with the theorycrafters of the gaming community: working out how to spread your limited Djinni around for optimal party setups is super fun.

What makes Djinni even more interesting is that you can use them in battle, and they get put on Standby, unequipping them from your characters when you do so! So using a Djinn can mean that you suddenly lose stats or even change classes entirely! It’s a risk-reward thing, as many Djinni have extremely useful effects such as halving damage, reviving dead allies or dealing a lot of damage. Not only that, but having lots of Djinni of the same element on Standby means you can unleash Summons of huge power to decimate your enemies! There’s a huge risk/reward system at play here. You can play safely without putting many Djinni on Standby ever, or you can risk it all for quick fights using Summons constantly.

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Forge is a Mars Djinn who here is equipped to Mia.

Another fondly-remembered feature of the games is how your adepts can affect the world around them to your benefit. Your characters will learn not just battle-ready moves, but utility moves such as Move, Catch, Frost and Mind Read. They will either have these spells innately, taught to them through story events, or be bestowed items that grant them.

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Pictured: four psynergy moves that can be used in the overworld for puzzles and utility. Douse can also be used in battle.

The world of Golden Sun is full of overworld puzzles, some of them easy and some of them challenging, and most of them will require the use of varied spells. You might be moving statues into place using a giant disembodied gloved hand, or freezing puddles into huge pillars that you can hop across, or grabbing a key from across a gap using magic. One neat feature of the game is specifically Mind Read, a psynergy (Golden Sun’s word for spell or power) that Jupiter-adepts have that lets them read the thoughts of most any NPC in the game. You the player can peer into the thoughts of basically anyone and this can lead to hints for treasure, important lore, discovering more about story-characters or just having a laugh. For example, in the first game there is a woman who states that she’d never use violence on the attackers of her town: use Mind Read on her however, and you’ll find that she’s fantasising about giving them a proper beating. Amazing stuff, Camelot.

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Here’s a cheeky hint that you can use Mind Read even on animals! And also, this is how the Mind Read psynergy looks, complete with wavy text boxes and psychedelic screen tints.

With this in mind, you can easily see how players fell in love with these games. You have a real effect on the world around you as you progress through the game, and you can do as much or as little as you want to get to your destination. You don’t have to experiment with your Djinni to find some optimal configurations, you don’t have to do any of the super-hard puzzles that often require a bit of lateral thinking. You can take or leave as much as you want, but going that extra mile will always achieve something useful, interesting or beneficial. And I think this is where some of the magic is.

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Ah, the curse of the silent protagonist.

A whole lot of the magic however, is in the utterly mind-bending soundtrack. Motoi Sakuraba really outdid himself on this one. You might know him from games such as the Dark Souls series, Star Ocean, Valkyrie Profile, and the Tales series. Of these, you will definitely recognise his style from the Valkyrie Profile OSTs. It’s quite a jazzy soundtrack, featuring so much oomph and rockiness that I just adore. Just give the video below a listen, it’s set to start at my favourite song in the first game: Sol Sanctum.

And it’s not just the soundtrack, the sound design as a whole makes me happy. The little beeps of the UI and the Animal Crossing-esque squeaky dialogue fills me with warmth and nostalgia. Good vibes only.

But not only the music, look at the screenshots in this review! These games are quite gorgeous. They apparently pushed the GBA to its upper limits to make even these tiny sprites feel so alive: they bounce, show little emoticons, run around in ways that convey intent – fantastic. I would compare them to Final Fantasy V and Final Fantasy VI in that they are all games that use sprites fantastically instead of just being character placeholders. Find a video of them in motion, it’s genuinely impressive, I think.

The beauty of the series is highlighted in the storyline. All three games take place with the same characters, sort of. The first two are a duology where the second game starts right at the end of the first game, but with a completely different set of characters who you only briefly met a few times during the first game. The story takes both sets of characters on long, arduous journeys around the entire world, featuring many locales with cultures and geography based on little-used real-world locations such as Ayutthaya and Gonwanaland. Also there’s a wind-themed dungeon that is named Air’s Rock and the world map icon looks like Ayers Rock. That’s what we’re dealing with here, folks. Wonderful.

There were plans on having it be one huge game but they found that they simply had too much stuff, so they broke it up into two games and it works so well for it. You can transfer your data over from the first game in the second once you’ve beaten it, so your choices do actually matter! This was back in 2001! On the GBA! I’m sure this was so incredibly rare back then, and speaks volumes about the creative and technical direction of the games.

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Dark Dawn had quite the visual upgrade, but that didn’t save it from the ire of the diehard Golden Sun community.

The third game in the series was less well-received, but it takes place 30 years after the second and features the kids of the first game’s cast as playable characters. It’s still a good game, but there are many faults that can be summed up in a reddit comment that I read a few days ago and cannot find again. To paraphrase: it’s like they were given all the resources to make a Golden Sun game and screwed it up just enough so that it still feels like a Golden Sun game, but not as good. It has some issues with pacing, difficulty and having multiple points of no return which the previous games had no whiff of. But I digress, still worth it.

To summarise, Golden Sun is a series that really captured magic in a jar and thanks to a mediocre sequel on the DS that released nine years after the originals, probably won’t ever get the sequel, recognition or fame that it deserves. Right now Isaac is an Assist trophy in Super Smash Brothers Ultimate and that’s all we have. This year however is the 20-year anniversary of Golden Sun and it was recently featured in 2021’s Online AGDQ (something else I really need to write a bit about), the video I will link below shows you that extremely impressive run. Dare I wish for a port, remake announcement, even a sequel on the Switch? I dare. I fucking dare.

You will like these games if you liked: Final Fantasy V, Dragon Warrior III, 2D Zelda games, Turn-Based RPGs

Verdict: The first two games are a must-play for any RPG fan, the third game only play if you loved the first.

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From left to right: Ivan the Jupiter Adept, Isaac the Venus Adept, Garet the Mars Adept, Mia the Mercury Adept.

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