How badly does a piece of media–game, book, whatever–have to fall apart at its end to retroactively ruin the experience that led up to it? Golden Sun exists to test this question.
Released in 2001 for the Game Boy Advance, Golden Sun is an RPG that I had heard almost exclusively good things about. I owned both Golden Sun and its sequel, Golden Sun: The Lost Age, without playing either of them until the Games I Beat In 2014 project. In it, you play as Isaac (Whom you can rename). The game starts in your hometown of Vale, where Mt. Aleph erupts and disaster strikes thanks to a band of raiders. These raiders failed to solve the riddle of Sol Sanctum, and the mountain erupted as a result, damaging your village and causing your friend Felix to wash away.
Three years (In game time) later, Isaac and his cohorts journey to the Sol Sanctum themselves to solve its mysteries, and you realize that what you just sat through was actually the prologue to the prologue, and now you have to get through the actual prologue before any meaningful gameplay will commence. The prologue ends with more people getting kidnapped, villains (The raiders from the prologue’s prologue) in possession of three of the four items that are key to lighting magical lighthouses, and you going on a wild goose chase around the world to get the trinkets back and stop the lighthouses from being lit.
The good news is that the gameplay, once you get to it, is a lot of fun. Your party has an ability called Psynergy, which is Golden Sun’s equivalent of Magic. Inherently, they have certain Psynergies, and acquiring more items will give them additional Psynergies. The cool part is that these Psynergies can be used to solve puzzles in dungeons. It’s a neat twist on the classic JRPG “Go from Point A to Point B, Kill Boss, Repeat” formula. If I had to pick one game Golden Sun was most similar to, I would answer Lufia II, a universally beloved SNES RPG.
The thing is that Golden Sun emulates Lufia II for better or for worse. Lufia II has a ton of dialogue, some of it badly translated, and most of it unnecessary. Golden Sun also has a lot of dialogue, and while it’s solidly translated, the script reads more like a sprawling, brainstorming first draft than a tight, final package. A few more edits of the dialogue to trim away and tighten up the excess would have done it a lot of good. Golden Sun also borrows the “Badly upscale a normal enemy sprite and BOOM! Boss Sprite!” model of crafting bosses, giving them a look as though you had zoomed in on a normal enemy sprite, only blurrier. This looks silly, and will stick in your mind as you wander the overworld, which is pixellated and “shaky”, for lack of a better term.
One way that Golden Sun and Lufia II are different is in how pet monsters are used. In Golden Sun, you acquire monsters called Djinn to fight for you. They can be unleashed and then summoned in battle, at which point they go into Standby for a time before re-“setting” themselves on your characters. Setting these Djinn on your characters, though, changes their stats, and various combinations will unlock new characters and abilities for them, some of them necessary to solving certain puzzles in the game. It’s a unique, if flawed, system–the easiest thing to do to attain “good enough” results with this system is to just stack everyone with the Djinn of their element, particularly later on when doing so gives two characters full-party-heal spells.
Neither the dialogue, nor the graphics, nor the imperfect class/advancement system are Golden Sun’s worst flaw, though. In the aftermath of my beating it, my thoughts went back and forth. I enjoyed the experience for the most part. The Djinn system was neat, and the puzzles were usually challenging without being frustrating, even though there were a couple really finicky ones–even if you figured out the correct solution, it wouldn’t work if you weren’t also standing in precisely the right place and orientation. But I kept coming back to the question posed in the opening of this piece. And in my end, my conclusion is as follows:
Golden Sun is a great half of a game.
I’m not saying it’s short–you’ll get your money’s worth out of it in playtime. My file at the end had about 27 hours on it, which is about as much time as I spent on the very-much-a-full-game Final Fantasy II. But I’ll be as spoiler-free as possible when I say that, at a point in most other RPGs where the game and its world really open up to you, Golden Sun just…ends. In the process, it leaves multiple plot threads hanging. Now, I can live with twist endings, or bad endings. I can even, to a degree, live with a non-ending (Growing up in the NES era conditions you for that kind of thing), so long as the adventure itself is a satisfying, self-contained story. But my breaking point is when you effectively cut the game off at the middle, and make your ending little more than “Preorder Golden Sun: The Lost Age! Coming Soon!” The game doesn’t phrase it in precisely that way, of course, but the giant “To Be Continued” means it may as well have done just that.
In refreshing my memory regarding the beginning of Golden Sun’s plot, I read the Wikipedia article on it (There are spoilers in it of course, but you’re a smart person…you don’t need me to link a Wikipedia article if you really want to read it), and found out what I had suspected (And what someone in my chat had told me) was true. The short version is that Golden Sun and Golden Sun: The Lost Age were conceived as one epic adventure on the N64. When it was clear the N64 was on its last legs, the development moved to the Game Boy Advance. At some point during the development of the (Still one) GBA game, it became clear that the game’s scope was too big for one game, so it was split into two, released about a year apart in Japan (The lead time was closer to a year and a half in the US). While this made sense from a development standpoint, unless there was some contract in place from the start, releasing what is effectively half a game nonetheless strikes me as risky (An obscure NES game called Nightshade–also a self-contained experience–had the full name of “Nightshade Part 1: The Claws of Sutekh”. There was no Nightshade Part 2.).
Golden Sun does offer a couple different (hidden) ways to transfer your data over to The Lost Age. Given this, though, the biggest question I have is “Why did they play out the end of Golden Sun the way that they did?” You see, after the final battle, but before the credits, you have control. You can even save. What the game doesn’t tell you unless you go exploring the town at that point (Probably after saving, not expecting the final battle to be, you know, the final battle) is that you’re stuck there. Want to go back and travel the world, further strengthen your team, maybe acquire some more Djinn? Too bad for you if you saved already. Yes, part of that can be blamed on me for not making multiple save files. But the game doesn’t encourage you to do that either–the limit is three slots, and one slot will be taken up by the Game Clear data you’ll create (By the way, the Game Clear data is used only for transferring to The Lost Age–you can’t actually play that data anymore), making your effective limit at that point two save slots. As much as I’ve complained about the excessive dialogue, I think folding this little piece of gameplay into the cutscenes immediately before and after it, thus turning it into one massive cutscene (It’s not like it would be the game’s first), would have worked better, and probably eased my frustration at how the game ended.
I know I’m hammering on Golden Sun’s ending. Believe it or not, my overall experience with the game was positive. There was definitely some substance that made people who played it when it came out love it so, even if it was one of the first RPGs for the GBA (For a contrast, all of the “ZOMG IT’S AN N64 RPGGGGGGGGG” in the world didn’t save Quest 64’s reputation). I do, however, think that nostalgia and slim GBA RPG pickings at the time cause people to remember it more fondly than it deserves. I enjoyed it, I recommend playing it…and I lament what it could have been.