Golden Sun (Camelot Software Planning, 2001, for GBA)
I've written previously about the dangers of copying what works and committing the Sin of Mediocrity when developing a game, but being derivative isn't always a bad thing. Learning by example doesn't just mean avoiding the mistakes of others, but looking at what's popular and catering to that, whatever that may be. Unfortunately, some love letters penned to the greats of yesterday are a little too on-the-nose. Such is the case with Golden Sun by Camelot. Not only did they fail to avoid some of the foibles of past examples, they've cleverly created some unique problems.
Mistakes were made, but very few, if any, are in the game assets. The soundtrack is another excellent entry in Motoi Sakuraba's rather long list of works. The tracks in the game are mostly composed of pleasant flute melodies, resonating acoustics, and, in the case of the main battle theme, oddly on-point MIDI electric guitars. In particular, that battle theme and the Vale village theme are terribly catchy! If anything truly engaged me in this game, it was the music. The sound effects are okay. I don't want to be dismissive, but they were pretty functional; everything, from menu bloops to sword attack clips, sounded about how you'd expect them to. That's a good thing! Some of the best RPGs have the occasional, inexplicable, ear-bleed inducing screech, or bafflingly unfitting sound bite, and it's not a trivial point to me that they seem to have managed to avoid that in this game.
The spriting is also very nice! One of the things I made note of very early in the game is how nice it looks. Village interiors are warm and interesting looking, and terrain tiles are pretty crisp and visually pleasing. Some of the dungeons and cave passages are unadorned and bland, but they usually make up for it with one or two unique and memorable rooms. There is one small nitpick I have with some of the village tiles. This may just be me, but the sprites for the exterior stairs in Vale are almost insidiously well-designed to blend in with the cliff sides. In the prologue, I spent an embarrassingly long time trying to figure out how to advance.
Battle sprites and backgrounds also look pretty nice. The battle sprites are about as conservative with animation as you'd expect from a JRPG, but they're nicely designed. The battle scenes are nicely framed, and the backgrounds are pretty good, on the whole, especially the lovely, painted-looking outdoor scenes, but there are some misses, there, where the background is a little too stretched and chunky looking.
Outside of battles, the character sprites are a little... odd. They look like they were modeled in 3D and then rendered into flat sprites, with all the benefit of the GBA's tiny resolution, so the idle and run cycles look okay, but the features are small and simple. To "fix" this issue, every character has been inflicted with the dreaded wobbles. That is to say, the sprites themselves don't have that much animation, and rely often on a stretch/squash effect for expression. It seems like a bit of a shortcut, and not a very subtle one. It's also hard to read in some scenes. The effect's used for everything from anxiety to laughter to anger to assent, and sometimes, for seemingly no reason at all. Another peculiarity of the sprites is the occasional use of emoticon bubbles to express emotions. That, by itself, is preferable to the wobbles, and isn't really a problem...
...but that's where the game starts to show its flaws. My first barrier to having a nice time with this game came in the form of cutscenes. I know, I know, this is a pretty common complaint you've probably heard leveled at just about every RPG, but I wouldn't mention it here if it wasn't especially bad about it. The dialogs in this game are terribly paced, not in a way that speaks of a poor localization, but poor planning. The contents of the exchanges themselves are sometimes needlessly redundant, and there are a few good old "but thou must" choice loops, but they seem to be the exception rather than the rule. When it's not chaff in the writing bringing cutscenes down, it's the wobbles and the smiley boxes. Between some messages, the characters take a needlessly long time to emote, to express things that would have easily been inferred from the text. You can turn up the text speed, but you can't skip though the silly, jiggly sprites.
Combat is a bit dull. That's not terribly uncommon for the JRPG format. Let's face it: most of them don't ask a lot of the player, and you spend a lot of time mashing the attack command, or using the "auto" option for those more generous games. Since many JRPGs mostly function as vehicles to deliver a story, I can usually forgive this. Unfortunately, Golden Sun is not generous, and manages to integrate something that frustrates me infinitely: characters can not redirect an action upon losing their target. Even if I'm not mashing the A button to get through combat as quickly as possible, a critical hit can often mean losing efficiency instead of gaining it, as the rest of the party members who targeted that crit-dead sucker then proceed to block meekly. Trying to mete out just enough punishment to kill a foe but avoid losing actions doesn't feel like strategy as much as it feels like a unnecessary layer of tedium.
Puzzles in the game function on a system that actually sounds pretty fun, on paper. The adepts you control can use various spells, or "psynergy", to interact with objects in the field. You can light and douse flames, push and pull objects from a distance, read minds, and more! And I really liked this concept, up until the fifth or sixth time that the Move ability didn't work on a statue I needed to push. Some of the abilities are quite picky with collision, and you can end up wasting a fair chunk of psyenergy points unless you cast the spell just right the first time.
After a couple of hours, I was struggling to figure out what made this game such a hit. I stuck with it, and eventually found it: the Djinn. The Djinn are these little creatures themed around the elements (yes, those four) scattered around the world, just waiting to be found by the party. The way they actually work gameplay-wise is pretty neat! They start off "set" on a party member, which contributes stat bonuses and, occasionally, an extra psynergy. After using that power, however, they go on "standby", allowing the player to use the Djinni to use a powerful summon attack, which gets more powerful when used in conjuntion with other Djinn of the same element. Then, the Djinni goes into "recover" mode, negating the passive stat bonus temporarily. Thus, the Djinn the party finds are their ace in the hole, the big guns to be reserved for dire times, but ones that are beneficial just by keeping them around.
I'll just come out and say it: I did not enjoy playing Golden Sun very much, and I don't think it's an exceptional JRPG. What I did enjoy, however, was that Camelot tried to put their own, unique spin on an old formula. Even if it does stop a little short of great, I have to give them credit for the effort. This game's got some heart, and if you like the concepts in the psynergy puzzles and summon-enhanced combat well enough to forgive the shortcomings, it's worth adding to your GBA collection.
~Kyle "Kaypar" Parker