Although it's an established destination for Japanese role-playing games, the Game Boy Advance's opening months were particularly empty when it came to the stat-heavy, time-intensive genre. Save for the occasional port (such as the excellent Breath of Fire) it was up to Nintendo themselves to show how things should be done. Enter Golden Sun, an entirely new property developed by Camelot, creator of the fan-favorite Shining Force series on the Mega Drive, as well as more cutesy offerings like Mario Golf and Mario Tennis.
In some ways, Golden Sun was a very traditional role-playing game, with its standard turn-based battles and predictable cast, namely its silent protagonist whose village is destroyed at the start of the game (yawn) and a cast of brightly colored and floppy haired characters to contend with. What it lacked in imagination, at least in terms of starring line-up, Golden Sun absolutely made up elsewhere. Although it was an overhead, 2D adventure on a handheld, it featured some stunning visuals, with a glossy, rounded CG-esque art style, and battles framed in a dynamic camera that were topped off with some impressive spell effects. And while its characters were pretty ordinary, the quest's set-up was an interesting one, which saw humble villagers Isaac and Garret pursue members of an evil clan attempting to light ancient lighthouses, as well as rescue their childhood friends, who they have held captive.
Two particular elements set it apart from role-playing games of its ilk, notably when it came to skills and exploration. The game world's form of magic, Psynergy, could be used both in battle and in the field to help explore new areas. Abilities such as Whirlwind would sweep away foliage while Frost would create ice towers to fill in cliff gaps, and practically all dungeons used these to create some clever puzzle situations. The other element was Djinn; a fleet of brightly colored, elemental monsters that were collected along the adventure and could be assigned to characters. Equipping one would reap several benefits, such as stat increases, new classes and what Psynergy they could use. It was an element that worked hand-in-hand with exploration, where new Djinn opened up routes in the environment, and that many old areas hid away bonus creatures to go back and find. For a genre where dungeons were designed to hold items and monster encounters, this approach was a breath of fresh air.
It was these elements that made the game unique, and perhaps more importantly, added plenty of longevity. Unlike most role-playing games, Golden Sun was unusually short lived. Apparently designed to be one complete game but split into two due to cartridge size constraints, players were tasked with stopping an enemy party from activating four lighthouses, but the campaign only covered two. However, the game's length was extended with ultra-powerful classes to discover with the right Djinn combinations, a hidden bonus dungeon with extra challenges to play through, and the chance for players to pit their parties against one another over system link, which again like many of the game's elements, was something very few RPGs offered.
The sequel Golden Sun: The Lost Age soon finished the story, and offered a far wider, larger world to explore, as well as a unique twist where players started off as the enemy characters rather than protagonists Isaac and Garret. While it remained a popular franchise that fans hoped would return, last year's DS follow-up Golden Sun: The Dark Age was released with little fanfare from Nintendo, despite being received well by fans and critics alike. While Golden Sun appeared to be a run-of-the-mill RPG franchise, it offered some refreshing and very well-implemented ideas, not to mention one of the best battle themes I've ever encountered. With the tease that Nintendo is planning to revisit GBA titles in its 3DS eShop, I hope this is one of the titles earmarked with the downloadable treatment.