Sunday, April 10, 2016

Golden Sun was a fantastic series that was also a product of its time

Alright, where to even begin?

Golden Sun caught me completely by surprise when I first learned of it as a wee lad, back in 2003. I had seen glimpses of the first game here and there, both in Nintendo Power and in the infancy of the internet, but it had never really grasped me as a must have game. Later, when The Lost Age came out, I was deeply entrenched in internet communities and received more exposure to the hype surrounding the game. I began to look up screenshots and reviews and other info about the game, and quickly became more and more intrigued by its colorful design and focus on the Greek elements of Fire, Earth, Air, and Wind. Of course, during this time, I was also an amoral pre-teen, so I downloaded the ROM of the first game and began to play the opening segments on Visual Boy Advance. I was hooked. The game was pure old school RPG goodness, and I quickly realized it was developed by Camelot, the developer of the beloved Shining Force series - the trademark little Yes/No options you get during dialogue tipped me off. I got to the end of the opening - where you leave Vale - and I decided that I was going to ask my parents if I could buy the actual cart for GBA. I barely ever got games as presents back then, so this was a big deal. I ended up barreling through both the original and its sequel within two weeks or so, and I was completely blown away by how much I enjoyed them. I adored the OST, as well, and I didn't even find out it was composed by one of my favorite game musicians, Motoi Sakuraba, until after I'd beaten both games.

The elemental focus of the game is one of its greatest strengths. It individualizes each character in a similar way to superhero comics or shonen manga, where everyone has a set of "special powers" that only they or a select few are able to use. Playing on the Greek elements of Fire, Water, Earth, and Air, although taking names from Roman mythology to refer to them in Mars, Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter, each Adept was confined to a single element, and often bore physical traits of their element in their design, such as blue hair for Mercury Adepts and red hair for Mars Adepts. The fact that there were four different types of adepts meant that each "special" person was drawing from a limited pool of powers, which only added to the appeal of their abilities, as they felt unique, but still relatively grounded - they were different than others, but they were much less so than, say, your average superpowered comic or manga protagonist. I love how each type of Psyenergy is assigned a certain color, and how its adepts and djinn work within that color scheme. Color is a huge element of these games (pun intended) and the coloring style itself is very striking, especially in its artwork but also in-game. Each element also had a particular type of Djinn assigned to it, with each Djinn remaining visually distinct from one another yet retaining common elements among the same type.

The party from the original game. Their goal was to stop the elemental lighthouses from being lit.
Speaking of Djinn, they were a really cool gameplay addition. Collecting more of them allowed you to cast more powerful elemental spells, and you could even assign Djinn of any element to the different adepts in your party. The Djinn essentially functioned as a class system of sorts, and mixing and matching the different elements gave each character unique abilities and differing playstyles between combinations. Reclassing in this game took the job system of Final Fantasy and gave it a very unique spin. This allowed the limited party you had - four people and four people only - to feel very diverse despite its small size, and even when you reclassed a character, they still felt like they were unique and remained firmly in their own elemental niche.

From left to right, clockwise: Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Mercury Djinn.
The elements serve a very distinct function outside of battle, as well, causing the game to have some of the best dungeon design in an RPG. You can use earth magic to push pillars, fire magic to ignite objects, water magic to freeze puddles of water, and wind magic to read people's minds. It's really neat how every element remains useful, and you find yourself consistently using each element both in and out of battle.

The limited party was also a fantastic idea. You got one adept of each element, further exemplifying the "specialness" of the adepts in the Golden Sun world and allowing you to appreciate each character for their unique gifts. The small party size also led you to become attached to the characters in a way that many RPGs with larger party sizes do not, as well as give each character time to shine during story segments. You get them all towards the beginning of the game, so you have a lot of time to fall in love with these characters.

Isaac, the party leader of the first game, uses his earth magic.
And speaking of the characters... the switch between the first and second game was phenomenally well done. You spend the entire first game chasing down a group trying to light the four elemental lighthouses, and the game ends as your group heads off to sea, to new lands and the second set of lighthouses. It would make sense to continue where the story left off, and it does, but in a way that most wouldn't expect - you instead begin the second game as the finale to the first is occuring, taking control of the opposite party! The character of Felix, who betrays you very early on in the first game, becomes the lead protagonist, and his motives are explored in further detail. That's right - your goal is now to oppose your party from the first game, and to light the lighthouses instead. You get a new set of adepts and a new world to explore, and the story takes many twists and turns that function so well partially because of the 180 in perspective. Meeting with Isaac and co. from the first game remains one of my favorite moments in RPGs!

Promo art for The Lost Age, featuring Felix and his group of adepts. Notice the darker and more subdued color scheme, reflecting the tonal shift in the story.
But if the first two were so good, why was the third game, Dark Dawn, so poorly received?

Promo image for Golden Sun: Dark Dawn, featuring Matthew, Karis, and Tyrell.
I believe this is for two major reasons. One is that the DS entry tried to rest on its laurels, echoing plot and character development from the original duology and riding its coattails in a way that felt bland. Your characters are the children of the characters from the first two games, and constant reference is made to that fact, taking the spotlight from the protagonists and splitting it between them and their parents, causing neither party to shine as brightly as the two from before. This leads directly into the second issue, which is that Golden Sun was released on the GBA during a time when quality RPGs were scarce on the system, and when the concepts it was introducing were progressive and unique. Without the novelty of the elemental motifs and gameplay design, the game felt like a grey echo of its bright and cheery predecessors (which is ironic, as the literal color palettes used in Dark Dawn were almost too bright. But, I digress).

See here; mention of 30 years ago. Get used to seeing that.
I believe that Golden Sun was so enjoyable not only because of its mechanics, dungeon design, and simple but appealing narrative, but also because of the environment in which it was released. The reason the simple narrative was able to remain endearing was because it was carried by the novelty and newness of its design, and when the third game is a retread of that, the narrative simply can't stand as strongly on its own, especially when it's diluted by introducing eight new characters in the span of a single game, unlike the gradual introduction of the two distinct parties of the first two entries.

I still want a fourth one, though. Dark Dawn ended on a cliffhanger, and it seemed like the plot could become promising. Maybe someday...?

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