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Review – Golden Sun

posted on October 9th, 2006 by pat

For the most part, the library of video games consists largely of clones of previously successful games. Games such as Grand Theft Auto III have spawned so many sorry attempts at duplication that a whole new sub-genre was born. There was a time when there was only Grand Theft Auto, and the imitators were yet to join the party. So revolutionary titles do happen. They do not happen frequently, and there are plenty of examples of games that tried to establish something new and failed. I think ChoroQ is an example of this. In trying to create an RPG complete with plot, towns, and dungeon exploration within the context of a racing game (or vice versa) the series (which apparently has several iterations on various systems around the world) tried something unique but ended up making a below average game. It is fair to call a spade a spade and say the game was no good while still appreciating the risks it took.

Djins gone wild.

Clearly, these revolutionary games come along very rarely. We have witnessed this somewhat recently with the release of Katamari Damacy in 2004. This game is yet to spawn imitators as similar to itself as Saints Row is to Grand Theft Auto, but its success has clearly influenced subsequent games. Loco Roco springs to mind. The importance of these games cannot be overstated. A rising tide lifts all ships, and likewise a well made game that tries new things suggests that not only can the specific new things tried by the game can work, but that new things in general can work. And yet the industry and public still hesitate (specifically the industry hesitates because the public hesitates). Great games that are unfamiliar often do not sell. Quirky new games that take Japan by storm never make it to our shores.

There is no easy solution to this problem, but a question the industry should ask itself is how to foster creativity among development teams while satisfying those who put up the money. Publishers need to believe a game will sell well enough that they at least make their money back. When it comes to Nintendo, they give Miyamoto the checkbook and carte blanche and he makes a game about onions or whatever the hell a Pikmin is. This is an isolated case as very few people in the industry have the star power to command this sort of respect. There does have to be a mechanism for this to happen to mere mortals, however, since it obviously does from time to time.

One possibility is to soften the public up with slight evolutions until they are ready for the coup de grace. There are countless examples of this. There are countless examples of this. Final Fantasy 6 and other SNES titles used Mode 7 to make us believe we were playing 3D games. Pandemonium made a 2.5D platformer and then NiGHTS made it better. Inspired by a mechanic in Crazy Taxi, Burnout made a great racing game about crashing and barely avoiding crashing. By marrying the scaling 2D sprites of Hang On and a space shooter, Space Harrier introduced gamers to the shooter on rails and anticipated later greats such as Star Fox, Panzer Dragoon, Sin and Punishment and Rez. None of these revolutionized a genre, nor did they create a new one, but they made enough changes to an established genre that they showed up on the map for their unique aspects and succeeded wildly. The success of games like these hopefully encourages producers to let developers off the leash some when it comes to future games. This makes them valuable in and off themselves in that they have made useful and fun innovations, and in a larger sense if they lead to bigger and better changes.

Hmmm…puzzling.

Golden Sun for the Game Boy Advance is a game that has made enough small changes to the RPG boilerplate that it deserves some attention. For the most part, the battle system is standard fare, with physical attacks, spells, and summons. Certain aspects of battles actually take steps backwards in that if an enemy a character was scheduled to attack dies before his turn the character will not attack someone else.

The change in battles is the djinn. In some ways this is the standard variation on a theme that all RPG’s use to make their battles seem fresh and unique, but the depth of the mechanic is impressive. Equipping djinn has a huge impact on a character’s stats, class, and most importantly available spells. Unequipping (called Releasing) djinn in battle will alter your stats, but works like casting a spell, and only after some number of djinn (1-4 out of a max of 7) are Released can you cast a summon. This integrates all aspects of a character and leads to tradeoffs.

In most games leveling unilaterally makes you stronger and few decisions change that. This game forces you to make choices around what spells stats and summons damage you have to enter a battle. The player is forced to take risks, and manage these things carefully so when characters are vulnerable to powerful attacks they have high HP and at others they are capable of unleashing powerful summons. The biggest problem with the battles is that so few of them are difficult enough that the player is forced to manage the djinns carefully. Having tougher battles, even if optional, would have improved the game significantly.

Wheeee!!!

The bigger phase shift that the game makes is that it allows you to use your spells outside of battle. This goes well beyond the ability to use heal spells in between fights. Golden Sun is largely based on puzzles. These puzzles generally rely on casting spells at least as much as moving blocks in a certain order to certain spots. Your water spell can extinguish fire and your freeze spell can make puddles into columns of ice. It is endlessly frustrating that this is not available in other games. I’ll never forget how mad I was at Final Fantasy 9 (and I really enjoyed that one) when a character was turned to stone out of battle and I could not simply use soft to move on. Using vine attacks to make walls climbable, and wind spells to move certain obstacles in satisfying and very refreshing. And you can experiment with different djinn combinations to uncover new spells that you may need to progress, but that in turn may make you slightly weaker.

The overarching theme this game develops is integration. Your djinns are integrated into your character in such a way that you can use them as summons, as stat boosters or as an action of their own (by releasing). And your spells are integrated in that you do not mysteriously lose them once a battle ends as you have in every other game ever made (probably). Because of this, Golden Sun has moved RPG’s forward and made them more intuitive. The good people at Camelot did not create a new genre with the game, but they have made a move that is not only welcome, but hopefully becomes popular enough that other games go down the same road and take it even further, whatever that entails.

2 Comments

  1. Christian said on October 9, 2006:

    I agree that the game made some good changes, but like you said Pat, the battles are so simple that I never had to use strategy.  Just get my Djinns ready to summon pre battle, and just keep using them (or physical attacks).  There are a couple of battles in which this wrecklessness caused me trouble, but generally it was far too easy a game for these innovations to really stand out.  Also, the rest of the game is just a little too clsoe to the typical RPG mold.  So much text to read on such a small screen, I couldn’t take it anymore by the endgame.

  2. pat said on October 12, 2006:

    christian – ive been out of town and (gasp) without access for the past few days.  there was an optional dungeon which im not sure whether you played or not that had a challenging battle which forced me to learn the djinn system a little better.  all in all though the ease of the game was a detractor.  from what ive played of the second its even easier.  to the point that i stopped playing.

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