The more formulaic counterpart to RPG oddball Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, Golden Sun expands on proven genre archetypes to deliver an experience that both pays tribute to and refines the classic role-playing adventure. It also gives some Wii U owners, potentially, their first experience of a franchise that has a loyal following; whether it'll return with a new title will be a hot topic for those fans in the coming months and years.
The game opens with protagonist Isaac awaking to the sound of a terrible storm threatening to destroy his hometown of Vale (that's two RPG clichés in the opening minute — sleeping protagonist AND village destruction, for those keeping score at home). The residents of Vale are able to harness a powerful energy known as Psynergy, a supernatural force that manifests in a variety of ways such as telekinesis, and are in the midst of doing so to stave off a giant boulder when the game begins. The village is ultimately spared (though not without casualties), and begins in earnest once these events have unfolded.
Without spoiling much of the plot, Golden Sun takes a leisurely attitude to establishing an overarching narrative, instead prioritising character introduction and explanation of the game's rich setting. It's a gamble that ultimately pays off, allowing it to craft interesting characters to which you can relate, but those easily frustrated with such a stifling pace may find themselves turned off before it even truly begins. It can be a little hard to keep tabs on what's going on at times, an issue largely caused by its tendency to talk perhaps a little excessively and drown out important information with extraneous chatter, but the patter does make for a more endearing experience on the whole. Golden Sun also loves to make the player feel included in the many exchanges, constantly throwing Yes/No questions into the mix, but these never feel important to the plot and rarely fit naturally with the dialogue itself, instead feeling more akin to contrived interactivity.
The gameplay itself is fairly standard RPG fare, for the most part — the protagonist and his eventual cohorts traverse the world, exploring varied landscapes, unearthing ancient dungeons and pilfering any objects not nailed to the ground. Battles are commenced entirely at random on the world map and follow a standard turn-based regime, enriched with an impressive variety of attacks and abilities at the party's disposal. Overworld exploration is made more interesting by the use of the character's Psynergy abilities – Isaac's telekinetic powers, for example, can be used to shift certain objects in the environment to solve puzzles, giving Golden Sun a Legend of Zelda meets Final Fantasy setup.
It's unique and entertaining, although a little fiddly – the player often has to stand in a fairly specific spot and face a specific direction to have the short-range abilities activate correctly, otherwise they fizzle and Isaac is left with nothing but fewer magic points for his trouble. Harnessing these abilities comes with practice, but it's frustrating in the early hours of the game to drain your character's energy trying to shift a statue that's inches from your character.
An interesting wrinkle to the otherwise fairly conventional combat system is the inclusion of elemental Djinn, small creatures that aid the heroes in battle by bolstering their stats. Equipping one of these creatures to a character greatly increases their offensive and defensive parameters, but also allows for the use of a powerful attack, healing spell or the like depending on the individual Djinni. The caveat is that, once this attack is used, the creature enters a standby mode where it is no longer adding to that character's stats; hence, a risk/reward strategy comes into play when using the monsters. Is it better to continue with higher stats and play it safe, or to unleash the Djinn's powers early on in an all-out attack? It's a simple mechanism with surprisingly deep results, although it's not explained particularly well from the outset – again, this is another aspect that is better understood through practice than explanation.
Graphically, Golden Sun was a marvel on its native system, and is no slouch on the Virtual Console. Environments are detailed, particularly building interiors that are decorated with a real sense of detail and believability, whilst overworld characters are well designed, if not somewhat bland. It's in combat that Golden Sun is a true visual marvel, though, and Camelot's ability to create the effects seen in Golden Sun within the GBA's limitations is laudable. The dynamic camera swoops all around during battles (despite being comprised of 2D sprites – there's some clever trickery taking place here), whilst magic attacks explode with a flourish of impressive particle effects. Golden Sun has aged well, owed in part to it's intentionally classical, retro aesthetic, and ports fairly well to the big screen, especially with the Wii U Virtual Console's optional smoothing feature activated.
Aurally, Golden Sun is adequate, although it's unfair to say it delivers much more than that as a whole package. The soundtrack is fine and well-suited to the environments, but lacking in many real earworms that gamers will be humming ten years down the line. Thankfully, the battle theme is one of the more enjoyable tracks — always important when it's the song players will hear ad nauseum — brimming with the energy and up-tempo melody that matches even some of Final Fantasy's finest. There's nothing to complain about with Golden Sun's soundtrack, really, beyond being fairly unmemorable, but it's inoffensive and competent tunes accompany the adventure well enough. Sound effects are more than adequate, however; the satisfying clunks and slashes during battles give weight to the combat, and nailing an enemy with a powerful strike feels all the more satisfying because of it.
Golden Sun is a fine RPG, perfecting the classic formula whilst introducing unique mechanics of its own. The setting is interesting, the characters are likable, and the story is gripping. The first few hours are a slog, to be sure, but role playing adventures were never designed for the impatient. Stick with this one through the opening issues and you'll be rewarded with a rich, deep RPG that desperately awaits (and deserves!) a modern day instalment. Golden Sun isn't without its imperfections, unfortunately — the incessant dialogue can prove tiresome at points, and mechanics aren't always particularly well explained — but for what Golden Sun delivers, these sins are more than absolved.