Thanks to the success of the Switch, Nintendo has done a great job of dispelling much of the negativity and uncertainty surrounding the company during the disastrous Wii U era.  Between crafting some of their greatest first party titles to date and making the console a haven for indie developers, Nintendo has crafted a console/handheld hybrid that has more games worth playing in its library in just one year  than the Wii U mustered in its entire lifespan.  That being said, there is absolutely room for the beloved company to continue to improve.  Major third party support, while improving, is still lacking in comparison to the Playstation 4 and Xbox One.  Moreover, Nintendo continues to favor several of its tried and true IPs instead of giving some of its older, but equally beloved ones time to shine.

In fairness, Nintendo is improving in this regard too; for example, it's no longer fair to say Metroid is "dead" after last year's excellent Metroid II remake, and we still have Metroid Prime 4 on the horizon.  Star Fox also got a new installment in the form of 2016's Star Fox: Zero... though perhaps given how that game turned out it'd be better if the franchise had stayed dead.  Yet there are still innumerable Nintendo franchises that haven't seen a new installment for years, with little to no reason why they shouldn't be resurrected.  Just to name a few, Nintendo still only acknowledges F-Zero when it's time for Captain Falcon to make a returning appearance in Super Smash Bros.  Strategy great Advance Wars is completely neglected in favor of its medieval cousin, Fire Emblem.  And Kid Icarus:  Uprising creator Mashairo Sakurai believes it'll be another 25 years for the series to get a new installment, after Uprising resurrected the series in 2012.

Yet, there is one franchise in particular that has in the past fifteen or so years been mistreated so flagrantly it's actually upsetting, and it's one with a small, but very passionate, vocal fanbase that will refuse to let the series' legacy quietly die out.  And that series is Golden Sun.

Remember when video game box art was always colorful and awesome like this?  Pepperidge Farm remembers.

If you've been following my blog for a long time, then you'll know I've talked about Golden Sun before.  My very first blog on Game Informer was a quick piece advocating for its protagonist, Isaac, to join the (at the time) recently announced new Super Smash Bros. game for Wii U and 3DS (sadly, that never happened).  It's... a hard blog to go back to.  My writing seems juvenile by comparison to the text walls I can now conjure.

Regardless, if you're unaware, the Golden Sun series was originally comprised of two stellar JRPGs for the Game Boy Advance that, combined, told one cohesive narrative.  The first installment, Golden Sun, released within the first year of the console's lifespan, providing handheld gamers with a JRPG of SNES level quality both visually and mechanically.  It was a welcome alternative to Pokemon for Nintendo fans that were fond of JRPGs.  Two years later, the game received a direct sequel in the form of Golden Sun:  The Lost Age, which featured a brand new protagonist and ended the story.  Both games achieved modest sales and popularity, each moving over a million units, and are still widely considered to be among the best JRPGs playable on Nintendo hardware.

The game's developer, Camelot (also known for developing the Shining series and Mario Tennis/Golf games) stated in 2004 that the two games, with the grand narrative they told, were just a "prologue" for a main event, a bold claim that excited series fans.  Except... that main event never came.  In the years since, Camelot was enslaved commissioned by Nintendo to make countless Mario Tennis and Golf games in the place of a new Golden Sun.

Fans would finally see their wishes materialized when Golden Sun:  Dark Dawn released for the DS in 2010, but not in the way they would have liked.  A sequel that took place thirty years after the Game Boy Advance and starred the children of its predecessors' protagonists, Dark Dawn largely disappointed thanks to an overly exposition heavy story and various points of no return that sealed off access to earlier parts of the world map.

Dark Dawn revived the Golden Sun series after a seven year hiatus, but it disappointed in comparison to its predecessors.

And after that?  Golden Sun... faded into obscurity.  While series protagonist Isaac was an "assist trophy" that would help players in Super Smash Bros.:  Brawl, his presence was entirely removed in Super Smash Bros. for 3DS and Wii U, and aside from two musical tracks, the franchise has no representation into Nintendo's revered fighting series.  What's more, Dark Dawn ended on a dramatic cliffhanger, and eight years after its release, there is no sign of a no installment that will finally bring a close to this series' long running story.  In a way, Dark Dawn shot its own series in the foot by reviving a series that originally ended with closure, only to end on a cliffhanger and not be followed up on.

I did not grow up with the Golden Sun games.  But I did originally play them when I was 17 years old - just as the protagonists reached this age and reached maturity, so too did I in real life, and for that reason these games will always have a very special place in my heart.  Today, in this blog, I'd like to take some time to describe what makes these games so special, and why they stand out from the deluge of JRPGs that came before and after them.  Finally, I'd like to describe what Nintendo could do (but probably won't) to successfully continue and conclude one of its greatest, but most underappreciated series ever.

A Fascinating, Rich World to Explore

One of the things that struck out to me the most about the original two Golden Sun games is how rich of a setting its world, Weyward is.  In many regards, Golden Sun's story focuses more on the various civilizations and locations you'll explore than the characters themselves.  Weyward is a essentially a flat version of Earth as it was around a thousand years ago. The continents roughly align with ours, and its major settlements and cities are all located close to real life equivalents.

The first game is a landlocked adventure that largely takes place on a landmass known as "Angara," which bears many similarities to real life Europe and Asia.  As a history buff, it was fascinating to see how Golden Sun adapted real life culture and history into a medieval, magical fantasy setting.  Tolbi, the center of a great empire, is located on a peninsula, and its most noteworthy attraction is "Colosso," a coliseum where psychic soldiers test their powers in battle for the enjoyment of the elite and commoners alike.  Sounds a bit like Rome no?  On the other hand, "Xian" is clearly inspired by ancient China, right down to its name and music.  It's even coincidentally located right next to a place known as the "Silk Road."

On the other hand, in The Lost Age, players will acquire a boat and get to explore the rest of Weyward's massive world, encountering civilizations based on places like Japan, India, Australia, Africa, and even North America before it was colonized.  All of the cultures of these cities, their landmarks, and even their accompanying music take inspiration from great civilizations from every corner of our Earth, and it made them a real treat to explore instead of the standard copy-and-pasted medieval towns of your typical JRPG.

More importantly however, Golden Sun takes place in a world where select humans known as "adepts" are able to use a force known as "Psynergy" to manipulate the elements and accomplish great tasks.  If you watched 2005's Avatar:  The Last Airbender cartoon, then you'll understand immediately how cool this is.  The main characters of Golden Sun are able to wield the powers of earth, fire, air and water to their will both in and outside of battle to meet their goals.  Exploring Weyward, learning the history of Psynergy and both the blessings and harms its caused Weyward over time is fascinating stuff.  It also helps that Psynergy is just damn fun to use...

Golden Sun isn't the only JRPG to create a map loosely based on our Earth, but Golden Sun does an admirable job of creating fantasy RPG civilizations based on ones found in real life history.

A Cohesive Magic System

Magic, or psynergy as it is known in Golden Sun, is extremely important to both its plot and gameplay.  While all of the game's protagonists are proficient with weapons, they are all also able to wield one of the four elements, and using psynergy in battle is something you must do constantly, even during random encounters.  Golden Sun doesn't reward mashing the attack button as much as most modern JRPGs, meaning that using your psynergy to start earthquakes, encase your foes in ice, and trap them in whirlwinds is essential to success.  However, Golden Sun really deserves credit for how it utilizes its magic system outside of combat.  I always found it odd that in games like the classic Final Fantasy titles, your mages are never displayed as using their magical skills outside of battle to help the party.  This is not the case in Golden Sun however, as psynergy is not only used to crush foes in combat but aid in exploring the world itself.

Golden Sun's dungeons and environments aren't just series of rooms and random encounters to plow through.  You will actually have to use all four party members' psynergy moves to solve puzzles and make progress.  This does entail simple maneuvers like moving blocks with the power of your mind from a distance or freezing a puddle of water to create an ice pillar to jump on.  However, it also includes cooler tactics, such as causing an earthquake to dislodge trapped objects or evaporate pools of water to reach inaccessible areas.  Later in the Golden Sun games you'll have to utilize many different types of Psynergy to solve more complicated puzzles, and because these moves still use up the game's equivalent of MP, you'll have to be thoughtful in how you approach these scenarios.  Thankfully, you'll gradually recover these points while walking, so you'll rarely get stuck without the means to progress.

Perhaps my favorite use of psynergy outside of battle is the Mind Read ability however.  In both Golden Sun games, your Wind Adept party member can literally read the minds of every NPC in the entire game.  This not only almost doubles the total amount of dialogue in the game, but leads to some interesting scenarios, as you can always tell if an NPC is hiding something from you or outright lying.  It's always amazed me how there are so few video games that make use of awesome psychic abilities like this.

Regardless, Golden Sun impresses because its psynergy magic system isn't only instrumental to combat, but can and must be used in the field as well to conquer environments and make progress.  It's strange how we are about 15 years removed from Golden Sun, yet only a handful of JRPGs since have done the same.

In Golden Sun, magic isn't only used in combat, but to solve puzzles in the field.  For example, causing an earthquake has applications both on and off the battlefield.

Deliciously Customizable Combat

Like most JRPGs, a lengthy portion of both Golden Sun games takes place in turn based combat.  It's fairly standard stuff - expect to attack, defend, and cast a lot of magic - though a firm but fair difficulty level keeps things interesting throughout.  However, Golden Sun adds a fascinating new wrinkle to combat through the use of its Djinn system.

Djinn are elemental beings that can be uncovered through careful exploration of Golden Sun's environments, often by reaching hidden areas or solving tricky optional puzzles.  Once obtained, they can be equipped to a character much like an item, and will improve their stats accordingly.  If you equip an elemental Djinn to a character of the same element (for example, giving Wind Djinn to Wind Adept Ivan) their stats will generally dramatically increase, and they may even learn new psynergy moves of that element to use in combat.  However, Golden Sun also rewards creativity if you mix and match Djinn of various elements to the same character.  This radically alters their stats, improving some at the cost of others and granting the character radically different abilities.  For example, Earth Adept Isaac is ordinarily a well rounded fighter, but if you slap a bunch of Water Djinn on his character, he'll lose his offensive psynergy at the expense of powerful healing magic.  The beauty of the Djinn system is that you can swap Djinn at any time outside of battle, rewarding instead of penalizing experimentation and allowing you to craft your party however you like.

Djinn are not merely the equivalent of stat boosting items however.  They can also be used in battle like an item to trigger varying effects, such as virtually negating all damage to your party for one turn or inflicting a debilitating status effect on an enemy.  Once a Djinn has been used however, they will temporarily enter "standby" mode, during which you will lose whatever stat changes and abilities they were providing you with; often times, utilizing a Djinn in battle will be very helpful, but could demote you to a less useful class.  You can expend a turn to re-equip the Djinn, but the game has an interesting risk and reward system through how it implements summons.

Powerful, and graphically impressive (for the time) summons can be called to inflict massive amounts of damage on even bosses if a certain amount of Djinn of an element are in standby mode.  Thus, using Djinn and temporarily losing their benefits is rewarded through tearing through the enemies' HP.  After a summon, Djinn will automatically equip themselves a few turns later, temporarily leaving the summoner vulnerable.  Much of the strategy to combat, fighting bosses in particular, thus comes from deciding whether or not sacrificing a character's class and stats for a few turns is worth the helpful benefits the Djinn use and subsequent summon will grant them.

The Djinn are responsible for much of the creativity of Golden Sun's combat.  They are simultaneously the keys to Golden Sun's rich class system, powerful expendable items, and tools used in a risky summoning system that can help you tear through boss HP at the expense of your own safety.  Pretty cool for beings that look like Pokemon rejects.

Sure, these little buggers look even dumber than a lot of the newer Pokemon, but their applications in battle are pretty awesome.

Impressive Visuals and an Incredible Soundtrack

The Game Boy Advance was, in terms of power, such a radical improvement over the aging, decade old technology of the original Game Boy.  Even more powerful than the SNES, the Game Boy Advance was able to craft beautiful 16-bit pixel art that put its handheld predecessor to shame.  Some would argue the games of this era are starting to show their age, but pixel art undoubtedly matures more gracefully than whatever "cutting edge" 3D graphics exist at any given time.

This is true of Golden Sun as well, which boasts visuals that put even a lot of SNES classics like Final Fantasy VI to shame.

Perhaps they no longer look "impressive" but back in 2001, the jump from the Game Boy Color to visuals like this was very large.

However, where Golden Sun is truly timeless is its soundtrack.  No longer limited to the chiptune audio of the original Game Boy, developers were able to craft much richer and more emotional tracks with the Game Boy Advance, and this is important for a JRPG like Golden Sun.  As stated earlier, not only do the tracks often reflect the culture of whatever town of Weyward you're in, they're also able to evoke genuine feelings from the player.  There are too many greats to list, but I'll post a few standouts below.

Elemental Stars is a mystical track that plays during some of the more surreal locations of the game.  Listening to it with headphones is magical.

Hopelessness often plays when you first reach a town that is in despair or turmoil... which happens quite a lot.  I think its very effective at evoking the emotion in its title.

Venus Lighthouse plays during the final dungeon of the first game.  After 20 hours of pursuing the antagonists, you're finally ready to stop them, and this track hypes you up to do just that.

The main theme of this game still gets me emotional, five years after playing it...  I remember lingering on the title theme for a while every time I booted up the original just to let it soak in.

I hope these tracks whet your appetite to play the games if you haven't already.  If you're curious, you can listen to the whole OST here.  I personally believe Golden Sun deserves to be mentioned alongside the likes of Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger when discussions of the best 16-bit JRPG soundtracks come up.

Two Games, One Story

I alluded to this in the introduction of the blog, but what makes Golden Sun really special in my eyes is that the original two games were each one half of a larger narrative.  In fairness, this isn't entirely a great thing, as it'd be really difficult to enjoy Golden Sun:  The Lost Age, without experiencing its predecessor first.  However, it's also rewarding to see the narrative and characters of the first game return and evolve in the second installment

Interestingly enough, in Golden Sun:  The Lost Age, players will assume the role of Felix, one of the antagonists of the original Golden Sun.  In the first game, players, as an Earth Adept named Isaac, pursued Felix and co. across the entirety of Angara to prevent them from lighting Elemental Lighthouses and reviving an ancient, destructive power.  However, in the second game, it's revealed that Isaac had incorrect information about the nature of the lighthouses the whole time, and that failure to light them will actually bring ruin upon the world.  And thus, as the (initially) much weaker Felix, players will explore the remaining lands of Golden Sun's world to light the remaining lighthouses, all while continuing to be pursued by Isaac.

From a narrative perspective, it's pretty cool to be suddenly thrust in the role of someone you once considered an enemy, but that's not the only way the second half of Golden Sun differs from the first.  Players obtain a boat relatively early on in The Lost Age that will make virtually the entire planet of Weyward accessible (save, sadly, the areas from the first game).  This transforms The Lost Age from a linear, story driven experience like the first game into something that is more open ended and encourages tackling a multitude of objectives, depending on where the player sails first. To be fair, this portion of the game can be a bit vague in terms of guiding the player where to go, but it's still an interesting shift in design philosophy.  It's a bit similar to how Final Fantasy VI transitioned to a more nonlinear structure during the "World of Ruin" phase of the game.

Lastly, fans of the first game were rewarded for playing it by gaining the ability to transfer their party from the first game to the second.  Isaac and Felix's party end up joining forces to meet a common goal towards the end of The Lost Age.  If the player transfers a save from the first game (through either a Game Boy Advance link cable or an absurdly long password), Isaac's party will retain the same levels, items, and Djinn they had from their previous adventures.  It's a cool way to make the two games feel one one continuous adventure, and mixing and matching characters from both Isaac's and Felix's was great fun.

Each installment of the first two Golden Sun games is an excellent and content rich adventure in its own right, but it's ultimately how they compliment one another and each tell one half of a greater story from two different perspectives that make this pair of titles truly special.

By putting players in the shoes of an antagonist from the previous game and adopting a more open structure, Golden Sun:  The Lost Age concluded the story started by its predecessor in a way that complimented the original very well.

The Future of This Franchise

I hope I made a solid case for the first two Golden Sun games in this blog.  I personally believe they are outstanding JRPGs and are among my favorite titles of all time.  That being said, in the years since The Lost Age launched in 2003, time (and Nintendo) hasn't been kind to Golden Sun.  In terms of official releases, after a seven year hiatus the games finally received a direct follow up in the form of 2010's Golden Sun:  Dark Dawn.  As I stated in the intro, many fans agree that Dark Dawn failed to live up to the legacy of the Game Boy Advance games.  While Golden Sun characters certainly love to talk, in Dark Dawn the sheer amount of text walls thrown at the player is grating as the game is far more content to "tell" the player anything than simply "show" them.  What's more, though the games were marketed as sequels taking place 30 years after the original games, Dark Dawn never actually makes good use of its timeline placement.

Pitifully few returning characters from the Game Boy Advance games pop up in Dark Dawn, and even then their screentime is limited.  Worse still, the game features almost none of the locations from the original games, which is baffling considering how richly depicted they were on the GBA.  Seeing how their culture evolved in the three decades since Isaac and co. first explored them would have been fascinating.  But perhaps worst of all is that Dark Dawn has no fewer than three "points of no return" that disallow the player from re-visiting previous areas, severely limiting their ability to explore, and making many Djinn permanently inaccessible.

What really stings about Dark Dawn is that it created many new plot threads that didn't exist in the original Golden Sun games only to never follow up on them - though the game ended on a massive cliffhanger, it's been almost eight years since its release and we've heard absolutely nothing about a follow up title.  But don't worry... there are plenty of Mario Tennis and Golf games on the way!  Perhaps this is Camelot's curse for creating Waluigi...

I blame Waluigi for the lack of new Golden Sun games.  I think that's fair.

What I personally find more obnoxious than the lack of new Golden Sun games however, is the lack of Golden Sun representation in Super Smash Bros.  Personally, I enjoy Smash Bros. more as a celebration of Nintendo and gaming history than as a fighting game.  Most of the joy of Smash Bros. for me comes from seeing what new characters and series are represented in the rosters of new installments, and how their movesets reflect the games they originally appeared in.  Between The Legend of Zelda's Link, Final Fantasy's Cloud, Xenoblade Chronicles' Shulk and a plethora of Fire Emblem characters (grumble...), Smash has no shortage of "animoo" swordsmen, so it's weird to me that creators like Masahiro Sakurai ignore the existence of characters like Isaac when thinking of new playable characters.

While he does wield a sword, Isaac's ability to wield the four elements would make for a fascinating psynergy based moveset.  His final smash could even be one of the Djinn summons from the game.  His moveset potential is limitless, and his appearance on the roster would represent an era of Nintendo history that the fighting series often ignores.  The main reason I would like to see Isaac on the roster of the upcoming Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo Switch is not only to smack the crap out of Corrin with him however.  It's because that being a playable character in Super Smash Bros. is a big deal.  It's the reason why so many are fond of Roy from Fire Emblem despite never playing the Japan-only game, Fire Emblem:  The Binding Blade that he starred in.  Heck, it's part of the reason the Fire Emblem series ever started getting localized at all.  Not to mention that Kid Icarus:  Uprising redesigned Kid Icarus star Pit in advance of 2012's excellent revival, Kid Icarus:  Uprising.

Being playable in Smash Bros. is a great way to garner interest in forgotten or underappreciated characters, paving the way for potential new installments or revivals.  And for this reason, Isaac is my most wanted new character in the new installment.  If we ever see something similar to the Smash Ballot pop up... you can bet I'll be voting for mah boi Isaac.  And I hope you do too.  I believe that this would be a great way to see this wonderful series get the final installment - and closure - it so desperately deserves.

I just really want Isaac in Smash Bros. you guys.

Well, it's probably time to put away the soap box.  I hope through this blog, I was able to articulate why I believe the original two Golden Sun games are such a special experience, as well as why it's incredibly frustrating to be a fan of the series in 2018.  Ultimately, all we can really do at this point is hope that the series gets a surge of popularity, most likely through a playable representative's appearance in Super Smash Bros.  Or that Camelot's development teams break the chains that bind them, organize a rebellion at Nintendo HQ, defeat their Waluigi overlords, and get the chance to make a final installment for the series instead of yet another Mario Golf game...  But the former is more likely.