In hindsight, it’s incredibly impressive just how much of an RPG powerhouse the humble Game Boy Advance was. The Nintendo handheld, which most people probably used as their Pokémon machine, offered a cornucopia of hidden gems and all-time greats for fans of role-playing games. Perhaps the best of them all is 2001’s Golden Sun. Now, thanks to Nintendo Switch Online, fans new and old can play the best handheld RPG ever (and its sequel) on a modern console.
The original Golden Sun released at a time when Nintendo had lost its crown as the best place for RPG gamers. Once the home of Final Fantasy, Square Enix’s iconic series jumped to the PlayStation and left Nintendo behind. Yet, the Game Boy Advance was a surprising continuation of the RPG spirit of early Nintendo consoles, with Golden Sun shining (pun intended) above the rest to show just how great a handheld RPG can be.
In an age of retro-inspired RPGs like Sea of Stars and the Octopath Traveler games, Golden Sun feels more relevant than ever as the original is clearly influenced by the 8- and 16-bit eras of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest.
The premise of Golden Sun is par for the course in these types of games. Controlling four magically-attuned kids called Adepts, the player embarks on a mission to save the world of Weyward from evil magic users attempting to revive the forbidden power of alchemy.
Mechanically, Golden Sun includes everything you would expect. An overworld to explore, random encounters, turn-based combat, and some form of upgradable magic. What makes Golden Sun special is how expertly it builds off of these systems, especially in combat. While somewhat simplified in comparison to the likes of Final Fantasy, this allowed for faster-paced battles that rewarded clever use of the game’s magic system. A particularly interesting feature in Golden Sun is the ability to use magic, called psynergy, outside of combat to solve non-battle-related problems.
Just as the mechanics of Golden Sun, the story and characters are familiar but executed with excellence. This is especially true of the game’s cast. Isaac, Ivan, Garet, and Mia are all given plenty of depth and character development throughout the game. This is a key part of an RPG as you will spend dozens of hours with these characters, so they better be interesting. Watching these powerful but naive kids learn about the real world and the complexities of the conflict they have been thrust into is an enthralling reason to keep playing Golden Sun.
The same goes for the game’s antagonists, who make not only the player but also the characters within the game question their mission. It’s a great spin on the ethical dilemmas we see protagonists like Final Fantasy IV’s Cecil go through.
Golden Sun’s experience continues in its sequel, The Lost Age, which pulls off a Final Fantasy VI-level twist. The enemy you spent fighting in the first game becomes the protagonist of The Lost Age, giving players a new perspective on the central conflict of whether bringing back alchemy will save or sunder the world of Weyward. Together, Golden Sun and The Lost Age act as a single story that shows the micro and macro elements of a conflict in all its angles and complexities. This is only accomplished thanks to the excellent combat and characters of both games.
If you need a good RPG to sink hours into, the Golden Sun duology’s inclusion on Nintendo Switch makes it the perfect candidate.