RPG Club Plays Golden Sun: Week 1

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This month, the RPG Club takes a look back to the turn of the century when a small game on a little handheld made a big splash. Mike shares his reservations about revisiting his first RPG love while I vow to make this encounter with Golden Sun a more fruitful one.

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Mike Barrett

I’m only a few hours into Golden Sun, but I’m afraid to go further.

You see, while many of my peers at Pixels or Death grew up with classic RPGs of the 90s era, I never had that opportunity. The games I had access to at the time were those owned by my older siblings–gamers who preferred titles like Doom and Mortal Kombat over Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger. I didn’t really encounter an RPG until a friend showed me Final Fantasy 10, but, as you may have guessed, it wasn’t until that same friend loaned me Golden Sun that I had a true RPG experience.

At the time, Golden Sun was like nothing I had ever conceived in a game before. Having characters that spoke and expressed feelings rather than mere grunts of pain? Outrageous. A world that felt vibrant, complete, and like it had existed long before I arrive and would continue to do so after I had passed through? Crazy. Genuine connections with pixelated people? Incredible. I was hooked in a powerful way, and playing through both games back-to-back meant I was allowed to entangle myself in the story for weeks.

When I finally finished, I cried a little bit because it felt like I was losing someone. It was the first game to do that to me.

So, what does it mean if I get to the end of Golden Sun this time and find that I don’t like it more than a decade later? Is it possible that I’ve changed to such a drastic degree? Golden Sun set the course for my delving into the RPG genre with vigor and is a game I have for many years used as a basis for comparison. To discover that I’ve been misaligned with my own interests and beliefs all this time would be like meeting a superhero in the flesh only to discover they’ve grown flabby and weak.

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And yet, somehow despite my fear, I’m also curious to know how I’ll respond. I picked up this cartridge well over a year ago at a garage sale, knowing immediately that to actually play it would test me and my game critic spirit to an embarrassing degree. I’m glad I don’t have to do so alone.

Ethan Gach 

I’m sorry to hear that Mike! Not because there’s anything particularly wrong with Golden Sun being your first true RPG experience, but rather that you missed out on so many of the genre’s foundational building blocks in the years prior to it. I basically came to Golden Sun from the opposite direction. My initial impressions were heavily informed by a large cross-section of the SNES/PS1 titles that many feel reflect something of a “golden age” for the genre. They were thus unsurprisingly mixed.

How else was an adolescent connoisseur, whose teeth were cut on Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger, whose RPG taste buds had been meticulously groomed by the clumsy but nonetheless sophisticated likes of Final Fantasy VII and Vagrant Story, supposed to consume a bite-sized homage to the genre like Golden Sun?

Passed on to me by a friend after I’d enthusiastically devoured the Tactics Orgre spin-off, The Knights of Lodis, I ran head-long into the game only to find myself waist deep in a bog of RPG convention tedium that felt like it took a life time to complete even if the prologue was scarcely longer than a few hours. Golden Sun was recommended without reservation by my entire cadre of cartridge huffing friends. Perhaps it was the unrealistic expectations they set that left me unable to discover anything but mild disappointment in the game’s incremental approach to design and patronizing tale of courageous children and magical rocks.

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Returning to it now, there’s something remarkable to me in how ahistorical it feels to play an RPG that was designed for a handheld circa 2000. Despite my past misgivings, and others that still remain (more on them next week), I can now instantly recognize Golden Sun as an indie-darling in waiting, one that would set the gaming news sites’ aggregators on fire if it were a new Kickstarter project or recent Early Access release on Steam. Jason Schreier would probably write a column describing how a small new studio of young upstart developers were valiantly continuing a tradition of RPGs that established genre heavy-weights like Square Enix had long ago (misguidedly) turned their backs on.

And some part of me would nod at my screen in slight, nostalgic agreement. Look at those beautiful sprites! The vibrant greens and dazzling blues! Every battle pulsing with a symphony of lovingly arranged artificial buzzing. But then another part of me re-assert itself, leading me to re-evaluate Golden Sun’s apparent charm and recast its SNES roots cynically derivative rather than endearingly re-imagined. Is this a nearly one and a half decade old emblem of the Japanese RPG’s North American prominence? A complex and conflicted last hoorah? Or a game that that expertly reconstructed an SNES aesthetic on top of an incoherent hodgepodge of gameplay seeking to mimic the PS1 era’s most stilted JRPG excesses?

In other words, Golden underwhelmed me on our first outing together, and now, after returning years later, I’m having trouble viewing it as something more than simply the platonic ideal of a fan made RPG Maker game. The next few weeks will be me doing everything (reasonably) within my power to disabuse myself of this (potentially) faulty notion.

  • Jed Pressgrove

    I found Golden Sun cute for about 10 hours. It’s a lamer version of Lufia II.