A fantastic game that nails the feel of a classic 16-bit RPG.
The GBA has been a goldmine for classic 16-bit RPG gaming. This includes ports of old favorites like Final Fantasy, Breath of Fire, and Sword of Mana and new takes on classic RPGs like Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga and Riviera. Like the other new takes on old favorites, Golden Sun borrows heavily from its ancestors and creates a great original game that feels like an SNES classic.
Your story starts off in typical RPG form. You're a child in a small village that protects the secret of Alchemy. Naturally some bad guys show up and unlock Alchemy, causing chaos throughout the world. You then set about on a quest to save the planet from those that would let chaos reign throughout the world. Obviously this is a huge gloss over what becomes a somewhat complicated plot, but you can see that no RPG cliches have been left unturned by the story.
One of the great things about this story is how it's presented. As you would expect, there's a lot of text to read, but it's supplemented with very cute and expressive characters. When your characters are sad, a speech bubble with a frowny face :( appears over their head. Surprised characters display a "!", etc. It's cutsey, but it works well to give the characters some emotion. Similarly to Final Fantasy VII, when you enter a battle, your characters and enemies take on a more serious, though still cartoony, appearance that fits the mood of combat very well. Your special attacks and magic are exceptionally well animated, especially for the GBA.
The battle system in this game also harkens back to the SNES days, though it has its own nuances that keep combat fresh. In combat, you assign all of your character's actions before any of them are carried out. You can choose from a simple attack, using "Psyenergy" which is just magic, using your djinn, summoning, using items, or defending. The djinn and summoning systems are very interesting in execution. You join djinn, which are little magical animals, to your characters. Each djinn has a different action that you can use in battle. This ranges from protecting your characters for a round, resurrecting KO'd characters, or causing damage and status ailments to your enemies. Each time you use a djinn, it goes into "standby" mode. After this, you can summon powerful creatures that put a major hurting on your enemies. The more djinn you have on standby, the more powerful the summon. Following a summon, your djinn can be called back into action. It's a really interesting system that offers a lot of strategy to your combat. About the only complaint I have with combat is that your characters do not attack intelligently. If you assign a character to attack an enemy that's already been defeated, your character loses his turn rather than attacking the next available enemy. This will cause you to miss a lot of attacks, and can be quite a pain at times.
The puzzle-based dungeons are also a lot of fun to crawl through. You may have flashbacks to The Legend of Zelda, though I kept thinking of Wild Arms 3 when I was playing. You'll need to use your characters' Psyenergy to freeze puddles, lift rocks, and knock over logs to get from Point A to Point B. This keeps the dungeons interesting, and the level design is top notch. There aren't any really difficult puzzles until the end, but you'll find yourself scratching your head a few times to figure out how to get across a room to the next door. Travel between the dungeons is a bit more of a drag, unfortunately, since you don't get an airship or anything like that. The map is fairly linear, and there's not much more than trees and plains to walk through. Some sort of vessel would've helped to speed along those sections.
My biggest complaint about the game is that it wraps up a bit quickly. I pretty much got every major item and found every djinn, and it still only took about 15 hours to beat. The story really just drops off of a cliff at the end as well. This is mostly because it feeds directly into Golden Sun: The Lost Age. Really, GS and GS:TLA are a single game spread across two cartridges, in that you'll have to play both to get the full story. Thank goodness the games are as good as they are, or it'd just feel like a way to make me pay $60 to finish the story instead of $30.
Golden Sun is a fantastic game, with a deep combat and magic system. While the plot is of the obligatory "small kid sets out to save the world" variety, the top notch production of the game keeps it from getting dull. I highly recommend this game to anyone who likes RPGs, and recommend that you pick up Golden Sun: The Lost Age as well.