One day, as an 11-year-old child, my Dad took me to a used game store. Squirreled away behind the counter was a haphazard “bundle” of sorts, assembled by the shop out of a used SNES system and some used carts. The sight of one of those games immediately stopped me dead in my tracks:
Super Mario… RPG!?!… LEGEND of the Seven Stars?!
Surely, this was some copycat game, not actually made by Nintendo. Or, if it was made by Nintendo (I thought) it must be some really niche and odd spinoff. Little did I know, that game would start a lifetime love affair with a very specific style of RPG and a very specific style of game, that would influence my tastes forever.
This was in 2003, shortly after the release of Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga. I went on to play that, and also next year’s release: Paper Mario TTYD. I’ve now probably played every game in the Mario and Luigi and Paper Mario series, but the last game that truly lit that magical spark in me was Bowser’s Inside Story.
As it was for many others it seems, both GBA Golden Sun games passed me by. I picked it up this week after browsing through Virtual Console games and it catching my eye only due to the fact that I’d very recently since it mentioned on Reddit…
And, let me say: what an incredible surprise it has been to finally have this void that I’ve felt for all these years for that very specific type of RPG to be filled so unexpectedly.
Now, don’t get me wrong: there are tons of differences between any given Mario RPG and the Golden Sun series, not least of which is that Golden Sun is a thoroughbred RPG with classes and a typical RPG plot structure. However, what I’m referring to specifically is that “je ne sais quoi” that so enamored me with the Mario RPGs.
It’s hard to name these qualities, as it’s more of how the game makes me feel as opposed to one specific element, but I think one of the biggest contributing factors is the depth of gameplay OUT of battle and the implications this has for immersion. For me, the most rewarding and immersive feeling possible in a game isn’t when I win a tough boss battle, but when I solve a tough puzzle. Something about that zen-like, meditative state and the resolution just “clicks” with my brain, and makes me so much more immersed in the world. Moreover, I tend to get bored by RPGs that are just “story beat, walk around in towns and overworld map, random encounter, dungeon with simple maze structure and only real challenge is enemies, boss battle, and rinse and repeat. Because that format bores me for the most part (with plenty of exceptions, granted) I lose immersion and tune out. I’m really a gameplay first person, and actually caring about the gameplay is what enables me to love a story and world (I love world-building and story just as much as gameplay, but I say gameplay first because I can’t enjoy those things without enjoying gameplay; just how my brain works I suppose).
Because of this, Golden Sun’s puzzle dungeons are hands-down, without a shadow of a doubt, my favorite RPG dungeons ever. Their length, meticulously crafted level and puzzle design, and unrivaled sense of atmosphere, weight, and world/lore building combine to make the best RPG dungeons I’ve ever played (notice I don’t say best dungeons ever because I’m also a huge Zelda fan and I flat-out refuse to pick between Golden Sun’s outstanding dungeons and Zelda’s outstanding dungeons :D). But I will definitely say they are better than any Paper Mario or Mario RPG series dungeons, even though I love those as well.
I guess maybe the title of this post should have been “Golden Sun is one of the best NINTENDO RPGs”, but that doesn’t quite fit either. What I find fascinating is that, according to interviews with the developers at Camelot, Nintendo basically told them to “make the game they want to make” and wasn’t involved much. But, somehow, it inexplicably feels like an overwhelmingly Nintendo-made game, with its gameplay-first approach and BUCKETS of bizarre charm. I think that last bit, bizarre and mysterious charm, is another huge reason this game has hit the way it has for me and reminded me of my beloved Mario RPGs.
There’s tons of other things I could list here, like the djinn system bringing back that childhood Pokémon magic that I don’t even get from Pokémon anymore, but I’ve already typed a novel here :D. So, I’ll just say: this game has filled that Mario RPG void for me.
That’s my take, but I’d love to hear if anyone else here who is a hardcore Mario RPG series fan like myself has felt this same way about the GBA Golden Sun games and would also love to hear what you guys think contributes to it scratching that itch?
Interested to see this discussion, and opposing arguments telling me I’m a blithering idiot are also welcomed! 😀
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