Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 62, Golden Sun and The Lost Age

Golden Sun and its sequel are one game much more than they are a duology, and it's this combined effort that secures them a spot in the top 101.

I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.

Golden Sun is a series that I am very conflicted about. Obviously, I think fondly enough of it, given that it’s here in this ranking of the best Nintendo games, but I’ve never had quite the same enthusiasm for it that I’ve seen in others. So let’s work through that. You can even hold on to your pitchforks while we do, just don’t stab with with them until I’ve had my say.

The original, released in 2001 for the Game Boy Advance, was Camelot Software Planning’s return to the RPG space that they made their name in a decade before while working on Sega systems. Golden Sun was a real throwback, in terms of visuals and in gameplay, to the Super Nintendo era of RPGs, only running on a more powerful 32-bit system that could do quite a bit more than the SNES even if, on the surface, things often looked similar. There was an audience for this kind of time machine to the early and mid-90s, following years of bigger and bigger RPGs launched on the Playstation, and for Nintendo fans who were comparatively starved for RPGs of any kind on those systems: Golden Sun and its sequel, The Lost Age, both sold more than one million copies worldwide.

The original Golden Sun has an aggregate rating of 91 on Metacritic, with IGN awarding it a 9.7 at the time of its original review. That IGN score was extremely suspect even at the time (their influence and weight in Metacritic’s algorithm has quite a bit to do with that 91, too), but if you know anything about the GBA division of that site 20 years ago, you are probably well aware of their unbridled enthusiasm for handing out eye-popping scores to games they deemed instant classics. The aggregate score is a lot closer to the truth of things — 97 is Breath of the Wild’s Metacritic score, just to give you a sense of scale here — but it’s also high for me, a person with myriad issues with the original Golden Sun.

The start of the game is flat-out horrendous, and it just drags on and on. The dialogue is nonstop in the early hours of Golden Sun, and to make matters worse, that dialogue is rarely necessary. Incessant and unnecessary, for an extended period of time, is a surprising misstep from an RPG developer as talented as Camelot, and yet that’s what happened. The game feels more like one of their successful productions after this initial introduction to the game and its world, but the pacing is never quite right and never consistent, either. While never as difficult to work through as it was at the beginning, there are too many moments in the game where conversations go on and on, leading nowhere but to frustration and a desire for them to just be over so you can get on with it. You’ll do plenty of backtracking in the game, and spend quite a bit of time walking back and forth trying to solve puzzles and find hidden goodies (and creatures known as Djinn, which power your spells both in and out of combat), all while random battles interrupt you at a relatively high clip. Golden Sun is about 20 hours long, but feels so much longer than that, and, too often, not in a good way.

Obviously, I’m piling all the negative together, just to make the point that there are reasons I don’t see this as some all-timer. It’s a throwback to a specific era of RPGs, but it came with the bloat of its own time, combined with some of the worst tendencies of the age it was referring back to. The first Golden Sun, on its own, might not have made it into the top 101 list.

That’s the thing, though: it isn’t here on its own. And that’s because Golden Sun and its sequel, The Lost Age, are effectively one game. They were initially conceived as such, until development moved from the Nintendo 64 to the Game Boy Advance, which required cutting the game in two in order to make it fit on the system’s cartridges. When you finish Golden Sun, the story is far from resolved: in fact, it is made very obvious that all you’ve managed to do is create more questions than you’ve answered with your actions thus far. There is a password system built into the games that allows you to transfer over as little or as much of your previous save as you have the patience to input — there are six pages of password to input if you want the most detailed version of save transferal, with 50 characters on each of the first five pages and 10 on page six.

And this save date transfer isn’t like, say, Dragon Age or Mass Effect, where it’s remembering the major story decisions you made and which characters are still alive and which are dead. You can literally move over your inventory and powers collected to that point, because The Lost Age isn’t a sequel so much as it’s the second half (and then some) of a singular game and story. It’s funny, too, as The Lost Age was criticized, and received lower scores like outlets from IGN, because it was so similar to its predecessor, but concerns like that seem to miss the point. It is its predecessor: the first game is nigh meaningless without the second. Golden Sun is the first chapter in a two-chapter story, where nothing is resolved except for the fate of the antagonists that your party believes are the big bads. The big bads who turn out to be, well, not so big, and not as bad as you were led to imagine, either.

The strength of Golden Sun’s story, and this is going to dive into spoiler territory a bit here but is necessary for understanding why this duology works in spite of my issues with the first title, is that you play through the entire first game thinking that you’re saving the world, only to find out in the second game that you were mostly interrupting the work of the people who were saving it. In The Lost Age, perspective switches from that of protagonist Isaac to that of his childhood friend Felix, who had been working alongside the antagonists in the first game. In Golden Sun, Isaac and his party were trying to stop the Elemental Lighthouses from being lit, because, as far as they had been told, their lighting would bring about the end of the world. This was only a half truth, though: it would bring about the end of the world as they knew it, but would then usher in a better one… one that wasn’t slowly dying, with its continents shrinking and falling away.

So, in Lost Age, Felix continues the quest of the first game’s protagonists, in part because it’s actually the right thing to do, and in part because his parents are being held hostage by the colony that had sent the first game’s protagonists to the lighthouses in order to secure his cooperation. It is not apparent to the player at first that Felix is on the side of right: the player will come to learn over time, just as the first game’s protagonists do, that what you thought you knew wasn’t correct. It’s really great storytelling and an excellent way to flip expectations, and has much to do with why Golden Sun is as beloved as it is.

It’s funny that there’s question about which game is the better of the two: it’s so obviously The Lost Age! The first game is shorter, is stuffed full of poor pacing decisions despite the comparatively shorter length, and it doesn’t let you fully tap into the game’s world and its mythology like The Lost Age does. It’s an unfinished story, because it’s just the first “half” of the game, and it’s not in possession of as complete of an arc as, say, the first The Legends of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, which, like Golden Sun, was one story split into two games. The Lost Age, though, features more difficult puzzles, lets you come into it with more of a knowledge of a battle system that is much deeper than you are initially led to believe, and completes the arc begun in the first game, in large part due to much better storytelling and plotting, as well as superior pacing.

Golden Sun is Act 1. The Lost Age is Act 2 and Act 3. They’re all of a piece, so which one is “better” is kind of beside the point. Lost Age needs Golden Sun, or else its narrative trick lacks punch. Golden Sun needs Lost Age, or else what is clearly just the start of a story is never getting anywhere. They’re one game. The whole experience might have been better if they had been able to stick to truly being one game on one cartridge, with Golden Sun pared down a bit to keep its worst tendencies in check while still leading you to the big reveal of The Lost Age. But even with the faults of the original in place, the two combined into one make for a throwback RPG still absolutely worth your time all these years later.

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