The story follows a band of magic-attuned "adepts" who are sent from their home town into the wide world of Weyard to prevent the destructive power of alchemy from being released as it was in the past. Along the way the adepts gain new abilities, help out the local populations, and learn more about why alchemy was sealed away. Upon its release, the game was highly praised; IGN said that Golden Sun could "arguably be one of the best 2D-based Japanese RPGs created for any system." The game went on to sell over one million copies in Japan and the United States alone.
Much of the game's time spent outside of battle takes place in dungeons, caves, and other locales involving many puzzles integrated into their layout. One must push logs into rivers to cross them, shift the track of a mine cart to access new areas, and other activities to get from point A to point B and progress through the story and game world. Many of these puzzles revolve heavily around the usage of the game’s resident form of magic spells, "Psynergy" ("Energy" in the Japanese version), requiring the player to find items that grant the bearer new forms of Psynergy to accomplish tasks.
Both successful exploration of the game's world and victory in the game's battles are heavily dependent on the strategic usage of the hundreds of Psynergy spells available. Whereas many other RPGs limit the usage of their forms of magic to battles as offensive and defensive measures, Psynergy spells can be used both for battle, and for solving puzzles in the game's locales. Some types of Psynergy can only be used in combat; conversely, many spells are only used in the game's overworld and non-battle scenarios. At the same time, Psynergy spells can also be used in both situations; for example, the "Whirlwind" spell that can be used to damage enemies in battle is also used out of battle to clear away overgrown foliage that may block the player's path. Psynergy comes in four elements: Venus (Manipulation of rocks and plants), Mars (Revolving around fire and heat), Jupiter (Based on wind and electricity), and Mercury (Concerning water and ice). The player gains more Psynergy spells as the game progresses, either through levelling up or acquiring and equipping (using) special items, and with each "utility" Psynergy spell the party gains access to more locations and secrets hidden in the game world. Players can return to previous locations in the game to finish puzzles which they could not solve earlier because of the lack of a specific Psynergy spell.
Golden Sun contains both random monster encounters, featuring randomly selected enemies, and compulsory battles involving set enemies, which advance the story. When a battle begins, a separate screen is brought up where the player's party and enemy party are on opposite sides, facing off. During a battle, the characters and the background rotate to give a pseudo-3D effect. The gameplay in relation to Golden Sun’s battle mode is similar to traditional console RPGs. In each battle, the player is required to defeat all the enemies by using direct attacks with weapons, offensive Psynergy spells, and other means of causing damage, all while keeping the player’s own party alive through items and supportive Psynergy that restore life and supplement defense. If the player's entire party is downed by reducing their hit points to zero, it is considered "Game Over", and the party is returned to the last Temple that the player visited and suffers a monetary penalty. The successful completion of a battle yields experience points, coins, and sometimes items.
In addition to the main game itself, there is also a competitive battling mode accessible from the menu screen. Here players can enter their currently-developed team from their saved game files into an arena environment where they can battle increasingly difficult CPU-controlled enemies or other players head-to-head to see which of their team setups are stronger, as players may only have three of the four members of their party in head-to-head battles with another player. In both cases there are no rewards or punishments for winning or losing.
In the game, Djinn can either be "turned on" ("Set") or "turned off" ("On Standby"). When a Djinni is "Set" to a character, that Djinni exerts influence on that character's class (and therefore, his or her statistics and Psynergy collection) relative to both the character's innate element and that of the Djinni's. As there are twenty-eight Djinn encompassing the four elements that can be mixed and matched to the four characters in seemingly any manner, a large array of possible class setups for all four characters are potentially available, allowing a variety of combat options.
In combat, a player can use a Djinni during that character's turn. Each Djinni has its own special ability which can be invoked during combat. These abilities can include (but are not limited to) enhanced elemental attacks, buffing or debuffing spells, healing/restoration spells, and other effects. After a successful invoke, the Djinni shifts to "Standby" mode until it is "Set" on the character again. While in standby, the Djinn do not contribute to character classes, but can be used for Summon Sequences, where the player summons a powerful elemental monster. This is the game’s most powerful method of attack, and also the riskiest, as it requires Djinn to be on Standby and therefore not be available to bolster the statistics of whatever character the Djinn are on. Once a Djinni on Standby has been used for a Summon Sequence, it must take any number of turns before it restores itself to Set position on a character. There are sixteen Summon Sequences in Golden Sun, four for each element, and each Summon Sequence takes between one and four Djinn of the same element on Standby.
Weyard is a world governed by the fictional, ancient concept of the classical elements. All matter on Weyard consists of any combination of the four base elements: Venus (Earth), Mars (Fire), Jupiter (Air), and Mercury (Water). These four building blocks of reality can be manipulated by the omnipotent force of Alchemy, which used to reign supreme in the world's ancient past. Alchemy was sealed away in the past, however, and the world in the present age has become seemingly devoid of all magic. Various individuals throughout the world, however, each demonstrate an adeptness to manipulate one of the four elements through a chi-like form of magic called Psynergy. These Adepts, as wielders of Psynergy are called, generally refrain from displaying their talents to outsiders of their various settlements.
The primary antagonists of the game are Saturos and Menardi, a pair of immensely powerful and talented Mars Adepts of a foreign race hailing from Prox, a town in the frigid north near Mars Lighthouse. Their aim is to restore Alchemy to the world, and they are assisted by the powerful and mysterious Mercury Adept Alex, of the same heritage as Mia, and Jenna's older brother, the 18-year-old Venus Adept Felix, who is indebted to Saturos for the latter's saving Felix from death.
In the present, the teenaged adepts from Vale, Isaac, Garet, and Jenna, join Kraden in his research of Mt. Aleph, but this coincides with a second raid of the sanctum by Saturos and Menardi, who are now assisted by the adepts Felix and Alex, and they coerce Isaac into giving them three of the four stars. However, before they can retrieve the final star, they are forced to escape from what is now an erupting volcano, with Jenna and Kraden as their hostages. The guardian of Mt. Aleph, the Wise One, appears before Isaac and Garet and commands them to prevent Saturos' group from achieving their goal of restoring Alchemy to the world with the casting of the Elemental Stars into their respective Elemental Lighthouses situated across Weyard. Alchemy, as the Wise One describes, is a power that can be catastrophic if misused by the people of Weyard, so it should be kept sealed as it is.
Isaac and Garet valiantly pursue Saturos' group to the first Lighthouse, Mercury Lighthouse, and along the way they are joined by other young adepts named Ivan and Mia. But in spite of their best efforts, they fail to prevent Saturos from activating Mercury Lighthouse with the Mercury Star. Saturos' group immediately leaves for the next Lighthouse while Isaac's party immediately resumes its pursuit, and the lengthy chase and journey that follows eventually spans two continents, during which Isaac finds that Saturos has taken another adept hostage as well: the female Jupiter adept, Sheba.
Golden Sun climaxes at Venus Lighthouse; Saturos and Menardi activate the lighthouse with the Venus Star, but are again confronted by Isaac's party. Attempting to annihilate their opponents, Saturos and Menardi magically merge to form a gigantic two-headed dragon, but the fierce battle ultimately ends in victory for Isaac's party as they slay Saturos and Menardi for good. Their victory is a hollow one, though, as they come to the conclusion that the remnant's of Saturos' group, headed by Felix and Alex, are still on its quest to light the remaining two Lighthouses, while Jenna, Sheba, and Kraden are still with them. The game ends as Isaac's party boards a ship entrusted to them previously and sail out into Weyard's open seas in search of their continued objectives.
Originally, Camelot planned to create a single title instead of a series, and in the extremely early stages of their project they had created a game design document for the one Golden Sun game to be on the Nintendo 64 console. When it became apparent the N64 was to be superseded by the Nintendo GameCube, Camelot shifted their focus to making a game on the handheld Game Boy Advance.
As a handheld title, Golden Sun was originally going to be a single game, but due to both the hardware limitations of putting the game on a single Game Boy Advance cartridge and the developers' own desire for what they wanted to do with the game, it was expanded to become two successive games, Golden Sun and Golden Sun: The Lost Age. Scenario writer Hiroyuki Takahashi and director Shugo Takahashi had previously designed Shining Force III, where the story involved playing through the perspectives of both the "good" side and the "bad" side of the characters. Thinking that it was an effective way of conveying the full story of a fictional game world, they incorporated elements of this storytelling methodology into the two-game setup of the Golden Sun series, having the player control the "good guys" in Golden Sun and members of the antagonistic party in The Lost Age.
Complaints about the game generally revolved around the overuse of text dialogue in the numerous cutscenes throughout the game, especially in the prologue, causing the game to get off to a cumbersome start. In addition, some faulted Golden Sun for still relying on the "wander around, get into a random battle, win battle, wander around, random battle, etc." theme in many role-playing games. Golden Sun rates a 9.2/10 on MobyGames, and an 8.5/10 on GameInformer.com (the main complaint being low replay value, it was still titled "GBA's Golden Child"). The game has a 91% ranking on Metacritic.
In 2001, Golden Sun won the Nintendo Power Award for best Game Boy Advance game of the year. Golden Sun was ranked 94 on IGN's Readers Choice Top 100 games ever. In 2007, it was named 24th best Game Boy Advance game of all time in IGN's feature reflecting on the Game Boy Advance's long lifespan, as well as it's Game of the Month for April 2003 because it had "amazing graphics and sound presentation, as well as a quest that lasts for more than thirty hours. Golden Sun has sold 740,000 copies in the United States and 338,000 in Japan.