Part 10: Fixing Golden Sun: Part 2How to make Golden Sun less terrible: Part 2
This is difficult, since ideally I would be cutting pretty much everything. The Tret sequence doesn't fit into the game and is completely redundant, Mia is a useless character and the encounter at the lighthouse brings up way too many issues, etc. The easiest way to make the game work is to charge straight to the lighthouse and ignore everything else, but I'm mindful of the fact that there needs to actually be, well, a game in this somewhere. I'm also going to stick to what I originally said and try to make modifications, not just rewrite the game entirely.
So, what I would do is make the game more like Chrono Trigger.
To me, Chrono Trigger is still the gold standard of how to design an RPG, and one of the many things it gets right is how to set up game progression. The end goal (Defeat Lavos) is very far off, so you're constantly forced into sub-goals. These work because they're clearly connected to the main quest so they don't feel like filler but are also sufficiently stand-alone to the point that it's easy to keep track of what you're doing and why. That way, you always have some progression like this:
Ultimate Goal: Defeat Lavos
How: By defeating Magus before he can summon Lavos
How Lv. 2: By recruiting Frog to fight Magus
How Lv. 3: By restoring the Masamune for Frog to wield
How Lv. 4: By getting dreamstone from the past to mend the Masamune
Complication: In the past, Azala and the Reptites steal your Gate Key, stranding you there.
Current Goal: Go after Azala and the Reptites.
Going after Reptites is incredibly detached from fighting Magus, but the progression feels natural. You know full well why your characters have to do each step, you can track the logic of the game, and hunting down Azala seems like an integral part of defeating Lavos rather than something the developers threw in as padding. This is an example of how to handle progression well.
Compare this to Golden Sun. A mere minute after you get your goal you're forced to get sidetracked and it isn't even remotely clear why. If you try to go ahead, you'll see the path blocked by ivy, but not only is this a poor obstacle logically (you really can't burn or cut it?), it doesn't give you any clue about what you're looking for. The only reason to go to Vault is because Camelot put it right in your path, but that's a terribly unsatisfying and incredibly artificial motive. If I were Crono, I would chase after Azala; if I were Isaac, I would borrow some hedge clippers and ignore Ivan and the thieves entirely.
So, now that I've gotten the out of the way, let's bring Golden Sun more in line.
First step, take advantage of these early opportunities to show, not just imply, that travel is incredibly difficult. Ditch the pseudo-explanation that the Mt. Aleph eruption made stones hit animals and turn them into monsters, or at least have that be a casualty of some other event a long time ago. Make a key component of the framing device be that there are monsters everywhere; this is why the priests can't just do this themselves and why it's crazy that the Wise One is mandating that some teens do it. Guess what happens when there are monsters everywhere? People don't travel or trade much. Make it so that Hammet is very clearly risking his life and that these caravans don't tend to last. He's in trouble and flees to Lunpa in an absolute panic.
Hammer this in and we now have an explanation for why you're going to need to rely on everything in your power just to get to these lighthouses. Think of how LotR clearly establishes that there's not an easy way to just walk somewhere and get things done. As it stands, Weyard is just a rural country; make it an absolute minefield.
With that said, there's clearly civilization and knowledge of the world, so the priesthood should directly give you a map and clearly lay out where it is you're supposed to go. This route should last for about ten minutes until you hit a sawtooth; maybe a cave collapses behind you or something. Either way, you're now shut off from Vale and the map isn't really going to help, but there's a nearby settlement. You now have an actual incentive to go there, since otherwise you're just going to be lost in an inhospitable world.
You're going in for something relatively innocuous, maybe provisions and a sense of direction, but you end up getting caught up in things and not of your own accord. Maybe have the thieves steal the Mars Star from you; it's still fairly disconnected, but at least you now have a reason. You can still run into Ivan, and now you make a pact out of necessity rather than boredom. He can read minds and you can hold your own in a fight, but alone neither of you could make headway. The Rod should be Ivan's, not Hammet's, and Ivan requested to be left in Vault instead of being abandoned (the current story makes Hammet a slightly less likable person than me). You get the things back, but you hear that Hammet panicked and went to Lunpa, where he's being held hostage. We don't stand a chance, but Ivan decides to tag along with us when we tell him what's going on. He's not going to stick around in Vault for the next few years, after all. Maybe this would even be a time to give him a personality; duty-bound, perhaps.
There's not really anything wrong with having settlements with no immediately obvious purpose, especially since RPGs do this all the time (How will going to an opera house help you in any way? Who knows, but it obviously will since it's right there), and a bit of nonlinearity is fine, but I stand by the idea that a problem needs to be introduced before you embark on solving it. With that in mind, let's look at the obstacles.
If we're forced to keep Tret in the game, and it would be much easier if we weren't, get rid of "falling rocks are evil" again and make it so that the others, like McCoy, know exactly what Tret is up to. There are a few ways this could be fixed, but I would have Tret always being evil and preventing people from clearing a path to Imil. You're the only ones able to stop him due to psynergy. Boo hoo, we don't get a half-assed environmental message; this will terribly degrade the experience contained on the plastic cart in my mass-produced GBA shipped from a factory in China and powered with disposable batteries.
Anyway, we kill Tret and now McCoy's men can make headway opening up the path to Imil, which has been a goal for years. The men being turned into trees can still be worked in, but it shouldn't be the obstacle at play since having a drawbridge stop you from saving the world is unforgivable. They clear that path and start clearing another path to Fuschin, which will be cleared once you're done with the lighthouse. Isn't a sense of progression wonderful? CT does this a lot also, where you get to watch the time periods get progressively better due to your involvement, and this adds a lot to your connection to the world.
Anyway, Imil. Again, if Mia can't be eliminated entirely, make it clear she has no clue what she's doing at all. Alex is the caretaker and she got thrust into the role when Alex left; why this happened is unclear, so now Mia has the same internal struggle going on that Jenna did. Because she's thrust into this position of power, she doesn't really know much about the lighthouse, hence why she decides to go along with your theory. Rather than leaping into action, she should be completely flustered and have no idea what to do until you show up and convince her to let you inside.
Get rid of this encounter; kill it entirely. There is absolutely no way to make it work and every second the heroes and villains interact it becomes even more improbable that they never compare notes or let slip what they're trying to do. Maybe the lighthouse can get lit near the end of your climb and the group is leaving by the time you get to the top. This way you have a real sense of failure and the momentum from the beginning (Who are these guys? They seem powerful and worrisome) doesn't dissipate. On some level you're relieved but you also know things are just beginning, and now you have more incentive to rush to Venus Lighthouse ASAP.
Finally, just have Mia admit her ignorance. "Oh, the lighthouse actually helped in this case. I guess I don't know shit about these lighthouses, but you guys seem to have an actual idea of what you're doing. Saving the world seems like a decent option and I guess I'm not needed here, especially since I just failed miserably in what I was trying to do. Mind if I tag along?" Golden Sun has this weird habit of making you fail miserably and bending over backwards to pretend you didn't. Let the characters fail; it's a good motivator. Now we actually want to set things right, and now we can develop to the point where Mia might be more than "the girl with blue hair".
Finally finally, these kids need to give us 18,000 gold pieces, platinum jewelry, a djinn or eight, and preferred stock in Berkshire Hathaway. I will accept nothing less in exchange for my altruism
Now I'll stop before I write enough text to cover Kraden's role in the first dungeon of the game.