I never really cared much for handheld gaming. My commutes have rarely been long enough to justify gaming sessions, and if I'm at home I'd much rather enjoy something with a proper controller and a large screen.
I do have a soft spot for personal recommendations though, and in this case, a friend of mine recommended Golden Sun to me: an FF-esque turn-based RPG for the Game Boy Advance. I've never owned a Nintendo machine in my life, but thanks to the wonders of emulation it is now possible to play this thing on any decent smartphone. Yeah, using Visual Boy Advance on your PC is totally a thing but for obvious reasons it doesn't really capture the feel of handhelds (notably eyestrain and finger cramps). While emulation is never completely authentic, My Boy! works really well for the most part, enough so that I left a 5 star review of it on the Play Store. I wouldn't want to play Super Mario on it though, I'll tell you that.
Anyway, Golden Sun. My friend repeatedly tells me how great these games are, and while I initially fought his rose-tinted glasses with huge grains of salt, it turns out he's kind of right. At first glance, it seems like a totally generic JRPG. It has random encounters, an inventory system, turn-based battles that take place in an alternate reality, and protagonists who look about twelve. Where it begins to veer off familiar turf is when it introduces its djinn system, a twist on summons. Basically, each djinni (summon) can be either "set" on a party member to boost their stats, or unset, at which point the djinni will use its unique ability. It can then be used as a simple elemental summon attack or be combined with other unset djinn to form stronger summons.
Sometimes, my strategy fails
It's a pretty neat system. Do you keep each djinni set to boost your stats or do you need something provided by their abilities? Do you summon them right away to regain your stat boost or do you unset all your djinn for a stronger summon? How much of your stat boost can you afford to swap for greater summon damage? There's a lot of room to experiment and strategize. You know, if you don't just spam Attack over and over like I do.
Another cool feature: you know how in most JRPGs your spells don't do shit outside battles? In Golden Sun, every dungeon and town has some environment puzzles that can only be solved using specific spells, like moving a pillar out of the way, freezing a puddle of water into a platform, or growing a plant into a climbable vine. It's not just some gimmick either; it's used so often that it becomes a central game element, and it works well. Sadly, it's not always as intuitive as you'd want. In the sequel, The Lost Age, you get several spells for overcoming rock obstacles — burst, grind, and lift — that are very similar but only work on their respective kind of rock, which the game just assumes you're cool with. The obvious reason is gating players until they reach a certain point in the story, but it seems to me they could have easily used other obstacles with somewhat clearer requirements.
In any case, I thoroughly enjoyed the games for most of the 30 or so hours I spent on each, and I would recommend checking them out. What's kind of admirable about The Lost Age is that they didn't try to reinvent the gameplay significantly, they just took the original and made everything bigger and more impressive. Instead of two continents to explore, you've now got five continents and a bunch of smaller islands. Instead of walking everywhere, you now get a ship that also gets wings and the ability to fly. It's like they wanted to make the coolest motherfucking ship ever, and they probably succeeded. I can tell you right now that if I had played it as a kid, I would be absolutely ecstatic about a flying boat.
More than I am now, I mean.