Sometimes, it is easy to know where to begin with a review: what angle to take–what approach to consider. Sometimes, a game makes such a bold statement that it impresses itself firmly in the mind of the reviewer from square one and, when it comes time to pen the review, the fixtures of the mind are readily transferred to the page. Sometimes, this is the case. Sometimes–but not this time. For, as in its gameplay, Milon’s Secret Castle defies an easy review, throwing up unforeseen problems of scope and intent.
Following on the review of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, it is initially difficult to know what precisely to say about Milon’s Secret Castle. After all, the games share a number of similarities typical of average and below-average NES games of the mid-1980s. Like Deadly Towers, both games rely upon the instruction manual to deliver the balance of the storyline; both have a limited palette for music, graphics, and sounds; both games under-deliver in their conclusions. Broadly speaking, they are similarly poor. But a closer investigation reveals that Milon’s Secret Castle is not merely poor–it is in fact a catastrophic failure. More Deadly Towers than Adventure of Link, the truth is that decisions made in the development of Milon’s Secret Castle destroy any potential for fun that originally existed in the game.
Milon’s Secret Castle presents itself to the player as another directionless wanderfest–a Deadly Towers-esque paean to being lost in a Norman Castle with an interior designed by a cracked-out M. C. Escher. Driven to the edge of sanity after huffing pots of Crayola paint, the famed designer of Mobius staircases smashed his face repeatedly against a 1980s-era Amstrad until the system, yielding in surrender, belched forth Hudson Soft’s exploration-platformer. In the vein of Metroid, the player must explore an open game world, collecting items and defeating bosses to advance. But, unlike Metroid, the platforming lacks any sense of finesse, the weapons are inexact and feeble, and the navigation of the game world is hampered by the deadly stupidity of Deadly Towers
As in the Broderbund-published scheissegamen, maze rooms once entered cannot be exited from their entry point. The doorways disappear, and the player must find the exit elsewhere in the level. Worse still, in a nod to Deadly Towers, the exits are invisible and must be found by shooting the main character’s bubblegun until the doorway is revealed. But the bubblegun is inexact, sometimes failing to caclulate hits on targets that are struck directly. And, as if this were not enough to be getting on with, the developers of Milon’s Secret Castle evidently believed that Deadly Towers was just too soft on gamers. Therefore, even if the exit to a room is found, players must find a key (also hidden) in order to use the doorway.
Enemies cannot be permanently defeated: they respawn continuously from the places in which they met their bubble-delivered ends. There is no way to block their projectile attacks (although a shield, granted by the Hudson bee, can mitigate some damage). Moreover, many enemies simply cannot be harmed. Fast moving, and hurling projectiles which travel through walls, they can only be avoided. And, should the player be struck, then damage is incurred constantly–there is no cooldown. Here, once again like Deadly Towers, being struck in the wrong place can result in an instant and frustratingly nigh-unavoidable death.
Boss design ranges from winged rabbits belching fireballs, to winged bird-dragons belching fireballs, to winged griffalizards belching fireballs. The patterns of the fireballs do not change; the movements of the bosses do not change; the tactics used to defeat the bosses do not change; the rewards for completing boss fights do not change. In effect, one boss has been reused, with a slightly different appearance, for every boss fight in the game. In another game, this would be a downside. But, in Milon’s Secret Castle, it is a positive boon, allowing the player more rapidly to complete the game and terminate the experience of suffering through such a pile of dross.
The music is reminiscent of a town fair calliope as performed on a four-channel FM synth, if it were orchestrated by the people behind 21st-century comedy double act Bieber and Gaga. The steady waltz-tempo is like a sonic drill wielded by the nemesis of Music herself. Lady Dischord, sitting down to pen a soundtrack, could scarce have created a more violently antagonising collection of ditties. –For this is what they are: not musical compositions, but jingles fit for television screens, backing talking cartoon animals who purvey insurance, laxatives, and colourful synthetic snackfoods. If the purpose of the soundtrack were to summon up an image of a nauseating and vibrantly-coloured Capitalist dystopia, then it has succeeded marvelously.
Even the mere recollection of the music fills this reviewer with a desire to purchase gooey green globs of arteficially-flavoured gloop. The 3/4 lyrics rapidly may be imagined: You like goop? We like goop! Want some goop? Eat some goop! As for the sounds: what sounds? Were there sounds? This reviewer’s only memory is of the British voice in his head, no doubt a product of traumatic psychosis, which directed him from floor to floor using X,Y-style coordinates unsupported by the game itself–coordinates impossible to visualise based on the limited amount of the level shown on the screen and the lack of any sort of in-game map. “Begone, accursed interlocutor!” this valiant reviewer occasionally shouted at the voice, until it finally submitted, declaring vengefully, “Okay, Lusi. I won’t be around for the podcast this weekend, but maybe we can play some Borderlands on Tuesday.”
The difficulty of Milon’s Secret Castle is perhaps overstated. Deeply frustrating, it nevertheless includes the ability to freely continue–although the arcane means by which this is done (purchasing an item and then, after a game over, holding left whilst pressing Start on the title screen) is not explained in the game. That said, the game’s constantly-respawning enemies and unforgiving collision damage are harsh, even for the experienced gamers who are willing patiently to search every single block of each level, looking for keys, doors, and vitally important, life-increasing honeycombs.
There are worse games on the Nintendo Entertainment System than Milon’s Secret Castle, but although it is in many respects a stunningly inferior title, it has glaring flaws of design sufficient enough to render the experience more punishing than potentially-rewarding. As a creation of presumably rational men, it stings more of malice than mediocrity, with design choices that punish whilst adding nothing. Coupled with a soundtrack that may have sprung directly from the mind of a nightmarish clown, and with enemy encounters as uninspired as last week’s meatloaf, there is little enough to recommend Milon’s Secret Castle to any but the most curious and intrepid of gamers. In the end, the verdict is unequivocal: Milon’s Secret Castle should remain a secret.
Title: Milon’s Secret Castle
Developer: Hudson Soft
Publisher: Hudson Soft
Platform Reviewed: Nintendo Entertainment System (NA)
Release Date: 1 September 1988