Milon's Secret Castle (NES) review
"The world of Milon's Secret Castle is filled with ledges, long jumps, and elemental hazards that will make short work of your energy gauge. And thanks to the lack of invulnerability I already mentioned, it's possible to bump against a single enemy and find most of your life vanished before you've moved away. Do that often at all and it's game over. Everything you've done will be lost and you'll have to start over."
Jeff Rovin influenced me a lot when I was young and impressionable. His books, How to Win at Nintendo Games and its successors, caused me to want a lot of games not because they were good, but because I could easily read about them. In the second volume in his 'prestigious' series, Rovin wrote about Milon's Secret Castle and described it in such a fascinating fashion that I immediately knew I had to own it. Years passed, and it wasn't until just recently that I picked the title up at a local used games store. After playing it extensively, I've come to a rather predictable conclusion: some things are best left to the pages of those Jeff Rovin books.
As the game opens, a character named Milon stands at the lower left side of the screen, while a red-bricked castle rises to his right. This is his 'secret' castle, but it's been taken over by an evil wizard (who also stole away Milon's babe). And so you are put in the role of the blue-garbed one, charged with the task of finding seven magical crystals so that you can at last reclaim that which was taken from you so unfairly.
Your quest begins immediately. If you stand around outside the castle admiring the scenery (which extends to the right to include a well and a tree) for very long, day will turn to night and the sky will suddenly turn dark as lightning bolts ripple through the air. If these hit you, part of your life meter drops. This likely will lead you to notice that Milon has no period of invulnerability after taking a hit; do more than just brush against an enemy and your life meter can quite rapidly drain down to nothing. Clearly, a better strategy than dawdling is to get right to work.
The castle exterior in this game is really just a level selector. From the onset, you can enter three different doors. One is a shop, and the other two are the game's equivalent of levels. There's also a shuttered window on a raised ledge, though entering it initially leads nowhere. If all of this sounds just the slightest bit confusing, know that... it definitely is. This is one of those games that demands you've read up on it a bit before you play (don't worry; this review will educate you enough to play it). Dinking around a bit will soon give you a good grasp of how the game works in general.
Enter one of the doors and you'll find the meat and potatoes of the game, only they look more like bats and blobs of slime. Milon moves no differently here than he does outside. However, there's more call for precision. The world of Milon's Secret Castle is filled with ledges, long jumps, and elemental hazards that will make short work of your energy gauge. And thanks to the lack of invulnerability I already mentioned, it's possible to bump against a single enemy and find most of your life vanished before you've moved away. Do that often at all and it's game over. Everything you've done will be lost and you'll have to start over.
Fortunately, Milon isn't entirely defenseless. The minute you play, you'll be able to blow bubbles that many of your opponents find absolutely intolerable. The majority of your foes will immediately vaporize upon contact, to leave behind hearts, umbrellas, or (more frequently) nothing at all. There's a never-ending stream of baddies, though, thanks to the fact that they re-spawn quite frequently. This means you'll do best if you just run around madly tossing bubbles as you look for your way to complete the stages.
As you may imagine, finishing each level as quickly as possible is of immense benefit to you. However, you're also encouraged (and to a major extent required) to explore. Whenever you enter a level, you'll not be able to exit until you've found not only the door that leads out, but the key that unlocks it. These are rather frequently placed at opposite sides of the arena, so you'll soon become quite familiar with any enemies that guard them. In fact, you'll be sick of the sight of the little blue balls of light that mean a new denizen of darkness is on his way to shake your hand.
Besides the keys and doors, you'll also be looking for other items: money, Hudson bees (a staple of many early titles from the developer) and honeycombs. The last of these extends the number of bars on your life meter each time you find one, and there are a decent number of them spread throughout the adventure. They're hidden quite carefully, though, so you really have to look hard for them until you're familiar with the game's layout. The Hudson bee is found a bit less frequently, and grants you some protection against enemy hits. Finally, the money is important because you can use it to purchase special items from the assorted shops spread throughout the castle.
Those items are in fact essential to the adventure. Without the spring boots, for example, you'll never reach the higher areas of some stages. Without the potion, the boxing glove won't shrink you. The problem is that finding these stores isn't always so simple as walking over to an entrance. Some are hidden and must be uncovered by shooting at thin air, apparently solid walls, and so forth. Miss an upgrade to Milon and you might well wander about aimlessly until a baddie does you in.
If somehow you avoid an untimely demise early on, the game begins to grow more engaging, if only slightly. Complete the first introductory levels and you'll get the chance to fight the first boss, a dragon that leaves behind a crystal when he's defeated. This item is quite important, because you can then continue from where you left off if you hold 'left' on the controller when you press 'start' at the title screen after dying. That's something else you might not have known without the instruction manual, and it's just one more reason the game doesn't cater to anyone. Even with such a system in place, though, you are likely to eventually press 'start' without remembering to hold the appropriate direction, and then all your progress is lost to you as quickly as that. Even if you do continue, your meter starts with most of the energy absent, so you have to immediately spend time beefing up Milon before resuming your quest. I really wish Hudson had included a battery back-up, or at least a password system, even though the game itself is rather short. Alas, they did not.
Which leads me to the most important realization of all: Milon's Secret Castle just isn't fun. The first time I found out my progress was lost after a cheap brush with an enemy monster, I didn't feel inclined to continue. I didn't want to fight the sometimes difficult jumps, didn't care to gather all the honeycombs again just to risk dying once more a few screens later. There's certainly nothing bad about Milon's Secret Castle. It's just that the game isn't fun. Not these days, anyway. All the flames and trap doors and bouncing enemies in the world can't change that. Play this one only if you want to see what entertained us in the old days. Or at least, what entertained Jeff Rovin.
Staff review by Jason Venter (May 12, 2004)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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