Sunday, September 26, 2010

Game Review: Milon's Secret Castle

Milon's Secret Castle
  • Publisher: Hudson Soft
  • Developer: Hudson Soft
  • Platforms/Release:
    • NES: September 1988
    • Wii (DLC): June 2007
  • Genre: Action
  • Rarity/Cost:
    • NES: Common (US$1-10)
    • Wii: N/A (US $5)

YOU CAN PUSH BLOCKS IN THIS GAME.  IN ORDER TO MAKE THE FIRST BOSS APPEAR, YOU HAVE TO KEEP WALKING AGAINST ONE OF THE BLOCKS ON THE FLOOR OF THE FIRST LEVEL AND SHOOT THE SPACE BEHIND IT TO MAKE A SHOP APPEAR, WHERE YOU WILL BE ABLE TO BUY THE SPRING SHOES.

...Okay, I'm sorry for getting ahead of myself.  I just really needed to get that out of the way, because without it, you won't make it past the first ten percent or so of this game.  Even worse, this little piece of advice isn't even in the enclosed instruction book.  And back in the day, before you had websites like GameFAQs to come to the rescue, the instruction manuals were pretty much all you had to go by.  The only other place you could find this out, as the Angry Video Game Nerd pointed out, is in an issue of Nintendo Power magazine (back while they actually told you how to beat the games).  When you have to pay extra for that tiny piece of crucial information that can get you past such a daunting roadblock, that's a sign of a bad game.  Or is it...?

But first, history time.  Milon's Secret Castle was released by Hudson Soft for the Famicom (Japan) in November 1986 and the NES (North America) in September 1988.  It is also available for the Wii through the Virtual Console shop for 500 Wii Points (US $5) in all 3 regions (Japan, America, and PAL).  The simple plot casts you as a boy named Milon, who lives in a world where everyone communicates through music but he is unable to do so.  But that's not important; what is is that there's a Queen Eliza under a sleeping spell in the Castle Garland, and you must defeat the evil Prince Maharito and wake her up.  So when you boil it down, it's pretty much the same save-the-princessqueen plot that was in vogue for a while after Super Mario Brothers.

Milon attacks by shooting bubbles given to him by a magician in the offscreen backstory.  They fire at an upwards angle if you press B, or a downwards angle if you hold Down and press B.  Not being able to shoot straight forwards is an inconvenient setup, especially when the range of your bubbles starts out slow, but that's the least of your worries, trust me.  Milon moves with slow forward acceleration, and decelerates rapidly once you stop walking.  If you jump from a standing position, you will not move forward at all.  Also, whenever you start out, either from a new game or a continue, you only start out with 4 units of life, which is only about half full when you start out.  Yeah, The Legend of Zelda pulled this on you, too, but at least that game doesn't have so many problems.  Like this next one - and this is the big one - there's no mercy invincibility after you get hit.  Combined with Milon's slow initial agility, and you can easily be juggled for loads and loads of damage until you die.

The game itself is very open-ended.  When you start out, you get to choose from two action stages, a shop, and an empty boss room.  In the action stages, you can collect money and honeycombs (which refill and extend your health) by shooting bubbles at certain bricks, and healing hearts and umbrellas (which increase your rate of fire) from downed enemies.  The enemies respawn soon after being defeated and never stop doing so, so you'll never get a moment's peace.  In order to leave these rooms, you have to cause enough mayhem to make a key appear, then use it to unlock a door, which you have to search for by shooting at empty spaces until it appears.  This is truly an inconvenient setup.

You have to SEARCH for the exits!?1
A treasure trove of items is available for sale in the shops of Castle Garland.  There are the spring and roller shoes to make you jump higher, a hammer and saw to break into new places from the overworld, and a medicine bottle that lets you shrink when you touch a green boxing glove.  ...Umm, yeah, if I can roll with it, why can't you?  You'll need to buy most of the 12 different tools in order to open up new areas and survive the encounters within.  In fact, you need to buy the Spring Shoes and Medicine just to make the first boss appear.  There are seven main bosses in addition to Maharito himself, but they're all the same - creatures that jump around and lob fireballs at you.  Lazy design, to be sure, but at around the fourth or fifth one (based on my experiences), they somehow get too tough to handle without mass repetition and frustration.  The best advice I can give you is to hang back as far as your bubbles can reach and shoot the bosses when they get close.  Beating a boss earns you a Crystal Ball, which extends your bubbles' range.  In addition, after you win the first one, you get to use the continue cheat after you die.  When the title screen appears, you have to hold Left and press Start.  It's a DARN good thing the developers put this in - in the instructions, no less - because you're going to use it.  A lot.

After you get to a certain point, especially when you find the shops that can refill your health, you'll start to run out of money.  There is only one room in the game where the money respawns every time you go back in, and it's all the way up on the third floor.  For a quick fix, you can bump your head on certain blocks and turn up a music box, which takes you to a bonus stage.  In these, music notes will fly up from the bottom of the screen.  Collect the regular notes and sharps (#), while avoiding the flats (b), and you'll gain points.  When time is up, you'll earn money based on how many point you've accrued.  In a neat little touch, for each new bonus stage you get into (there are seven in all), a new instrument is added to the background music, played by the elves on the top of the screen.  But once you've depleted the main and bonus stages, and are forced to go back to that one level to get enough money to fill your health back up, tedium will start to set in.  And when playing a game starts to feel like going to a boring job every day, you know it's time to go.
This boss is the hardest for some reason.1
So, apart from how frustrating and repetitive this game can be, it also suffers from the technical problems I mentioned earlier and from a lack of direction.  A good number of games leave you to find your own way but somehow are still loved by many; early Legend of Zelda and Metroid titles come to mind.  But considering how flawed and unintuitive Milon's Secret Castle is, it just can't measure up to the classics.  And even after you learn about the box-pushing trick, it's still a very, very hard game, no mercy invincibility and all.  In fact, it's probably one of the toughest games I grew up with, along with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game.  I mean, I was never experienced to stuff like Bayou Billy, Battletoads, or even Ninja Gaiden, but seeing what other reviewers have gone through, I think I'll just go and count my blessings now.

Control: 2 musical notes out of 5
Design: 2 musical notes out of 5
Graphics: 3 musical notes out of 5
Audio: 4 musical notes out of 5
The Call: 40% (F)*
*50% (D) if you know the push trick.

1 "Milon's Secret Castle - NES Screenshots".  MobyGameshttp://www.mobygames.com/game/nes/milons-secret-castle/screenshots.

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