Developer: Hudson Soft
Released: September 1988
US Cartridge ID: NES-KM-USA
Genre: Action Puzzle
Supported Peripherals: Controller
ROM Size: 512 kilobit
Mapper: CNROM (32k PRG, 32k CHR)
After offering players points as a hidden bonus in Star Force, Milon formally introduces himself to the public in his first headlining role, Milon’s Secret Castle for the NES. Despite three of the Japanese developer’s games having already shown up on US shores courtesy Brøderbund (Lode Runner, Raid on Bungeling Bay) and Tecmo (Star Force) in 1987, the domestic release of Milon’s Secret Castle was only prolific game maker Hudson Soft’s second self-branded showing in America, alongside Adventure Island in September of 1988 (preceded solely by 1987’s Bomberman). Hoping to encourage American gamers to try something wholly unfamiliar and distinctly Japanese in its sensibilities, the game’s box informed of the smashing success that the game became in its native Japan, presenting a startlingly pink cutaway loudly screaming “OVER 3/4 MILLION SOLD IN JAPAN” at anyone who cared to take notice of the otherwise dull black and blue box at their local electronics retailer.
Milon is a citizen of the kingdom of Hudson, a prosperous land where everyone communicates solely through music. Milon languishes, however, in a perpetual state of self-pity and despair due to his inability to understand the language of his countrymen. Lamenting his solitary existence, he decides to go searching for others like him. Milon visits the Secret Castle in hopes of receiving a blessing from the beneficent Queen Eliza, but is met upon arrival with the sight of a fierce battle. The evil Maharito has laid siege to the castle and stolen the people’s instruments; with Princess Eliza his hostage, Maharito has taken refuge in the uppermost reaches of the castle. Despite being fashioned a social outcast because of the citizenry’s reliance on these instruments, Milon feels compelled to step forward to save the Princess and the people of Hudson. Finding the Barnaby, the castle magician, Milon is granted the power of the magic bubble, and learns of the money, items, and instruments hidden in a panic by Eliza, meant to aid any would-be heroes in their rescue attempts.
Starting at the ground level, Milon must work his way through a gauntlet of labyrinthine puzzle rooms spanning the castle’s four stories, defeat the seven guardian monsters, find Princess Eliza’s hidden items, and save the kidnapped to succeed. Upon entering each of the several, Milon’s primary objective is to fire his magical bubbles at every block in sight. In addition to providing new avenues toward his goal, hitting the blocks can potentially reveal any number of hidden (and often necessary) items, including money (given to Barnaby for powers and items in hidden shops), keys (necessary to open the stage exit once found), honeycombs (refilling Milon’s energy gauge while extending it by one unit), hidden doors, and the Hudson bee, which gives Milon a welcome defensive shield, providing him the ability to continue on his adventure if his life runs out (activated by holding Left while pressing Start on the title screen).
There are also blocks that, if hit from underneath (a la Mario’s head butt brick smash) will reveal a music box, which will transport Milon to a mini-game if collected. Granting the opportunity to collect extra money, these mini-games base their awards on Milon’s ability to run across a staff collecting dotted eighth-sixteenth notes, oddly typical of a swing beat notably missing in the game’s musical compositions. Sharp accidentals are worth double points when collected, and Milon is penalized if he grabs a flat.
Though starting relatively simplistically with the initial room, Milon’s Secret Castle‘s difficulty level quickly escalates. As he explores each of the castle’s rooms, the tone-deaf adventurer is constantly bombarded with attacks from enemies, each of whom will reappear seconds after defeat, borne from solid blue bubbles appearing at the monster’s original spawn point. Making thorough examination of each area tricky, Milon’s life bar does not last very long: though the size of the life gauge makes it appear that he is capable of absorbing several hits before expiring, there is no grace period from damage after taking a hit (in most games represented by a momentary blinking invincibility period), meaning that a single enemy, depending on position, can wipe Milon out in very short order.
Thankfully, Milon’s abilities don’t remain quite as paltry by the endgame as they appear from the outset. By collecting crystal balls from defeated bosses, collecting certain items found in each stage, and purchasing upgrades from Barnaby’s shops, Milon will find the range, size, and strength of his magic bubble powers increase significantly, his life bar dramatically increase, and his jumping abilities improve. All of these will be necessary in order to face the final areas, where the game presents an action-platforming style challenge besting the difficulty of the puzzles solved beforehand.
Though Milon’s Secret Castle is still revered as a classic in Japan, it has been heavily criticized by the American press. Despite its respectable sales numbers in the US, it has often been regarded as frustratingly obtuse, cheap, and misleading – it is often a game shelved in favor of games that appear more forgiving (even when compared to the famed difficulty level that garnered the label “Nintendo hard”). Though it relies on twitch reflexes to defeat many of its enemies, Milon‘s exploratory nature discouraged many American gamers due of its lack of direction, in large part due to one of the most nonsensical translations seen in a domestic NES release (Castlevania II providing the most relevant analogue) that it provides the player.
The graphics, while poor when compared to most well-produced late-generation games, are respectable when set against the typical games of its time. While it never hits the high mark set by Mega Man, Milon’s Secret Castle‘s is graphically far superior to Ghosts ‘n Goblins, Donkey Kong, Ninja Kid, and most others released in 1986, the year of its development. The game does lack in terms of sound, however: though the story pivots around a boy who cannot understand those that communicate with music (thus implying an emphasis on the game’s aural properties), Milon disappoints with an extremely small selection of tunes. Though they are each well-composed and memorable, their repetitious overuse is likely to grate on most gamers’ nerves after an extended play session.
While neither their best nor most-memorable of early showings, Hudson provides a fun, old-school challenge in Milon’s Secret Castle. Though its unwillingness to show any mercy to the player has not done it any favors regarding how well it has aged from the perspective of the modern gamer, patience and an eagerness to conquer at first seemingly insurmountable challenges make Milon’s Secret Castle a worthy opponent for those who cut their teeth on challenges hailing from the 8-bit era, providing they have the willingness and gumption to overlook its rather archaic nature.
|Milon’s Secret Castle
|迷宮組曲ミロンの大冒険 (Meikyuu Kumikyouku – Miron no Daibouken)
Labyrinthine Suite – Milon’s Big Adventure