Often my reasons for selecting old games for purchase is completely arbitrary and stupid. Sometimes I'll buy a game because it has a goofy title, but most often I throw down my dollar on a game simply because I've never heard of it. In this case, I bought Milon's Secret Castle because its label was in nice condition. This wasn't my only reason, of course. It is a Hudson game, and as someone who hasn't really played many Hudson games, I felt like I should give one of their older NES title a try. The name of the game sounded vaguely familiar, but I couldn't place it. As it turns out, I had not only seen the game before, I had played it, or at least a hacked version, as a built in title for the Power Games, though not for much time.
Milon's Secret Castle is a puzzle/platform game with a completely inappropriate box art. It really betrays the cute nature of the game, and though the image of the spooky castle was taken from the Japanese box art, it completely removes the context, making the game seem like a Castlevania-like game. This darkness doesn't match the game's whimsical music-based story and colorful graphics. Granted, if you dillydally outside the castle for too long you will be attacked by lightning, but that hardly seems to be the thing to display on the cover of the game, though this makes the cover technically more accurate than many NES games. Mega Man I'm looking at you.
The first thing to know about this game is that the castle isn't secret, but the castle is full of secrets. The story is something about how some evil dude took over the queen's castle and taken away music from the people. It is Milon's job to defeat the evil guy and restore music by using the secrets of the castle in order to ascend it. Not that any of this is explained in-game, but it is nice to know the context. On the ground floor of the castle you can enter one of a few doors as well as a window, and it mostly doesn't matter which order you enter them.
The basic flow of the game goes like this. Enter a room, find the secret key, find the secret door, and exit the room. There are secrets everywhere, and very few clues to finding them. Milon only has one attack, he can blow bubbles at either an upward or downward angle. It is a bit odd not being able to shoot the bubbles straight, but since their range is so short it doesn't end up being a very big deal. The movement and jump physics are a bit unusual, but they work out alright. After walking forward for a short amount of time, Milon begins to run, which is useful in getting a further jump than the normally short horizontal distance covered by walking or neutral jumps.
This game has something of a reputation for being difficult and opaque in explaining what needs to be done to progress. Having gone into the game cold, I couldn't make it to the second floor. I knew the game was all about finding hidden stuff, so I shot bubbles at everything ended up doing okay at first. I found a honeycomb, which completely fill the health bar and gives Milon an extra hit point, in the first room, which was nice because you start the game with less than full health. I found quite a few bags of cash, as well as the secret key that open secret door, which wasn't hard to find. I cleared another room, but I never found whatever it was I needed to make the boss appear and progress to the second floor.
One of the most annoying problems with the game, other than the completely confusing nature of how to progress, is the fact that one death is game over. Apparently after making it to the second floor you can hold left and press start after dying to continue where you left off, but Hudson, in the US at least, never bothered to tell anyone about this feature. On top of that, this save system is known for being unreliable, so any time you die could still potentially be a final game over.
A slightly less frustrating flaw in the game is the lack of a blinking “just got hit” state of invincibility or knockback, so a perfect storm of enemy attacks can completely destroy you in a short amount of time. Getting the life bar extensions from the honeycombs is useful for mitigating this problem. If you are low on life, the constantly respawning enemies are a curse or a blessing depending on their positioning. If there are too many enemies, you can be easily overwhelmed and never get the chance to kill them for their vital life refilling drops. Their spawn locations aren't as predictable as in Metroid, so grinding out health items isn't always easy.
Milon's Secret Castle is a pretty charming game in spite of its flaws. I have a hard time explaining why. Maybe it is the little musical bonus levels, or just the fact it is a non-Mario game for the NES that has solid platforming physics. Even if the majority of the game is finding obscure secrets and randomly shooting bubbles at walls in order to get money or just to progress, I still can't hate it. It's just charming in some weird way that prevents me from doing so. I guess there was a port of the game for Game Boy and a sequel that was a more straightforward platformer for the SNES. Maybe I'll give that a try one day.