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Milon's Secret Castle: A baffling action-puzzler

Milon's Secret Castle is an action-puzzler from Hudson Soft. It stars a boy named Milon, who must wend his way through the titular secret castle, while attacking enemies with bubbles. According to the manual, he seeks to rescue Queen Eliza, who has been imprisoned inside the castle by a warlord.

The castle is navigated by doors on the outside. Behind each door is a small stage, shop, or boss fight. Stages are standard platforming fare, with many blocks. Some of these blocks (you can't tell which) are removed when shot with a bubble. A few of these leave behind money, which can only be collected once. For some reason, a single stage on the third floor regenerates its hidden money, enabling you to get as much as you need.

Various enemies spawn throughout the stages and can be destroyed by bubbles. Often they drop a heart to refill a point of health, and occasionally an umbrella that speeds up the bubble fire rate. Milon can be hit repeatedly by the same enemy in rapid succession, which makes the game harder than it should be.

Almost every stage contains a hidden honeycomb that replenishes Milon's life meter and increases its maximum capacity by one. Collecting these is essential, as the game is really hard—NES hard. Each stage also holds a music box that is revealed when Milon hits his head against a certain block (not unlike a certain plumber). The music box takes you to a neat bonus stage, where a bunch of musicians play music while musical notes fly around. The more you grab, the more money you are given. Beware, though: the flat notes (a lowercase b) deduct from your total.

To exit a room, Milon must find the key and door, but this is almost trivial. As he sprays each room with bubbles, checking the blocks for money and the honeycomb, he will invariably reveal the hidden key and door as well. The game's challenge comes entirely from the regenerating enemies and has nothing to do with finding the doors and keys.

However, there is a hard puzzle you must solve to make the first boss appear. A golden dragon named Homa, he will only appear after you buy the shoes. Both of the stages on the first floor contain a shop that sells them, but they are concealed: their doors open only after you push aside a certain block. To do so, you must hold the d-pad for several seconds (longer than in The Legend of Zelda). As the game's manual says nothing about this, I was driven to look online to figure out how to proceed. I suspect that many 80's children gave up at this point!

There are light RPG elements (similar to Kid Icarus and Rygar), both in terms of upgrading your health bar and purchasing new items. The aforementioned shoes allow Milon to bounce high off springboards, enabling him to reach otherwise inaccessible ledges. A potion makes Milon small, but only when he gets hit with a spring-loaded boxing glove (!?). This allows him to squeeze under low overhangs. Milon needs the torch to illuminate the inside of the well, which contains the passage to the castle's third floor. 

The item shops double as an inventory screen in the top-left corner.

Shops also contain cryptic hints about how to proceed, such as "A waterpot in icy room." Riiight... Worse, the manual doesn't describe any of the twelve items, and the in-game explanations are about as opaque as the hints. Without a guide, Milon's Secret Castle is baffling. Ideally, a player should approach with an open and inquisitive mind, seeking to solve these puzzles for yourself, but the frustrating nature of the gameplay makes this less appetizing than when playing a better game like Zelda or Metroid.

If you can persevere to the second half of the game, Milon starts to power up enough that the game becomes more fun. The levels change enough to stay fresh, but I can't say that any of them is particularly memorable or exciting.

Clearing the first two rooms is none too difficult, but the boss fight is tough. All the bosses in the game are just reskins with more hit points, not unlike another Hudson Soft game, Adventure Island. They hop up and down throwing fireballs, while slowing advancing then retreating. The fireballs can be dodged with practice. The bosses are damage sponges and can be hit only in the head. A small saving grace is that Milon can back out of the room if he gets low on health, then grind enemies for hearts, and try again. Dying means starting the game over, and although redoing the first two rooms and buying the shoes takes just a few minutes, it's an irritating waste of time. Once you beat the first boss, you gain access to a secret continue button combination (← + START). Mercifully, this code is given on the final page of the manual, labeled "Secret Information." Given how long the game is, hiding the continue is egregious, but that was the 80's!

The graphics are mediocre, but should appeal to anyone with nostalgia for the 8-bit era. The music is also mediocre and the same in every stage.

I mostly liked playing Milon's Secret Castle and would even venture to say it's underrated. However, it's not fun enough to justify how difficult and confusing it is. When compared to a classic game like Metroid, Zelda, or even Kid Icarus, it looks terrible, but I think that's too high a bar. Milon's Secret Castle is fine, maybe sub-par. A few quality-of-life fixes could do wonders for this game: for example, two-second invincibility whenever Milon gets hit, saving, starting with full health instead of four bars, clear explanations of what the items do, and enemies dropping hearts more often. 

Grade: D
Linked Reviews
"Hudson had many classics in its NES library. Milon's Secret Castle probably shouldn't be counted among those."
— Marcel van Duyn, Nintendo Life, 4/10

"While cute and engaging, this game may suit only the most patient player."
— Asheton Phinney, Ultimate Nintendo: Guide to the NES Library, 3/5

"Milon's Secret Castle was doomed to be eclipsed by all the more freshly crafted works that simply handled open-adventure exploration-action better."
— Jeremy Parish, NES Works

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