Milon’s Secret Castle is a prime example of a decent video game concept gone awry. Developed by Hudson Soft for the NES, Milon’s Secret Castle had the potential to put a new spin on the platformer genre by setting all the action in a single location (the titular castle), in which you must uncover secrets to delve further into its chambers. Unfortunately, Hudson went a wee bit too far with these secrets, which end up being so cryptic that getting through the castle no longer feels like a series of puzzles, but one big guessing game.
On the bright side of things, Milon controls well enough. You can walk around, jump, and shoot magic bubbles from a wand. The bubbles are used to defeat enemies, as well as uncover hidden items behind breakable blocks, and reveal invisible doors. If there’s any complaint to be had with Milon’s sense of control, it’s that the only way to run is simply build momentum, which can often be difficult in the castle’s cramped walls. And seeing as Milon was released after Super Mario Bros., there’s really no excuse why a run button couldn’t have been implemented.
The setup of the game goes like this: you traverse the chambers of the castle, looking for hidden passageways and money, which is used to purchase items from shops, which themselves are often hidden. The items are used to make Milon more versatile, improving the damage of his bubbles, or giving him more ways to traverse the castle, like bouncing on springs and shrinking (by the baffling means of being hit by a boxing glove). Additionally, honeycombs can be found hidden within the castle, which add to Milon’s total hit points.
Because of these character-progressing elements, the game almost has an RPG or Metroidvania-type of appeal. This is greatly detracted, however, by how utterly cryptic the game is. Granted, the game is all about secrets, but we aren’t simply talking about solving puzzles to unlock these secrets, but just randomly shooting bubbles at every last pixel on the screen and hoping you get lucky and find something. What’s worse, some of the game’s hidden items randomly generate in different spots, which only makes things that much more of a guessing game. Thankfully the random items are less frequent than the fixed ones, but in a game that’s already so cryptic, adding any random element into the mix was never going to end up well.
This overly cryptic nature prevents Milon’s Secret Castle from reaching its potential, and turns what might have otherwise been a good game into a mediocre one. But the grave flaw that demotes Milon’s Secret Castle below that is that you have no extra lives, and no continues. If you die just once, you have to start the game from the beginning!
Rarely is a game that gives you no extra chances a good idea, but for a game that already alienates the player with its cryptic elements, the lack of extra tries turns the whole thing into a giant, tedious, trial-and-error affair.
Milon’s Secret Castle had the potential to be something memorable, and had it been developed properly, may have made an impact in the Metroidvania scene. But it’s inability to challenge the player’s thinking, and instead insisting on making the experience feel like a guessing game, coupled with its unforgiving punishment for a single loss, really make Milon’s Secret Castle a massive missed opportunity.