I was raised by my parents and a McDonald’s VHS series copy of Wayne’s World. This means that, for better or worse, a significant number of Mike Myers quotes penetrated my brain for decades. I’ll… spare you the rehearsal. But one quote that always stuck in my mind wasn’t one of the oft-repeated catchphrases of the film, it was an exchange between Noah, the greedy arcade owner, and Rob Lowe, played by Rob Lowe. When asked about the biggest problem facing his arcade, Noah replies that he needs to advertise new games, like Zantar. Zantar is described like so:
“Zantar is a gelatinous cube that eats warriors in a medieval village. And every time it eats a chieftain, you ascend to a higher level. Beauty part is, you can’t get to the next level, so the kids keep coughing up quarters.”
“Gelatinous cube eats village. I think it’s terrific”
The reason I’ve always remembered that exchange is because… it’s wrong. It’s a line written by a Canadian man born in the early sixties about a medium that is assumed to be like every other “let’s exploit kids” toygetic industry. Actually, let’s be real here, there was no lack of fleecing at any given arcade in the 80’s and 90’s. I probably donated the current national net worth of Venezuela to any given Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle beat ‘em up that happened to cross my path. And if you look at those games, you’ll see they are completely built around bosses and cronies that are either impossible to dodge or avoidable, but it would mean boring repetition for the next hour or so. I’m sure The Simpsons Arcade Game can be conquered on one credit, but, man, that’s not the game I want to play.
But, that said, you can win, and, if you put in the quarters and shove that joystick to the right, you will make progress. You wouldn’t play the game for any other reason, right? It’s not that hard to identify when you’re being swindled.
So (and I realize I’m preaching to the choir here), this Zantar game would never fly in a real arcade. Yes, it would be easy to create a videogame that masks your progress and constantly makes it seem like you’re so close to that next level /chieftain digestion, but even the worst of the worst “freemium” games of the modern era know that kids ain’t stupid, and, without at least the illusion of progression, those gelatinous cubes won’t fly. Or roll? I don’t know how gelatinous cubes get around.
Even as a child, I realized this was the case. Hell, given the glut of videogame auxiliary media at the time, I probably expected it. The Super Mario Bros. Super Show was a pair of doofs in costumes or an animated series that rehashed tired old folk tales with a pair of plumbers in the heroic roles. Captain N couldn’t color its protagonists properly. Even the eventual Mega Man animated series couldn’t seem to understand how key characters like Proto Man operated (though, granted, that was a series where robots could devolve into neander-bots…). In short, it seemed obvious that anyone writing about videogames (and not writing for videogames) was a clueless adult that had never felt the glory of flinging a metal blade at malevolent masonry (and I’d claim that this is what led to the inordinate popularity of Nintendo Power: it was the only piece of media in existence that seemed to actually know what it was talking about [give or take using crash bombs on Heat Man]). So Young Goggle Bob took this out-of-touch comment in stride, because, surely, this was just another dumb joke at the expense of a medium parents just don’t understand.
Milon’s Secret Castle might be the Zantar of the NES.
It’s been discussed here and in the comments before, but there was a weird imperative on the NES to make videogames hard. This makes sense to a certain degree, as it was believed that if a gamer couldn’t reach the end point, they’d keep banging their head against the wall until those bricks came down (or a concussion was invoked). I… guess that was true for some people? Like, if you finished the game on a rental, then there was no reason to ever play the game again, right? Except… how many people played Battletoads? Was that rented/played over and over again, or did people just give the heck up and plug in Super Mario Bros. 3 again? Seems like the games that held the attention (and pint-sized wallets) of my peer group erred towards Ducktales and Zelda, games that weren’t exactly easy, but certainly conquerable. Deadly Towers got one rental, and I wasn’t demanding it for Christmas because I hadn’t seen the ending, I was demanding it be stricken from my memory. Some scars never heal…
Milon’s Secret Castle is such a scar. I rented this game (well, technically it was on my dad’s video rental membership), and I’m moderately sure I never got off the first floor. I think I got to the first boss, because that poop-colored creature seems familiar, but that was it. No continues, back to square one after one life lost, and I don’t think I even remembered how I activated that boss in the first place. Rental returned, and Milon’s castle remained a secret forever.
And it’s a shame, because there’s the nugget of a good metroidvania somewhere in here. The whole concept is that Milon is ascending some monster –infested castle, and the only way to make progress is through discovering hidden shops selling useful items. Granted, none of the items make a lick of sense (a magic potion allows you to shrink after being hit by a boxing glove… okay?) but this was a time of size-changing mushroom and Bibles that made magical rods shoot fire, so that kind of thing is to be expected. You’re not really encouraged to revisit old rooms like in a proper metroidvania, but the whole permanent powerup acquisition and using new skills to defeat enemies and overcome environmental challenges was a new and novel innovation at the time. And it’s all wrapped up in a fairly cute package. Adventuring in your pajamas should be a thing of beauty!
But there’s no beauty to be found here. Milon’s Secret Castle is a dumpster fire of terrible design decisions, first and foremost the fact that you must test every stupid block in the entire game three different ways. It’s not enough to shoot a block to see if it is arbitrarily destructible, no, you must also jump against blocks like Mario to see if there are any secrets contained therein. Oh, and even after you’ve done that, some blocks appear to be pushable, so squish Milon up against every wall you can find. Then, maybe, you’ll find the way to the next shop or level. Then again, that’s assuming you’re not immediately destroyed by every damn monster floating about. These creatures respawn practically instantly (and not even in proper NES fashion, they’ll come back without the aid of a scrolling screen), and Milon gets zero mercy invincibility. Some haphazardly lousy positioning can lead from perfect health to instant death. One life, and there’s a secret code to continue only after you’ve ascended to the second floor. And speaking of a lack of transparency, it’s thirty years later, and I still don’t know exactly what activates the first boss. I know it’s not collecting the first two keys, but it might be buying the spring shoes? Or is it finding that secret music room? Or using the boxing glove? I have no idea. I’m not sure I want to know.
As an adult, I am struck by the “why” of this game. Why is it so difficult? Was it poor design that overly relied on instruction manuals or other sources? Was it the old days of gaming, where the idea of getting out the graph paper and “figuring it all out” was considered the fun part of the challenge? Was it just a slapdash attempt at something new that came out of the oven a little too early? Frankly, any of these answers could be all or part of the truth, but I keep coming back to Zantar…
Was Milon’s Secret Castle just a naked Skinner Box of impossibility? Yes, the game is winnable, but not without a lot of effort. No 1-ups, no mini map, no hints (that are at all useful), just the player and a clear goal to ascend an impossible castle. It can take hours of practice to beat that first level, and then there are four more to go, with no (obvious) continues. If you’re only playing games to beat ‘em, congratulations, you found a game that might last the rest of your life. Way to go, Hudson, you’ve created the perfect game for Noah’s Arcade.
So maybe I owe Mike Myers an apology. Sure, the comments by Noah in Wayne’s World sound like some out-of-touch “last generation” old man ranting against a medium he doesn’t care to understand, but there may be a few Zantars out there. They might not all contain gelatinous cubes, but I can think of at least one with a secret castle.
FGC #184 Milon’s Secret Castle
- System: NES, and also available on the Wii Virtual Console. Don’t buy it, you’re only encouraging the wrong kind of behavior. There’s also kind of a Gameboy version, but there are enough changes that I’m going to claim it’s its own game.
- Number of players: One Milon. No, I didn’t spell that wrong.
- What’s in a plot? Apparently the story of this game involves Milon, the only Hudsonite that can’t communicate through song, being the savior of his queen and people when an evil whateverthehell attacks. Does this mean Milon is deaf? Is his whole deal that he’s the hero that transforms his disability into a super power? Is… Milon Daredevil? Or at least Echo?
- So, did you beat it? Nope! I only have so much patience, and it ran out right about the time that boy fell down a well.
- Favorite Powerup: I like watching Milon get squished by a boxing glove to become Tiny Milon. It reminds me vaguely of later Wario platformers, and that’s always a good thing.
- Did you know? Milon had a guest spot on Saturn Bomberman. Now that Hudson is effectively no more, we shouldn’t see the squirt and that silly bee ever again.
- Would I play again: No. And you can’t make me.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Hatsune Miku: Project Diva F for the Playstation 3. I guess we’re going to have an anime sing-along? Please look forward to it!