Every so often, a side-scroller comes along and, through a concept involving uncovering various secrets, unlocks a dormant part of you.
A masochistic part of you even you didn’t know was there.
It’s that little forgotten corner of your brain which accepts whatever torture a game has to offer and momentarily takes over the rest of your consciousness thereby forcing you to continue playing said game like some kind of mindless automaton.
Milon’s Secret Castle is one of those games.
What’s that, game? You want me to shoot bubbles at EVERY SINGLE piece of scenery on the off-chance that some of it might break down to reveal a secret which would then allow me to move onto the next stage?
Sign me up!
Why I like that game, I’m still trying to figure out. Similarly, why do I enjoy playing Mystery Quest when all it’s trying to do is piss me off?
Mystery Quest, originally known in Japan as “Hao’s Mysterious Journey”, was an NES game published by Taxan back in 1988 which, taking a page out of Milon’s Secret Castle and Castevania II: Simon’s Quest, prided itself on its cryptic aspect.
The game sees some kid called Hao (who looks not unlike Noddy) embark on a rather vague mission by order of some wizard to find the most important thing in the world, whatever that means. To put it simply: it’s a typical side-scroller full of random sprites, blocks to break and items to pick up.
Oh, and KILLER SNAILS!!!
Didn’t see that coming, did ya?
Mystery Quest is simplicity itself in terms of how it’s set up: you walk along, enter the odd dungeon, beat the dungeon four different ways, killing a few mini-bosses and picking up important talismans in the process, and that’s basically it.
Essentially, though, the game is two levels-long as the first and third dungeon and the second and fourth dungeon are basically identical.
The game bears the usual must-have clichés for 98% of all side-scrollers from the 1980’s.
EXHIBIT A: spikes.
If there’s one thing games and science as a whole have taught us, it’s that pointy things are scary. Or, at least, scarier than things that are not pointy. This is where spikes come in: they are pointy and therefore bring an extra level of danger you need in an adventure game like this one.
Luckily, in this particular game, they don’t drain your life too much or make you drop all your gold rings before poking you one more time TO DEATH.
EXHIBIT B: stars.
The stars at night.
Are big and bright.
Deep in the heart of Taxan.
Stars in side-scrollers are just good. Whether they make sweet, sweet music or not, they are a source of positive energy. In this case, they give you some life. Not as much life as quarter Moons, which you can also find in the game, but life nonetheless.
EXHIBIT C: extra lives.
Specifically extra lives that look like you do but tiny. Well, tini-er. Except here, these aren’t exactly extra lives. Like stars, they also increase your vitality bar. I’m starting to notice a pattern here, by the way: why does Mystery Quest feel the need to take well-established gaming clichés and turn them upside-down, giving them different meanings?
It’s like finding a heart in a game and realising it’s a weapon.
It’s nonsense, I tells ya!
EXHIBIT D: keys.
Keys, as we all know, are awesome: they open doors… OK so that’s mostly what they do but could you imagine if every key disappeared all of a sudden? That would suck. In this game, they’re crazy useful seeing as every dungeon is packed to the brim with doors.
Doors you can’t always access, either because they’re in conveniently hard-to-reach places or because the keys that open them are hidden inside walls because that’s the first place I look when I misplace my keys.
I personally can’t stand when games make doors super-important like in the last level of Bart Vs The Space Mutants, for example. Unless I’m playing an RPG, I just want them to take me to the next stage, that’s literally all I ask of doors in games. But if I’m having to remember which door to go back to, which door will lead me to some other area that looks exactly the same as another…
I hate it.
EXHIBIT E: bats.
Don’t you worry, bats are still douchebags. They fly in weird patterns, they’re hard to avoid and kill, they show up in broad daylight in games that don’t even have a bat-friendly theme.
In short: they are insufferable pains in the neck.
Bats are like the Jennifer Lawrence of retro gaming: they’re everywhere, they’re unavoidable and I’m not sure they should be.
There are more exhibits, of course, but you get the picture. Mystery Quest plays by the rules but twists them juuuuust enough to keep you slightly confused and frustrated throughout.
In a game creative enough to include giant killer snails, you’d definitely expect better enemies, frankly. Far better than bats, scorpions and whatever that blue thing is, anyway:
It’s weird you can jump on the scorpions considering they have a pointy bit (remember: pointy = bad) but you can. Just don’t try to headbutt them.
Don’t try to do that in real life either.
The items you can pick up during the game I find to be fun yet completely unnecessary. You’ve got helmets to break ceilings when you jump, boots to break floors, candles that give you stars, flowers that give you points, SOS signs that allow you to not get hurt right away when jumping in water…
What. Is. The point of all of these, though?
And what the heck is a “symbol of knowledge”?
Where are the cool weapons? The mushrooms that make you bigger? The gems that take you to mini-games? Why can’t you just break ceilings or floors anyway? Why does a puddle of water have to be lethal? Why are candles giving me stars when you could just have a star there instead?
WHY CAN’T ANYONE IN GAMES FRIGGIN’ SWIM?!
Luckily, you also have Superman capes to keep you safe for a second and magic lamps to give you temporary invincibility.
Just sayin’: better, more inventive and genuinely useful pickups could have helped make this game feel much less repetitive. It’s bad enough the dungeons look the same and there’s like 4 sprites save for the bosses during the entire thing.
Which brings me to those aforementioned “secrets”.
While it can be super frustrating and time-consuming to shoot every wall in a game in the hope of finding hidden items or areas, it’s an admittedly satisfying feeling to uncover one of these secrets. You just need to know it’s going to be that type of game going in, otherwise you’ll figure it out too late and possibly get stuck in one stage forever. Milon’s Secret Castle is fun to play but its secrets can be too convoluted at times and there’s a similar problem with Mystery Quest.
Not only are you expected to find these breakable walls but also breakable floors and ceilings! And as useless as you might think gathering points is, you’ll need to get whatever you can get in this game because, otherwise, it just won’t let you win. In fact, chances are if you’ve played Mystery Quest, you haven’t beaten Mystery Quest.
Chances are you played through all of it to find this end screen staring you in the face:
To you, Mystery Quest, I say this:
The game’s controls are also cryptic, believe it or not.
Jumping high is a chore to say the least and there’s also a way to turn back and shoot up but it’s rather awkward to achieve. It also looks awkward since Hao appears to be peeing whenever he does it:
As for the graphics, they are serviceable but unimaginative.
The dungeons honestly look like crap: different coloured bricks, walls, doors, that’s about it. You can also find various glitches here and there, some jumps are headache-inducing and will have you clutching at your controller tightly like an eagle stealing a pear or something.
I’m not good with comparisons.
I also really don’t think the makers of this game have ever seen an actual tree:
Gravity’s also a bit weird here and there and foreground isn’t always distinguishable from background as certain platforms you think you can jump on but can’t and vice-versa.
So, again, I ask myself.
Why do I (and we) enjoy playing these games?
I guess by introducing the idea of “secrets” scattered around, the game challenges you and by playing it, you accept this particular challenge. Suddenly, it’s not about points or completing the game, it’s about proving yourself smart enough to call the game’s bluff and find whatever easter eggs the programmers have placed all over.
Now: it’s personal.
Unfortunately, if the game only provides cryptic question marks and that takes precedence over cool graphics, smooth controls, memorable enemies and useful pickups, it’s just not rewarding enough. It’s enough to keep me playing like some kind of secret-finding drone but not enough that I’m loving every minute of it or will ever want to do it again. I recommend you trying out Mystery Quest but be warned: it will annoy you.
Peace out, I guess.