Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!



#137 – Shadowgate

Enter the castle and solve its mysteries, if you dare.

Such an inviting looking entrance.

To Beat: Reach the ending
Played: 10/17/19 – 10/27/19
Difficulty: 5/10
My Difficulty: 5/10
My Video: Shadowgate Longplay

This is another first for Take On The NES Library.  Yes, these are still happening more than four years and over a hundred games in.  This time I have played my first NES point and click adventure game.  The only other point and click games I’ve ever really played are some of the Professor Layton games, though I like them more for the outright logic puzzles.  This kind of game is not really my style, but I was intrigued at the idea of trying one for myself.  I think Shadowgate may be the most popular NES game of this style, and it was an interesting playthrough that I enjoyed.

Shadowgate is the third game in the MacVenture series of point-and-click adventure games that were originally created for Apple Macintosh.  The MacVenture games all have a common interface design but are separate games story-wise except for the two Déjà Vu games.  While Shadowgate was the third MacVenture game released, it was the first of the three games eventually ported to the NES.  Shadowgate was first released in 1987, developed by ICOM Simulations and published by Mindscape.  It was ported to many different PCs before reaching the NES in December of 1989.  The PAL version was released in Europe in 1991.  The NES port was published by Kemco*Seika and I believe Kemco also ported the game to the NES.

Shadowgate has a basic storyline.  The evil Warlock Lord is set to bring destruction to the world by raising and releasing the Behemoth.  You play as the last of the line of kings, and per your lineage you are the only one who can stop the Warlock Lord from his evil scheme.  You start the game at the front door of Castle Shadowgate.  You will need to use your reasoning skills, as well as equipment found along the way, to infiltrate the castle and make your way through to the Warlock Lord to put a stop to his plan.  Do so, and you win the game.  But beware, there are plenty of traps and enemies along the way that are out to get you.

The first puzzle is just getting into the castle.

The MacVenture point-and-click interface seems to be well ported to the NES.  You control a hand-shaped cursor that you move around the screen with the D-pad.  The left side of the screen is the viewing window where you see the scene set ahead of you.  The cursor freely moves across this window and you can set it on top of anything you see.  The right side and the bottom of the screen contain different options for you.  These are little squares labeled with text.  The cursor snaps to these squares as you move the cursor toward them.  The programming here is good as you can move the cursor to whatever you want both efficiently and intuitively.  The A button is used to select either commands, items, or objects in the viewing screen.  The B button cancels one of the commands you have previously selected.  Both the Start button and the Select button display a hint during gameplay.

Interactions in this game utilize a verb-noun structure.  You need to select an action, your verb, and then apply it to an object, your noun.  The actions are all listed out at the bottom of the screen.  The objects are things either visible in the viewing window or in your inventory.  Select your action, then select the object you want, and see what happens.  Sometimes you need to select two objects, most commonly when you want to Use one thing on some other thing.  Actions stay selected until you choose a different one, so you can use the same command over and over quickly.

These are the commands you can perform:

Move: Lets you move from one screen to another.  This command has a small mini-map below it that is freely scrollable with the cursor.  It contains squares for each of the exits relative to their positioning in the viewing window.  Often you can Move somewhere using either the square on the mini-map or the location itself in the viewing window.

The mini-map shows entrances that aren’t immediately obvious.

Look: Lets you examine objects in the viewing window or objects you are carrying.  This gives a text description of the item in question that might give you some information on how to use that item.

Take: Lets you add an item in front of you to your inventory, which is represented by a card system in the window on the right.  Each item is on its own line and you can page through multiple cards worth of items using the Up and Down arrows in the Card section of the menu.  You also learn a few magical spells in the game which are kept on their own separate card at the end of the inventory.

Open and Close: These commands are mostly used to open and close doors, but they do have some non-obvious uses from time to time.

Use: This is primarily how you apply an item from your inventory to something in front of you.  As far as I remember it’s the only command where you have to choose what to use and what to use it on.

Hit: Smacks something!  You may want to tread carefully using this against the creatures in the castle, but there are other uses too.

Leave: You can leave an item behind.  In the right situation you can use this command to thin out your inventory.  Fortunately, you can hold as much stuff as needed.

Speak: Talk to someone!  Not everyone talks back though.

The final two options in the lower right are Self and Save.  You can use Self to perform a command on yourself, such as if you want to eat something or use an item on yourself.  You can even hit yourself if you want, the game will let you try whatever!  Save records your progress to the battery backup.  It doesn’t hurt to save often in this game.

Torches … torches everywhere.

This game also has a system involving torches.  To get anywhere in the castle you need to keep a lit torch on you at all times.  You can see two torches at the top of your inventory and how the flames are doing.  You can also point the cursor to the flame and use it just like an inventory item.  When the torches start to run low, the music switches over a very queasy tune reminding you to light up another one to keep going.  If both torches are out, it goes dark and you end up tripping to your death, every single time.  There are a finite number of torches in Castle Shadowgate, but if your torch goes dark the game gives you back a partial torch for free, so you are never locked out from completing the game.

Speaking of death, there is a lot of dying that goes on in the game.  There are plenty of creatures and traps to deal with and you can suffer a grizzly death if you do the wrong thing or aren’t careful enough.  When you die you get a visit from Death himself as you get to read the description of how you met your untimely demise.  It is fun to see all the different ways you can perish and to read all the text written about it.  Dying puts you back one screen and you will keep respawning on that screen if you die there again without leaving.  A little tip here: I put the respawning system to good use whenever I got into a room with a puzzle where I died a lot.  I would go into that room, leave the room, and kill myself somehow so that I would always respawn in the room I was trying to solve.  It saved me a little bit of time at least.

This was my first time playing through Shadowgate.  I know this was a popular game back in the day, but I didn’t own a copy until my adulthood collecting days and I didn’t bother playing past the first screen when I tested my cart.  I have owned a few extra copies of this game and I think I’ve sold them all.  It is an inexpensive game to buy, floating around in the $5-$10 range.

Tons of items, a ton of danger.

I’m sure you are wondering if I was able to complete this game without any outside help, and the answer to that is no.  I really like to give puzzles an honest effort, but I’ve also decided now that I’m getting older that I value my time more and I don’t feel bad about looking up something if I’m truly stuck and have tried everything I can think of.  Rather than looking up answers directly on an FAQ or something, I decided to try a more official approach.  There is an official Shadowgate Hint Book created by Kemco*Seika that you could mail order from a form on the back page of the manual.  It cost $5.95 plus taxes and shipping, but thankfully we have the internet so I just did a search online and downloaded a PDF scan of the hint book for free.  The structure of the hint book is quite good.  It is laid out in the form of questions roughly ordered to how you would solve those events in the game, or around where you would find an item and wonder what you could use it for later.  The book comes with three levels of hints, A, B, and C.  A hints are gentle, B hints are a little more direct, and the C ones pretty much tell you what to do.  The hints are numbered and are all mixed up as well so that you are less likely to see relevant clues for where you are stuck.  This was the only help I needed to beat this game.  I used several A hints, some B hints, and a few C ones.

It’s hard to talk more about this game without mentioning specific puzzles, so that’s what I’m going to do here.  If you still want to try this game for yourself, now is the time to look away and just skip to the end.

If I had to guess, I would say I solved 80-90% of the games puzzles completely on my own.  Some of those solutions I’m pretty proud of figuring out with only my intuition.  I solved the game’s final puzzle on my own, after re-reading the poem I found early on and piecing the parts together.  The puzzle with the sphere was pretty clever.  That’s one of the few uses for the Leave command and that’s because you need to Take the sphere back after releasing it from the ice it made with your torch.  For whatever reason the entire usage of the sphere was intuitive to me from the start.  Sometimes I solved a puzzle accidentally.  There’s a puzzle where you have to collect a flute from the top of a fountain that I think ends up killing you if you try to grab it unprotected.  You need to find and equip a gauntlet that protects you from the dangerous fountain water.  I figured out the gauntlet on my own before even getting there so the problem was already solved.  There’s also one place where you find a key under a rug that you burn away with the torch.  There are a few rugs you can burn up earlier in the castle to no effect, so it was nice to have that experimentation pay off later.

This was the first of several places where I got stuck.

Here are some of the puzzles I remembered needing significant hints on.  The first major place I got stuck was getting past the room with the high ledge that breaks when you try and climb up.  There are two torches in this room that you cannot take with you.  The secret here is you are supposed to Use the left torch on the wall, which causes you to pull on it like a lever, opening up a passage to another room.  Nowhere does the game indicate you can Use things you don’t possess, so I thought that was a little misleading.  I didn’t figure out the Epor spell because you have to Look at the writing of Epor on the wall twice.  (That spell isn’t mandatory, it turns out.)  I completely missed where you can pick up rocks to equip on your sling to take out the cyclops.  The most significant puzzle I didn’t figure out was near the end when you need to pull a set of levers in a certain order.  Several rooms back with the sphinx, there are etchings on a staircase that show the state of the levers at each move.  I know I saw something in the hint guide eluding to those etchings, but even then I didn’t bother noticing them and as a result I was completely lost on that puzzle.

Now that I’ve beaten Shadowgate, I have three observations about its structure that I hope I will be able to apply to Déjà Vu and Uninvited later in this project.  First, Shadowgate has a lot of room exits that you either cannot reach or die trying.  They are essentially fake exits.  I know I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to climb the broken ledge, or pass the dragon in the hot room, or break down the landslide in the waterfall room, among others.  The hint book helped me understand that these are simply red herrings.  Second, almost all items in the game are used exactly once, if they are used at all.  Some of the extra items were potential solutions to the sphinx’s riddle, but there were plenty of things that had no use whatsoever.  All of these things remain in your inventory.  It would have been helpful to know to stop trying to use items after they were already used.  There is one place in the game I found, the lake room, where you can toss unnecessary items.  Once you freeze the water over, there’s no other way I found to shed excess items.  That happens pretty early in the game too, limiting its usefulness.  Searching through your vast inventory for a puzzle solution becomes tedious at the end.  Third, the torch mechanic is completely useless and a waste of time.  When torches go out, you die, only to be restored with a partial torch good for a bunch of moves thereafter, and then you go back only one room.  The only good reason to light torches when low is to save you some time and avoid the annoying low-light tune.  I think the torch mechanic is unique to this game, which I certainly hope is true.

I am by no means an expert in these kinds of games, but in the end, Shadowgate was a fun experience for me and I enjoyed it, when I wasn’t stuck that is.  The presentation is really nice in this game.  The graphics are very detailed and there are a variety of rooms and settings you will come across in the castle.  The music in this game is top notch and a quality addition to the game.  The controls are excellent, giving you complete control of your cursor or locking it to the menu items when you need it.  I noticed the cursor speed slowed down intentionally in some rooms when you require more granular control.  This attention to detail is impressive for an NES game.  The puzzles in this game are mostly good.  Some were obvious, some were clever, and some were a little unfair.  It’s hard to pin a difficulty on this game, but I went down the middle with 5 because the whole game is a mental exercise with a well defined set of options.  The game becomes trivial to play when you know all the solutions to everything.  I can see why this game is more popular than I realized.

#137 – Shadowgate


#100 – Milon’s Secret Castle

I like to think every castle has secrets like this.

They never show above the castle during the game, just here.

To Beat: Reach the ending
To Complete: Beat the game twice to see a special message
My Goal: Complete the game and beat the first loop without dying
What I Did: Met my goal
Played: 9/8/18 – 9/17/18
Difficulty: 7/10
My Difficulty: 4/10
My Video: Milon’s Secret Castle Longplay

Here we are at triple digits! It took nearly three years to get here, but now that I’m at Game #100 there’s really no turning back. I could have picked any game I wanted to play here and I don’t think anyone would have complained. Instead I decided to keep on trucking with whatever happened to be here on the list. Milon’s Secret Castle is not a flashy choice for a milestone game whatsoever. The good thing for me is that I grew up with the game and have played and beaten it quite a few times before. For this special occasion, I was successful in beating the game without dying for the first time. I even learned a few things in the process. Let’s get started!

Milon’s Secret Castle first appeared on the Famicom in November 1986 titled Meikyu Kumikyoku: Milon no Daiboken. That translates to The Maze Suite: Milon’s Great Adventure. The NES version was delayed almost two years, appearing in September 1988. The game was both developed and published by Hudson Soft in both regions. Milon’s Secret Castle was re-released on Wii Virtual Console in Japan and North America in 2007 and in PAL territories for the first time ever in 2010. There was a sequel on the Super Famicom in 1996 called DoReMi Fantasy: Milon no Dokidoki Daibouken that made its North American debut on Wii Virtual Console in 2008.

Milon’s Secret Castle is a platformer game that takes places inside many rooms of a large castle. In the story, people communicate exclusively through music. Milon is unable to make music and can’t communicate with the people in his land, so he decides to leave hoping to find others like him. Before leaving he decides to visit the queen in the castle, which was a good thing. An evil warlord has stolen all the musical instruments, taken over the castle, and locked away Queen Eliza. Milon volunteers to resolve the problem. The castle’s magician provides Milon the ability to shoot bubbles. He also tells Milon that Eliza has left tools and money throughout the castle to help. Milon must seek and defeat the seven demon monsters inside this maze of a castle before taking on the evil warlord himself.

The scale of the size of the castle here is not too far off.

The game begins with Milon outside the castle. With limited abilities, he is restricted to the first floor for now. He can walk around, jump, and fire bubbles even though they have no use outside. Milon can enter doors by standing in front of them and pressing Up. The first floor has three doors. Two of them lead to maze rooms, and the third leads to a shop. You may also discover that you can enter windows outside the same way you enter doors. The solitary window of the first floor leads to an empty room and you can’t do anything here for now. The action takes place within the maze rooms so this is where you start.

Controls are basic, but movement takes some getting used to. Move left or right with the D-pad and press A to jump. You discover right away that Milon is slow to accelerate from standing skill. Once you get him moving by holding the directional button, he can go pretty quickly. You jump up quickly enough, but side-to-side movement depends on how fast you are moving before jumping. You need to get a running start to make far jumps. Milon can adjust left or right a little bit while jumping or falling. The B button fires bubbles that move in the direction he is facing at a slight upward angle. If you hold Down and press B you will shoot bubbles with a slight downward slope. Bubbles are used to defeat enemies and break blocks within the maze rooms. They travel a short distance before popping, and they also travel through walls unless they hit something significant.

Who knew bubbles were such a good weapon?

The maze rooms for the most part have several things in common. There are different enemies wandering around that you can fight off with bubbles. Most enemies in the game take one hit to defeat, but some take a lot more. There are breakable blocks all over the place in this game. Usually they block off some path within the room, but other times you’ll find money tiles inside. Collect the money tile to add a dollar to his stash as indicated in the upper left of the screen. To exit the maze room you must find the hidden door that is revealed by firing a bubble at its location. You need the key to take the exit to go back outside the castle. The key appears within the room in one of a few predefined spots after defeating enough enemies or breaking enough blocks. The collected key is displayed in the upper right of the screen. Once you collect the key, you keep it permanently and can take the exit anytime. All this means you really need to cover these rooms in bubbles to reveal all of their secrets.

There are other items to collect besides money. Defeated enemies may leave hearts behind that restore a point of health. Milon’s health bar is the vertical bar on the left. After defeating several enemies, an umbrella may appear. This powerup floats up and can get away from you. Grabbing it lets you blow an additional bubble on-screen. Milon starts out with having one bubble on screen at a time and you can shoot up to three at once if you collect two umbrellas. Milon goes back to one bubble whenever you enter a maze room from the outside. Most maze rooms have a honeycomb hidden within a breakable block. This increases your maximum health while also fully restoring Milon’s health. You definitely want to find these. Shooting certain locations may also reveal the Hudson bee. This powerup flies away and can get out of reach like the umbrella. Collecting the bee produces a shield around Milon that lets him take a couple of hits without losing health. You can also collect hearts while holding the shield to strengthen it.

Item shop, hints, and an inventory screen all in one.

Spend Milon’s hard-earned cash within the shops. Some of the shops are found through doors or windows into the castle. Others are hidden within the maze rooms themselves. The shops double as an inventory screen, so you can see the items you’ve purchased and collected throughout the adventure. Milon can walk along the bottom of the shop and jump into a button with his head to interact with the shopkeeper. In addition to purchasing items, you can get hints here for locating items you need. The Power option in some shops let you buy health. You can even get free money occasionally. The main draws here are the permanent items that increase Milon’s abilities.

One of the first-floor shops contains the hint “Bump head to find box.” In each of the maze rooms, there is a music box. There is a specific solid tile that you need to jump into from below to reveal the box. Touch the music box to go to a musical mini-game. Musical icons will arise from the bottom of the screen and you want to grab as many notes as you can. There are three kinds of icons to collect: Notes, sharps, and flats. Sharps count as two notes, while flats take away one note. The number of notes collected is displayed at the top. After some time, the bonus game ends and you earn money. You get a dollar for every four notes collected. If you somehow grab 50 notes or more, then you get a dollar for every two notes. This is a good way to save up for expensive items. A great detail about this mini-game is that every time you play it, the background song gets more and more complex each time as new instruments are added. You can only use each music box once, so to get the full effect you have to find them all.

Stay sharp and don’t fall flat.

Armed with all this knowledge, it’s time to clear the first floor. There are two items you must collect to proceed, which are the shoes and the medicine. The shoes let you bounce up high on certain floor tiles, allowing you to reach areas too high to jump normally. The medicine causes you to shrink whenever you touch a green glove present in some areas. A smaller Milon can fit into tiny gaps to reach previously inaccessible areas, and also gives you a smaller hitbox. For some reason acquiring these two items allows a demon monster boss to appear in the empty first floor room through the window. Go there and beat him by shooting him a bunch of times in the head with bubbles. These bosses are no joke and quite challenging. The defeated boss drops a crystal ball that opens the door to the second floor. There are seven bosses and seven crystal balls in the game. Not only do the crystal balls open pathways deeper into the castle, but they also gradually enhance your bubble by making it bigger, faster, and travel farther.

Access to the second floor starts to open the game up more. Now there are more maze rooms and shops, as well as more money, items, and powerups to go with them. You also have access to the well in the lower right corner of the castle. This area and others like it don’t count as maze rooms. There’s no key and hidden door to be found, instead you exit off one of the sides of the screen. The areas often consist of multiple, connected rooms. There are still items to be found there, as well as money, honeybees, honeycombs, etc. The well in particular has a unique way to exit. There is an enemy resembling a small octopus that takes several hits to defeat and drops a balloon. Grab it before it floats away and it will take you up out of the well.

The well is the first real challenging area.

There are some inconsistencies and a couple other miscellaneous points I want to mention. In addition to the crystal balls, there are two secret items you must track down to beat the game. Money can only be collected once, which is a problem as some items are expensive. Fear not, for there’s one room in the game that replenishes most of its money each time. It does get tedious farming money. One of the maze rooms does not have a honeycomb in it. I went crazy looking for it until I gave up and looked it up after I beat the game. They made up for it elsewhere as another area holds two honeycombs. Another area has a hidden exit that is really tricky. This secret castle does have some baffling mysteries to it.

Milon dies when he loses all his health. Normally the game starts all over again when this happens. There are continues in the form of a continue code, but luckily for us it is spelled out plainly in the manual. On the title screen, hold Left and press Start to continue. This only works after you have collected the first crystal ball. It seems to me there are two different types of continuing. Sometimes continuing plays a different introductory tune and you get dropped off in the same room you died in. Other time, it plays the normal intro song and drops you off at the starting position with all your collected items and money intact. Either way, continues are unlimited and better than starting over each time.

Milon’s Secret Castle was a game I’ve had since childhood. It was bought used since I only had the cart and I read the manual for the first time playing it here. I remember seeing this game in the rental stores and reading about it in some old gaming magazines we had. That was how I knew about the continue code and how to make progress in the game. I distinctly recall getting stuck on the first floor for a long time until later seeing how to proceed in one of those magazines. The game is inexpensive at around $6 and easy to find.

Milon used Bubble Beam. It’s super effective!

Even though I picked the game up for the first time in many years, I still knew enough to clear the game on my own over a couple of hours. I tinkered a little bit more to locate all the hidden music boxes and honeycombs, and then set out to try and beat the game 100% without using a continue. It took a few attempts but I was able to get it done. Some minor missteps in routing and a little bit of health farming are the only issues with my recorded video. Somewhere in post-completion research I found out that there is a hidden ending screen if you beat the game twice in a row. The second loop is hard mode. The differences I noticed are that both the bosses’ attacks and the umbrella powerup move much quicker. Continues still work here thankfully because I needed them. Beating the game the second time gave me the additional screen for what I consider the best ending. It’s underwhelming but still a decent achievement.

In the interest of full disclosure, as well as make an interesting discussion point, due to my inability to set aside a large block of playing time, I used a cheat code to enable hard mode. This is a good of a time as any to talk about NES cheat devices. The most popular one of the era was the Game Genie. It is a passthrough device that you put your cart into and then insert the connected cartridges into your NES. A menu comes up when the game is turned on and you enter either six or eight letter codes to get different effects to appear in your game. You can get more lives, skip levels, jump higher, etc. I have a little bit of expertise in building my own Game Genie codes by using an emulator and debugger to find parts in the game code that I can change to trigger the desired effect. In this case I couldn’t figure out how to enable hard mode with a Game Genie code. There is another NES cheat device called the Pro Action Replay. It functions similarly to the Game Genie but uses a different set of codes. The primary difference between the two devices other than the code format is that the Game Genie can set different ROM addresses while the Pro Action Replay can set RAM addresses. The NES Ending FAQ author did some legwork for me by figuring out that setting the RAM address $00B8 to 01 enables hard mode. Don’t worry if I’m going a bit over your head here. The takeaway is that the Pro Action Replay is the more appropriate device for turning on hard mode. Now I don’t own the Pro Action Replay, but the AVS console I use does accept its codes. Even better is that the AVS also accepts what it calls RAW codes, which I figured out means if I enter the code 00B801 (meaning set $00B8 to 01), I can get hard mode like I want. I played normal mode and hard mode two separate nights and then combined the footage into one longplay video. I hope this was an interesting look into NES cheat devices. I also hope that this doesn’t cast any doubt into the validity of my playthroughs. I don’t use cheat devices even for practice and I didn’t know how to enable them on my AVS until now. You will have to take my word for it though, so I do hope you believe me!

Disappearing floors make this maze room frustrating.

Milon’s Secret Castle has the reputation of a difficult game and I can see why. For a long time, I could not figure out how to get out of the first floor. I bought the medicine, but I couldn’t reach the green glove to use it. I believe the upper portion of the second maze room on that floor is unreachable from the start. It’s too high to reach with even a running jump. I found out there are shoes in a hidden shop up there, but I don’t see how to reach that shop without the shoes! The place I buy shoes is in a hidden shop in the first maze room. On the bottom right there is a discolored block next to two breakable ones. What you are supposed to do is push the block by walking into it for several seconds, then shoot a bubble to reveal the hidden door to the shop. I get that this discoloring is the tell, but this is a terrible idea. There’s no indication at all you can even push blocks, and then you have to push for what seems like forever before it actually moves. If you didn’t already know what to do, it would be hard to stumble upon it. There are other things about the game that can cause issues. Using the hammer item is not exactly obvious to me. The third floor has some rooms that are hard to understand without having certain items or seeing the proper pathway. Combat also proves challenging sometimes. Milon has a ridiculously short invincibility period upon taking damage, so if he gets stuck on top of an enemy his health drains fast. Bosses are difficult because they throw projectiles at random and Milon lacks the mobility to dodge them effectively. He jumps fast but otherwise accelerates slow, so quickly jumping to dodge projectiles is the only way. There are items later that allow you a different, safer strategy to boss fights. Until then, you either get lucky or get good at dodging.

I think Milon’s Secret Castle is an interesting NES game that was released too late on the NES. I’ve seen this happen quite a lot in this project already. For 1986, this is a complex game that plays pretty well. For 1988, while it still has good secrets and complexity, the controls and movement feel like a significant step back. The graphics and music are both pretty good. I like the different items and the effects they have on both Milon and the world around him. The main issues I have are the controls and the obscurity of some of the secrets and traps. Though they diminish the experience a little bit, I have seen far worse things already in NES games than this. This is probably nostalgia-tinged, but I do like this game. It’s worth a look for fans of Metroid.

#100 – Milon’s Secret Castle

#100 – Milon’s Secret Castle