My experience with the game: MOMMY SAVE MEEEEEEEE
Released in 1985 and designed by Ian Gray (“don’t you forget it” he reminds us in a secret message in the code), Fiona Rides out is the first horror game I remember being literally scared by. You see, I was always more scared by sounds than images, so when the two combined my poor infant mind couldn’t take it anymore. When the title screen for Fiona came crashing down with a loud SID rendition of Bach’s Toccata and Fuga in G minor, I just ran away in fright.
The game indeed was dripping with a macabre atmosphere and was really dark and spooky.
Although I also had Cauldron in my collection, which Fiona seems to take some inspiration from (even though they’re both from 1985), I always preferred to take a ride with the baddest witch of the coven. Why? I’ll tell you.
Game design lesson #1: if your game is repetitive, make it less boring
The plot sees the witch Fiona, robbed of her powers by her coven because she’s too evil, flying and shooting her way through 12 levels in the hopes of getting them back. I guess it’s one of those 80’s C64 titles where you play as the villain? I should talk about Mad Doctor someday…
Anyway, the enemies are a varied bunch, from the usual skeletons and ghosts, to evil forks and severed hands.
The gameplay alternates between classic 2D shoot em up on odd levels, with survival as the goal, since after a while the level ends on its own and there’s no boss. On even levels, the player controls Fiona as she shoots down ghouls’n’ghosts to get at their magic essence. Interestingly, the magic essence has to be picked up and carried to the cauldron, where it will slowly descend. The essence disappears quickly and is lost if an enemy touches Fiona while carrying it; sometimes it is also impossible to pick up because the enemy died under a table or a gravestone. Those levels are the most interesting to play, since the player is required to balance between trying to quickly reach the required magical level in the cauldron and trying not to get hurt by enemies.
Game design lesson #2 : if you want to design Hell, then make it fun to play
Now for the part that fascinated me as a child. If Fiona loses all her health points, she explodes and the screen flashes with a foreboding message “Thy soul is sent to hell!”.
Indeed, you’ll have to guide Fiona and her broomstick through the various rooms of Hell while avoid touching ANYTHING, in order not to lose a life. This sequence is unbelievably difficult, thanks in part to a non perfect collision detection. It does feel more like a punishment rather than a shot at glory, for one’s sanity is better to lose a life than trying to navigate through Hell.
Is this the moral of the story behind Fiona Rides Out? Keep your wits upon you or you won’t escape from Hell? I might be reading too much in this…
The game ends after 12 levels when the poem from Ruddigore is complete. Yes, your reward for completing a level is reading each time a couple of verses off Ruddigore, the opera by W.S. Gilbert. A rather novel concept, not to mention a pretty educated reference for 1985. After the eighties, relatively few titles have used such a literal concept of reward and punishment, we’re gonna see a few more of those in this column.
Should I still play this? Yeah with a couple of caveats
Fiona Rides Out is an interesting case in game design since it does many things right while introducing some novel concepts, which, alas, aren’t well thought out. Since the gameplay just repeats in the two levels, it ends up being a bit repetitive, but it offers enough variation to not worn out its welcome and it’s still relatively enjoyable, Hell being the one exception.
To be honest, I always preferred Fiona to Cauldron, that game was way more repetitive and also harder to control, as well as being less macabre. Now, Cauldron 2… that’s a story for another time.