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.
I was a kid always more afraid of sounds rather 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 looked to be particularly dark and spooky.
Although I already had Cauldron in my collection of pirated titles, 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?
If the game is repetitiive, just make it less boring
The plot sees the witch Fiona, robbed of her powers by the coven – because she’s apparently too evil (ah well) – flying and shooting her way through 12 levels in the hopes of getting them back. One would guess it’s one of those 80’s C64 titles where the player is actually the villain, even though the enemies seem to be mostly evil anyway. Also, that reminds I should definitely get to write about Mad Doctor someday.
The enemies the witch will face are a varied bunch, from the usual skeletons and ghosts, to malignant forks and severed hands. The gameplay alternates between classic 2D shoot em up on odd levels, with survival as the only goal, since after a while Fiona just decides to land, without having to fight a boss or anything of the sort. On even levels, the player controls Fiona as she shoots down ghouls’n’ghosts to get at their magic essence. Interestingly, the essence has to be picked up and carefully carried to the cauldron, where it will slowly descend. The essence disappears quickly and is also lost if an enemy touches Fiona while carrying it. Sometimes, the magic essence ends up impossible to pick up because the enemy died under a table or a gravestone, the nerve of some people.
Naturally, the platforming 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 not getting hit by the enemies.
Should one wish to design Hell, make it fun to play
But all these levels are par for the course, really. The part that fascinated me as a child was that If Fiona loses all her health points, she will explode while the screen flashes with a foreboding message “Thy soul is sent to hell!”. Indeed, the player will have to guide Fiona on 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 less-than-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 actual moral of the story behind Fiona Rides Out? Keep your wits upon you or you won’t escape from Hell? The game ends after 12 levels when the poem from Ruddigore is complete. Indeed, one’s reward for completing a level is a couple of verses off Ruddigore, the opera by W.S. Gilbert, which will appear on the screen. 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 definitely going to see a few more of those in this column.
Fiona Rides Out is an interesting case in game design since it doesn’t particularly innovate in its ordinary shoot em up and platforming levels, but the broth is indeed a tasty one. Unfortunately several of its novel concepts aren’t perfectly designed: with the gameplay endlessly repeating between two simple style of gameplays, it ends up being a bit repetitive, but offers enough variation to not worn out its welcome and remains 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.