Released in 1985 for the Commodore 64, designed by Ian Gray (“don’t you forget it” he reminds us, in a half threatning way, in a secret message in the code), Fiona Rides Out is the first horror game I remember being literally scared by.
As a young kid, I was always more afraid of sounds rather than images, so, when the two combined, my poor infant mind could not really take it. When the title screen for Fiona came crashing down with a loud SID rendition of Bach’s Toccata and Fuga in G minor, I would always just run 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 the same year), I always preferred to take a ride with the baddest witch of the coven. Let me explain 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 (was that a thing?) – flying and shooting her way through 12 levels in the hopes of getting them back. Indeed, it is one of these early Eighties C64 titles where the villain is actually the main character, even though the enemies seem to be mostly evil anyway. Also, this 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 and sort of action platforming on even ones. In the shooter sections, survival is really the only goal, after a few minutes of flying Fiona just decides to land, without having to fight a boss or anything of the sort.
On the platforming levels, the player controls Fiona as she shoots down ghouls’n’ghosts, in order get stronger through 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 she is carrying it. Sometimes, the magic essence ends up in places that are impossible to get to, 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 work in a delicate balance between trying to quickly reach the required magical level in the cauldron and not getting hit by the enemies. The shooter levels are mostly okay, but get repetitive pretty fast.
Should one wish to design Hell, make it fun to play
But all these levels are par for the course, I would not say there is anything specifically interesting designwise. The part that fascinated me as a child was what happened when Fiona lost all her health points. Basically, she will explode in several magical pieces, while the screen flashes with a foreboding message “Thy soul is sent to hell!”. And yes, that is literally what happens.
The player will have to guide Fiona on her broomstick through the various rooms of Hell while avoiding all enemies and walls. Basically do not touch anything or lose a life. This sequence is unbelievably difficult, thanks in part to a less-than-perfect collision detection. It does feel more like an actual punishment rather than a gameplay section designed for fun: for one’s sanity is better to lose a life than trying to navigate through Hell. Wait, is this the actual moral of the story behind Fiona Rides Out? Do not go overboard with being evil otherwise Hell is the only fate that awaits you? Also, should you end up in hell, try to keep your wits upon you or you won’t escape from Hell?
After each level is completed, some verses off a poem will appear as a kind of reward. This are taken from Ruddigore, the opera by W.S. Gilbert. Fiona ends after 12 levels when the poem is complete. A rather novel concept for the time, which seems to operate as a discourse on rewarding vs punishing the player. Also, W.S. Gilber was definitely a pretty educated reference for 1985. After the eighties, relatively few titles have used such a literal concept of reward and punishment, there are definitely a few more of those that will appear in this column.
Fiona Rides Out was sold in the UK on a double tape with Dare Devil Dennis (by Simon Pick) and released to pretty decent reviews, receiving a 9 out of 10 on C&VG in August 1985 and a four out of five on the July 1985 issue of Home Computing Weekly.
Less Cauldron, more Hell
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 its broth is indeed a tasty one. Unfortunately several of its concepts aren’t very well thought out concepts: with gameplay endlessly repeating between two simple style of gameplays, it ends up being a bit repetitive, even though featuring only twelve levels.
It does offer enough variation to not worn out its welcome and remains relatively enjoyable, with Hell being the one exception. To this day, there is something about Fiona Rides Out that makes me choose it over Cauldron. Overall, Ian Gray’s title is less repetitive and overall easier to control, as well as being less macabre. Perhaps a bit less tightly designed and more plain, sure.
Ian Gray was an incredibly prolific programmer during the early years of the Commodore 64. In 1984 alone he created and released at least eight different titles, among them small classics like Get off my garden! and Tales of the Arabian Nights, mostly remembered because it featured an interesting early attempt at synthetized speech.