As one of the powerhouse publishers in computer gaming, Mindscape was as prolific as its rivals, EA and Activision, and until 2011, had a history nearly as long as either one. Unfortunately, it didn’t weather the changes in the market as well as its rivals had and simply ran out of steam when the time came to close its last development studio.
But among computer aficionados, it was legendary for bringing over memorable games such as Chris Crawford’s Balance of Power or espionage thrillers like the Infiltrator series. Their games covered nearly everything out there. Including circuses.
In 1989, Gray Matter (not to be confused with Return to Castle Wolfenstein’s Gray Matter) put out a clever collection of mini-games under the big top appropriately titled Fiendish Freddy’s Bit Top O’Fun. It was published on September 14th in Europe by Mindscape according to the type running under the chin of the freakishly scary clown above.
Unlike other “mini-game” collections at the time, such as Epyx’s Summer Games, this one actually has something of a story tying everything together. A “sinister scumbag” from the “Big Bank” says that your circus owes $10,000 the day you get the notice. If you can’t get the scratch together in time, they get everything.
Up to five players could take turns playing this arcade-styled game and represented by their chosen animal mascot, each players is trying to outscore the others in how much cash they can earn through a series of events ranging from diving to flying out of a cannon. And Fiendish Freddy is along for the ride to trip you up through each stage of the challenge ramping the difficulty.
In diving, players needed to perform specific poses as they hurtled down towards the target below while trying to maintain course. Failing to pull a “King Tut” or “Ballet Dive” when the game called for it would bring Freddy out on a mini-copter, wielding a giant fan to blow you off course and make things even more challenging than they are. As every subsequent stage changed the target from a nice, large pool to leaving you with only a bucket next, and so on.
Next up was juggling on a unicycle where things start off easy enough as a timer runs down until Freddy starts tossing bombs and missiles to you from time to time, leaving you to deal with how to get rid of them. In the third and fourth level, a baby is even thrown in challenging you to toss it into the carriage roaming by or watch a baby bounce away like a beachball, crying up a storm.
Flying high on the trapeze is easy stuff — just get the acrobatic Finola from one swing to the next, or through the hoops in her way, to complete each level. Floating obstacles can sometimes get in the way, but the real danger, again, is Freddy. Take too long on a swing, and he’ll come flying by on a jet pack and cut you down.
Then there’s the famous knife throw that no circus should be without. The beautiful Knancy is tied to a spinning wheel with balloons in specific locations — juicy targets for your sharpened points to find. As simple as it sounds, Freddy is also going to occasionally show up to throw a little smoke in your eyes to keep things interesting.
Balancing up on the tightrope is next and Freddy will do his best to end the event with either a giant cannon, if you take too long, or by flying up and throwing spinning blades to cut you in half which you can deflect with the pole. The last event is flying out of a cannon. Depending on how much powder is packed in, that determines just how far your guy will fly out to the target you need to set up for him to hit. Take too long in figuring that out, and Freddy shows up with a giant cork to plug up the works.
At the end of each event, or when the player has run out of chances, a board of clowns scores things on how well you did awarding an appropriate cash prize for your efforts. Success in the end even gave you a big cut scene finale as your circus crew take revenge against Freddy for all of his hard work.
The game boasted colorful graphics which the Amiga made the most out along with the soundtrack, though all of the versions that the game was ported to from the Amiga to the ZX Spectrum had the same challenges — and darkly humorous death scenes such as our trapeze artist getting sliced in half if one of Freddy’s blades successfully finds its mark or our juggler burnt to ash if they drop a missile. Still, not a bad way to spend a little time at the circus.