Friday the 13th (NES)

Introduction

May 9, 1980 marked the debut of Friday the 13th. It was directed by Sean S. Cunningham, who previously worked with Wes Craven on the 1972 exploitation horror film The Last House on the Left. Inspired by John Carpenter’s classic film, Halloween, Mr. Cunningham wanted his own work to make his audience jump out of their seat on top of being visually impressive. He also sought to distance himself from The Last House of the Left in favor of a fast-paced experience akin to a rollercoaster ride. For the most part, it was not received well by critics with a notable detractor being the esteemed Gene Siskel, who called Mr. Cunningham “one of the most despicable creatures ever to infest the movie business”. Nevertheless, it proved to be a success in the box office, impressively grossing around $60 million on a $550,000 budget, and the film would go on to become a cult classic.

Though intended as a standalone story, its performance in theaters prompted the executives at Paramount Pictures, the film’s distributor, to plan out a sequel. It was originally intended to be the beginning of an annual, anthological series. However, Phil Scuderi, one of the three owners of Esquire Theaters, along with the producers of Friday the 13th, Steve Minasian and Bob Barsamian, insisted that the new installment should feature a character named Jason Voorhees, directly linking the two films. Steve Miner, who would go on to direct the film, believed in the idea, and when Friday the 13th Part 2 debuted in April of 1981, fans were introduced to one of the genre’s most iconic villains. Even those who have never seen a horror film in their life recognize the hockey mask-wearing revenant that is synonymous with the series and the slasher genre in general. Though the fourth installment would be dubbed The Final Chapter, the franchise endured to the end of the decade.

Around the time the fifth installment was released, a gaming console known as the Nintendo Entertainment System saw its debut. It almost singlehandedly revitalized the North American industry after its crash in 1983. Games on this console sold thousands or millions of copies. To capitalize on this success, companies commissioned the development of tie-in games to popular films. The results from this practice were decidedly mixed. While some proved passable or even good, others barely had any thought put into them and were solely meant to ride the coattails of the property’s success with little effort on their part. Despite the second installment necessitating the creators cut forty-eight seconds of footage in order to avoid an X rating, an NES adaptation of Friday the 13th was commissioned in the late eighties. Conceived by a Japanese developer named Atlus and published by the toy company LJN, the game was released in February of 1989. By this time, the series had an impressive seven installments with an eighth looming around the corner. As console games were typically perceived to have been enjoyed primarily by children at the time, how would Atlus go about translating a slasher film experience to such a platform?

Analyzing the Experience

Despite bearing the license of a famous film franchise, Friday the 13th does not follow the plot of any specific installment. Camp Crystal Lake is being terrorized by a crazed serial killer named Jason Voorhees. He’s said to be the resurrected, grown-up form of a child who drowned in the titular lake in the fifties. This tragedy occurred due to the counselors’ negligence, and as a revenant driven by a need to kill, he will stop at nothing to exact his revenge on a new generation of campers.

The rules of the game are simple. You can take control of six different camp counselors, and your goal is to kill Jason while protecting fifteen children from harm. The counselors begin the game inside of a random small cabin scattered throughout the camp.

Once you have selected a counselor, you will be taken outside of their assigned cabin. Part of the experience is a typical side-scrolling platforming game. You press left and right on the control pad to move the character, and down to duck. The “A” button jumps while the “B” button makes the counselor throw their equipped weapon. From the onset, they are outfitted with rocks to throw at the various monsters haunting the camp. They’re not particularly useful, as they inflict pitiful amounts of damage and tend to arc over the enemies’ heads unless your character is ducking right in front of them.

Luckily, you can remedy this problem rather easily. After defeating a certain number of enemies, items will begin to appear whenever the character jumps in a certain spot. Depending on where they jump, a knife, key, or vitamin jar will appear. The knife is a weak weapon, but as you can get it rather quickly and it sails straight ahead of your character when thrown, it’s a decent substitute for the rocks. Intuitively, the key can open any locked door you may stumble upon. The vitamin jar partially restores the counselor’s health whenever the bar is completely drained. Moreover, as soon as the number of required kills has been reached, a lighter will appear. You can use it to light fireplaces within the large cabins. It should be noted that, with the exception of the lighter, what items appear in a given location is fixed. Though you only need one knife or key, you can use this knowledge to farm vitamin jars whenever necessary.

The camp has three different paths that will loop if you go far enough in one direction. The first and largest encircles the entire camp, the second surrounds a cave, and the third forms the fringe around the lake. To switch paths, you can press up or down whenever a passage appears in the background or at the character’s feet. In addition to the cave, the remaining places of interest would be the two thick forests north and south of the lake. The map will not help you navigate these areas; only once you make it out will it be of any use again. Inside the woods are hidden cabins. Depending on the circumstances, they may contain useful items, but they’re empty otherwise except for a fireplace.

When you’re out on the field, it won’t be too long until you hear an alarm. Looking at the upper-left corner of the screen, you should notice a timer next to either the counter representing the number of counselors or the word “CHILDREN”. This means that somebody is under attack by Jason. If you take too long to resolve the treat, your lethargy will have dire consequences. A counselor will steadily lose health until the countdown reaches zero – at which point they die. Similarly, Jason will begin killing children after thirty seconds have passed. If you do not intervene, five children will die in total. The game is over if all of the counselors or children die.

Should the children face danger, you will need to go to the lake and row a boat to the cabin on the water’s edge. If a counselor is being attacked, you will need to press “START” to bring up the map so you may determine who is in distress. The flashing cabin indicates Jason’s location. There are two options you can take to resolve this threat. The first is to guide your selected counselor to the cabin. Alternatively, you can enter any small cabin and press “START”. This will allow you to switch counselors. As there’s nothing stopping you from selecting the one being attacked, you can simply elect to take control of them and have them fend for themselves.

Entering a cabin changes your perspective to a first-person view of sorts. You can press left, right, or down on the control pad to turn in the appropriate direction. By holding up, you will advance from your current spot. On the right side of the screen is a command menu with four different options accessed by pressing the “SELECT” button. “CHANGE” switches control of the counselor you’re currently using with the one in the cabin. “PASS” allows you to exchange weapons with the onscreen counselor. “CURE” expends one of your vitamin jars to restore the health of the counselor in front of you. Lastly, if there’s an item on the floor, you can choose the “TAKE” command to procure it.

Jason will not attack until you’re facing his direction. Once you do, he will periodically rush toward you and attack. If you press down and either left or right at the same time, you can dodge his strikes. The ideal time to hit him would be when he is far back enough, as he does not possess any kind of ranged attack. As fans would expect, the mass murderer is quite reliant. With the starting weapon, it takes five hits just to reduce his health by a single unit. He will retreat when you hit him enough times, but if his health bar only has seven units remaining or there are only one or two counselors left alive, be prepared for a fight to the death. Jason engages you in hand-to-hand combat at first, but if you encounter him again, he will fight wielding a machete or an axe.

Don’t think you’re safe from Jason outside of the cabins, as you have a chance of running into him walking down a path outside. You’ll know you’re about to fight him when the screen stops scrolling, and the enemies begin to leave. Outside, he does have a ranged attack, as he will chuck axes at you. Keep in mind that Jason follows a set path and which side of the screen he exits through has no effect on this. To put it another way, he could leave via the right side of the screen, but if he is travelling left, you’ll encounter him if you go that way even though visually, it doesn’t match up.

By engaging Jason in battle enough times, you can wear down his health. The game takes place over the course of three days. A day concludes once Jason’s life bar has been depleted. All surviving counselors will have their health restored and be placed in a random small cabin once more. Be careful, as Jason attacks far more tenaciously on the second and third days. If you defeat Jason on the final day, you win the game.

If it’s one thing I can admire about this game, it’s that it’s surprisingly tense for such an old title. Jason follows a fixed path with from a randomly determined starting position, but if you’re playing the game blind, it can be legitimately shocking whenever he seemingly shows up out of nowhere. You can even run into him exploring ostensibly empty cabins when the alarm isn’t alerting you to an attack, which has the potential to catch an uninitiated person off-guard. As a stark contrast to many games of its era, you’re not controlling an action hero, but rather a group of ordinary camp counselors. As such, using typical action-game techniques will only succeed in getting your character killed. They’re armed with rocks at first because it was all they could find on such short notice, and it’s clear the situation is hardly ideal.

It is because of these touches that Friday the 13th could be considered a one of the first survival horror games. Anyone familiar with the medium’s history will know that Infogrames’ classic 1992 PC title Alone in the Dark is typically considered ground zero for the genre. As Friday the 13th predates it by three years, this might cause those unfamiliar with it to question why it doesn’t get more credit for helping shape the genre. The answer to this inquiry is fairly straightforward. For all of its interesting ideas, Friday the 13th isn’t exactly what most people would call a good game – far from it, in fact.

One of the biggest issues with this game concerns the counselors themselves. Though the controls are manageable, the characters vary wildly in terms of usefulness. The six you have to choose from are George, Mark, Paul, Laura, Debbie, and Crissy. Theoretically, they’re meant to have their own strengths and weaknesses. Paul can throw weapons faster than most of the other counselors while Laura is quick on her feet. Each character also has their own kill threshold they must satisfy before items begin appearing. While I like the idea, as it would encourage players to change characters for a given situation, the reality is that they are balanced very poorly. Unless they’re near death, there’s little reason why you should use anyone other than Paul or Crissy. The former can run fast, jump high, and row the boat quickly. Meanwhile, the latter can throw weapons fast, jump high, and has a quick running speed. Every other counselor has exactly one of these advantages, but those two have three fields in which they excel, making their weaknesses negligible.

A subtle problem I have concerns the map itself. I’ll admit that it’s nice how the layout has a plausible design for 2D side-scrolling game. It tries to justify the fact that the map loops by depicting the paths as circular patterns rather than actually existing on a two-dimensional plane. However, this is a bit of a problem when trying to interpret it for oneself, as the map itself isn’t two-dimensional. This makes it somewhat tricky to read, for you could be heading right in the game only to learn that according the map, you were traveling left the whole time. Not helping matters is that the map screen doesn’t indicate which way your character is facing.

Another annoyance stems from navigating the lake. Understandably, the rowboat does not stop on a dime, but this property coupled with the inability to jump makes it difficult to evade the enemies’ attacks. What’s worse is that you can encounter Jason while in the boat. He will rapidly charge at you from the water at a speed even the fastest rower couldn’t hope to match. This flies in the face of his characterization, as it’s firmly established in the films that water is one of the few things he is afraid of. More pressingly, it’s annoying from a gameplay perspective because the attack cannot be dodged unless you happen to be close to an exit when he strikes. Given how difficult it can be to collect vitamin jars and that they don’t restore a lot of health, you cannot afford to take too much damage.

Although the controls in the side-scrolling portions are passable, the same can’t be said when it comes time to explore the cabins. Though turning occurs quickly enough when the appropriate direction is pressed, advancing a space requires you to hold up on the control pad for a second. Though it may seem like a minor issue, it draws out the process needlessly. The cabins themselves have a bland design that makes it difficult for one to get their bearings. It is nice how time does not advance when inside one, but even if the large cabins don’t contain that many rooms, a newcomer could easily get lost in them for several minutes.

Though many of these problems are dire, I’d say what really manages to sink the experience is how unintuitive it is. When you start the game, you are told to light fireplaces with the torch. This is inaccurate because the torch is a weapon; the lighter is what you use to accomplish the task. It’s easy enough to figure out on your own, but it’s not a good sign when the first piece of text presented to you is a lie.

In either case, that the game and manual tell you to do this implies there is a higher purpose to lighting the fireplaces. There is a reward in store for those who can light all of the fireplaces: a flashlight. You can use it to light the caverns in the western region of the camp. The cave is the lair of Pamela Voorhees, the mother of Jason. She will attack any counselor brave – or foolish – enough to enter her chamber. Like her son, she’s rather tough, but defeating her will reward you with a rare, useful item. On the first day, she will drop a weapon superior to the one you’re holding. On the second day, she will drop a sweater, which roughly reduces the amount of damage the victorious counselor will take by half. On the final day, she will drop a pitchfork – the strongest weapon in the game. Ostensibly, the flashlight is meant to serve as an incentive for lighting the fireplaces, and defeating Pamela will allow you to upgrade your weapon so you may kill Jason.

In practice, the flashlight is worthless; the only reason you would need it is to find the entrance to Pamela’s lair. However, there is nothing stopping you from entering the chamber without the flashlight. In fact, if you look closely enough at the background, you’ll notice a stone with a slightly different color than the ones surrounding it. This is where the entrance is hidden, but even if you didn’t know that, you could repeatedly press up on the control pad and find it by accident.

If you try to confront her with rocks or daggers, you only have a slim chance of winning. Therefore, getting a stronger weapon is in order. Though the dagger can be found easily enough, the same can’t be said of any of the other weapons. The machete requires a counselor to kill sixty enemies, though it along with the axe and torch can be found by reading notes in scattered throughout the cabins. The notes are less than helpful, giving you generic advice such as “go into the woods” or “there’s a [weapon] hidden somewhere in the cave”, which would result in even more fruitless searching if the player lacked the proper context. As all of this is going on, you will need to respond to the alarm and fight Jason several times, wearing down your characters’ health as the night goes on.

Like everything else in the game, the notes aren’t randomly placed. Indeed, if you know what you’re doing, you can manipulate what they say, allowing you to get the second-best weapon within a few minutes of starting the game. You accomplish this by collecting the dagger, going into the cabin north of the road around the lake, and reading the note. Next, you must collect the key, search one of the hidden cabins in the northern woods, exit then reenter immediately, and read the note inside. Finally, if you return to the first cabin, you can search it until you find the torch. As long as you’re careful not to recollect the dagger, defeating Jason should pose no problems. If you were struggling with the game before, you’ll be amazed by how easy it becomes now that you have an effective weapon. This sequence perfectly encapsulates the type of game Friday the 13th truly is. If you don’t know how the game works, playing it is comparable to finding your way through a labyrinth blindfolded. In a typical bad game, the difficulty tends to be artificial. Here, not only is it artificial, it’s ultimately an illusion.

Jason is dead, his friends are dead, his family is dead…

Drawing a Conclusion

Pros:

  • Concepts are arguably ahead of their time
Cons:

  • Difficult without a guide
  • Mechanics aren’t explained well
  • Somewhat unpolished controls
  • Only two counselors are consistently useful
  • Extremely short if you know what to do
  • Rowing the boat is irritating
  • Dull music outside of cabin theme
  • Inability to save

It’s a shame that Friday the 13th turned out as poorly as it did because its central concept is actually fairly ahead of its time. This was an attempt at creating a survival horror before the template had been outlined. I also believe making a video game out of a slasher film is perfectly viable one. Horror is a lot more effective when you’re an active participant in the proceedings. Furthermore, slasher films rely on shocking death scenes to illicit reactions from their audiences, but in an interactive medium, they could serve as elaborate failure scenarios. By learning what needs to be done in this hypothetical game, you could successfully avert the characters’ fates. This in turn would open up the possibility for multiple endings, thus lending the game a degree of replay value. As it stands, I’m sure that if anyone were to play this game without a guide, they would give up in frustration long before they discover a winning strategy. In the event that they do stumble upon one, whether by exhausting every possibility or looking it up online, they would proceed to dismantle any semblance of challenge the game may have presented by clearing it in less than thirty minutes.

Friday the 13th may not be the worst game on the NES, but there’s no practical reason to ever try it out for oneself. If you’re looking for a prototypical survival horror, I recommend Capcom’s own 1989 horror-film-based game, Sweet Home, over Atlus’s effort. Though Atlus does deserve some degree of recognition for attempting to create a game in a genre didn’t yet fully exist, the fact remains that what they created wasn’t worth playing in 1989 let alone today. The survival horror would be codified and evolve in the coming years, and it’s for the best that this game didn’t play a major role in its growth.

Final Score: 2/10

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11 thoughts on “Friday the 13th (NES)

    • This is a game I remember playing as a kid, and I decided it was time to finally beat it. It’s amazingly easy if you know what to do, but a game where you constantly need to consult a guide just to stand a reasonable chance isn’t usually one that’s worth playing.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I do remember liking the atmosphere of it, and the way they designed the tension around the game, but that’s all that’s positive I can say about the game. No, wait, I take that back, it is absolutely hilarious watching Jason zoom around in the lake. Otherwise though, meh. I played it once, challenging myself to go through it long enough to have a counselor survive a fight with Jason, but after that, it just didn’t have anything to draw me anymore.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s about the only redeeming quality of this game. For an 8-bit game, it has a surprisingly tense atmosphere. Otherwise, it’s boring at the best of times and an absolute slog at its worst. It’s still a far cry from the worst game I’ve ever played, though.

      Also, Jason can swim faster than Olympian athletes in this game. Even someone as unfamiliar with the series as myself knows that’s inaccurate.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember the game being infuriating as a kid. I never had it but my neighbor did and we were never able to get very far in it.

    I’m currently rewatching the films, he doesn’t seem afraid of the water in them at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s the exact experience I had with it as a kid; I tried playing it, got killed, and didn’t know what on Earth I was supposed to do.

      I heard that it seems to vary between movies. Apparently, it comes into play in Freddy vs. Jason.

      Liked by 1 person

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