Friday the 13th - NES retro review of a classic horror
I believe there is a time in every gamer’s life when they are not able to truly choose what games they would end up owning. You might ask for ‘Excitebike,’ and end up with ‘Hogan’s Alley’ and ‘Donkey Kong Classics.’ Or you might ask for ‘Ninja Gaiden’ and end up with ‘Friday the 13th.’ It seems that when you don’t get the game you wanted, a licensed game is what you end up with.
Licensed games are a mixed bag. Sometimes you get a ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project,’ but all too often you get a ‘Back to the Future’ or a ‘Hudson Hawk.’ Here we have something akin to a scientific law that is true almost without exception: licensed games that are based on movies are terrible. This is especially true when you take a look at the label and see the Technicolor Nightmare Coat that is the LJN logo. However, I submit that simply because a game is flawed, however severely, does not mean it cannot still be fun.
‘Friday the 13th’ on NES is not truly a representation of any one of the films in the franchise. Instead the game represents a generalization or an idea of the series. The game includes the most popularly recognizable aspects of the films. You have a summer camp called Crystal Lake. You have several counselors/victims that are seemingly ordinary teenagers, some built for survival, some not so much, and of course you have a hulking brute bent on slaughtering everyone in his path and he just will not stay dead.
The first thing you see in ‘Friday the 13th’ is the iconic hockey mask just as a knife flies from off-screen into one of the eyes as the screen flashes. Any Jason fan knows that that is only going to make him angry, when suddenly the title jump-scares onto the screen. In pressing start you are greeted with the basic objective of the game and an eerie bit of music that sounds like an 8-bit rendition of something John Carpenter might have composed. It truly makes the flesh crawl.
The first objective is to obtain a lighter and travel to each of the large cabins and light the fireplaces. After this is done, you will find a flashlight which illuminates the passages of the cave, and the second most powerful weapon in the game, the torch, becomes obtainable. The player may notice the first of the game’s flaws at this point: The game’s poor translation has made the hints almost useless. This problem is compounded for today’s retro gamer who more than likely does not have the instruction booklet that explains some of this. All the while your counselor is roaming about lighting fireplaces, Jason is running all around the camp attempting to murder children, the other counselors, and you. If either all of the counselors or all of the children are killed, then it’s GAME OVER.
The game is scary in the same way the average ‘Friday the 13th’ film is scary. It relies on the jump-scare, and it does a good job at using it effectively. Anytime Jason appears you will hear the 8-bit, sudden, loud tone that one would expect from a typical jump-scare. You hear the same tone whenever any of the counselors die.
As anyone who is familiar with the franchise would expect, Jason is very hard to put down for good. This game does an excellent job including this famous aspect of Jason. Not only will you fight him protecting children and counselors only to be greeted with “You win…for now,” each time, but you must deplete his life bar three times to complete the game. Luckily, each time you do deplete his life bar, any living counselors’ life bars are refilled as well.
The game does have several other flaws. The first is that the overland theme (the music you hear in most environments) is repetitive and quickly grows stale. The theme that plays in the cabins is the same as the creepy theme that plays when you first start the game. As stated before, this theme really sets the mood for horror. It is fitting that it plays where you are most likely to encounter Jason and where the jump-scare is most effective. If only as much effort was put into crafting the overland theme. I don’t know how they could have done it, but I would have loved to hear their best “ki ki ki, ma ma ma.”
Another flaw is the map. When looking at the map it will look like you should travel to the right to reach your destination. When you go back to the overland screen and travel right and check the map again, you will find that you have actually been going in the opposite direction. This flaw can be overcome quite easily simply by paying attention. It is rare that two cabins of the same size will be next to one another. You can use this to navigate. If going left on the map will have you walking passed a large cabin and you instead see a small one, you will know before the map will show your movement that you are traveling in the wrong direction.
One aspect of the game is not a flaw so much as it is a part of the game that is poorly developed. There are cabins in the forest that you never really need to visit. They do not have fireplaces to be lit or counselors to be protected. They can sometimes have weapons that are a little more difficult to find, but you can find more powerful weapons without ever entering these forest cabins. It is a pretty good thing that you do not need to enter these cabins as it is nearly impossible first to find them and second to exit the woods. The cave is somewhat difficult to navigate as well, but once you find the cabin there, it is quite easy both to exit the cave and find the cabin again.
A nearly fatal flaw would have to be the random item drops. Items that are an absolute necessity, such as the lighter, keys, and medicine, are dropped purely at random. There are some locations where some items are more likely to appear, but there is no guarantee of finding what you need when you need it. You need the lighter to start lighting fireplaces. Sometimes you just can’t get it to appear right away. Even items that are supposed to appear in a designated location, such as the torch, simply will not be where they should be and require you to exit and re-enter a cabin a few times to get it to appear. Other times it shows up early.
The worst flaw is a flaw that is found in many NES games. Many times the best strategy, nay the ONLY strategy you have available is to stand and attack while taking damage. This only happens towards the end of the game when Jason becomes much too fast to dodge and damage at the same time, but it still a significant enough issue to bear mentioning.
Alright, enough with the flaws. Anyone reading this has got to be wondering at this point why they should even attempt to play this game. The reason is simple: Friday the 13th on NES is fun. Despite its flaws ‘Friday the 13th’ does a few things very well. The most important of these is it creates a feeling of hopelessness that is arguably necessary in creating horror. Jason is a powerful foe. He is fast, strong, tough, and seems to be everywhere. Jason isn’t just a final boss. He is encountered all throughout the game. He can be encountered seconds after the game is started. It is as though he is actually after you, the player, instead of the player being after him. Every second of play you spend wondering if Jason is around the corner waiting to put an end to you.
The hopelessness is emphasized by the fact that the playable characters are ordinary teenagers. You don’t play as an experienced slayer of the undead. You don’t even begin play equipped with anything that can truly be called a weapon. You don’t have a gun or even a knife. All you have are rocks and whatever athletic ability your character might possess. Most of the characters are not even close to being in the physical condition one would expect from someone who would do battle with the undead.
You don’t just have Jason to contend with. While it may have nothing to do with the films, you fight zombies, wolves in the woods and the cave, giant birds near the lake and at night, and bats in the cave. There is no shortage of action between fireplaces and Jason encounters.
Friday the 13th can really be played two ways. The first way is by playing with strategy. You arrange your counselors in cabins and try to cover the camp for maximum response time and fighting effectiveness. This means trying to get each counselor at least moderately equipped and placed in cabins near the children and close to each other. Once this is done you must choose one of the very few counselors than can run fast enough and jump high enough to get all the fireplaces lit and equipped with the axe or the torch so that they can defeat Jason.
The other way the game can be played is as a pure side-scrolling action game. Some may find this way the most fun. It is also the easiest way to complete the game. Here you choose a counselor to use exclusively. If any counselor is in danger you let them fight their own battle by switching to them when Jason enters their cabin. Stones do very little damage, but can drive Jason off just as effectively as any other weapon. If the children must be protected you switch to an expendable counselor and go drive Jason off, hoping you pick up a knife before you get there. You keep this up until all of the fireplaces are lit and better weapons are found. Then you use your athletic counselor to defeat Jason…three times.
This game was released during a time when the horror genre in video games was pretty much non-existent. The idea of having any significant blood, gore, or violence in a video game was unheard of. Given both the limitations of the console and of what would have been acceptable at the time, ‘Friday the 13th’ on NES is a flawed but interesting and fun game. Though it is popular to hate this game, it truly is worth a look. If you have to pretend it was a gift and you are just plain sick of all your other games. You have got to play something, ANYTHING that feels new. So turn off the lights, turn up the volume, and play ‘Friday the 13th’ on NES. “Destroy Jason…if you can!”
By Duston Justice