“If Jason Manages to Defeat All the Children, the Game Ends.”
The games industry doesn’t have all that great a reputation for licensed releases based on horror films, does it? Sure, there have been some great horror games that have taken cues from cinema — your original Resident Evils and Fatal Frames and whatnot. But when it comes to actually adapting licenses, something always seems to get lost in the translation. Whether it’s failure to fully realize a film’s unique concept in video game form, inability to instill fear in a player, or straight-up bad game design, so many horror movie games have come out feeling so lacking.
For my money, there were three games that managed the feat in the 8-bit era. The first is 1989’s A Nightmare on Elm Street for DOS / Commodore 64, which actually does a surprisingly decent job of capturing the spirit of the Dream Warriors installment in the film franchise as a top-down action game. The second is probably a somewhat “controversial” pick on my part, as I actually genuinely enjoy 1987’s NES take on Jaws as published by LJN. At the very least, you have to admit that compared to sitting down and watching Jaws: The Revenge, it’s a far better way to spend a couple hours of your life. My final pick is another possibly controversial one, and it’s another one published by LJN: 1989’s Friday the 13th, as developed by Atlus. (Yes, that Atlus)
Friday the 13th has taken on something of a reputation as a hated game, likely thanks in no small part to the Angry Video Game Nerd’s take on it. There’s also the matter of it not necessarily being a wholly faithful translation of the movies’ premise, taking all manner of creative liberties — such as inexplicably tossing in zombies, for some reason. But you know what? I’d argue that despite all that, Friday the 13th on NES absolutely nailed the spirit and ever-present tension of the film franchise in a way that very few horror movie game adaptations have, before or since. It’s definitely not a game without its flaws, but I’m going to make the argument that it gets more flak than it deserves.
Yes, folks: Today, I am going to try and sell you on the game that dressed Jason Voorhees up in a purple hoodie and gave you a handful of rocks with which to stop him. But first, we’re going to have to put things in perspective a bit by taking a quick look at some prior attempts at translating horror films to video games, including an even earlier attempt at cashing in on our favorite hockey mask-clad killer. With those frights fresh in mind, we’ll reveal the evil within the accursed NES cartridge. And finally, we’ll investigate the devastation it left in its wake, and briefly check in on the current state of slasher flick game adaptations.
“The Maven of Mayhem, the Sultan of Slash.”
The early beginnings of the “horror movie tie-in game” subgenre were as primitive as one might expect, with 1982’s Alien for the Atari 2600. Developed and published by 20th Century Fox’s own video game division, it is legitimately a licensed game loosely based on the 1979 film of the same name. I say it that way because it doesn’t even bother trying to capture the tone or adapt the plot of the movie, opting instead to be a Pac-Man clone of sorts; pitting your player character against a squad of
ghosts xenomorphs with malicious intent, as you scramble to eat pellets destroy their eggs and collect “prizes.” It also features a bonus stage between mazes that plays like a sort of take on Frogger, where you need to reach the top of the screen while avoiding alien traffic. When these programmers were presented with the task of adapting a dark and dour horror film, they eschewed those tonal elements entirely in favor of standard video game design. But this sort of precedent would not be followed for too long.
Wizard Video – distributors of some cult films of the era on VHS – decided to enter the games publishing business in 1982. Contracting the developer “VSS Inc.,” they set about producing a pair of 2600 titles based on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween. Licensing Chainsaw Massacre was likely easy enough for them, as they were already the distributors for the film in home video format. The approach VSS decided to take was actually quite novel for the time, pitting the player in the role of Leatherface as he cuts down hapless innocents in the woods. Novelty aside, it’s an otherwise lacking title; with some lousy hitboxes leading to constantly being stuck on scenery, finicky collision detection resulting in your victims seeming to “teleport” around you as you near them, and a general lack of hooks or mechanics outside of minding a draining “FUEL” meter. The presentation is also pretty poor for an Atari title of the era, though an attempt is at least made at providing some primitive parallax scrolling with the background elements.
All that being said, Halloween would prove a major improvement on this past work. Controlling an unnamed babysitter (likely Laurie Strode?), you must dodge one unnamed “homicidal maniac” (clearly Michael Myers) while also rescuing children from the danger he poses. The house the game takes place in consists of sixteen rooms spanning two floors — complete with flickering lights in particular sections, and occasionally littered with knives on the floor with which you can fight back your attacker. Should you slip up though and allow yourself to run into the killer, you’re treated to a comical decapitation effect wherein your character runs to the nearest side of the screen waving their arms about while blood spurts out. Not only that, but the children can be killed too, releasing small fountains of blood as well! This comes accompanied with a one-channel rendition of the classic John Carpenter Halloween theme, which plays whenever Michael is on screen. Another pretty basic game in terms of mechanics to be sure, but it at least steps up the presentation some and tries to evoke the feel of it’s source material.
As innovative as Wizard Video’s entries into the horror game genre may be, they failed to bring in profits for the division. With the release of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on 2600 cartridge reportedly sparking some small degree of “moral panic,” the game largely lacked a presence on store shelves, with retailers electing to hide the game behind or rope it behind the same space as other adult media. By the time Halloween was finished and ready for production, Wizard couldn’t even afford to make sure that every cartridge came with a printed label — leaving some with pieces of masking tape stuck on front and the title written in orange marker. Giving up on their games division, Wizard returned to VHS distribution, likely unaware of the standards they had inadvertently set for horror movie game tie-ins. Shortly thereafter – with Atari Shock in full effect – the focus for developers would shift from dedicated consoles to home computers.
1985 would bring us Domark Ltd.’s Friday the 13th, released across a range of microcomputers of the era (Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum), and marking the video game debut for one Jason Voorhees… sort of. You see, the game was developed in an awkward moment in time for the franchise, as ‘85 had brought audiences the controversial Part V: A New Beginning — infamously switching out Jason for an inferior imitator thereof (Roy Burns), who dons the hockey mask after his son is killed at a halfway house. It is my completely unsubstantiated theory that this game began development with that movie in mind, as it depicts “Jason” as an average-looking guy with black clothes, hair, and no hockey mask. Not only that, but he also comes equipped with the ability to disguise himself as any one of the teenagers that comprise the game’s population, which – if you haven’t seen any of the movies – is not a thing Jason (or Roy Burns) has ever actually done?
But here’s the real kicker: Just a year later, the producers behind the film franchise gave up on their ambition to refocus the franchise around killers other than Jason — bringing him back post-haste for Part VI: Jason Lives. If we assume that the game began development after Part V released, and took long enough that Part VI was announced before it was completed, this may explain why the design for Jason in this game is so far removed from the source material? Or maybe the developers simply didn’t consider “being faithful to the films” as a priority here. In either case, the actual game itself is pretty standard fare: Navigate Camp Crystal Lake, finding a small variety of weapons scattered about the grounds, and try to kill Jason before he kills you and/or all your friends.
In order to determine who among the populace is truly themselves, you’re actually encouraged to attack them and see if they don’t immediately start fighting back. If they don’t, they’re safe to stand around, and you can send them off to designated sanctuary zones where they will be temporarily safe from Jason. However, if you take things a bit too far, you can also end up killing your friends yourself, making you an accomplice to Jason’s killing spree! The penalty for this is the addition of points to your “Panic Meter,” which makes you a more likely target for Jason as well as resulting in a game over if it fills up. Not only that, but exceeding a set stage of panic may prompt some primitive jump scares that have the chance to appear as you move from screen to screen. These can display either an image comprised of bloody skulls, or a graphic of a man taking a machete to the head.
Again, we’re dealing with a pretty underwhelming movie-to-game adaptation here, where the supposed source material feels like some sort of tacked-on afterthought. And in terms of gameplay, it’s certainly all a bit janky and not particularly fun to play by my account. At the very least, copies of the game came bundled with capsules for producing fake blood, which I’m sure some folk out there managed to have some fun with. In an amusing bit of legal contained in the instruction manual, Domark attempts to cover themselves by stating that the enclosed ingredients (comprised of red sugar to be mixed with water) “should not stain clothing, but Domark cannot accept responsibility for any individual customer’s action.” Whatever stupid gimmick could potentially bolster sales was candidate for consideration in this time, I suppose.
Flash forward another few years later, to when the home console market rebounds thanks to the Nintendo Entertainment System. In the rush by publishers to cash in on the new games craze, one company stands above the rest in terms of marketing strategy: LJN Toys, Ltd. Already a well-established manufacturer / distributor of children’s toys and collectible figures (including the then-WWF’s first line of action figures), they had a number of brand deals in place and experience dealing with licensed products. In opening a games publishing division, they leveraged their corporate portfolio in order to release games based on a variety of outside licenses — most notably in the worlds of film and television. These brandings made for instantly-recognizable titles, where consumers would take the gamble on games based on their favorite shows and characters and the like.
It should also be noted here that LJN weren’t actually in the business of developing these games themselves. Rather, they contracted actual programming and design duties to outside developers; including the likes of Atlus, Beam Software, and even Rare. In spite of LJN’s modern reputation as “Laughin’ Jokin’ Numbnuts” – thanks again to the efforts of the aforementioned AVGN – it’s important to remember that they were working with some very real (if not unrealized) talent at this time. Even after mega-publisher Acclaim would acquire the company in 1990 [and continue to use their label as a means of getting around Nintendo’s “five published releases per year” limit], the brand would continue to be associated with licensed titles and outside developers.
Prior to Friday the 13th, Atlus had collaborated with LJN on some previous NES titles; including Major League Baseball, NFL, and the infamous The Karate Kid. Also worthy of brief note is the fact that even outside of their association with LJN, they were also responsible for a Japan-exclusive adaptation of 1986’s film Labyrinth, which they seemed to model largely after Gauntlet. Soon though, they would branch out to establish their own publishing division, with Friday the 13th marking their final collaboration with the American manufacturer — a farewell to their limbo of producing almost-exclusively licensed titles. And to their credit, they didn’t simply phone this last one in, either: They clearly understood the need for the game to strike a uniquely dark tone, and to stay as true to the spirit of the film franchise as they could.
It should also be noted that Friday the 13th was marketed as being part of LJN’s “Power Play Series” on both the box and cartridge. This would include it among the same class as Back to the Future, NFL, Pictionary, The Uncanny X-Men, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. What exactly did this label denote or signify about the games in question? Honestly, I’m pretty sure it didn’t mean a damn thing, other than to possibly better tie their titles into Nintendo’s “Now You’re Playing with Power” slogan of the era? Maybe it was an attempt to try and associate themselves with Mattel’s Power Glove, which briefly seemed poised at the time to catch on like something of a fad.** In any case, with the eighth installment in the film franchise (Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan) set to debut in theaters in July of 1989, the game opted to launch earlier with February release date in that same year. Perhaps it’s fortuitous that it did, since that particular movie would kill the franchise deader than one of Jason’s own teenage victims.
** You can see how well that marketing push worked out in our article on 1989’s Bad Street Brawler.
“The Woods Are a Good Place to Pick Up Extra Vitamins.”
Friday the 13th: The deadliest day of the year. Six camp counselors at Camp Crystal Lake are charged with watching over fifteen children, to help ensure that this Summer won’t soon be one to forget. But tragedy looms over the campgrounds like a shadow, threatening all those who would dare to tread on it. There’s good reason this seemingly idyllic setting has earned the unfortunate nickname of “Camp Blood,” and these unfortunate young adults are soon to discover it for themselves.
So, brief synopsis for the Friday the 13th film franchise, for those who have managed to avoid it for this long: Pamela Voorhees was a cook at this camp, whose son Jason was also among the campers. Jason was physically disfigured to some extent since birth, and was teased mercilessly by other children for it. Eventually, this teasing at the camp escalated to the point where they pushed him into the camp’s titular lake, and he drowned to death as a result. In case you’re wondering why the counselors on duty didn’t step in to save him, it’s because they were too busy having sex to even notice it was happening. Thus, Pamela placed the blame squarely on the staff, attempted to sabotage the camp for years, and eventually went on a killing spree of her own that was only ended when one of her would-be victims fought back and decapitated her. As it turns out though, Jason was never actually dead (he was apparently living in a shack in the woods, waiting in vain for his mother to find him), was there to bear witness to the murder, and began committing his own killing sprees shortly thereafter. Since then, he’s been killed, resurrected, displayed supernatural powers, and is generally considered to be immortal.
You would think that after so many outright massacres, they’d just keep this damned camp closed down for good. But alas, here we are, and here’s Jason again to play his favorite camptime game of “Kill the Kids.” It’s one of those games where only he gets to have any fun though, so the camp counselors conspire to take Jason out. And so, the core of the game revolves around you switching between the six playable characters, collecting various weapons and supplies, and trying to keep everyone alive over the course of three dangerous days. All the while, you also have your happy campers to worry about; bunkering down in some cabins by the lake, but not out of Jason’s reach. The game quickly becomes a juggling act of frantically switching between endangered counselors, trying to maintain positions in strategic locations on the map, picking your best characters to track down the best equipment in the game, and doing your best to either avoid or confront Jason. Right off the bat, you can tell this is a game with some real ambition behind it — not content to be just another generic side-scroller with an iconic antagonist stitched in.
After a visually striking intro with a knife flying into Jason’s hockey mask, the game itself begins with a view of the map screen, your pick of starting character, and a suggestion that you should light fireplaces with a torch. Right off the bat, this is actually a mistake / possibly something lost in translation: You’ll find lighters in the game world, which you can use inside of large cabins to light the fireplaces inside. Doing so will begin something of a quest where a series of notes will provide more clues and directions for you, until you ultimately discover a torch as a weapon for your character — the second-best weapon in the game. This torch, by the way, is not to be confused with the flashlight, which is a separate item in the game that can be used to illuminate the cave areas. Figured I’d clear that up for any Brits out there who have been wondering how a flashlight is meant to start a fire.
Oh, and one more thing: Jason isn’t the only threat you have to worry about. In addition to vicious crows, wolves and bats, you also have an army of zombies to contend with. This is where a lot of folk seem to dismiss the game outright, as marauding zombies aren’t a staple of the film series by any means (unless you count Jason himself as a zombie). To this criticism, I would counter: What would you put in as basic enemy fodder in their place? If there was nothing there to battle between bouts with Jason, folk would complain about the game being “boring,” so we need something in its place.
I suppose you could let loose a bunch of bears, but that’d be comical in itself at a certain point. Maybe cops who don’t believe your story about a hockey mask-clad killer, who try to apprehend you with their nightsticks? Nah, that wouldn’t pass Nintendo’s cert process. So, why not drum up some zombies with the excuse that they’re “Jason’s previous victims” (as per the instruction manual)? It’s honestly not that far a stretch in a universe where the final survivors deal with shared hallucinations of zombified folk emerging from the lake to drag them in at the end of several of the movies, or where Jason literally gains the power to teleport after being revived by a bolt of lightning.
In any case, none of these basic enemies are really that much of an issue: They more exist as a means of filling the time and space between your encounters with the more “lethal” enemies in the game. Also, vanquishing them provides a means for some of the items to drop: Lighters, better weapons, and first aid “vitamins.” For a while, I thought killing them was also the means to finding the elusive keys which can be used to unlock doors in the cave and in Jason’s shack in the woods, but as it turns out, these are actually hidden in pre-determined spots and revealed by jumping near them — Super Pitfall style. But luckily, they’re actually pretty easy to activate by “accident” if you’re jumping over zombies rather than stopping and fighting them.
So, how do you get from place to place in the first place? Well, you hoof it on foot, that’s how! The camp is certainly a decently-sized arena, consisting of one large loop containing two smaller loops within — plus mazes within the caves and woods, and a lake to paddle across. As such, walking (or moving by boat) in any one direction will fix you in something like a perpetual path, ended only by taking a footpath up or down screen. To this end, the map (which can be brought up by pressing Start) displays the roads as sort of circular routes, which apparently causes massive confusion to children and grown adults alike: If you’re at the bottom of the map and you scroll the screen to the right, you’ll end up moving your marker left! In the words of an angry nerd, “Did they even test this shitty game before they released it?!” Naturally, this is actually because moving to the right causes you to move in a clockwise direction around the map, whereas moving to the left advances it counter-clockwise. What do you reckon the alternative here would be? Displaying the entire map as an unending straight line?
There’s also the matter of changing from character to character, which can again be done using the power of the map. When you’re not playing as a given counselor, they’re staying put in one of the small cabins across the map. When your current counselor enters a cabin, you can bring up the map and select any of the other counselors [who are still currently alive], and even see which cabin you’ll be appearing in when you do. This is helpful if you decide to keep particular characters near the lake in order to bail out the kids when necessary, or if one of the counselors themselves is under attack and you don’t want to trek all the way over to them as your current character in order to rescue them. Alarms and timers will appear in the display at the top of the screen when either is in danger, giving you a sense of how much time you have to get to where you need to go. Take too long, and either the kids or the counselors begin to get killed off in your absence.
I should explain now that every counselor has their own unique stats, with different strengths and weaknesses. Though these aren’t indicated by a chart or table in-game, you’ll quickly figure out who’s worth a damn and who isn’t just from playing. The three males consist of George, Mark and Paul, with three women named Crissy, Debbie, and Laura. Each of them has different speeds at which they are able to run, paddle, and use their weapons — plus different jump heights and a minimum number of baddies to kill before items start appearing for them. Aside from that, they all deal the same amount of base damage and have the same amount of base HP before you begin to kit them out with new weapons and an optional defensive item.
Now, you’d be forgiven for assuming that stats are distributed pretty evenly across the board in this way; with each character maybe excelling at one attribute, while being average at the rest and suffering at another. However, that is not the case, and even if it was it wouldn’t matter because the only stat that’s really all that important in the first place is movement speed. In this regard, Mark and Crissy are far and away the best characters in the game, boasting the highest run speeds as well as the tallest jumps. Mark is able to paddle faster giving him a slight edge as a mobile unit, but Crissy has a higher attack speed making her more of a force to be reckoned with. As for the worst character, that’ll land on George, who is worthless at everything save for paddling. That being said, you do ideally want to keep everyone alive and decently equipped, in case your star players get knocked out of the game or your B-teamers end up being closer to the lake with the children.
Gearing up can entail a few different methods, and there are a couple of unique items that you’re going to want to reserve for your favorite character. Every counselor begins with a supply of stones to toss, traveling in a slight arc when thrown in the side-scrolling perspectives. Naturally, they are the weakest weapon in the game, and should be immediately iterated on. Killing basic enemies will quickly earn you throwing knives, followed eventually by the machete. More powerful weapons can be found through more secretive means: Following the instructions of the notes left in the cabins, eventually discovering the axes and torches. But in my humble opinion, the best weapon in the game is the all-powerful pitchfork, which travels through enemies across the screen. To get your hands on that though, you’re gonna have work for it.
In the caves, there are some hidden passages (easily discerned if you have the flashlight, but also indicated by patterns in the rock formations even in the dark). Behind those passages are locked doors, which you can open of your character has happened upon a key. Opening the door leads you to Jason’s shrine to his dearly departed mother, Pamela, whose severed head rises from it’s altar to attack you! Taking place in the game’s alternate behind-the-back pseudo-3D perspective, these battles see you strafing from left to right which ducking and weaving attacks, tossing your weapons forward to try and hit your target. Pamela is arguably the toughest enemy in the game, but the rewards for killing her are worth the effort: On the second of three in-game days, she’ll drop her sweater, allowing you to halve damage from any attack in the game [on that particular counselor]. The third day gets you the pitchfork, making encounters in the side-scrolling sections a breeze as well as doing massive damage to the most primary antagonist: Jason himself.
Yes, Jason is clearly intended to be the biggest threat to you and the campers, and he can appear seemingly at random to threaten anyone in his path at any time.** His sudden appearances are marked with a musical sting, and follow immediately with inescapable assaults that require you to damage him a certain amount before he backs off temporarily. It’s surprising that he’s so easily able to catch you off-guard given his garish attire: A purple jumpsuit capped off with a teal hockey mask. So, okay: I understand that sprites on the NES were limited to three colors, and beyond that there were only so many colors you could display on-screen simultaneously. With that in mind, the question still remains: Why purple and teal? White or yellow for the mask would’ve worked just as well against the backgrounds, and a grey or black would’ve suited his outfit just fine. At the very least, this color scheme is certainly distinct, I guess?
Now, look, I’m not trying to brag when I say that I don’t scare easily: It’s simply a matter of seeing enough games and movies to know when they’re most likely to toss jump scares at you, or understanding how a game uses music [or a lack thereof] in order to telegraph the presence of enemies, or whatever else. But there’s one type of scare that still manages to make me jump: Building up the tension for so long and so effectively, your brain almost thinks that the character is back in the clear. I’m talking like, the hospital scene from The Exorcist III, or the back alley burned man in Mulholland Drive. I contend that you can get that same feeling when you walk into a cabin in Friday the 13th — already knowing full well Jason is in there somewhere, turning every corner expecting him, until he finally does, and you somehow still feel like you didn’t see it coming. I’m not claiming that this is the height of horror here; just admitting that it’s effective.
What makes things all the more tense is the knowledge that Jason can cut you down in a matter of seconds. His attacks are as immediate as they are relentless, and unless you have the reflex to jump his attacks in the side-scrolling view / perfect timing inside the cabins to duck his attacks, you’re almost guaranteed to sustain some amount of damage. If you’re unfortunate enough to get attacked while in a boat, there’s zero chance: You’re eating a hit. Is it fair? Not entirely. But that’s sort of the point, innit? The best you can do is hoard as many health-restoring vitamins as you can — for as little as they may actually replenish. Luckily, at the end of a given in-game day (marked by draining Jason of all his health), every surviving counselor gets their health fully recovered, offering minor reprieve. Unfortunately, each passing day also makes Jason that much harder, better, faster and stronger.
By the final day, cabin encounters with Jason require near-perfect timing in order to dodge successive combo attacks, and unless you’re clad in Pamela’s sweater be prepared to take massive damage — as much as a quarter of your health bar per hit. Luckily – if you’re crafty – you can avoid having to fight Jason in the cabins for the most part (outside of saving the children), and challenge Jason in the comparatively safer side-scrolling sections. If you get the warning that one of your counselors is under attack in a cabin, don’t rush into it with the proverbial cavalry: Find another small cabin, switch to the character in distress, and simply walk outside to trigger an outdoor encounter. If you’re quick enough on the draw, you may very well be able to win the DPS race against Jason and avoid taking much damage at all.
Is that probably something like an oversight? Perhaps. But it’s entirely within the spirit of the game in my opinion. The goal of the game isn’t just to run away and try to survive the nightmare: It’s to turn the tables on Jason and ultimately go on the hunt for him. By endgame, with your counselors fully kitted out and stationed strategically, you can effectively trap Jason between a tag team of souped-up characters and put him down on your terms. It is incredibly satisfying to take back the strength you give him in the early game, and switch roles from “the hunted” to “the hunter.” Learning how to initiate this change as quickly and efficiently as possible in subsequent playthroughs is also super gratifying.
For what it’s worth, the speedier characters control with no issue and swift responsiveness. The slower characters are obviously designed to be deliberately so, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is sometimes frustrating to crawl around the map as them — to the point where if a slow-paced character somehow winded up being my final survivor, I’d probably rather give up the run rather than suffer their speed. It makes me wish that there was a better baseline in terms of how they all control, and that there could be other ways of making the characters distinct from one another: Maybe give some characters better weapons or additional items to start off with, or even give them unique abilities like being able to run away from Jason encounters or see where he is on the map? It’s hard to give the game too much grief for not implementing mechanics like these, though, and the attempt to differentiate them in any way (as flawed as it may be) should at least be acknowledged.
I will say that the cabin sections with their grid-based 3D could’ve been improved by some additional features / things to do in them, given the effort made to include them. As it stands, clumsily turning and navigating your way through largely the same two or three copied-and-pasted interior layouts – stopping only to start a fire, read a note, or get attacked by a member of the Voorhees family – feels very much like a tacked-on addition to the game. Maybe if the interiors had more detail to them, like beds and tables and the like, they’d feel a little less lifeless? Or hey, what if there were dresser drawers or closets that you could check for items? That’d be pretty neat! But without any additional features such as that, the cabins might have just as well been presented in the same side-view style as the rest of the game; like walking into houses in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link.
On the subject of Atlus trying to show off visually: I find that the game is actually quite nice aesthetically. Parallax backgrounds, day and night lighting, and some appropriately dark environments (especially the forest areas) all help add to the game’s presentation. In spite of some of those aforementioned odd color palette choices, Jason and his mother in particular are nicely detailed, which is a good thing when they’re displayed so prominently. That being said, I wish a bit more attention could’ve been paid to detailing the counselors, rather than having all of them effectively serve as recolors of one another. Also, their portraits in the display at the top of the screen / on the map can definitely look a bit goofy at times — George’s in particular being of comical note. I also wish there were maybe just a couple more environments to serve as backdrops: Maybe something like a larger central building to try and hide out in? Or maybe an archery range, or a row of tents or something.
It also needs to be said that the music in the game could’ve done with a bit more variety as well. The soundtrack for navigating the interiors is probably the most effective piece on the playlist, with the Jason confrontation music serving its purpose decently enough. But the four-second loop that comprises the background music for all your side-scrolling gameplay? It might honestly be one of the most repetitive chiptunes in the history of the NES, and it becomes absolute torture to listen to past a certain point. It’s not like it even attempts to resemble any specific song from the film franchise — which is a shame, because the original Harry Manfredini soundtracks have always been a highlight of the series. As it stands, you’ll probably end up wanting to put the game on mute, meaning you’ll unfortunately miss out on a few of the sound cues and Jason’s accompanying musical sting, but these are non-essential.
Of course, it’s easy to nitpick a thirty year-old game with all the benefits of hindsight. So maybe it’s time I stop criticizing, and start complimenting. As mentioned earlier, this game does manage to provide scares in a way that not a lot of games of the era were attempting. It takes the pointless flashes of skulls and gore from its predecessor on the home computers, and swaps them out with getting jumped by Jason. And while Jason taking some fashion tips from Barney the Dinosaur might soften the blow of his appearances a bit, at least the visual of his mother’s floating head still manages to pack a spooky little punch. It’s obvious the game was restricted by Nintendo guidelines of the time, and not allowed to show blood and gore and the like, but it does what it can with what it’s given.
When discussing the early beginnings of the survival horror genre, you’ll usually hear two names get brought up: 1996’s Resident Evil, and its direct inspiration in 1989’s Sweet Home. In my opinion, 1987’s Shiryou Sensen: War of the Dead is also a game due a large amount of credit, but that lands very much outside the scope of this article.*** What I do want to put forward here is that I think there’s an argument to be made for the likes of Friday the 13th being considered in that same conversation. Sure, your weapons may not be a limited resource, and there’s maybe not as much of an emphasis on trying to avoid combat when you can, but the vulnerability of the counselors and the fact that you can lose them forever sort of compensate for this in my mind. That, and the sense of stalking death that can come for you at any time — often at the worst possible time.
You can’t really contend that Friday the 13th was a particularly influential game on the genre either, seeing as its release was isolated to North America and that it didn’t even really make waves here to begin with. What you can say though is that it was ahead of its time in at least one regard: The idea of a recurring antagonist dogging you throughout the entirety of the game. This idea would later be used to great effect in the likes of Clock Tower and Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, to name just a couple of examples. I also think there’s something to be said of hiding some of the best weapons in the game behind sort of quest-like conditions, making players have to weigh the risks and time spent in setting out to acquire them. Add to that the permadeath element with the different counselors and the ticking clock on the hapless children, and you’re left with a game that really manages to capture the essence of as slasher film.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I really do consider myself to be quite a fan of this game. It’s a game which has compelled me over the years to put the time in learning all the tricks of it, and honing my skills to the point where I’m able to clear it without losing any counselors / children. It’s one of those games I can continually come back to on a whim, clear in around a half an hour, and feel satisfied and entertained by the endeavor. It’s a shame it’s given so little benefit of the doubt, and that folk so rarely seem to bother learning the mechanics of it in order to better understand how to play it. At least for me personally, I actually consider it one of my favorite titles in the whole of the NES library! Then again, I also think The Adventure of Link is the best game in the Zelda franchise; so what do I know, right?
** In actuality, Jason actually travels in some easily-trackable loops around the camp, and a particularly skilled player can seem to pretty easily predict where he’s headed at any given moment in time / cut him off to face off against him at their own convenience. Personally, I’ve deliberately avoided teaching myself the routes (other than understanding that his inclination is to always be traveling counter-clockwise), since I do like the element of being caught off-guard.
*** The original MSX2 version of Shiryou Sensen is quite possibly one of my favorite horror games of all time. It’s slightly similar to Friday the 13th — at least in that the action and combat primarily play out in side-view perspective, with encounters on the overworld suddenly shifting you to this different style of gameplay. And while the game doesn’t feature a recurring “big bad” like Jason, you get a genuine sense of dread and danger from every unforeseen encounter. Look, I obviously can’t spend too much time talking about an only-tangentially related game in this article, but I highly recommend giving Hardcore Gaming 101’s article on the title a read.
“Finish Him off Once and for All.”
Sales figures for Friday the 13th are sadly unavailable, but I get the distinct impression that they weren’t particularly great. For one, Nintendo barely advertised the game through their usual channels, likely on account of its source material not falling in line with their whole “family-friendly” image of the era. I also wouldn’t be surprised to hear if they didn’t order that many cartridges for it to begin with, though anecdotal evidence seems to suggest the game was a staple of bargain bins for years following its initial release. Additionally, with the film franchise itself due to enter a massive slump with the underwhelming box office of Jason Takes Manhattan / Paramount Pictures soon to sell off the property, the timing really wasn’t ideal for the game to be coming out.
The nail in the coffin was middling to mostly negative reviews, with most taking the game to task for what they deemed underwhelming visuals. The September 1989 issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly featured snippets from four different reviewers, all of whom bring up the “sub-par” graphics and gameplay that is “average at best.” But it’s reviewer Steve Harris’ comments on the game stand out in particular to me: “Friday the 13th could have been an excellent game, with blood spurting and knives slashing. What we get instead is another boring Goonies II rip-off that is just plain dull. The graphics are sub-standard and the whole game is slow and tedious to play. This game could turn even Jason’s stomach.”
Though Nintendo Power never formally reviewed the game, they did pay it the service of previewing it in their fourth issue (published January 1989) and giving some hints on the game in the “Counselor’s Corner” of their seventh issue (July 1989), before returning in their one-hundredth issue (September 1997) to cite the game as their pick for sixth place on a list of “10 Worst Games of All-Time (As voted by the staff of Nintendo Power).”** In their brief description accompanying the title, they contend that “After playing a few minutes of this aardvark, you wanted Jason to slaughter all the counselors and then you. Anything so it would just end.”
It would seem as if the largely poor reception to Friday the 13th might have actually had an effect on another game currently in-development due to be published by LJN: 1990’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, credited as being developed by Rare. When the game was first revealed in 1988, the premise was wildly different than the final product, with players actually controlling Freddy as he hunted down hapless teenagers — almost harkening back to the similar approach taken by 1982’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre! However, in the wake of Friday the 13th, the game underwent numerous changes, the most major of which being the change to a more traditional premise with players controlling teens battling against Freddy. Perhaps we’ll examine this whole fiasco more thoroughly in a future article…
Friday the 13th would help cement LJN’s legacy as one of the most infamous publishers of the era, with reviewers seeming to have a field day with each successive release from the toy company-turned games powerhouse. And it’s not as if LJN lived in blissful ignorance of their detractors: Their constant shifting of licensed properties from developer to developer and their attempts to cover as many different genres of game as they could would to me indicate an effort to try and find something that “worked.” But a universally-acclaimed title never really seemed to come for them, with the label’s last licensed title being 1996’s thoroughly mediocre Cutthroat Island — based on the mega-flop film of the same name. The year 2000 would see Acclaim revive the label briefly once more in publishing Spirit of Speed 1937 on the Sega Dreamcast, before putting the brand back to rest shortly thereafter.
Between sporadic mentions in games publications and online mockery, Friday the 13th would mostly be relegated more to the status of a mediocre game, rather than a historically terrible title. Of course, as with so many other “legendarily bad” games, it would seem to truly earn its reputation with an episode of the Angry Video Game Nerd covering the cartridge on October 13th, 2006. In typical AVGN fashion, the video focuses mostly on on-camera skits involving James getting into slapstick comedy with his friend Mike “Minecrap” Matei — donning a cheap-looking Jason costume and forcing the Nerd to play the game under duress. In the bits of gameplay on display, James exaggerates the difficulty in parsing the map screen, refusing to crouch while tossing the starting rock weapons so that he can continue to complain about them constantly missing, and generally avoids mentioning any positive points about the game save for it’s now-infamous game over screen.
From this point forward, the game became a staple of other internet review series and publications, with even some big-name sites going so far as to issue retroactive reviews of the game. Game Informer would revisit the title in 2009 as part of an article covering the “Worst Horror Games Ever,” claiming “Friday the 13th is ridiculously difficult, even by NES standards. The problem is that it’s the broken kind of difficult.” One of the more interesting pieces I’ve read on the game actually comes courtesy of VICE, who published a contributor’s first-time experience with the game in 2015. It’s actually one of the fairer takes I’ve seen on the much-maligned title, with the author noting “The rhythm-based gameplay will eventually click for the physical half of the game, while the forward thinking you need to pull off properly surviving days one to three and killing Jason is surprisingly cerebral for a licensed NES title from the late 80s.” Unfortunately, this same article also states that the game is “pretty much the great grandfather of Demon’s Souls,” so it may be hard for some to take seriously.
Somehow, the previously buried title had risen from its grave, much like the hockey mask-clad killer himself. Only now, it was being hailed as an infamous piece of late 80s ephemera, to be looked back on and laughed at. And with this newfound resurgence in notoriety came attempts to independently monetize on it. The most notable example of this would come in the form of a Comic-Con exclusive collectible figure depicting the distinct appearance of Jason from the NES game, sold and produced by NECA in 2013 as part of a range of adaptations of iconic movie characters from their condensed-palette video game appearances. There’s also this particular t-shirt that I swear I’ve seen at least a dozen different times (on a dozen different people) out in the wild.
What’s more surprising to me than the “ironic” revival of the original game though is the fact that it took so long for someone to attempt to develop a new Friday the 13th game. That someone would end up being independent developer IllFonic, who originally began work on a more generically-titled “Slasher Vol. 1: Summer Camp” in association with Gun Media. After successful talks and negotiations with Warner Bros., the game would be re-christened as Friday the 13th: The Game, and shift focus to being an officially licensed title adapting elements from various different entries in the film universe. Originally announced in February of 2015, with a successful Kickstarter beginning on October 13th that same year, the game’s development would ultimately extend into May of 2017.
I’ve yet to play this modern game adaptation of the film franchise myself, but there are definitely aspects of it that I find interesting / compelling. I really like the decision to make all of Jason’s different appearances into unique choices of character, with differing strengths and starting equipment. I also appreciate the counselor characters all having different stats as well, but balancing them in such a way that there don’t seem to be as many outright “overpowered” choices. Additionally, the incredibly elaborate method required for actually “killing” Jason (which involves summoning Part IV thru VI protagonist Tommy Jarvis) actually strikes me as being pretty darn cool, and reminds me of the sort of item side quests that the original NES game provided. Despite what I’ve heard about the modern game having a multitude of bugs and other various issues, it still seems to continue to support a decently-sized playerbase with frequent updates, so more power to it.
To be clear here: The coming-into-being of this game has nothing to do with the resurgence of the NES game, and is almost undoubtedly due to the genuine success of other horror titles in the modern era. In particular, the success of titles such as Alien: Isolation, Outlast and Slender – games where the player is rendered particularly vulnerable – are probably most due the credit here, proving that a game in the style of Friday the 13th: The Game could potentially be viable in the market. As a matter of fact, the game almost proved too successful, with launch day server issues rendering the game largely unplayable for most. As a cute way of apologizing for this, the developers released a free content update for the game: A skin for the Part III Jason model, with textures based on the purple and teal color scheme from the NES game.
It’s certainly easy to mock and dismiss 1989’s Friday the 13th game for some of its surface elements: Purple Jason, inexplicable zombies, tossing rocks and rainbow box art. But if you dig just a little bit deeper, there’s a forward-thinking horror game buried beneath, and I sincerely believe it’s one worth experiencing for yourself. Behind the mask there is a fascinating little game yearning to reveal itself; a solid survival horror looking to break free of it’s shackles at the bottom of Camp Crystal Lake. So please, consider opening your heart and letting Jason Voorhees in, won’t you? Just don’t reciprocate by biting into his heart, no matter how tempting it may look: There’s a lesson to be learned about that in Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday.