We know Jack, do you?
Land of the Licensed is an ongoing series where I take a look at licensed games, how they represent their intellectual properties, and if they’re actually worth playing.
Oh lord. How did I end up here? One minute I’m messing around on Tumblr a couple weeks before E3, and the next thing I know it’s eight months later and I’m writing articles about some of the worst games ever released. I guess my luck finally ran out. Appropriate, considering there’s no unluckier day than Friday the 13th. I’m sure the teenagers at Camp Crystal Lake would agree- those hard-luck adolescents aren’t just suffering another Friday the 13th, they’re suffering a machete-filled Friday the 13th.
So, it isn’t actually Friday the 13th. When this article goes up, it’s Saturday the 13th, but the point is I wanted to talk about Friday the 13th for NES and this date was the best I was gonna get. And speaking of talk, boy, is there a lot to be said about this game. Let’s stop messing around and get started.
If you don’t already know, Friday the 13th (the film series) is the slasher horror franchise which spawned Jason, a hulking murderous brute who wears a hockey mask and chopped his way to becoming a horror icon on par with Freddy Krueger from The Nightmare on Elm Street. The films are generally poorly written, extremely violent, only occasionally frightening, and a whole lot of fun if you’re into that sort of thing. The series has 12 films to date, which include a remake and a crossover with Nightmare on Elm Street, so there’s plenty of material to work with.
Friday the 13th (the game) was released in February of 1989, after the telepathic weirdness of Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood but before the horrendously misnamed boat ride that was Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan. Instead of being based on either of those films, Friday the 13th takes some general concepts from the movies and throws them all into a big NES melting pot, resulting in a mess that’s less Jason Takes Manhattan and more Jason Takes A Dump.
Of course, Friday the 13th already has a solid reputation as one of the worst NES games ever unleashed upon unsuspecting consumers. Usually, that would mean my work’s been cut out for me, but surely Friday the 13th has some redeeming qualities? It was published by good ol’ LJN, which is normally the equivalent of a death knell for NES games, but The Punisher wasn’t that bad. Also, Friday the 13th was developed by Atlus- yes, that Atlus- so maybe there’s something worth salvaging in this mess.
Unfortunately, Friday the 13th doesn’t make things easy. The intro is bare-bones, lacking so much as title music. Upon starting, you’re thrown directly into the game’s counselor select screen and are prompted to “use the torch to light the fireplaces” with no other direction or explanation. Although not out of place with the nebulous goals sometimes presented by retro games, this opening bit really summarizes Friday the 13th NES as a whole: ambiguous, frustrating, and deliberately confusing.
You see, you don’t actually use the torch to light the fireplaces. The torch is a weapon you get from lighting the fireplaces with a lighter you can grab by killing a certain number of zombies, and then finding a note in a random cabin that directs you to the location of the torch in another random cabin. Even then, lighting all the fireplaces isn’t the objective of the game: it’s trying to keep your counselors alive long enough to kill Jason over the course of three days. This is complicated by the fact Jason can, at any time, attack any of the counselors or the fifteen unplayable “children” stuck in a cabin by the lake- once you run out of either, it’s game over.
All this adds up to a repetitive slog of an experience in which you’re constantly interrupting whatever exploration of the labyrinthine map you’re in the middle of because damn it, Laura’s getting sliced up by Jason for the fourth time, and it keeps saying he’s in the cabin with the kids, but I legitimately can’t find his purple jumpsuit-wearing ass? By the time you’ve navigated your way around the most poorly designed map in NES history, you’re out another counselor, the kid count has dwindled from 15 to 10, and you’re ready to flip Jason the biggest 8-bit middle finger of all time.
Anger aside, it’s an admittedly neat attempt at making one of the most unstoppable horror stars of all time seem, well, unstoppable. In the Friday the 13th films, Jason has been chopped, stabbed, drowned, electrocuted, sprayed with acid, and literally blown up by the FBI, but he always comes back. All things considered, Friday the 13th on NES is an ambitious but incredibly flawed exercise in replicating the force-of-nature feeling that makes slashers like Jason so intimidating. The only thing they forgot is that games are, generally speaking, supposed to be fun.
Assuming you’ve got the skills to make it far enough, it takes three in-game days to get all the items you’d reasonably need to put Jason to bed for good without wasting most of your counselors. This means you spend a good amount of time futzing around with the basic zombie enemies, exploring the non-navigable forest and cave areas, whittling down time to get a crack at Jason’s mother for one of the best weapons in the game, and playing the world’s most obtuse game of hide-and-seek traveling between cabins to stop Jason’s killing spree. Friday the 13th expects you to spend a lot of time repeating yourself. It gets old after twenty minutes, much less two hours.
This isn’t even to mention the weird “Punch-Out but bad” mechanics of fighting Jason in a cabin, plus the different movement stats that can leave you with a counselor as slow as turtle, or a counselor that can’t jump over even the weakest enemies. There’s also the fact your initial weapon is a crumpled piece of paper that requires a physics degree to aim properly, the nonsense of trying to fight Jason from a rowboat, the almost complete lack of any kind of healing items, the poor graphics…and the list could go on. Friday the 13th was made by Atlus within their first three years as a company. Not every game can be Persona 4, I guess.
In the end, Friday the 13th NES is a lot like the story of Icarus. Despite its ambitions, an extensive attempt like this to replicate the doomed atmosphere of a slasher film on the NES was, well, doomed from the beginning. Through a paradoxical coupling of too much crammed into one and a stunning lack of variety, Friday the 13th is destined to be remembered as one of the losers. Sure, hardcore fans of the film series will get an ironic kick out of it, and Jason’s weird purple color scheme has gone down in horror history, but there isn’t much else worth noting here. There’s a reason games haven’t been back to Camp Crystal Lake since 1989. Maybe it really is cursed.