I like to consider myself a film buff, or at least a film buff in training. When I was first beginning my education in the ways of cinema, I avoided movies that were either obviously crap or just didn’t hold my interest. Recently, however, I’ve found it useful to take a “quantity over quality” approach and see anything that comes my way. At best, I discover a diamond in the rough. At worst, I discover one more way to make a lousy movie. It was with this attitude that I found myself and a friend of mine committing to watch every single installment of the Friday the 13th series.
Prior to this exercise, I never thought blood, guts, and tits could be so excruciatingly boring. Despite the occasional interesting death scene or clever twist on the familiar premise, the series left me thoroughly unimpressed. But I did succeed in my overall goal: to familiarize myself with one of pop culture’s most infamous figures, Jason Voorhees. Like most things I do on a whim, this came back to haunt me. As the resident “guy who had most recently seen all those Jason movies”, I was assigned the duty of reviewing Friday the 13th for the NES.
Here’s a great example of a license that could easily have been made into a cheap side-scroller. This hypothetical game would put you in the role of a camp counselor, or maybe just a horny teen lost in the woods who has to make his way through 12 or so danger-laden levels (cabins, forests, etc.) until finally meeting up with Jason on Crystal Lake where you defeat him and…uh, I don’t know…rescue your girlfriend. Boring. Instead, the developers put a bit of a twist on things. It’s still ostensibly a side-scroller, but underneath that crunchy side-scrollin’ coating is a surprise: a creamy layer of strategy nougat. It was certainly a cool choice. Does it make the game particularly good? Nah.
It plays out thusly: You control a cast of intrepid camp counselors, namely George, Mark, Paul, Debbie, Crissy, and Laura. Fans will note that most of these names have been used by previous Crystal Lake counselors. Each of the six teens has their own special nuances. Basically, Crissy, Mark, and Laura can run fast and jump high, but have a very low tolerance for damage; while Paul, Debbie, and George can take a punch, but run about as well as that guy in the wheelchair from Part 2.
Knowing Jason’s on the prowl, the six of you have hidden the kids away in three isolated cabins…right next to the lake…where Jason drowned and always emerges from… Clearly your characters are just as intelligent as their cinematic counterparts. It’s up to you to move your counselors around the camp, collecting Jason-killing items as you go, while making sure that somebody’s always in rowing distance of the kids in case you-know-who shows up.
And show up he does. Often. Continuously in fact, but I’ll get to that in a second. The manual helpfully suggests that you position your slower counselors close to the lake to protect the kids, while using your quicker ones to scout out weapons, vitamins, and other miscellany that can be evenly distributed among the group. There’s a cave you can explore to find armaments strong enough to deter your hockey-masked stalker, and two wooded areas where various power-ups and helpful trinkets can be obtained. This would all be quite useful if you had time to take advantage of any of it.
Jason works to spoil the party at a tireless pace. At the top of your screen you have two meters, one for the children and one for the counselors. When Jason is attacking someone, the corresponding meter will blink and an alarm will sound. If you don’t want to lose the game or find yourself desperately shorthanded, you have to drop what you’re doing and rush one of your counselors to the scene of the crime. But since the game doesn’t give you any prep time to position your counselors wisely, you’ll likely find the closest counselor is either ill-equipped for battle or too slow to make it there before the victim is slain.
Jason can pop up just about anywhere but you’ll most often fight him indoors. It looks a little like playing Super Punch-Out!! and feels a lot like losing Super Punch-Out!! There are weapons strong enough to do major bodily harm to Mr. Voorhees, but you’ll be forced to fight him long before you obtain them. You can dodge, but it’s tricky to pull off effectively. If you lose a skirmish with Jason, you’re down one counselor and you’ll usually have to try again with another. If you win, you’ll still likely come off worse than your opponent. While he retreats with very little damage, you’ll limp away nearly dead. If you have any hope of carrying on you’ll have to regain some health, but whoops, no time to find the ever elusive and largely ineffective vitamins. Another Jason alarm is sounding and it’s off to the races again.
During the very brief periods of time that you’re not lobbing rocks at a supernatural serial killer, or on your way to do so, you’ve got a sizeable amount of chores to get done. First you’ve got to light a fire in the fireplace of every large cabin around the camp. Why would you waste your precious planning time on this menial work? Because if you don’t, the game won’t let you find the flashlight. No flashlight means not being able to see properly in the caves, which means you won’t find those much needed weapons. If you miraculously manage to complete this task (likely suffering heavy casualties along the way), and then the counselor with the light dies, all of the fireplaces go out and you get to start over.
“But,” I hear you ask, “surely you don’t lose every item a fallen counselor was carrying? Surely you aren’t put through the inconvenience of running all the way to the other side of the map every time you have to trade weapons with someone or get vitamins from one of your comrades?” Surely I wouldn’t be writing so sarcastically unless the answer was yes.
Let’s be generous, though. You’ve lit every single fireplace, obtained the flashlight and are ready to find the necessary provisions to take down Big J. It’s time to go play in the cave and the woods. Here I must stress to you that as far as I know, you MUST explore these areas to beat the game. Luckily, this is no great task. These sections are presented in a top down view with the entire map clearly visible. All items and enemies can be seen far ahead of time, allowing you to plan your strategy carefully and never get lost.
Oh wait, sorry, I accidentally started playing Ms. Pacman. No, the sub-levels in this game are a fucking mess.
You’re going to need your art supplies if you’re actually still trying to play this thing, because it’s map drawing time. Without a map to follow, I can’t imagine anyone being able to find anything here. Ironically, the cave and woods areas are actually fairly simple. There are only a few screens to travel through in any given one, but a few factors make them seem to be impossibly labyrinthine. The layout of each screen scrolls, meaning there is no beginning or end to the level. In other words if you keep walking in one direction you’ll end up back at the beginning.
There are no landmarks to distinguish one entrance from another so you’ll never be sure where you came in or what pathways you haven’t yet tried. In the cave, at least, you always begin a new screen standing right next to the path you just came through. This way you can easily find your way back and use this information as a makeshift landmark. But in the forest, the designers give you no such luxury. Either by poor programming or intentional malice, following a trail to the next screen won’t always leave you standing where you logically should be. The paths work more like warps than actual paths, leaving you totally disoriented and making the task of mapping the area next to impossible.
If you have the patience for this crap, you’re a greater man than I. After two hours of failed cartography, I got some maps from the internet fairy, an option kids playing this game in the late 80’s didn’t have. Armed with this info, the game became even more frustrating. Cabins that should have held useful items were empty, presumably because I hadn’t yet completed some impossible chore. My battle to obtain the ax left Mark one bar away from death, and when a bat did him in, I lost both the weapon and all the fires Mark had lit. Not to mention just a little bit of my dignity.
Speaking of bats, let’s touch on the non-Jason enemies of Friday the 13th. Like all games based on movies with only one villain, Friday the 13th gets creative in keeping your journey dangerous. Bats, birds, wolves, ghost wolves, and yes, zombies will all slow your progress as you dash madly from one Jason battle to the next. You’re far too busy to ever have the time to hang around and fight any of these critters, but that won’t stop the game from forcing you to do it. They drop such essentials as lighters, keys, and vitamins, without which you will get absolutely nowhere.
Let’s see, did I forget anything? Well, you can only switch between counselors if you’re in one of the smaller cabins (forget coming to anyone’s rescue while in the woods or cave, you’ve got to miraculously find your way out to do any good), the annoying music loops repeat after about four seconds, the graphics are sub par, the indoor screens are unnecessarily awkward to navigate, the “clues” strewn about are of little use (There’s a machete somewhere in the woods? Thanks I can totally beat the game now), and some of the items look so generic that you can’t even tell what they are, let alone divine their purpose.
Friday the 13th can’t help but conjure images in my mind of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Video Game Adventure. Just like in that game, the use of the franchise isn’t bad, but the game itself doesn’t live up to it’s potential. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a few treats to be discovered by fans of the series. Made in 1988, this game takes cues from not just the original, but several of the sequels. Jason has put his mother’s disembodied head (from Part 2) in charge of guarding his weapons. The camp is inhabited by actual campers, not just counselors (Part 6). Jason is especially susceptible to fire and pitchforks, which, if I remember correctly, have both been methods of his destruction in the past. Perhaps the best nod to the series, though, is the fact that Jason’s mother’s sweater is an item. I never found it, but apparently if you wear it, Jason will leave you alone just like…um…I think Alice did in the end of…I’m going to say Part 2.
Also, the basic idea for the game isn’t bad at all. The equal amounts of strategy and action required to survive put the concept way beyond what one might expect for a Jason game. But it’s just so difficult and unforgiving. If the frequency of Jason attacks was cut in half, and the utterly ridiculous cave and woods areas were retooled, we might have a playable game here, even a fun one. Waiting for your next encounter as you attempt to prepare yourself and protect the kids might have even invoked the same suspense and fear that the movies aspire to. But there’s no suspense when you’re constantly under attack and instead of fear, this game just breeds frustration. Of course, since your progress is dependent, at least in part, upon your strategy, it’s possible that I just never hit upon the right tactics to master Friday the 13th. But, frankly, I doubt anyone will spend enough time with this baby to do much better.
Simply put, if you enjoy the series so much that you feel as though you just have to play this game, and you like your games thoroughly challenging, and you’re willing to draw lots of maps, and you’ve got a few weeks on your hands to think up a viable strategy, and your playing this as a ROM that allows you to save anywhere rather than on the NES console itself, and this game honestly holds your interest throughout all of that, then by all means, play Friday the 13th. If not, take a tip from the films and stay away from CAMP BLOOD.
A game based on a brainless horror series, that actually requires planning and intelligence.
No time for planning, and some very unintelligent game play.