Pixelated Jason Goes to Camp

Friday the 13th: the NES Game

Survivor horror is a genre of video games we associated with Resident Evil and their ilk. Part exploration adventure title (in the vein of the old point-and-click adventures), part run and fun action, these games work by evoking a sense of dread, by building the horror and then unleashing it on the player in key moments of action to get their adrenaline flowing.

That said, Resident Evil is, by far, not the first survival horror game ever made, and the PlayStation was not the originating home for the genre. These games stretch back all the way to the days of the old text adventures, although the advent of graphics in computer games did allow designers to ratchet up the horror a fair bit. Even Resident Evil has its own precursor, the Capcom NES RPG Sweet Home, which was originally going to be remade on the PSO before that game morphed into the RE game we know.

We remember the horror games that were successes but we can probably learn more from the failures of the genre, and 1989's Friday the 13th is certainly a failure. An NES game that tries to evoke the story of the Friday the 13thOne of the most famous Slasher film franchises, the Friday the 13th series saw multiple twists and turn before finally settling on the formula everyone knows and loves: Jason Voorhees killing campers 'round Camp Crystal Lake. series, but mostly stumbles under bad game design and a complete lack of effective horror. I guess, in a way, it totally nailed its goal of evoking the feel of Friday the 13th as I was equal parts bored and frustrated by the game. So... well done?

In the game you play as six camp counselors (one at a time, and you can switch at any time). Your goal is to keep the campers alive through three nights of terror as Jason slowly rampages around the camp, stalking the campers and attempting to kill the counselors. Defeat Jason on three consecutive days and you win. Fail, by either losing all the little kids you're supposed to be protecting, or by having all six of your counselors die, and the game is over. It's that simple, except nothing about this game is simple.

Let's be frank: the game is beyond obtuse in what you're supposed to do and how you're supposed to go about your task. An early note (which was apparently reiterated in the instruction book) is that you have to light all the fireplaces in the camp (one in each of the large cabins around the Camp Crystal Lake) to defeat Jason. Except that's not really the goal because after you light the fireplaces, you're rewarded with a flashlight. Just a flashlight. Yay?

While you're lighting fireplaces you'll also get notes about things hidden in the caves nearby. If you go the caves (flashlight in hand because you aren't navigating that complex with out it, or some maps) you'll eventually find the disembodied head of Pamela Voorhees who will attack you (and give you rewards depending on which day it is in the cycle). You might think this is a required fight, but it's not. Nothing the game tells you to do is actually required. Hell, the game says you're supposed to use fire to kill Jason, and while it's true it does hurt him, you can literally kill Jason with any weapon. Hell, you start with rocks as your projectile and that can kill Jason (albeit slowly). So the game is, in essence, constantly lying to you.

Of course, you have to figure out how to do all this to even get this far in the game. I remember renting the game back in the day and trying again, and again, to even get past the first few screens because the game expects a lot from you and is completed unforgiving from the start. It won't take long before your counselor, wandering the paths of Camp Crystal Lake, will encounter Jason. Fighting him is a bear, and takes plenty of practice, so expect your counselors to die, a lot. Even if you can manage to take Jason out on paths, he'll still go after the campers and you'll have to know the map of the terrain to even have a chance to save them. You'll find yourself bleeding resources, and life, without even making progress. If you can even get past the first day (if you even learn there's more than one day in the game), you'll have made it father than probably 95 percent of kids that played this back in the day.

Also, just so it's clear, Jason isn't the only thing you'll be fighting in this game (even discounting Pamela's head). The game is populated with zombies, jerk birds, and other minor enemies for some reason. Do you remember how in the movies the heroes were attacked by other zombies that were controlled by Jason? No, because that never happened. The enemies are just there to give you something else to do, but they only serve to pad the game play further without really adding anything beyond extra frustration.

NES games were hard. They were designed to be hard, of course, to keep kids playing them so they "got their money's worth". Friday the 13th is the kind of game that actually has a very short game play loop, where, even if you're doing everything, you can conceivable finish it in 50 minutes. Hell, the World Record for the game is under three minutes, indicating just how little actual "game" there is to this title. It stretched out its runtime by being absolutely punishing and never letting up for a second. Keeping kids replaying the first day, over and over, counts as "lengthy game play", I guess, but it's also not fun.

Even if you do somehow learn the game and can find ways to enjoy the game play, there really isn't much to recommend the game beyond all that. The graphics are weirdly candy-colored and don't evoke horror at all. Admittedly, the NES was limited in what it could pull off, and the game tries to implement a day/night cycle (one of its few good ideas), so everything it depicts has to work in multiple shades and tones. But even still, the game is ugly even for an NES game, and it fails to depict Slasher Horror at all well.

The sound design on the game, though, is even worst. All the music in the track is the bare minimum you could expect from NES titles, repeating sequences of 8-to-32 notes played over and over again until your ears want to bleed. That, coupled with seemingly default sound effects (why on Earth does your counselor sound like Mario when he or she jumps?) leaves the game looking and sounding very confused. And, again, none of it evokes horror.

There are tense moments to be found in the NES Friday the 13th, like when you're down to your last counselor and you're in a heated final battle with Jason. The game gets these small moments right. But, by and large the title is just a bland and frustrating slog. Back in the day just about ever movie got a licensed game. I understand the economics of it. I just wish that the production company had taken a beat, looked at the game, and said, "naw, we can do better." They didn't and we got this 1989 shovelware. Sigh.