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Never judge a game by its jumpsuit: Friday The 13th on NES was ahead of its time

In premise, LJN’s 1989 adaptation of Friday The 13th doesn’t make much sense. Even the company’s take on A Nightmare On Elm Street had more justification for its existence: Freddy Krueger’s manipulation of dream logic offered possibilities; all Jason Voorhees ever did was walk around carving up teenagers. It’s no real surprise, then, that a game following the adventures of a group of camp counselors trying to survive Jason’s wrath would become as notorious as one of the worst ever produced for the NES. Yet it’s not as terrible as its reputation suggests, and while the execution is poor, the ideas behind it deserve another look.


There’s no denying most of the criticisms thrown at Friday The 13th. The big one, the one that makes the game impossible to recommend without the severest caveats imaginable, is the difficulty. Yes, games from that era were nearly always harder than modern games—few people managed to get through Ninja Gaiden or Mega Man unscathed—but difficulty on its own isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Good design can use difficulty to generate a more focused experience, creating tension and catharsis through a challenge that punishes without being overtly unfair.

That sense of “fairness” is key, and while it can be a hard concept to pin down, Friday The 13th is not fair by any reasonable standard. The player chooses from one of six counselors of varying agility, only two of whom (Mark and Chrissy) are worth a damn. It’s then your job to protect 15 children and every other counselor at Crystal Lake summer camp from Jason. His attacks come regularly, which means the player spends most of their time dashing toward his location and trying to beat the clock, allowing little space for the exploration and discovery necessary to build up your arsenal and take Jason down for good.

As if that weren’t bad enough, Crystal Lake is overrun with an endless supply of zombies, wolves, and crows. The goals are unclear, the tools needed for survival appear semi-randomly, and if you die, you lose everything unless you passed it on to a different counselor. “Lives” are measured out in the counselors themselves, and if you lose the good ones, you’re pretty much screwed. The fights with Jason are badly timed nightmares, and while none of the other enemies are impossible to kill, the sheer volume of them makes any progress a chore.


Yet there are positives here that bely the game’s bottom-of-the-barrel notoriety. Friday The 13th is horror, and horror games, as they’ve developed since 1989, are largely about managing resources. Early entries in the Resident Evil series made great use out of clunky “tank” controls and limited access to save points and bullets, and while Friday The 13th doesn’t have that level of intention, the hostility toward the player kicks in immediately, setting a tone that’s fit for the genre. Working against the clock and fighting an overpowered foe under rules that aren’t immediately clear is entirely fitting. A good game based on the Friday The 13th series should have a feeling of hopelessness running through it. If Jason were easy to beat, he wouldn’t be scary.


And he is scary; or at least, he’s as scary as a game targeted at 12-year-olds could be. The key is a mixture of rising tension and surprise. Jason appears in two different areas: on the trail that runs around the lake or inside one of the cabins. On the trail, there’s no warning—just a shift of music and Jason darts into view, hurling axes and taking several hits before disappearing as suddenly as he appeared. When Jason materializes in a cabin, a countdown shows up alongside a blinking green mark on the map to mark his attack, and once inside the cabin, you have to search each room systematically, never knowing which turn will lead you face to face with the killing machine.

The result is an impression of pressure and pursuit that mimics the final third of the best Friday The 13th movies. There’s no real “final girl” here, but there is the sense that the world has been honed down to a fine and brutal edge. The odds are stacked against you, and the consequences for failure are swift and definitive. In some ways, the game is even more effective than its source material at generating a feeling of impending doom; even the best of the movies were bogged down with clunky dialogue and padding. There’s none of that here.


The six counselors represent the player’s “lives.” If you run out of counselors, or if all the children are killed, you lose the game. In practice, this adds to the game’s brutal difficulty, but in concept, it fits the game’s cinematic beginnings. In a better designed, more balanced version, losing characters instead of just numbers means creating your own distinct narrative, a slasher flick in which the hero’s allies are whittled down one by one. It’s a concept that would achieve fruition in more story-focused, modern games like Until Dawn; here, it’s more an irritation than anything else, but the principle is sound.

The game also does its best by the series’ limited mythology. There’s Jason in the hockey mask, the films’ most definitive element (and one that didn’t come completely into focus until Friday The 13th Part 3), and the Crystal Lake summer camp that so often played host to the carnage. But for players who dig a little deeper, there’s also a boss fight with the disembodied head of Jason’s mom—and if you win the fight, you get to wear her sweater, reducing the damage you take. This nod to the climax of Friday The 13th Part 2 is an impressive deep cut, one that pays homage to the source material by reshaping it to fit the needs of a different medium.


All of these positives make Friday The 13th even more frustrating than it would be were it a complete waste of time. If the difficulty were a little less punishing, if there were just a little more depth, this could be a forgotten classic. As is, it’s messy and inaccessible, but it deserves better than to be dismissed outright. In its way, it’s every bit as ugly, ungainly, and laughable as the movies that inspired it, but that feels appropriate: a game with a face only a mother could love.

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