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Friday the 13th
- Platform: NES
- Genre: Real-time survival horror platformer
- Developed By: LJN
- Published By: LJN
- Year Released: 1987
A common misbelief in gaming history is that 1996's Resident Evil for the PS1 was the first ever survival horror game. But go back further in time, even beyond the 1990s, and you'll find that isn't really true. There have in fact been plenty of titles that have employed the same ideas as Capcom's milestone title long before it was even a prototype on some Capcom dev's Net Yaroze. After all, you'd never have had Resi without Sweet Home, the 1989 Japan-only NES adventure also made by Capcom that came to serve as its main inspiration. Halloween on the Atari 2600 also springs to mind. And even on this very site there's a review for *Alien *on the Commodore 64 - a game that makes good use of sparse inventory management and `jumpscares' as devices in your battle with the titular Xenomorph.
In the context of utilizing survivalism as core gameplay, Friday the 13th for the NES is also no different. As a team of teenage camp counselors spending the peak of summer at the picturesque retreat of Crystal Lake, your mission is to guide them in a quest to stop the franchise's irrepressible murderous maniac, Jason Vorhees, from embarking on yet another killing spree. But instead of going after you, he's targeting the camp kids here on vacation. While they sit helplessly in the cabins dotted around the lake, your job is to collect as many weapons and power-ups as you can to save them and finally put a stop to Jason in a real-time, side-scrolling platformer duel of wit and weaponry.
Lose all the kids, and the game ends. Lose all your counselors - the game also ends. But defeat him, and Crystal Lake is saved. Maybe for good this time!
But most likely not because this game is bloody hard.
Still, they say never judge a book by its cover. So instead, we'll judge the game by the fact that it's a living nightmare made into pixels.
Friday the 13th is horrifically difficult. Not in a 'Nintendo hard' kind of way, either. The difficulty on display here is less `expertly challenging', and more 'kick you in the nuts for even pressing start on the title screen'. And it doesn't ease you into this experience with simple early levels either. In fact there is no level progression to speak of - the game is set in an open world environment that you can roam at your leisure (or maybe in this case, peril).
As you start the game, You pick from one of the six characters available - all with differing traits (i.e., the speedy one, the powerful one, etc.). Then as you start the game, you'll need to get on with obtaining different items that'll help you in your battle against Jason. Also, did you know your battle with him is in real-time? That's right - while you're on your own quest, Jason will also be doing his own wandering around, looking for cabins to begin invading (assuming you don't bump into him first).
Roaming around Crystal Lake is standard platformer stuff: there's the lake itself to explore, some woodlands and a creepy cave. But the environments don't really change much and are all pretty bland. And besides Jason, there's also a fair few standard baddies to overcome that don't really tie in with the franchise. There are, of course, the usual horror-game zombies (even if they don't even appear in the films, the manual suggests they're Jason's former 'victims' - hmm). And Crystal Lake itself also provides its own fauna as adversaries, particularly in the guise of wolves, bats, and a few other beasts. They're mostly nothing special, serving little more than an annoying distraction from the main focus of the game: that 'treasure hunt' for more substantial weaponry.
Weaponry, more than anything, is the key to beating Friday the 13th. You do start the game with unlimited rocks to throw, and that seem pretty cool. But first of all, you're not a 12-year-old on a freeway overpass trying to impress your friends. Secondly, Jason is practically invincible to them, so don't even try to confront him with such a puny arsenal. Luckily, what you can find in your frantic search is actually diverse and numerous. Initially there are some standard lighters and knives lying around, but continue to dig around and you'll soon get to the real Jason-killing stuff - things like machetes and pitchforks.
The more advanced weapons usually require certain on-screen feats to be completed (kill 'X' zombies) or clues to be followed, but sometimes, you can also find them in the cabins dotted around the lake. Not only do these cabins serve as a great place to get goodies, but they're also the place where the kids you're protecting find refuge. On top of that, they also provide one of the game's central locations for your battles against Jason himself. The cabins' exact locations are helpfully displayed on the map that comes up on the pause screen. Get used to this screen because you'll be coming back to it frequently - not just for orientation purposes, but because it'll also indicate which cabin Jason has chosen to attack. You'll undoubtedly know the when of these moments, too. Out of nowhere, a frantic alarm blares, and a return to the map screen will suddenly highlight the cabin under assault. Don't expect a grace period either. Jason can attack these sites at any time, even the moment you start the game! And more often than not, he'll also invade the one cabin that's the furthest away from you at the given time. Fail to reach it within the displayed time limit, and you guessed it - Jason will wipe out the kids hiding within.
So what is to be done? Well, it's pretty simple. When the alarm sounds, get to one of these cabins, enter it, and hope - pray - that you have enough offense to repel Jason lurking within. Upon cabin entry, the screen changes to a pseudo-third person view as you use the D-pad of your controller to search from room to room, hoping to find kids to save, and also dreading the inevitable confrontation that is to come. And it will come - no matter which way you move, Jason himself will eventually ambush you.
The battle that ensues seems simple in theory. He just jogs around a bit, kinda like he's getting steps up on a Fitbit, before trying to deliver a lethal blow with his fist. You can dodge these blows if you time it right, and if you have some decent weapons, you can also deal him some significant damage in the hope of driving him off. But dodging takes some serious practice, which means that on initial playthroughs, you'll frequently experience Jason slamming his fist into your squishy teenage face and the imminent death of your current character. Frustrating? Absolutely. If you thought Dark Souls needed timing and dexterity, you ain't seen nothing yet.
To complete Friday the 13th doesn't just take significant skill, either - it also requires significant repetition. The entire game is made up of three 'days', each of which you pass by defeating Jason in these battles three times in a row. If that wasn't bad enough, he becomes faster and more powerful as the days progress. Expect to have him attack cabins from the get-go as the next day starts, and your duels with him to become even more unforgiving. By the end-game, Jason is both infuriating and hideously cheap to beat, and you'll need more than just weapons to defeat him - you'll need a whole lot of blind luck too.
Though the real-time premise of the game is definitely interesting (and groundbreaking for the NES), the distinct lack of real variety in Friday the 13th's gameplay, plus its intense difficulty, makes the game impossible at times. True to most of the films in the series, things only get engaging when the game's villain shows up on-screen, and these fights can be pretty exciting once you've got your timing for dodging right. But for the most part, it's just a cruel, unforgiving grind. The challenge provided by Friday the 13th might be a key reason for why it's obtained cult status. But it also serves as the game's main weakness, especially when considering just how random and immediately game-destroying Jason can become when he does appear.
Nonetheless, in terms of presentation, Friday the 13th does the original material solid justice. Jason is utterly fearsome as a video game nemesis, and the game also gives nods to other canon material. Even the head of Pamela Vorhees makes an appearance as a side-boss! And the soundtrack, while minimalist and repetitive, does at least convey some tension, especially when Jason starts to tear through cabins and counselors alike (usually heralding the swift end of yet another earnest playthrough).
All in all, fans of Friday the 13th should still get some small entertainment out of its NES offering, just as long as they're willing to spend some considerable time to actually be good at it. Otherwise, they'll find themselves just as useless as the victims that wind up on the end of Jason's machetes.
That said, the `game over' is one of the all-time classics:
Who needs all that 'please try again' pleasantry anyways?
Still Worth Playing?
... but only for the real diehard fans of the franchise.
What They Said Back Then...
Until recently, Friday the 13th suffered horrific murder at the hands of critics after its February 1989 release. In particular, it won the dishonor of charting at No. 6 in Nintendo Power's Worst Nintendo Games of All Time List, featured in their landmark 100th issue back in September 1997. Since then though, criticism of the game has softened somewhat, with Den of Geek going on record of suggesting that it might actually be an okay game, let down by confusing mechanics and difficult controls. Not too far off the money to be fair.