Friday the 13th

Friday the 13th

Release: February, 1989 | Developer: Atlus  | Publisher: LJN

Here’s the thing. I really want to love Friday the 13th for Nintendo. I am a huge fan of the movies, ever since I saw Jason Lives: Friday the 13th part 5 when I was 8 years old. I love the character, I love the mythos, and I would really love to love the game.

Do not misconstrue me here, I am not trying to claim that Friday the 13th is a hidden gem, or a diamond in the rough, or even that it is misunderstood; it is most assuredly a bad game. The music is ear-splitting and repetitive, the graphics are bland and uninspired, and the gameplay is frustrating, constrictive and unfocused.

What I am proposing, however, is that with a few tweaks Friday the 13th could have been the game I always wanted it to be; one that lives up to the awesome opening animation of the knife stabbing into the eye socket of Jason Vorhees’ iconic hockey mask.

In the off-chance you are in the dark here with the video game adaptation of Friday the 13th and its, uh, unique subtleties- I will get you up to speed.

In Friday the 13th you play as one of several camp councillors at Camp Crystal Lake. Jason Voorhees is on the loose, and it’s your job to try and stop him. Once and for all, might I add. You accomplish this by wandering around Camp Crystal Lake, fighting zombies(?) and birds(??), in order to gain health regenerative items and upgrade your weapon. You must also light fireplaces in the cabins scattered around the campground and come to the aid of fellow councillors when Jason appears with an urge to kill.

In an inspired bit of game design, the councillors each have their own attributes which amount to variations in character speed and jumping ability. This narrow range of speciality may seem a minor contrivance, but hell help you if you get Mark and/or Chrissy killed and you are stuck with Debbie or George. Keeping the best councillors alive is paramount, and this adds a nice element of strategy to the game proper. You are able to transfer items between councillors and switch between any that are still alive at any time.

As mentioned earlier, when Jason begins threatening a fellow councillor, their corresponding cabin begins to flash (and beep) and you have a finite amount of time to get to the cabin and save the day. If you enter the cabin before the timer runs out, your fellow councillor lives to see another day. Further exploration of the cabin (in a confusing first-person perspective, but we’ll get to that later) will trigger an encounter with Jason himself, and a battle will ensue, again in a first-person perspective.

Wasting time reaching the cabin during a Jason attack also consumes “children”, and when all the children or councillors die, it’s game over. A game over isn’t all bad, at least from an academic point of view, because it brings up one of the most cynically blunt and greatest game over screens in video game history:

The whole point of the game basically amounts to whittling down Jason over a period of three nights and three days through a series of encounters, repeating the same cycle of powering up and saving councillors. Although somewhat limited in scope, Friday the 13th does none-the-less add a few interesting twists that elevate the game just above the level of pure trash. For instance, Friday the 13th boasts an early example of an in-game day and night cycle, with different game events (such as certain enemies appearing, or item availability) occurring only on specific days or at specific times of the day.

In addition to keeping the campers and your friends alive, you must effectively use time management from one day to the next, and survive an onslaught of common enemies and the periodic Jason attacks (both in the side-scrolling overworld sections and the first person in-cabin battles). You can also explore the woods, which is nearly impossible without a map (again, we’ll get too that later) or the cave (ditto for a map). In these two areas, you can find the best weapons in the game early on if you’re willing to suffer the navigation through the forest and cave. In fact, you can even fight Mrs. Voorhees’ severed head if you make it to the end of the cave on the third day. Assuming you can get to the severed head without going insane from frustration, that is.

This all seems like it would add up to pretty interesting, maybe even a wonderful video game experience. Unfortunately, laziness and bad game design ultimately tank the whole endeavour.

For one thing, the overworld map is poorly implemented. In the game, Camp Crystal Lake is essentially arranged in an oblong circle, with an inner circle area and pathways connecting it all together. The problem with this is on the actual gameplay screen left and right are absolute, so if you travel from the bottom of the game map to the top. you end up moving in the opposite direction as your map icon. It is kind of hard to describe without actually experiencing it, but trust me when I say it is borderline game breaking, especially when you absolutely have to rely on the map to locate the cabins Jason is attacking. You can very easily spend half of the countdown timer heading in the wrong direction without realizing it.

Another terribly implemented feature is the first person exploration of the cabins. It is confusing moving through the cabins because you can easily get lost and have trouble finding the door to get out. All the developers would have had to have done was provide a small map or compass in one corner of the screen to make navigation easier. Granted, the cabins consist of only a few rooms, so this is not a game-breaking issue, but it does hint at the underlying sloppiness inherent in the rest of the design of the game.

The one thing that hurts Friday the 13th the most is the navigation through the forest and the cave areas. These are side-scrolling sections and there are points where you can either move off the main path by taking diverging paths going either up or down. The problem comes from the design of these areas, which are completely counterintuitive. If you were to go up and then decided that you wanted to go back to the previous screen, you would logically think that going back down through the bottom exit would take you back to the previous screen. it does not. Since all the screens look nearly identical with no landmarks, do this once or twice and you become hopelessly lost. Even with a map, the cave and forest are extremely difficult to navigate. Although they are optional areas not required to finish the game. This bad game design essentially makes these optional areas too hard to bother with, which does nothing but hurt the overall experience.

If those three unfortunate design flaws were cleaned up, the game might be considered a hidden gem. But tack onto that the music, ugly graphics, lack of enemy variety, and unclear objectives and the game ends up falling far short of a competent video game.

Regardless of its numerous shortcomings and gaping flaws, I actually pull this game out a couple times a year and play through it… all the while wistfully wondering what could have been.

Nathan White

Nathan White is an amateur appreciator, sub-professional old games writer, professional designer and bush league taco critic.