No Fear of the Underdog
There’s a pantheon of games that we all generally accept as being complete garbage. Through a kind of internet playground reptuationmongering, we’ve decided that not only should we write these games off, but hat ridiculing them is good eatin’ for comedy.
Consider the humble NES licensed game. Not only do I cohost a podcast dedicated to making fun of games like Friday the 13th for NES, there’s a bumper crop of commentators who make a living off of comparing them to buffalo diarrhea.
Knowing when you can ignore something is really useful. There’s more media out there than you could consume in a lifetime, so we have to rely on heuristics to eliminate the chaff and make judicious use of our time.
But here’s a dirty secret: I actually like Friday the 13th. I would never recommend someone set up a homestead on the shit pile, but taking the time to look through said pile for hidden gems can be an educational experience.
Now let me rapidly justify these maniacal claims.
Empty, Cold, and Clear
Jason is at it again. And again, and again. No, wait, if you’re thinking of that one time Jason was at it, then add another time he was at it to that total. You’re almost there.
That’s about as deep as my catalogue on the plots of the various Friday the 13th movies goes. I had a girlfriend once who was crazy about the Halloween movies, so she exposed me to those… including that weird one with the television druids. Instead of giving you a tired exegesis of how Jason is trying to teach us that sexual intercourse will be the end of the human race, I’ll just outline how the plot affects the game.
You play as a whole passel of counselors at Camp Crystal Lake, spending your summer teaching young children the value of self-reliance, knot-tying, and not being fricasseed by a hydrocephalic indigo child.
To accomplish the latter goal, you’ll side-scroll and first-person your way to putting Jason in the ground, “once and for all”.
Digression: In some universe that’s more ideal than our own, there is a version of Wet Hot American Summer that turns into a heartfelt, Edgar-Wrightian slasher parody about halfway through. Let that simmer.
Say That We’ll Be Nemeses
Being a game that centers around the cold blooded murder of innocents, Friday the 13th has some stuff to teach us about doing interactive horror well.
First and foremost, 8-bit Jason is the earliest embodiment of the nemesis that we’ve explored on Hex Crank. No, not that Nemesis… you’ve got the right idea, but you’re getting ahead of yourself. To define nemesis for the purposes of this blog, I’ll defer to the Greek myth where there was a goddess who was mad when you got all proud and shit, and she did bad things to you to make you miserable and junk.
More eloquently — and in the context of video games — your average game is an empowerment fantasy. No individual threat is so daunting that you can’t overcome it with a simple, repetitive action. The fiction often backs this up, since you’re most likely the Chosen One, who is Earth’s Last Hope against an Ancient Evil which has Arisen. Gaiden.
But here, there’s only one real threat… Jason… and you’re not the Chosen One, you’re a bunch of teenagers… and you’ll spend the whole game just trying to chip away at the lifebar of a persistent threat that can obliterate you with a handful of thwacks.
I’ll refer to the Nemesis quite frequently in the articles to come.
There are two strategies that Survival Horror games can use to get at you… they’ll either overwhelm you with tons of small threats, or hound you with one large, implacable threat. I’m of the mind that the nemesis is more effective, as you’ll see when I gush about Amnesia or Haunting Ground. Make me run for my life.
In this instance, your sin was thinking you could hop on Jason’s noggin and call it a day. Jason is your punishment. This makes him pretty scary, despite his goofy purple jumpsuit.
It’s the Worst Thing They’ve Seen
The multi-character setup of Friday the 13th reminds me of Maniac Mansion and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Each playable character has different movement speeds and jumping heights, making it easier or more difficult to avoid the various hazards around Camp Crystal Lake. Granted, they could have signposted which of the two counselors would be able to traverse all of the areas of the game (Crissy and Mark) so you could protect them, but it’s nice to have your choice of characters mean something.
It’s important that you have several counselors, since you’ll need to cover a huge amount of ground in your search for Jason. The world of Camp Crystal Lake is roughly persistent, consisting of long paths punctuated by large and small cabins. You navigate the map in side-scrolling levels, avoiding zombies and ravens as you pray that you keep your bearings.
The kids are in a cabin on the lake itself, which Jason will regularly target for attack.
Whenever this happens, your audio channel will be flooded with a horrific beeping noise, and a countdown will initiate. Whatever you’re doing, and wherever you are, you have to rush to a small cabin, switch to the counselor who’s nearest to the threat, and confront Jason.
Any time you’re indoors, the game assumes a first person perspective like The Goonies 2, and this is a very effective choice vis-a-vis being scary.
We Were Thrashing in the Clatter
You’ll be creeping around a tiny little cabin, and even if you’re completely aware of his presence (after all, you came here to fight Jason, and his name and health bar are at the bottom of the screen), you are completely clueless as to where he’ll turn up.
Left. No, right. Advance. Maybe turn around. Is he in this corner?
Then the reasonably placid exploration music turns into a shrieky battle stab as an insistent wall of murder bears down on you with his machete.
This ushers in a gameplay loop reminiscent of Mike Tyson’s Punch Out, where you operate your counselor from behind as you try to dodge Jason’s attacks and land a few of your own.
After you do a sufficient amount of damage, Jason runs off… and everyone in that cabin is safe for a while. Just pray you don’t leave too soon, or he’ll ambush you in the side-scrolling levels and you’ll have to fight him that way.
Jason’s health bar doesn’t regenerate, so the broader meta-game has you trying to corner Jason and whittle away at his endurance. The game gives you three days to do this, and any counselors you lose are gone forever. This is how Friday the 13th limits your resources and maintains the tension.
She Ain’t Coming Back Again
For the praise I’m laying on it, Friday the 13th isn’t a masterpiece. My playthroughs for Abject Suffering and Hex Crank have benefitted from liberal use of Quick Save and Quick Load. Big mistakes don’t bear any consequence when you can jump back 10 seconds with the press of a shoulder button, so you can keep your best counselors alive forever. (There is probably a discussion to be had about whether or not old games that were too difficult to be fun could be considered to be “good” if you played them with Save States, but that’s a bigger topic than I’m willing to tackle here.)
In a world without this convenience, you’re doomed to fail most of the time unless you’ve got that patience that comes from being a little kid in 1990 whose only game for 1990 is Friday the 13th. There are patterns that will make life a lot easier, but they are hard-learned (for example, figuring out how to dodge Jason’s axe swipes involves being swiped by Jason’s axe several times).
The solution to the difficulty problem is to ease the balance in the player’s favor… but doing that might jeopardize the tension inherent in fighting a big tough wall of machete. Fixing the balance would require a lot of play testing, but LJN’s track record doesn’t lead me to believe they thought testing was very important.
There are ways you can make your characters stronger. You get stronger weapons by killing basic enemies out in the wild, or by exploring the caves and forests to fight Jason’s Mom (the inexplicable medusa). There’s a red herring side quest to light all of the fireplaces in the large cabins, but that’s not an effective use of your limited time.
The overall quality of the game is also hurt by the “items spawn randomly when you jump around” design decision that was popular at the time… in addition to the aforementioned navigation problems that were exacerbated in the caves and forests where the best upgrades could be found.
Those cold facts laid out, it’s easy to understand why this game disappointed so many scores of youths. It doesn’t have the gore and sex of its source material, and it’s designed to be as infuriating as possible.
Still, there are kernels of great ideas that, if they were executed competently, would make for a classic game. The ideal Friday the 13th would play on the tension of being hunted by the nemesis until you geared up and learned its behaviors… then you turn the tables, and by managing the individual strengths and upgrade paths of your counselors, you would put Jason on the ropes and take him out in a final, climactic battle.
Seeing all of that written out just makes the game we have seem all the more disappointing.
Evil Don’t Look Like Anything
The lesson I’d like to take forward from Friday the 13th is that there is always a difference between “this thing is good” and “I like this thing”. Honest truth, survival horror games have a terrible record at being “good” “games”, but I hope to approach each of them with an open mind and look for the ways that they contribute to the ouevre.
This article took me a very long time to write because I cycled through lots of drafts, many of which began with me ranting it is about how easy it is to be a lazy crank who loudly dislikes things in order to shortcut their way to an audience. I also spent some time opining that people who approach every new thing ready to hate it probably wouldn’t be very happy in general.
Them’s big words about ways to think from a depressive.
Ultimately, I excised all but the summaries of those thoughts because they didn’t serve a purpose other than to support the aforementioned approach to this project… because even in my hypocrisy-laden podcast about bad old games, we are at our best when we’re pointing out successes along with failures.
If you only know Friday the 13th by its reputation, I urge you to give it a first chance. Even if you’re not a nubile fornicator, Jason gives you plenty to be afraid of. Just be ready to Quick Load if you want the game to be playable.
Admin and Stuff
It’s been a little bit since I’ve posted something. Holiday stuff, work, and the podcasts have all conspired to make sitting down and finishing this article kind of tricky. Hopefully things will even out in the new year.
An article a week is a little ambitious for my taste, so I’ll leave it to you to let me know how often you’d like to see updates. Please sound off in the comments
The next article is about Sweet Home for the NES. Having already played some of it, I can say that it’s a delight. We’re getting into stuff that looks and feels like the survival horror we all know and love.