Seven months ago, I took at look at Domark’s Friday the 13th for the Commodore 64 as the second installment of this column. Back then, I didn’t realize how much fun I was going to have with this series and I wasn’t sure if it would continue much past two or three installments. Reaction, however, has been extremely positive. So given that we just celebrated the second Friday the 13th of 2015, I figured it was a great time to jump on the bandwagon and deliver this love letter to one of the biggest 180-degree turns I’ve ever experienced when it comes to retro video games. I assume you can all read titles and it’s pretty hard to do a jump-scare in a web article, so I’m not even going to try. This is the story of my experiences with Friday the 13th on the NES.
I’ll never forget my first encounter with Friday the 13th. It was the summer of 1989, and earlier in the day I had gone to the video store with my friend Adam to rent a new Nintendo game to play. Somehow we decided on Friday the 13th, probably because it was on the new release rack, and Adam enjoyed the films. I, not being allowed to watch R-rated movies, had no idea what to expect. But this was a game about teenagers fighting a masked killer and trying to defend the children under their care, and the screenshots looked OK. Besides, at this point in our lives we were old hat at conquering NES games: we’d smashed Metroid, beaten both quests in Legend of Zelda, and could topple Contra without resorting to the Konami code. How hard could it be to kill one guy if we had six counselors with which to fight him? Did we even need the whole weekend for this?
Well, let’s just say the first few times we got that infamous “You and your friends are dead” game over screen, we knew we were in for a lot more than we bargained for. But being eleven years old, not having access to the internet, and with none of the game tip books published in the day doing much to cover it, Friday the 13th remained a colossal enigma that managed to do something no other 8-bit game up to that point had done: made us afraid to play it. Adam’s house was three doors down from mine, and walking home that evening, after dark, I was creeped the hell out. Jason Voorhees was an unstoppable killing machine, wading through our half-dozen teens armed with our little rocks and knives like we weren’t even a threat. Suppose he came after me in the dark? What could I do about it? I didn’t even have rocks to throw at him! I ran home faster than I’d ever sprinted between three houses, locked the door behind me, and still didn’t feel safe even after crawling into bed. My first encounter with Jason scared the ever-loving crap out of me, and I didn’t play Friday the 13th again for many years.
Fast forward a little bit and emulators were becoming a big thing in the late 90s, with programs like NESticle being powerful enough to run many NES games through its DOS interface. Armed with some additional experience, the memories of my previous encounter with Jason, and the arrogance of my teenage years, I thought it might be fun to revisit Friday the 13th and kick Jason’s ass but good with my superior skills. What seemed an insurmountable challenge to my 11-year old self should pose no problem for my older, wiser, 18-year old self. That bastard had it coming for the last seven years, and it was payback time. I savored the thought of victory as I downloaded the ROM and prepared to ram the stupid purple tracksuited one’s own stupid machete through his stupid hockey-masked face.
Things went…slightly differently than I had planned. The main problem was that I could not come to grips with what, exactly, the game expected me to do. Even after tracking down a copy of the instruction manual, I still wasn’t clear how exactly I was supposed to kill Jason (though I did learn how to dodge attacks in the cabin, which went a long way towards delaying the arrival of the game over screen). What did lighting the fireplaces do? Why couldn’t I find any of the better weapons like the axe or pitchfork like the manual talked about? Where was Jason’s mom? And how was I supposed to get anything accomplished when the stupid Jason alarm kept going off every five minutes, requiring me to redirect my efforts to saving a fellow counselor or rowing across the lake to rescue the kids?
I beat Battletoads on both the NES and the Game Boy, for crying out loud–hard games were not a problem. The issue clearly lay not with my gaming skills but with LJN (I didn’t learn until many years later Atlus was actually responsible for developing the game and LJN only published it, but LJN was a legit target for my rage for other reasons, so we’ll call it even). That settled it: Friday the 13th was nothing more than a sinkhole in video game history, and the more I researched it, the more I realized I was not alone in this belef. Everybody hated Friday the 13th. EGM; Nintendo Power; random commenters on gaming forums; every friend who ever played it; there didn’t seem to be one person on the planet who felt it had any redeeming value whatsoever. I deleted the ROM, vowing never to look back.
Later I wound up with the cart when a friend offered his NES game collection to me for a very reasonable price. Given that this guy was one of the best gamers I had ever met–I’d watched him wreck Blaster Master without taking a hit–I asked him if he’d ever beaten Friday the 13th. He just laughed and told me that, as far as he could tell, it was impossible to beat due to its poor design. That settled it: if my friend, who could dominate the likes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Ninja Gaiden without dying, couldn’t stop Jason, there was clearly something wrong with the game. I kept the cart more as a curiosity than anything else, occasionally popping it into the NES when friends came over so we could laugh at how terrible it was.
Then a strange thing happened. The years went by, I got married, I moved, and in the process of packing up my gaming gear, I stumbled across the cart again. While I didn’t immediately throw it into my system, I made a mental note to look around on the internet to see if anyone had made any progress on actually killing Jason, and lo and behold, there were many people like me who were curious about this long-thought-unbeatable game. They had begun breaking Friday the 13th down to its base components, deducing everything the instructions had left out when it came to mechanics, and were starting to understand how the thing worked. Jason, as it turned out, didn’t appear and disappear randomly: he followed a course that was largely predetermined, starting out in the cave area, and entering every cabin he came across whether or not it was occupied.
The only random element determined how he behaved when it came to a fork in the path–sometimes he took it, sometimes he didn’t. Far from being a monster who could pop up anywhere at any time, Jason actually behaved like his film counterpart, walking from place to place. No teleporting. Other studies of Jason’s behavior revealed what determined the weapon he was carrying when you fought him inside a cabin, how much damage he took from your weapons, why he sometimes stood his ground and fought while other times he ran away after taking a few shots to the face, and it became clear the counselors could actively pursue and fight Jason if they so desired and were well-armed enough, instead of just waiting for him to butcher them individually.
Further research was conducted into the cryptic notes left around the cabins, what purpose lighting the fireplaces served, mapping the forest and cave areas, and how to get the better weapons. I’d never seen anything more powerful than a machete in the game, but the gaps were slowly filled in: kill Jason’s mom on day 1 with the machete, and you got the axe. Follow a certain pattern when it came to reading notes and hunting for Jason’s cabin in the woods, and you could get the torch in minutes with optimal counselor position at the start of the game. Adam and I couldn’t kill Jason because every time we faced him, we were armed with rocks and knives, weapons that required five or six hits before damage even registered to Jason’s life bar. But counselors bearing the torch inflict one bar’s worth of damage with every shot they land–still not enough to go toe-to-toe with the killer, but enough to make him think twice about screwing around with you for very long.
Intrigued by these strategies, I set up my NES, loaded the cart, and gave Friday the 13th another go. I didn’t beat the game, but I did wind up killing Jason for the very first time on day one, and I realized with a little more practice and work, it was indeed possible to stop the unstoppable slaughter machine. Not only that, but Friday the 13th took on a completely different tone. Far from being the random murder simulator it had seemed like when I’d first played it, the game started making a twisted sort of sense. Hands-on experience, complimented with the various strategies and tips cropping up on the internet, began allowing this game to gel. It no longer felt like the worst game of all time. Rather it began to remind me of my first experience with Resident Evil.
One of the most important things you learn playing RE is that you can’t just slaughter everything you find: the game doesn’t give you enough ammo to deal with every zombie, so you have to pick and choose your battles. And until you develop that sort of sixth sense that experience provides, you are doomed to failure. Nobody beats Resident Evil the first time he picks it up. But RE also guides you in the right direction, nudging you gently through the story, pointing you in the right direction, walling off bits of the manor until you’ve solved the right puzzle, acquired the right key, killed the right enemy. It directs you, indirectly, towards your ultimate goal while allowing you to make mistakes (and learn from those mistakes, fatal though they may be) along the way.
The difference is Friday the 13th does none of this. From the moment you press Start, the entirety of Camp Crystal Lake is open to you: every cabin, every path, the forest, the caves, the lake…nothing is off-limits. There are no barriers to your explorations, no hints to guide you towards your ultimate goal save for a few notes with instructions that vary from useful to suicidal depending on when and if you follow their advice, and no ‘easy’ mode. Picking Mark or Crissy doesn’t make the game less difficult, it just makes beating it possible. The crux of the game revolves around learning how the different counselors play, where the powerful weapons are found, and how Jason behaves so that you can stack the elements of the game in your favor. Just like in the films, you cannot rush off to confront Jason head-on with rocks or pocket knives and expect to win. You need a plan, a good weapon, patience, and the ability to adapt when things go wrong. What you cannot afford to do is waste time running around, looking in random cabins, mindlessly killing zombies, or doing anything else that does not bring you closer to your ultimate goal of bringing Jason down.
It’s been years since I beat Friday the 13th for the first time, and since then it has steadily grown on me. The game, presented as it was back in the late 80s, is absolutely terrible: not due to incompetent design or gameplay elements, but because the game required players to perform too many leaps of logic and too much dissection in order to understand how it operated. With a better-written instruction manual, and better in-game hints that could point you towards accomplishing what you needed to and hinting at the right way to do so, it would have been much more accessible to the average gamer.
Today I approach Friday the 13th with a sense of fun, not fear. I play it under a sort of siege mentality, the way I would face it in real life: my counselors are systematically armed with everything I can find to keep them alive. I pass weapons like the machete and axe to weaker counselors, grab the sweater on day two (for Crissy, because I don’t buy for a minute that Jason would pull his punches on any guy wearing it), and focus on slowly turning my wimpy counselors into a team of well-armed and well-supplied Jason hunters who can harass the maniac from cabin to cabin until they bury him for good on the final day. And yes, I light all the fireplaces and get the flashlight, just because. What can I say, I’m a completionist.
So my advice to anyone who has yet to play Friday the 13th to completion is to jump on YouTube and instead of watching videos bemoaning how awful the game is, watch a few videos that show people just dominating the bejeezus out of it. Speed-running this game has become an art, and the world record for killing Jason three times in a row is just over three minutes, even non-tool-assisted. YouTuber Lord Kayoss has an excellent playthrough/commentary video that breaks down virtually every aspect of the game in an extremely coherent and entertaining fashion over the course of about thirty-five minutes.
Easily one of the most misunderstood and maligned NES games of all time, Friday the 13th is an acquired taste for certain. But once you acquire that taste, you’ll never lose it. And you’ll additionally be in a great position to show off to your friends that you can remorselessly slaughter a game which gave them all nightmares back in the day. Is there any better feeling? Well, much like the game’s ending itself…