Horrifying licenses from the past – Friday the 13th

The box art doesn’t inspire a lot of fear with its pastel colors blazing like a fun loving inferno in the backdrop. It’s the first sign that something might be wrong. Very, very wrong. How this, and many other games, slipped past Nintendo’s “Seal of Quality” is a mystery.

Friday the 13th was a popular slasher film series from the 80s starring legendary uber villain and hockey mask aficionado, Jason Voorhees, who, no matter what the Crystal Lake campers or those that followed in the next few sequels did to put him permanently away, always had a knack for showing back up even if he had to come back from the depths of Hell. Whatever necromancy kept him alive inspired a legendary character for horror fans, gore fans, and hockey mask fans.

In 1989, LJN published Friday the 13th for the NES, a licensed take on the original movie. LJN was primarily a toy company based in America and had for decades focused on creating products often based on other properties such as Gremlins (mogwai dolls) to Dune (like this poseable toy sandworm which toy fan, Toy Nerd, wasn’t particularly impressed with). But even LJN saw how big Nintendo had made home gaming again with their Nintendo Entertainment System.

Now, LJN apparently didn’t make any games on their own — they were mainly a publisher who had others make games for them though from the printed materials in the manual and on the box, you would never know it back then. As for who made Friday the 13th, the surprising name behind it was apparently Atlus…the same Atlus renowned today for RPG titles such as the Persona and Shin Megami Tensei series. Though they were quoted as the name behind the game, I wasn’t so sure until I read through an interview by Nintendo Player with former game composer, Hirohiko Takayama, who worked on the music for the game and mentioned Atlus as the developer.

Friday the 13th set playesr up at Camp Crystal Lake with six counselors that they can control, all of whom are spending the summer there along with watching over the kids that are staying with them. Unfortunately, Camp Crystal Lake also has a problem — Jason Voorhees is suddenly on a rampage and its up to the player, playing as the counselors, to save the kids and stop Jason once and for all.

You don't remember zombies and the camp counselors throwing rocks at them to destroy them from the movie? Neither do I.

You don’t remember zombies and the camp counselors throwing rocks at them to destroy them from the movie? Neither do I.

The game has several screens that it plays across — a map showing the layout of Camp Crystal Lake, side scrolling action scenes, and “3D” rooms inside the cabins that you can turn (in 90 degree increments) around in and explore to find items, meet with counselors, or hope that Jason isn’t there. Which he sometimes will be and which often means meeting a quick death.

Each counselor has a basic set of moves in the side scrolling portions of the game. They can all throw rocks (their starting weapons), but vary in how quickly they can move and how high they can actually jump. Mark and Laura, for example, can move pretty quickly and have decent ups. Paul, on the other hand, moves pretty slowly and has terrible jump distance. While wandering around the camp, they have to watch out for the zombies that come up out of the ground and their only defense until better weapons start showing up (or if they manage to stumble on them first).

Counselors also moved between cabins on their own and if you needed to swap places, you just had to select the option from the menu here.

Counselors also moved between cabins on their own and if you needed to swap places, you just had to select the option from the menu here. Everyone also had a health gauge, along with Jason who also happens to be in the cabin somewhere…

Inside the cabins, an adventure interface also comes up showing what any one counselor has collected (such as a lighter for lighting fireplaces) along with a number of additional options. Players can switch to other counselors if they’re in a cabin with another one or even pass items over to them.

Every now and then, players will get an alert that one of the other counselors is in trouble. That means Jason has found them and it’s up to you to try and chase Jason away. It’s the same with the kids under your care. There are only so many of them in the camp and the longer you take to rescue them, the fewer of them will actually be around to save. The game doesn’t end until either you or Jason win.

There were quite a few innovative concepts in play, combining things from adventure games and action games under one roof. Players could choose from multiple characters, each character had certain nuances, an inventory system was in play, cabins had a sort of pseudo 3D feature that added a layer of immersion to exploring your surroundings. Players were also free to explore Crystal Lake, treating this as an action packed adventure game.

And that’s probably one of the reasons why it’s also noted as one of the worst games ever made for the NES and why it’s surprising to see Atlus’ name attached to it.

Despite having such great ideas burned into its chips, they apparently didn’t gel quite well together. One problem was Jason himself who looked as if he had just joined the Joker’s squad to help fight Batman. On the surface, doesn’t seem like it should be a point of argument since Jason’s supposed to be the big bad that everyone has to fear. Well, he is, but he plays the part so well that it soon becomes another reason to avoid the game.

That's Jason, the nightmare inducing, please-don't-kill-me bogeyman from the films in all of his...blue masked and purple suited glory?

That’s Jason, the nightmare inducing, please-don’t-kill-me bogeyman from the films in all of his…blue masked and purple suited glory?

Confronting Jason to save a counselor or the kids is almost always a bad idea early on since he hits like a brick truck, killing counselors in just a few hits. He doesn’t wait until you’re powerful enough, or if you’ve passed some point in the game. He’ll show up soon after you start playing and start his killing spree. Alternatively, you can also ignore the cries for help and keep exploring hoping to find weapons to fight him with. It also doesn’t help that the fighting mechanics are clumsily frustrating with a flaky dodge mechanic in addition to how much damage Jason does by just breathing on you.

But perhaps the biggest problem is the game itself. There’s nothing scary about it other than it making it a terrible use of the license, something that seemed to be a chronic problem in LJN’s library. Zombies coming up out of the ground? Evil crows that swoop down to attack the camp counselors? The flying dismembered head of Jason’s mother protecting a cave? Using rocks to destroy zombies? What was happening here?

To be fair, Atlus may have also have just been asked to “make a game out of Friday the 13th” and given bullet points on what the actual movie was all about and set out to do their best in meeting those items because it seems as if the great ideas in the game could have been used in a much better one. To their credit, they managed to find their own groove and later established a powerful reputation for storytelling and RPG design years later, so it’s probably with a sigh of relief that Atlus didn’t mind LJN having only its name on its materials as the sole owner of the code.

The game had three different zones -- a cave area like this one, the woods with dangerous wolves, and the Crystal Lake areas with the pathways and cabins. Weapons occasionally appeared out of thin air to upgrade the player's arsenal, but you had to explore if you wanted the even better stuff like a flying axe.

The game had three different zones — a cave area like this one, the woods with dangerous wolves, and the Crystal Lake areas with the pathways and cabins. Weapons occasionally appeared out of thin air to upgrade the player’s arsenal, but you had to explore if you wanted the even better stuff like a flying axe.

Friday the 13th was also one of the reasons why nearly anything video game related tattooed with the LJN logo was considered a warning label because you knew that it would probably be terrible. I still remember the adaptation of Jaws which was similarly horrible right up to aiming your ship just right so you could stab the giant white shark as it leapt from the water like a dagger wielded by Poseidon himself. Acclaim would later pick up LJN in 1990 which would continue with the licenses along with some of that questionable quality that led to its nickname of “Ack-claim” by a number of gamers.

As for Atlus, however, they’re still around and a lot wiser and far more successful than their work with games like Friday the 13th could have suggested decades ago.

LJN’s Friday the 13th was the last video game based on the famous film series which later jumped its own shark before ending its run. Like a number of LJN’s other properties, it didn’t find its way over to anything else and regularly makes the list of worst NES games and a tempting challenge for speedrunners. Although that has tried to keep the game solely in the 80s, once you see Jason in his purple jumpsuit coming at you, it’s a memory you never forget.

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