In the Atari 2600 days, Wizard Video's games based on slasher classics The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween were controversial and sold "under the counter" to minimize negative publicity. Fast forward to 1988, and the world has changed -- Friday the 13th is published by LJN Toys for the Nintendo Entertainment System, and sold at Toys'R'Us with an official Nintendo seal:
The credits screen is more complicated than the norm, with an unusual distinction of the "underlying source code" as belonging to LJN Toys Ltd., separate from the intellectual property of Friday the 13th owned by Paramount:
LJN Toys was notorious for producing weak games, often with exaggerated and unfulfilled claims on the box, but Friday the 13th is fairly accurately described. The gameplay is not the usual 8-bit side-scroller, though its attempt to make an adventure game of sorts out of the concept doesn't make for a compelling experience either.
The concept borrows a bit from Mystery Mansion -- the player has six different camp counselors available to pit against perennial franchise villain Jason Voorhees, choosing one at a time to take on the challenge at Camp Crystal Lake:
The player has to round up clues and artifacts by wandering around the campsite, rescuing campers and eventually assembling the necessary ritualistic elements to take on Jason. This isn't an immediately terrible idea, but the implementation leaves much to be desired. For starters, the map shown so neatly above doesn't work that way in-game -- instead, we travel left and right in a side-scrolling view, with occasional roads "into" and "below" the screen available.
This approach makes it very difficult to get our bearings, especially because since Jason is being kept out of play for the climactic confrontation, so we have to make do with ersatz enemies unrelated to the franchise. These fright-wig wearing, slow-walking zombies aren't even much of a threat -- only one ever appears onscreen at a time in the early going, and we can either beat them down by throwing rocks at them, or simply jump over their heads and leave them behind. (Different counselors have different abilities; George can jump high and easily leap over the zombies.) Even when the enemies are not really dangerous, the constant harassment makes it hard to map the world out -- the relationship between the map and the in-game display is there, but it's not very intuitive.
Occasionally we are allowed to enter a building and search for clues and items:
Again, this isn't a bad design idea, but it's let down by clumsy execution. Walking around in the cabin is awkward because we can only walk forward or turn; turning is almost instantaneous, while walking forward requires the counselor sprite to crawl up the screen a few steps before the display refreshes, giving the navigation a clumsy rhythm. It feels like we're slogging through molasses when we try to explore this interiors, and there's no dramatic reason for it; there also don't seem to be any enemies inside, so there's precious little horror going on here.
We can run into other counselors in cabins and switch places with them. In these pre-ESRB days, it seems an opportunity is wasted here to build on the slasher genre's ultimately conservative morality by allowing George to "TAKE" Debbie or vice-versa, summoning Jason as punishment:
We can take a rowboat out, where we are harassed by crows and yet more zombies that come flying out of the river like Castlevania's fish-men creatures, except not fun as sometimes they simply and inescapably land on our heads:
And on occasion a camper is threatened -- an alarm goes off and the map shows us a flashing cabin where the attack is taking place. But we can't always get there in time, and if we run into Jason on the way, he can make short work of any idiot camp counselor, albeit not as creatively as in the movies -- he basically throws an axe at us until we die a bloodless death:
Note also Jason's unusual color scheme -- blue mask and hands, purple jumpsuit and hair. The NES' color palette was limited, but these are odd choices by any measure.
Friday the 13th ultimately feels more like a clumsy scavenger hunt than a horror movie come to life -- we enter small cabins with nothing of interest in them, and occasionally a larger building with a note that serves as a clue to the next note we must look for. We need to pick up artifacts and items so that we can carry out basic assigned tasks like lighting fires in fireplaces, but most are not hidden anywhere specific, instead showing up in mid-air when we wander around the woods avoiding half-hearted foes. The whole experience seems slow-paced and random, only hazily building toward a climax we begin to suspect will be less than riveting. I imagine most players, like myself, gave up before really getting close to victory.
LJN Toys Ltd. and Friday the 13th -- two occasionally acceptable tastes that taste awful together.