Friday the 13th for the Nintendo Entertainment System is stupid. It’s a terrible game with broken controls, awful design, ugly graphics, and terrible hit detection; and I love it. The survival horror game released for NES in 1989 was based on the movie franchise where players choose one of six camp counselors to play as and the hockey-masked serial killer, Jason, attacks you. Now, 27 years later, we look back at this masterpiece of awful and wonder whether the game is worth revisiting.
As a kid who grew up in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Friday the 13th was taboo. I knew about the franchise from the horror section of the video store and late night cable broadcasts. Whispered tales of blood and gore spread across the playground from kids who watched Jason movies behind their parents’ backs. And what better way for movie studios to reach young audiences than through their favorite pastime: Nintendo.
When major film studios decided that their most popular properties would make great games for kids, not all developers wanted in. Game company LJN would take development specs for licensed games and churn out products that met Nintendo’s bare minimum quality control standards. As a result, LJN is responsible for some of the worst NES games ever, including Jaws, The Karate Kid, Alien 3, Back to the Future, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Video Game Adventure, and of course, Friday the 13th. The game never stood a chance.
Where Am I Going?
With Friday the 13th, the developers somehow took out all the suspense that the films so perfectly captured. They replaced it with a manic race to control six avatars while trying to navigate an intolerably confusing level structure.
As soon as players start the game, you experience a standard-looking area map with six selectable faces and flashing icons indicating where the adventure begins. You’re at Camp Crystal Lake, and to the east, there’s a giant cave surrounded by cabins. If the game were merely trying to world build, this would be fine, but here, just about everything fans of the franchise knew and loved about Jason was thrown out the window.
One of the banes of almost every first-time player is the realization that you have been going the wrong way for half the map. And if you are relying on trial and error to navigate your way around, good luck getting through the woods! Not only is it a challenge to find your way around the map, but it’s also nearly impossible to know what direction to go in without a guided walkthrough.
Characters, Surprise Enemies, and Gameplay
Playing Friday the 13th on Nintendo is often infuriating. A skilled and experienced expert player can complete a speed run in less than 30 minutes. That’s assuming the gamer’s multitasking abilities and focus are completely on point.
The enemies included in the game make absolutely no sense in relation to the movies. Raggedy zombies, wolves, water monsters, bats, and killer crows aren’t exactly what fans think of when it comes to Jason. I can’t even begin to calculate how many hours I spent wandering the trail around Crystal Lake only to get killed by hordes of inexplicable and totally out of place zombies.
The counselors you control have a couple of goals, but not all of their abilities are up to the task. A couple of them are slow runners while others are fast, some can’t jump over enemies as well as others, and a few are terrible at throwing projectiles. The strategy is to keep the counselors and children attending the camp all alive. The problem is that Jason keeps attacking everyone.
You have to find weapons in the forest and defeat Jason to keep everyone alive, only to find written clues along the way that point you in the direction of that random cave that popped up near camp. There’s also a flashlight that appears after lighting every fireplace in the larger cabins which is super effective.
One of the best and worst things about Friday the 13th on NES is the fighting. When collecting items and side scrolling your way across Crystal Lake, the game feels somewhat subpar. Once you hear that Jason alarm sound off, the hunt is on. Jason can attack and slaughter you at any time while walking around the camp. These out-of-nowhere boss fights can get the adrenaline pumping, but there’s nothing as intense in the game as exploring a cabin only to turn a corner and come face to face with the hulking serial killer. It would be great if only the controls weren’t so broken and unresponsive.
Jason’s hits get stronger with each encounter. You have to face off against him multiple times throughout the game, and each time he comes back stronger with a more powerful weapon. Later in the game, only a few hits from his machete are enough to drain your life bar, so learning the timing and knowing which counselor to use is essential to survive.
Jason isn’t the only boss enemy. Taking from the first Friday the 13th movie, Jason’s mother Pamela Voorhees is also a boss players must face. For some reason, her decapitated head has transformed into a floating Medusa mask, and she is extremely fast. Once Jason and his mother are defeated, you win the game.
Tame and Gore-Free
The game’s cover art comes from one of the most brutal deaths in the series when Jason buries an ax in Melissa’s face in Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood. However, when players enter the NES game, everything is brightly colored and gore-free. Most fans back in the day were infuriated with how tame this game was in comparison to the movies.
“You and your friends are dead. Game over” is one of the most notoriously nihilistic and bleak end screens in gaming history. Friday the 13th has one of the absolute worst reputations in the NES catalog, yet the sheer volume of fans getting back on the game’s bandwagon has turned this Z-grade title into a bonafide cult classic. Of all the LJN games around, this one may be what some would call the best of the worst.
Is It Worth Playing?
In today’s world where bloody game titles try way too hard to be edgy, taking a step back to play a retro slasher like this is a good way to spend some free time. Friday the 13th for NES has more problems than it does merits, but for the gamer that has a warped sense of humor and loves the movies, it’s actually worth playing. The game is by no means any good; it’s just dumb fun.
In the mid-80s, British game developer Domark released another Friday the 13th game, this time for the personal computer. While it was less garish in its look and slightly less tame as LJN’s Nintendo game, players felt it was a mediocre attempt with subpar gameplay. In Spring 2017, Gun Media and Illfonic are taking yet another stab at the Friday the 13th game series. Early images from the game look like the decades of fan complaints were heard, and there will most definitely be some gruesome and horrific scenes to sink your teeth into.
[A version of this article originally ran on May 13, 2016]