Friday The 13th (NES, 1989)

As far as bad luck and ill-fate are concerned, there’s no point in resorting to trifling superstitions and numerology. Life is, in fact, less ordered and therefore more alarming than many spiritualist types  might like to purport. In the end, our choices may – or may not – be the driving force in how our lives unfold, but no appeal to murky mysticism is going to provide answers to explain that away. The only honest option is to do one’s best regardless, and to take the often cruel disorder of life as its own cause for wonderment.

As it happens, one very good choice to make, in the spirit of furthering your own happiness, entertainment and peace of mind, is not to play Friday The 13th.

Released for the NES in 1989 (exclusive to North America, to boot), the creative minds that helped put together this infamous failure had a solid nine years after the theatrical release of the source material to mull things over. I’m not suggesting, obviously, that the game was actually in development that long, but rather that the Jason Voorhees brand was already well implanted in American culture by this time. In fact, by the time this game was released, the film franchise was already on its eight iteration, the horrendous and deceptively titled “Jason Takes Manhattan.”

What they ultimately settled on is a bizarre combination of a side-scrolling overworld, laced with the most rudimentary over-the-back, third-person P.O.V. sequences one could imagine. Think Shadowgate, minus competence, complexity and entertainment. Plus nothing.

The exterior world, ostensibly the grounds of Camp Crystal Lake, are bland renderings of trees and cabins tied together with a basic world map. Periodically, an annoying alarm sound goes off, warning the player (who can choose any of six camp counselors to play as, each with allegedly “unique” jumping and running abilities, which in reality means a few are just awful) that the homicidal Jason is attacking a cabin full of innocent children.

Thus begins the primary function of the game, strained as it is by the time limit of the children’s impending deaths. You must find the blinking cabin on your map, showing where the attack is taking place, and hustle over there to stop it. Along the way you will be attacked by zombies rising from the ground, a notable departure from traditional Friday The 13th style.

You may, in fact, even be attacked by Jason himself while stalking the camp’s dusty paths. His presence is announced with a flare of the “Jason Attacks” music, which even as a laughably rudimentary few tones is a welcome rest from the game’s grindingly repetitive main theme. Just three different sets of beeps and bloops, by my count, and the shifting between them, will be your constant aural companion on this tepid electronic adventure.

Moreover, when Jason attacks outside the confines of the cabin, it is largely impossible to avoid being injured by him. He tears across the screen at a speed altogether godlike compared to your own, and does the bulk of his damage simply by this bull-rushing. The problem is even worse when you’re forced to hop in a rowboat and take to the lake – despite the canonical crux of the Jason character being his malevolent vengeance for his childhood drowning, afflicting him with an enduring aversion to water, here he has no hesitation getting wet. Just as on land, he bolts from one side of the screen to the other, dealing some unavoidable damage as the boat-bound player no longer has the chance to jump out of his way.

Upon arriving at the besieged cabin, you’re forced to promptly and lamely inspect all the walls inside. Despite it being an ostensibly three-dimensional environment, constrained by the limits of 8-bit design, the characters will not notice Jason, nor will he attack you, unless you’re staring directly at him. Upon turning to face a particular wall he abruptly appears in view, sliding back and forth like an erratic duck in a shooting gallery, and occasionally darting forward while brandishing his knife. How capably you battle him depends on what weapon you use. You start the game with naught but rocks to throw, but you’ll upgrade as you advance to a hatchet, machete, or even a pitchfork (the gold standard of anti-Jason weaponry).

The game takes place over the course of a three-day rampage by Jason, and the only way to win the whole mess is to slay him on the final day. Should you manage to kill him on either of the preceding days, you’re simply warned that he’ll return stronger tomorrow – a perhaps unintended, yet all-too-true reflection of its source material. The means by which this game is “won” is the gradual acquisition of different items scattered about the camp,  the least entertaining fetch-quest imaginable serving as your central goal. You can, if you so desire, snag some useful items by fighting and killing – three times, on each consecutive day – Jason’s mother Pamela Voorhees, who lives as a violent, disembodied head hidden in a cave on the grounds.

The ultimate deceit of this game is that, despite my previous allusion to “winning,” this is one of those charming titles in which victory is almost indistinguishable from simple cessation of play. When you’ve finally climbed to the proverbial mountain’s peak, defeated Jason (for possibly the third time) and saved the children, what is your reward? A screen informing you the game is over, and asking if you’re sure if Jason’s really dead. Are you? They know, but they “aren’t telling.”

If the general tone of this review hasn’t given away the game already, I’ll state it plainly: this is a bad game. It is, in fact, a horrible game, based on a largely horrible film franchise that was just descending into its most utterly infantile depths (“Jason Goes To Hell” was just a year off, after all). If you’re the sort, as I am, that occasionally feels fulfilled by grinding out a few minutes with an inherently unfulfilling pastime, you may want to give this a look. But this is one to file under “must only play ironically” – Friday The 13th’s entire goal seems to be making a fool of the earnest player.