The Pillars of Horror is a look at the games, past and present, that have shaped the genre, showcasing the various mistakes and triumphs that have come out over the years. They may not all be gems, but they’ve all contributed something to scaring the controllers out of people’s hands.
A Nightmare on Elm Street for the NES isn’t a very good horror game (or just regular kind of game, either). The stock, goofy enemies make the whole game play out like a child’s Halloween coloring book, ruining any possibility that the game could be frightening. It doesn’t even carry the same urgency as Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest‘s day/night transitions despite using a similar mechanic to simulate falling asleep. It was enough to scare me when I rented it as a kid, but there really isn’t a whole lot to be frightened of here these days. It’s only just barely interesting as a period horror game piece, but it does have a couple of things worth learning.
Let’s start right in with that transition. I actually liked it in Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, finding that it set up a nice contrast to life in the daytime. The enemies were a whole lot more dangerous at night, and while death was more a nuisance than anything else, it gave me reason not to want to be out once the sun went down. I still desperately didn’t want night to fall in the game. I felt an even stronger aversion to the sleeping mechanic in A Nightmare on Elm Street when it happened for the first time, although that fear lessened the longer I played the game.
You have a bar at the top of the screen in this game, one I thought was my health until I got hit and didn’t see it go down. You can just take a flat four hits and the game doesn’t indicate how many you have left, feeling that your wakefulness was far more important to keep track of. It creates a little nice tension in that you’re never quite sure when you’re going to die unless you’ve been keeping it in mind, but it’s not what’s important. Once that sleep meter drops all the way to the end, you fall asleep and the whole world changes in front of you. The enemies get a little weirder (hardly scarier, as they’re still goofy), and they take more damage to kill.
That transition should make things more tense since enemies are more difficult and the danger has increased, but when you’re in the sleeping world you can play as one of the dream warriors (as long as you picked up their respective icons). You just flick the select button and suddenly you have ranged attacks or can do jumping kicks. The transition in Simon’s Quest made you weaker, but in this game your powers have been increased to the point where it’s preferable to be asleep. You can only punch when you’re awake but have a plethora of powers once you’ve dozed off, so you’ll be looking for ways to stay asleep. The coffees and stereos strewn throughout the game to wake you up become things you want to avoid, since staying in the ‘bad’ sleeping area makes the game a lot easier. If they were going for an increase in tension here, they really screwed up.
They did take steps to fix it, though. You do get more powerful while asleep, but an invisible timer started to count down the moment you dozed off. After a few minutes have passed you’ll start to hear a little jingle. As a kid not knowing what it was, it was pretty creepy and unsettling. As an adult it was a little worrisome as well, and tells you that something is going to go horribly wrong in a few minutes even if you never saw any of the movies. After that song goes through about two and a half loops or so (no idea how they came up with that amount), you’ll be shown a black screen telling you that Freddy’s coming. It’s pretty jarring when it shows up, and the music that suddenly begins to play is actually pretty intense for an NES game (although it is a very short loop). I actually jumped a bit when it happened, which is funny considering I’d just spent ten minutes fighting spiders, snakes, bats, and everything else that isn’t actually scary.
Freddy is a complete pushover, which is terrible since this was the point the game hinged on. If the encounter with Freddy was brutally hard, bordering on certain death, then they could have had a great horror game on their hands. Yes, the game’s mechanics were pretty lame, but this one moment just had so much potential. It would have set up an intense risk/reward system, and it also would have set up a similar scare system as games that have the player dogged by a dangerous, nearly invincible enemy where avoiding it was the only way to stay alive.
The risk/reward system would have made gameplay much more interesting. As is, there is no reason for you not to want to be asleep. The meter and the weirder enemies try to tell you that you don’t want to be, but the fact that you become immensely more effective as a fighter undermines any possible fear. You get so much better than the enemies in the dream world that there’s just no way you’re not going to want to be asleep. It’s stupid to not be asleep against bosses too since it makes them much easier to beat, so it undermines all of the work it puts into making sleep scary by making it the preferable gameplay mode. If someone is seeking out the thing you put in your game to scare them, you messed up.
If Freddy had been challenging, there would have been some risk involved in taking on the more powerful characters. They would help to get you through the tougher spots in the game, but once Freddy’s music began you’d be hoping to find something to wake you up in a hurry. There would always be this hesitancy to use the stronger abilities since doing so would almost guarantee you a run-in with an unkillable enemy. It might not have been fair from a gameplay perspective (although no one accuses the NES of being fair), but it would have created an actual dilemma when you went to sleep. Do you stay asleep to keep the better powers even though you’re risking a guaranteed death, or do you wake yourself up and hope your basic powers are enough to beat the level?
On top of that, knowing that there was an incredibly difficult enemy waiting for you when you fell asleep would have added some danger to things. Falling asleep would be something worth being afraid of since the creature waiting for you was something that would dog you until it saw you dead. Some modern horror games, like Haunting Ground or Amnesia, use a mechanic like this; one where you’re inevitably chased by an enemy you can only hope to ditch. You aren’t capable of killing it, so your only hope comes from avoiding it or finding a place to hide. It may be hard to believe that an NES game could be capable of this, but if the optional Freddy boss had been made brutally hard to the point of impossibility, the game could have been scary.
Just imagine what it would feel like to doze off at this point. You see the screen transition, and you immediately switch to one of your available powers. The game is nice enough to give you a new means to rush through the levels, so that’s what you do. You start to charge through the stage, hoping you find something to wake you or the boss room so that you can put these powers to use. As you run, the stage doesn’t seem to want to end, and that’s when that music starts to play. You’ve lost lives in games before, but the inevitability as well as the music make that prospect seem a lot more frightening than it has before. You come to the boss room, and are just steps away from it when the whole screen goes black, bright red letters telling you that Freddy’s here, and you watch as he just tears you to shreds when there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s horror that could have worked on the NES!
Could have is the best it strove for, though. It’s funny, because LJN typically screwed their games up and made them too hard, but they somehow made Freddy into the easiest boss in the game. Basic enemies that respawn indefinitely over cliffs are harder than him, and almost every one of the bosses is tougher and has more erratic patterns than he does. Everything in the game is harder than Freddy, and it completely undermines his importance as the game’s main villain while also sabotaging any possibility that falling asleep will be scary. Why couldn’t LJN have been their regular dumb selves and just made him way too hard? It would have been the one case where their typical screw ups actually made the game better. They actually had it all set up for themselves, too. They had some decently creepy music, they had the dream mechanic set up in a way that it could increase tension, and they had just enough of a benefit to being asleep that people would seek it out despite the risks.
They botched it all by making Freddy too easy, which is insane considering they completely nailed it in Friday the 13th (and also funny since Friday the 13th came first). In Friday the 13th, Jason slowly becomes an unstoppable juggernaut. Any of the unfortunate folks who made it to Jason’s third form will know exactly what I’m talking about. He’s fast and hits like a truck, and the only way you’re ever going to beat him is with constant practice. It is possible, but to someone who’s played the game even a few dozen times, he’s going to be a death sentence. He is a great example of how you make a single villain into the central danger and focus of a game (even if the gameplay mechanics are terrible).
They needed to do something like what they did with Jason to make A Nightmare on Elm Street a solid horror game, but they screwed up. It’s a similar screw-up to what many modern horror games do, which is the crazy part. Just take a look at the turn the modern Resident Evil games have taken. In them, the focus has shifted more to player empowerment — giving them better weapons so that the combat becomes more effective and fun. You’re being given better weapons as you move deeper into hostile enemy territory, a time when you should be more nervous. Those games try to balance your new powers out with more monstrous enemies that have different attack routines, but the whole thing isn’t scary because you’re too well-equipped for the enemies to be any trouble.
You can design the most frightening enemy ever created, animate it in such a way that just looking at it will give people nightmares, lead up to it with eerie atmosphere, and not manage to scare anyone because there’s no payoff. The enemy’s power needs at least match, but preferably overcome the player’s powers if it’s going to be scary at all. I spoke about this at length in my Dead Space 3 article; that the enemies have to be dangerous to the player in order for the player to feel any urgency about them. If you aren’t practically guaranteed to die in an encounter with the enemy, what is there to be afraid of? Not only that, but making the player feel more powerful with a constant stream of better weapons is subtly making the player feel safer and more comfortable with the situation. You can’t hand someone a stockpile of effective weaponry and still expect them to be afraid any more. You’ve effectively sabotaged your own attempt at scaring the player.
A Nightmare on Elm St is guilty of many of those mistakes, but it came out in 1990. It undermines its own attempts to scare the player by making them stronger when it should be making them feel weaker, and fails by presenting players with a soft boss when it’s trying its best to scare them. It’s doing everything wrong that companies are still getting wrong over twenty years later, and by now, there’s really no excuse for it any more. These mistakes were made a long time ago, and you can see all of them evidenced in the game within twenty minutes. I would never argue that it could have been a good game, but it could have been a decent horror game if its developers had taken a few more minutes to think about it. I think most modern horror games by big developers could stand to think about it, too.