Friday the 13th is a miserable game by regular gaming standards. For an NES game from 1989, it lacks enjoyable controls, it’s unrelentingly hard in unfair ways, and many aspects of the game are confusing. There is no reason why I should like it at all, but, for some reason, I just keep coming back to it. Why? It’s because there is an odd, possibly accidental genius about the game that keeps me coming back to play it. Somehow, many of the aspects that make this game difficult and frustrating actually enhance it as a horror game.
The characters add an interesting touch to the game right from the start. You start off with six different camp counselors that you can switch between as you play, and each character has varied strengths and weaknesses. Some are clearly better than others and you’ll find that within moments of game play. While this seems annoying and pointless at first, it actually heightens tension while you play the game. The big reason for this is that instead of having lives, you only lose the game completely once you run out of camp counselors. Each time one dies in combat, you have to switch to one of the remaining living ones. So, if you lose the best counselors (and as you learn to play the game, you will), you are punished for your failures by getting weaker.
This means the stakes are high if you screw up. Each loss means that you will get closer and closer to certain death. You’re going to want to keep your best characters alive at all costs, but at the same time, the only way to play well is to keep those characters in danger all the time. That’s quite a balance to strike up.
The map screen and your other in-game objectives will prevent you from playing as those two characters all the time, too. Periodically, Jason will attack the children or camp counselors in one of the various cabins around the lake. Now, you can try running to that cabin, risking tons of damage from enemies along the way and increasing the chances that Jason will kill the counselor or kids he’s attacking, or you can hop into any available cabin and then switch to the counselor who’s closest or in trouble. This often means becoming a counselor who’s weaker or less outfitted than your main character potentially doing yourself far more harm. Then again, if you leave anyone alone with Jason for long enough, he can easily do enough damage to kill them, taking away one of your lives or putting you closer to losing the game through loss of children (If you run out of children, you lose the game as well). Which do you do?
Did you decide to bull rush across the map? Well, there is a noticeable delay between your shots, so spamming attack won’t always keep you safe. Not only that, but the basic weapon, the rock, has to be thrown at a specific angle or at point blank range, making players want to ditch it as fast as possible. The next weapon, the knife, flies straight and is easy to use, but is absolutely eclipsed in damage by the torch. The issue here is that the torch also has a throwing arc, so you have to take that additional risk if you want more damage. Since all of your weapons fly straight when you fight Jason in a cabin (it switches to first person mode in them), you’re going to want that torch, but what about all the times you have to hit enemies on the road? Do you take the weaker, easier to use weapon? Alternatively, do you dare brave the forest and caves (which are pretty much death traps for new players) in order to get the pitchfork that deals the same damage as the torch but flies straight? Is it worth losing your best characters in an attempt to get it?
The basic zombies and crows running around the camp aren’t all that dangerous, but even the best characters are a bit clumsy to control and will take a few hits just from general enemies. Each character’s movement is a bit stiff, meaning you’d better be ready to buy an engagement ring for that jump once you hit the button. Not only that, but different characters have different jump heights to the point where some can barely clear an enemy without a perfectly-timed jump. General movement is a little more forgiving, but still feels a little awkward and weird; especially when you factor in the different movement speeds of each character.
Does any of this sound fun yet? Well, as strange as it sounds, I think it’s deliberately not supposed to. Games with good control or attack mechanics are built around player enjoyment. Designers are hoping that players will have a fun time playing their game. Think about a game like Bionic Commando where it’s a joy to move around the world map using the bionic arm, or something like Gears of War where it just feels right to fire a gun. Everything is responsive and tight in these games, and a result interacting with the game is fun in and of itself. That’s what makes most games good.
Friday the 13th is built around horror, though, and as I saw in Knock Knock, horror is not always meant to delight the player. In fact, if your controls and gameplay are built more around having fun, then you are potentially limiting the ways in which you can make the player uncomfortable. Being unable to trust the very mechanics of the game, like the hiding system in Knock Knock, creates an odd experience with players that leaves them with one less certain thing to rely on when things get scary. If you can’t even trust your ability to run when something scary shows up, how do you feel? What if your one means of saving yourself in a bad situation were taken away?
This is a very careful dance, as it’s a short trip between having a game that makes you uncomfortable and having one that just makes you mad. It isn’t hard to see why most people would be driven crazy by Friday the 13th‘s mechanics. They rely on weird movement speeds and jump heights between playable characters, creating an experience that makes it hard to play the game with any kind of skill. Knock Knock was unique and played strangely, so I didn’t have many expectations of what should and shouldn’t work. Friday the 13th, on the other hand, is a platformer. Everyone who’s ever touched a game can probably tell you what works in that genre. Since the mechanics bare similarities with almost every action game of that era, you have an idea in your head on how they should play and know something feels off. As such, it’s not hard to see why so many would have trouble with this game and shelve it without a second thought.
The appearances of Jason are another area of contention, and they tie all of the horror elements in this game together. The man is a force of nature in this game once you survive the first night, and he can literally appear anywhere he likes at any time. The game has no specific rules about when and where he will pop up, meaning you can be leaving a cabin you just fought him in and then have him show up in another cabin across the map. Then again, he might be just outside the door, too, so there’s no way you’ll ever feel safe from him. Every single location (except the forest, which we’ll get to) has a way for him to appear and ruin your life, and he can show up at any moment. Even games like Clock Tower or Haunting Ground would count down an invisible clock whenever you fought off or lost the enemy, but Friday the 13th has no intention of being that nice.
When he shows up he might start off slow, but after the first time you put him down he’ll start hitting like a truck and moving with insane speed. If you find him on the road, he’ll be tossing machetes at you before you even know what’s going on requiring a ton of hits to put down. He moves so fast during these points that the only viable strategy I’ve ever had was to trade hits and hope that I’d picked up some healing medicine recently. Even worse is when you have to head to the cabins on the lake, as he can just rush by and hit you for a ton of damage when you can’t do a single thing about it. The man does not fight fair and you are at a huge disadvantage when he shows up. Which he does at random. Isn’t he fun?
Better than that are the moments inside of the cabins. If you catch Jason inside a cabin, you get to have a bit of fun moving around inside of it while trying to find him. The game changes to a first person (ish) view while you poke around, trying to see where he’s hiding. It’s super clunky, but there’s a little bit of tension while you try to find him because looking around feels so uncomfortable. The game just takes a moment when you turn to show you the next direction you’re facing, with Jason appearing with a single, alarming musical note when he does. He’ll be on top of you fast, often stealing at least one hit while you get your brain in gear to fight. If you happen to be fighting him in his third form, best of luck surviving much more than that first hit.
So, you have an unrelenting enemy that can show up anywhere, hits for tons of damage to the point where he can just about kill you if he catches you by surprise, and one where you have to stalk through the dark to locate. That sounds like some of the better horror games I’ve played over the years, as many of them have highly-dangerous enemies that follow few knowable rules. The primitive graphics of the NES don’t do much to make it scary visually, but his sudden attacks and heavy damage do that job for them. I get scared of Jason because I know he’s going to come in and just steamroll me. I know that he’s probably going to get the first hit before I even know what’s happening. I know that he can do this at any time, so I am never, ever safe from him. That’s some great horror right there.
That’s not even enough, though, as you have the interesting player mechanics from earlier. You have a bunch of people you can play as, but many of them are useless, so you’re worried about losing the two best characters all the time. You can hide them, but that means Jason possibly damaging or killing them while you’re not using them. You can choose to play as them, but you will never beat the third and final day if Jason kills them during the first or second night. No matter what you do, you’re also going to want to make sure everyone has some decent weapons in case you have to quickly switch to that counselor for some reason. This means wasting more time outside looking for weapons, increasing the risks to whatever counselor you’ve decided to use as each moment spent earning these items is more time for Jason (and regular enemies) to appear and whittle down your health. It’s a constant stream of tension as you make hard decisions about how you’ll stay alive.
You cannot avoid spending a lot of time dealing with this stuff, too, as your job is to kill Jason. While you may not want Jason to appear, the only way you can move on through the game is by putting him down three times. This means you have to prepare when you can and hit him back as hard as you can when he’s around. I am meant to be afraid of Jason in this game and stressed out at the idea of fighting him, but it is the one thing the game demands that I do. I can ignore enemies, not bother with items, or helping other counselors, but I cannot avoid having a confrontation with Jason. As such, I have to make decisions about how I’ll play and what to do quickly because Jason is always right on the verge of appearing, and my sole task to complete the game is to fight him and win. The game literally does everything it can to make you fear him, and then demands you face him down. It’s shockingly good for a horror game of this era.
There is one final twist of the knife in this game for the adventurous: the forest and caves. There are few things in this game that scare me as bad as those areas, and that’s because the danger there is so high that it hardly even seems worth it. If you want to get a camp counselor killed fast, take them for a walk in there without a walkthrough. For all the complaints someone could have about the mapping in this game (It’s actually easy if you think for a second. Right is clockwise on the map, left is counterclockwise), there is no map in these areas and they are really hard to get around. Unless you know exactly where to go, you will get lost because most of the areas look alike and are very hard to map. That’s not even taking the boss fight at the end of the caves into account either. If you somehow make it to the end, expect a horrible beating to come your way from Jason’s mother.
Why even go in? Because these areas offer some of the best items in the game – stuff you can’t get anywhere else. You want to armor up and take less damage from Jason, then you need the sweater. If you want the pitchfork so you can fight enemies comfortably, then you need to head in there as well. These items are practically mandatory in the game’s final stages, but each one is only offered on a certain day and only can be found by getting through the woods and caves. It’s well worth your time to map them, but when you’ve only just started playing the game, they are death traps that will cost you valuable lives. Again, with the tension of Jason already in the air, you have to make the hard choice of whether you want to try fighting Jason on your own or risk losing people sending them into the caves.
Friday the 13th asks its players to make hard decisions while being chased by a dangerous and unpredictable psychopath. Although limited by the graphics of the time, the game still manages to create tension with its difficult gameplay and refusal to play fair. As I’ve said many times before, it’s less scary when you can fight back properly. As such, the game actually provides a solid horror experience with its unbalanced gameplay and overly-difficult main monster. While it might not please people looking for be entertained by solid controls and in-depth gameplay, it actually does convey an interesting horror experience, one more concerned with making you uncomfortable and tense than it is with having fun. It’s an odd perspective to take on the game, but it’s one that’s made a game that most people hate into a horror experience I love.