LJN’s Friday the 13th & The Powerful Tension of Permanent Death
Mandatory Fear looks back at the vital entries in horror gaming, exploring what made them effective at scaring us and their importance to the history of the genre.
With the legal rights over Jason and Friday the 13th being the mess that they are, it can be hard for a slasher fanatic to get a new fix of hockey mask-clad killers and dead teenagers. However, there may be a piece of Jason media you’ve overlooked: LJN’s Friday the 13th on the NES.
Whether you’ve played it and bounced off it or haven’t tried it due to internet hate, it’s a game I feel every horror fan (and Friday the 13th fan) should try. It really makes you feel the fear that would come from being chased by Jason Voorhees. The likelihood that you’ll die. The terror at his surprise attacks. The panic at looking for something to save yourself with.
Most impressively, it makes you feel what it’s like to be steadily weakened, then killed by a slasher villain. It also conveys that rush of power that comes from being the final teen that finally beats Jason. How? With a life system that gives you six teens of varying strengths, each bringing a change in how you play. Assuming they live long. Each one that dies is dead forever.
Many games from the NES give players a set amount of lives to beat the game. Lose them all, you go back to the start. Friday the 13th does something similar, but with a horror twist. Instead of multiple lives with one character, you’re given six camp counselors with different stats to beat the game with. If a counselor dies, they’re permanently gone. When all of the counselors die, it’s game over. You and your friends are dead, the game famously says.
What makes the game more interesting as a horror title is how each counselor has different strengths. Their stats focus on running, jumping, throwing weapons, and rowing boats (infrequently needed, but sometimes vital). You’d think each character would have strengths and weaknesses, but instead, the game has two obviously good characters, two decent ones, and two garbage heaps on legs.
Why does that matter? For starters, there are some characters you won’t want to ever use as you go through Friday the 13th. There’s two that you’ll want to use all the time. These two poles will set you up with two distinct play styles. You’ll find yourself playing the early victims you see in many Jason films, or the people most likely to survive. So, depending on how you play the game, you’ll get a few different feelings as you struggle to survive.
Now, this game was pretty ambitious for its time. It plays out as an early open-world experience instead of being some straightforward action game. Camp Crystal Lake is a big, circular area you can walk around filled with cabins, woods, and caves to explore. Counselors each hide in their own cabins when you’re not playing with them, and you can swap between them by taking your current counselor to a cabin.
This is vital, as Jason constantly explores the camp, going in cabins to look for victims. While you’re distracted trying to find equipment and weapons to fight back, Jason is carving your friends up. He doesn’t wait for you to be ready. He’ll happily stomp whatever counselor you’re not using if he stumbles upon the cabin they occupy. You can only stop him by getting to a cabin and switching to whoever is getting gutted. Quickly.
What if you dive right in with the best characters when you play Friday the 13th? You start right off working with your best chance of winning the game. Each counselor needs to pick up weapons, medicine, and vital in-game tools on their own, or have them given to them. If Jason finds a counselor you haven’t used much, he’s going to cut them down easily. Hard to fight the hulking purple horror with rocks. It goes about as well as you’d imagine. You can share equipment between counselors if you step into their cabin, but this means giving your equipped weapons and medicines to the other character. You’ll swap with whatever they have, which tends to be the basic rock. So, you end up using your best characters to arm the worst ones.
This puts your best characters in danger all the time. If something kills them, they’re permanently dead, too (which adds its own fun tension throughout the game). So, you need to decide if you want to work to keep everyone living or not. Will you let everyone else die while pushing to keep your best character safe? When Jason kills a counselor you aren’t using, you still lose that character permanently. It’s like he’s whittling away at your extra lives in the background while you ignore him. It creates a unique danger I’ve never seen in another game. You’re somehow dying from something that’s not even sharing your screen. Still, that’s better than losing a powerful character, right?
If you take the time to arm and save the weaker counselors, you’re likely going to lose your best character to Jason or the other monsters wandering the paths of Friday the 13th. If you don’t, you lose your extra lives (even if they’re awful). You could also use the bad characters to collect weapons to arm the better counselors, but they’re so weak that they’ll likely die easily unless you’re very good at the game. Poor George can barely jump high enough to clear one zombie. He’s not long for this world.
So, you tend to end up with two play styles. If you use weak characters to arm the better ones, Jason starts to cut through the crummy counselors one by one. You lose those lousy counselors because they just aren’t strong enough to survive. It plays out like many of his movies, where Jason kills all of the people around the one central character that he’ll fight in the film’s finale. At least your best characters are at full strength for the hardest parts, though, creating a great showdown between your toughest characters and the menacing Jason.
If you use the best characters right from the start, you’ll likely see them get whittled down over time. Also, Friday the 13th is a confusing game filled with danger. So, while you’re working on learning how it plays and what tools you need to win, you’ll slowly see yourself growing weaker and weaker. The constant onslaught of attacks from Jason (and all the times you need to rush to a cabin to save one of the weak counselors) will wear your best characters out. When they die, you end up stuck with someone worse. In this way, it’s like you’re getting more feeble as the game wears on, a growing weakness making your survival unlikely.
So, you end up with this exciting build-up to being the final, strong survivor, or you start to circle the drain, experiencing a creeping horror as you watch yourself grow weaker. Both ratchet up tension in the game in different ways. The former makes you feel the pressure of your survival options winking out. The latter has you feeling your strength fading as your best hopes are killed off, leaving you fighting to survive with counselors that throw as if they have broken arms. This creates a tension that you can’t find anywhere else on the NES, offering two wildly different kinds of horror.
LJN’s Friday the 13th catches a lot of online flak for being extremely challenging and confusing, but as I’ve mentioned before (and extensively in a book about this game that’s in a hefty, cheap bundle right now), should a horror game where you face a powerful killer feel fair all the time? Whether you agree with me or not, though, that this NES game can capture two different kinds of tension with its life system alone makes it a horror game well worth trying. It conveys several different experiences as a slasher victim depending on how you play it, making it an extremely impressive early entry in the genre. Plus, it’s not like you’ll be seeing much more Jason murder action any time soon. Might as well make your own.