Nightmare On Elm Street – The Joy of Punching Your Fears
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.
I love dealing with terrifying horror enemies. Fleeing from something that’s going to rip me apart. Blasting at some creature that keeps creeping closer. Hiding somewhere in the dark, holding my breath in hopes my stalker doesn’t hear me. Sometimes, though, I just want to walk up to whatever’s scaring me and punch it right in the face. Bless you, A Nightmare On Elm Street, for letting me vent all my fearful rage.
In the game, a handful of teens have noticed that an awful lot of kids have been dying on ol’ Elm St. While the adults seem to think being gutted in your bed constitutes natural causes, you’re understandably skeptical. So, it’s time to grab your remaining friends so you can deal with a supernatural killer that stalks your dreams. How? Burn all of his bones in the high school furnace. Which won’t be easy because the guy has far, far too many femurs. Plus, they’re spread throughout several houses and places in the neighborhood.
How do you even begin to fight something that kills you in your dreams? A creature whose presence seems to have made the local wildlife turn rabid, attacking anyone passing by? Well, you punch it in the chin. Bats, spiders, demonic creatures, ghosts, whatever. If it gives you a hard time in A Nightmare On Elm Street, it’s knuckles to its mouth.
It’s a strangely silly idea. Hand-to-hand combat against stalker villains tends to go poorly in slasher films. So, the idea of punching out Freddy seems like a goofy one. However, it’s hard to deny just how good it feels to just sock a horror villain in the face. Especially one that terrorized me as much as Freddy did as a kid. Let’s just say I was far too young to be watching his movies when I did.
Well, given how much he frightened me, being able to just punch him in A Nightmare On Elm Street had a wonderful appeal. We spend so much time watching people get chased by horror villains or just barely outsmarting them. We wile away hours while running from unkillable monsters in our horror games. Winning in those circumstances feels validating, and that we’re indeed facing down our fears, but in those situations, we win despite our vulnerabilities. We could have died easily, but wit and caution saved us.
Here, though, it feels different. We’re still quite vulnerable, as only a handful of hits will kill the player, but we’re taking the fight right to Freddy. No hiding in the dark. No creeping away when he’s not looking. Just your fist to his jaw when he dares to show up. Yeah, you could die from it, but there’s this courage to taking the fight straight to him. It feels invigorating to just step right up to what you fear and beat it down.
It’s a rare feeling. How often do we get to face our fears from a position of fearlessness? To stare down what frightens us and make it bow to us, instead? To just obliterate what scares us with our own strength, both mental and physical? A Nightmare On Elm Street feels like a goofy NES horror beat ‘em up, but in embracing that play style, it lets us feel brave. It asks us to tackle our fears head-on with whatever’s available. No cowering. Just a showdown, no matter how tough your enemies are.
This game encourages that kind of recklessness, too. On top of the regular action of beating up horror creatures and nasty wildlife, you also have to watch your Sleep Meter. This steadily drains as you move through Elm St and its houses, and if it drops to nothing, you doze off. The meter drops faster if you stand around and moves slower if you keep busy, so it’s something to always keep in mind. No matter what, though, you’ll be snoozing eventually.
While asleep, A Nightmare On Elm Street seems to get much harder. Enemies get stronger. The music gets weirder. If you take too long here, Freddy himself will show up (after you’ve listened to his characteristic “1, 2, Freddy’s coming for you…” jingle) to screw up your day. Or give you an extra chance to stomp him, depending on how you see it. You can grab coffees to avoid falling asleep, or touch a radio to wake up, so you’re not stuck here.
How does sleep make you reckless? You’re more likely to die, but you also gain access to unlockable Dream Warriors you can switch to while you’re catching Z’s. These make your more nimble, give you projectiles, and let you hurt Freddy and his cohorts even more. You’re in greater danger and will fight stronger enemies, but you get far tougher as well. You gain strength from throwing yourself into trouble.
A lot of horror games would have you face your fears alone as well, making it more unsettling, but A Nightmare On Elm Street lets you bring some friends along. Four of them, which didn’t happen often in the NES days. Sure, you all fall asleep if anyone’s Sleep Meter drops to nothing, so you’re only as awake as your weakest member, but that’s still four people steamrolling through Elm St. That’s enough to basically lay a full-on beatdown on Freddy and his various monstrous appendages (the bosses in this game are weird).
All of this leads you to just light Freddy up with your fists, projectiles, or whatever’s on-hand, and all with some helpful buddies. This can lead to an experience that’s less frightening, for sure, but one where you get to throw down with what scares you. Where you get to match its power and leave it bruised and beaten. There’s a value in just pummeling your fears every once in a while. It may not lead to games with a powerful atmosphere of terror, but instead something where you get to feel courageous in the face of what scares you. Where you find that your strength to face your fears lies in you and your loved ones. It’s good to know that you can just fight evil head-on, sometimes.
I enjoy spending time being lost, vulnerable, and afraid in horror games, as well as the invigorating feeling that comes from overcoming that situation. That said, there’s still an appeal in strolling up to whatever scares you and just pummeling its chin. This game, through its ridiculous melee combat, its dream-based powered-up forms, and its four player co-op, take you to a horrifying world, but let you become a strong force within it. It makes you face fear eye to eye rather than cower from it. It captures a confidence I often wish I had when I deal with real-life horrors.
A Nightmare On Elm Street and some of LJN’s other published works catch a lot of flak for not being great games, but they’re definitely inarguably ambitious. Punching Freddy? How could you not be on board for that?