It all happened so suddenly. I was in a second-hand store and stumbled upon a used laserdisc of Tom Savini's 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead. Next thing I knew, I was being sucked down a spiral of classic horror that was impossible to escape. A few weird nights watching countless teenagers with their whole lives ahead of them die later, and I'm digging through an old box looking for my next fix, only to end up face to face with what's considered to be one of the worst NES titles ever, Friday the 13th. I didn't want this, and I didn't ask for it. But neither did those poor, horny teens at Camp Crystal Lake.
Friday the 13th on the NES has long been my whale. I first owned it in the early 1990s, but like many (most?) players, I could barely make it even halfway through the game. At some point in my history I must've locked it away, completely satisfied with never touching it again, but still wanting to have the cartridge around for nostalgia's sake. Or as a reminder of mountains that would never be climbed.
Or perhaps the universe simply knew that my time would eventually come, many years later, and when I least expected it.
A slow, creeping sensation came over me. Like a nubile archery instructor that just snuck into Bunk 8 with four light beers, I knew I was getting fucked. I had to kill 8bit Jason Voorhees. Looking down at the cartridge in my hands, with its borderline psychedelic portrait of Jason, murderin' axe at the ready, I knew I couldn't put it off any longer. Jason would die. His stupid purple suit would be stained red by my hand.
But only after hours of dying after refusing to look at a guide. Frustration level: Can't Escape from Invincible Murderer Armed with Machete and Mike Tyson-Level Footwork.
The gentle children will be massacred if you suck. And you will suck.
Anyone who has picked up a controller to play Friday the 13th probably threw it right back down after a minute or two of dodging zombies, birds, and wolves while navigating the confusing twisting paths of Camp Crystal Lake. The game was too hard, too obtuse, and, at its worst, didn't make sense. Your first order of business (after surviving) is to visit the many cabins located around camp to look for clues, weapons, and check in on the gentle children who will be massacred with ease if you suck. And you will suck.
I attempted to make it through the days by experimenting with different combinations of the six counselors that you can choose from, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Since you don't have lives like a traditional NES game at the time, you have to think in portals—er, I mean counselors. Since their stats aren't revealed to you, it leads to some interesting (awful) trial and error when you try to move them around in some semblance of a strategic fashion, dodging the plethora of enemies this game throws at you. Of course, Jason would appear at random, finish me off, then I would start over. The strangely entrancing soundtrack simultaneously taunted me and kept me going.
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Imagine the movies actually being full of killer birds, zombies, wolves, and Jason. It would actually be kind of hilarious. Throw Hitchcock's The Birds into a Vitamix™ with Cujo and Night of the Living Dead, pour the sauce over a fine Voorhees hoagie, and you have this game. The odds are stacked against you when you stand up to Jason, but dodging zombies and birds trying to peck your eyes out while you're trying to row? Why is this happening, and what does the brochure for this camp look like?
Eventually, after what I will admit was a pathetic few hours wandering through the woods with a mark on my back that can only be worn by a sexually satisfied teen, things started to make sense. In fact, Friday the 13th began to shine.
Brutal difficulty? Yes. Intricate gameplay? Actually, yeah. After gearing up my counselors with the various weapons found on the trail and starting fires in the cabins with the lighter I found on a zombie (not the torch), I was beginning to feel more confident. I even genuinely started to like Friday the 13th.
In fact, I think Friday the 13th would be widely embraced if it were released today. There's a roaming boss. There's an optional, hidden boss that you don't even have to kill (Jason's mother) who drops a rare weapon and a powerful piece of gear (the sweater, if you fight her on day two). The strategy in placing your various counselors around the camp and making your way to them to pass off weapons and battle Jason is genius, and there's a fucking day/night cycle. I repeat with italics: a fucking day/night cycle. In 1989.
So I played on. And still, I died.
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The more I played Friday the 13th, the more I realized that it's pretty much the great grandfather of Demon's Souls. The rhythm-based gameplay will eventually click for the physical half of the game, while the forward thinking you need to pull off properly surviving days one to three and killing Jason is surprisingly cerebral for a licensed NES title from the late 80s.
And damn it, Jason's teal mask and purple suit were starting to grow on me.
So my frustration would slowly melt away into satisfaction. With each play through I experimented with new weapons and counselors, knocking Jason down, but not keeping him out. I was still getting butchered, but now I kinda liked it. I had developed a game plan and I knew that this saga of Jason-on-Jason violence would soon be at an end.
With my thumbs appropriately starting to blister (just like in the old days), I twisted through the camp one last time, sacrificing a few of the slower, dumber counselors for the good of the children and began to make close to perfect progress. Eventually, in a blood-pumping showdown, I would dodge his machete slashes and throw dozens of pitchforks at his chest, killing him and leading to this end screen:
All of this only to have the developers reveal themselves as omniscient gods that won't tell you the fate of a child-murderer with a notice that the game is over with a two-dot ellipsis?
After hours of struggling, I put on YouTube to see if there were any playthroughs, and how long it took other digital campers. One guy beat the game inside four minutes. Four minutes. It'd taken me 25 years. This was true horror.
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