For a movie franchise as popular and long-running as Friday the 13th, you'd think there would be a lot more licensed games. But there's only like three or four, and this is easily the best-known of them - and mostly known for having a reputation as one of the worst games on the NES.
Does it really deserve that reputation, though? Underneath the surface here is an actual playable and creative game trying to break through. The problem isn't so much that it's bad as is that it's sometimes unfair and highly repetitive.
You play as six camp counselors at Crystal Lake, and apparently the game begins with the camp already under siege by Jason Voorhees. The counselors are watching out for fifteen young children, and they've moved them all to cabins in the middle of the lake in an attempt to keep Jason from them. You'll need to protect them as well as the other counselors and yourself, with the ultimate goal being to whittle Jason's long health bar down enough to kill him.
You switch between the counselors, each of whom has differing levels of capability in running speed, jumping and rowing speed. When not in use, the counselors can be stashed in various cabins throughout the camp. The larger of these cabins also contain fireplaces, which when lit, sometimes reveal notes on the floor which in turn point you to more powerful weapons for taking on Jason with.
For some reason, Jason's revival this time out is accompanied by a never-ending army of zombies spawning on the trails of the camp. Wolves and ravens have apparently also gone wild and will attack you on sight. Mostly you occupy yourself with running about the camp, fighting off these menaces and jumping in random spots to find enhanced weapons, medicine and keys which you then deck out your various counselors with to improve their odds of surviving a Jason encounter.
Of course, Jason is also roaming about during all this. Every 30 to 60 seconds, your Jason Alarm will go off - at the top of the screen, you'll see either the running tally of remaining counselors or children flashing, and that tells you to check the in-game map to look for a flashing cabin where Jason is currently molesting someone. Once a Jason Alarm goes off, you get 60 seconds to manuever your current player-character to that location. If it's a counselor, their health slowly gets chipped away the longer you take, and if you blow the time limit Jason kills them outright. With the children, you start out with 15, and the longer you take to get there the more Jason slaughters, with potentially 5 being lost to each encounter if you don't get there before the timer runs out. If Jason kills either all the counselors or all the kids, game over, and there's no way to revive anyone who has died.
There's an element of strategy to the game - you try to position the stronger but slower counselors near the lake, so they can quickly row to the lake cabins and fight off Jason if he starts slaughtering the tots, while having the speedier and jump-ier counselors roam the area looking for items and weapons to bring to the others. This is the really good concept of the game, along with switching to a Goonies 2-esque first-person view when you enter the cabins which makes for at least a little scare factor when Jason suddenly jumps out at you for a scrap.
Unfortunately, there's a lot weighing the game down. The first is that the mechanics of switching counselors seems really goofy and arbitrary. From reading stuff written by other people on the Interwebs, apparently you're supposed to be able to park a counselor in any cabin and switch to any other as long as a Jason Alarm isn't currently going off - but it's never actually worked that way for me. I've only been able to switch when in a cabin where someone else is already hanging out, limiting my "rest spots" to whatever arbitrary ones the game puts everyone in randomly at the outset of each new game.
Having to run to take care of Jason Alarms all the time gets annoying fast, and if you're currently stuck with a slow counselor and the alarm happens at the other end of the map, you're kind of effed really - even if you get there in time you'll have a reduced number of kids or the counselor under attack, probably one of the better ones, will be weakened to near uselessness.
When Jason isn't otherwise occupied, he also likes to jump you at random on the trails. Now, when you fight him in the cabins, he's a little overwhelming at first due to bum-rushing you with no mercy, but you soon learn that these fights are basically like a really simplistic version of Punch-Out - he has a highly predictable attack pattern that never changes, and you just dodge his clumsy swings then retaliate when he backs away from you. Unfortunately, this means that cabin encounters soon hold no challenge at all (especially if you manage to get the more powerful weapons), but the trail encounters are a different story. Jason locks you on the screen until you manage to drive him off, he has a huge sprite that's hard for a lot of the counselors to jump over, he does damage on contact and with thrown weapons, and he's pretty fast and super agressive. These encounters are more often than not fatal and there's just not a lot you can do about it. So one type of fight has almost no challenge and the other is way too overbearing.
Aside from the general tedium of responding to Jason Alarms constantly, to get the best weapons and items in the game you are expected to negotiate random, annoying forest and cave mazes. These are technically optional, but I can't imagine winning through to killing Jason three separate times (he gets faster and more powerful each time) without the aid of these super-items. Items that are also lost irrevocably, I might add, if a counselor carrying them happens to die for some fucked-up cheesy reason.
The graphics are also less than inspiring - the counselors look like rejects from Konami's Track and Field, and all the common enemies and backgrounds are unexciting and low in detail. Jason is larger and a little better, but still hardly strikes fear into the heart. The music is the real killer, though - there's some basic but semi-creepy and effective stuff, but the song you hear the most often - the one heard when running about the camp - is this awful annoying ditty that literally loops about every five seconds (doo doo! *chicka* doo doo! *chicka* doo doo doooo. doo doo! *chicka* doo doo! *chicka* doo doo deeee, repeat until insanity sets in.)
I give the game props for shooting for something more than a straight generic genre copypasta of some sort - they did at least try to make it unique and interesting, and I can't really think of any other game offhand that's structured quite like this one. But there's just too many niggles and annoyances, and just not enough meat to the repetitive gameplay. Still, surprisingly OK considering it was made by LJN and was a movie license ...also surprisingly grim for an NES game.
* Gameplay Video