In 1986 the Friday the 13th movie series was already old news, having joined the ranks of classic Summer horror releases (even though some were released in April). Paramount Pictures had gone through the first reboot already: the original arc of classic masked killer Jason Vorhees was supposed to end with the fourth entry into the franchise, appropriately titled The Final Chapter. Despite the movie studio’s (serious?) intentions of leaving the series behind – because no one seemed to take it very seriously – box office success would dictate otherwise.
With slasher movies seemingly on a not very significant decline in popularity in the mid-80s, contrary to expectations, Paramount, with the help of Part III screenwriter Martin Kitrosser, rebooted the series in 1985. Naturally, the following year would see the release of yet another Friday the 13th entry, part VI: Jason Lives. While going through the plot for each movie could be interesting, for the sake of the homecomputer 8 bit game I will be focusing on, there would be little point. The game seems to mostly take inspiration from the original movie, or, even more generically as the box says, “game concept taken from the motion pictures Friday the 13th”.
Friday the 8th bit - Jason gets a run for his money
Friday the 13th – the game was released by Domark Studio, in December of 1985 for Commodore 64 and the following year for Amstrad CPC and ZX Spectrum. The three versions all share the same gameplay style, along with differences in graphics and sound, with the Spectrum one being the worst in the graphic department and having no music at all. The Commodore 64 version seems to have been programmed by Brian White (source), I have not been able to find the original names of the developers who worked on the other platforms, at this point in time they remain unknown.
Naturally, the game takes place at camp Crystal Lake, the original haunting grounds of our beloved hockey masked serial killer, Jason Vorhees. At the start, the player is randomly assigned control of one of the camp counselors, as they walk around trying to get their friends to safety, while also pinning down which one of them is actually Jason in disguise. Indeed, the concept feels more Cluedo than Friday the 13th. Each character has different levels of panic, strength and sanity, each shown by different indicators: a Jason mask for panic, a barbell for strength (or health) and the amount of hairs on end for sanity. Which is indeed a great idea.
At the start of each stage (or run, I should say, there are no stages in the usual sense), Jason will be already disguised as one of our friends, even though how can he exactly pass off for a petite girl is not ever made clear (shapeshifting?). Transeat. Once his secret identity has been revealed, we will have to try and dispose of him before he kills off all other camp counselors or us. Jason will reveal his “true form” only when he assaults other people or when attacked. Despite his ordinary form being that of a mask wearing blue jumpsuit maniac, in the game he will be a sprite all dressed in black, wearing – for some reason – a cropped top which bares the mid riff. Guess he has been keeping in shape, by watching a lot of Jane Fonda on TV in his spare time. It would have been much more effective to just draw a hockey mask for him, but alas.
Weapons to attack Jason (and, especially, the camp counselors) can be found lying around the various locations: the reason why we will actually delve into later. Getting the cross might also be important, since once it is dropped in a location, that becomes our safe haven where all the camp counselors can go to in order to find safety from the masked killer. Naturally, they shall also leave when Jason walks in, because they are clearly scared of him. Even though, when entering the haven, he would still be in disguise, so there will be no reas- alright, again, transeat.
Weapons can be picked up by a short press of the fire button and dropped with a long press. Once armed, short bursts of the fire button will cause us to attack, with long range weapons that can also be thrown for an infinite amount of times. Since the game takes place on a sort of tilted perspective and this was 1985, attacking is only possible to the left and right of the character (only on the right on the Spectrum version, for some reason).
As it might be easy to guess, even without being familiar with the gameplay mechanics, the most effective tactic to find out the identity of Jason is going around randomly attacking everyone, in order to gauge their reactions. There seems to be no actual punishment for the player that attempts this, except a slight drop in the sanity meter. The original design would demand the player to get everyone to the safe haven and, then, single out Jason. But considering there is no punishment and no actual reward for doing this (a higher score maybe?), no player would want to waste that kind of time. Also, it is just plainly more entertaining to attacking everyone, instead of leading them to the safe heaven.
While an interesting gameplay idea, the get everyone to safety mostly ends up as a superflous mechanic. It is just plainly more effective to attack everyone, find out who Jason is and kill him off quickly. Friday the 13th is not afraid to ask difficult ethical questions: how exactly can you call yourself a saviour when you’re actually the one going around attacking innocent human beings with axes and knives? Also, what if Jason Vorhees is just a spirit of rage and revenge, which may naturally possess everyone of us if we let ourselves be dominated by such negative emotions? Couldn’t we all become masked killers at some point in our lives? But, most importantly, why does the game take place at Crystal Lake camp and there is no lake in the game at all?
Also, Friday the 13th might very well be the first game to actually use sanity as a gameplay mechanic, not being a simple substitute for a health bar, but instead a different meter that will either attract Jason (see below) or count for our character going out of their minds, leading to a game over (rarely) or raising the chance of being the subject of a jump scare. Also, speaking of game overs, when our character is killed by Jason, the game actively mocks us with “You seem to have lost your head. What a shame… Ha Ha Ha”.
That is all the gameplay Friday the 13th has to offer: grab a weapon, reveal Jason’s identity, get friends to safety (or don’t), kill the maniac. Naturally, later runs present an ever more aggressive masked killer, with more health points and plainly harder to kill. Which doesn’t happen on the Spectrum version, since on there Jason is already as fast as the main character and harder to kill from the first run. Which could easily tie-in with the series going in more inane and weird directions after the first two chapters, finding ever new ways to bring him back to life.
Using horror tropes as gameplay mechanics
The developers tried their hands at an interesting design, but they seem to have mostly failed. Still, somehow, Friday the 13th seems to successfully make use of many of the classic horror tropes of the series. Since getting everyone to safety is supposed to be an objective as important as killing off Jason, the instruction manual adds that “your friends are there on vacation and even when in the safe zone, they will tend to wander around to sunbathe anyway”. Which definitely does tie in with several of the typical stupid tendencies of victims in horror movies from the period: yes I will go out in the dark to check out this vague noise that I heard.
The manual continues that, sometimes, Jason will just “get careless and drop weapons around”, which does really paint a humorous picture of one of the most famous serial killers in cinematic history having all thumbs. An interesting mechanic which is also mentioned in the manual, is that Jason will always target the character with the lowest sanity, which can be easily tied in with the “weakest/most annyoing characters being first to die in the movie” horror movie trope. Even though mostly by accident, the design did manage to resemble the mechanics of an actual horror movie from the Eighties! But alas, there is no real way to check if this sanity mechanic is actually true, since the only panic level on display is that of the player.
One last interesting thing to be found in the manual, is how it treads happily around the fact that all music in the game is copyright free and lifted from somewhere else. They even go as far as stating “Friday The 13th The Computer Game has snatches of music familiar to everyone. Try to name them all!”. Cheeky monkeys. But still gotta admire a horror game which actually features Old Mc Donald in its soundtrack. At the start, many times, the first song one hears is actually the Wedding March; which, honestly, does work wonders in scaring me away.
Graphically, Friday the 13th looks pretty primitive, especially for the Commodore 64, which features a rather boring palette with huge stretches of grey, instead of green in the Amstrad CPC version, for the ground. As much as, graphically, the Spectrum version does work around the system’s limitations, unfortunately it adds a slew of bugs, along with cutting away many of the initial screens. At least, in each version buildings have their own unique design, which is a nice touch.
The original jumpscare
Since this is a blog about gaming history and design, it is my duty to state that, despite a vaguely interesting list of horror gameplay features, Friday the 13th is not really notable for any of them. Honestly, they were not wrong in advertising it as a “concept taken from the movie series”, even though they probably avoided on purpose being more specific on what that “concept” actually was. Ironically enough, the main idea behind the series, that of an unstoppable masked undead killer with a machete, is basically absent. Jason is not a shapeshifter in any of the movies – at least until now.
But, still, there is a major feature that I would say makes Friday the 13th still worthy of being remembered. A major idea that also closely ties in with horror: out of all the classic 8 bit horror games, this one features actual jump scares who really serve no gameplay purpose other than terrorizing the player. Indeed, Friday the 13th on home computer is probably the first game to feature actual jumpscares in the history of gaming or, at least, the one most remembered by everyone. Had it come out today, it would have been accused of being the most basic Twitch bait ever.
Basically, when catching Jason in the act of killing one of the camp counselors, the game would randomly feature one of two images: a head being torn in two with a machete (which looks eerily similar to the one that Project Firestart will use later) or a series of happy skulls grinning at the screen. Those alone would have been enough, but the developers felt they had to go the extra mile and accompany them with a loud synthetized scream. The same sound also plays when someone dies off screen, which the nice touch of having different volumes, depending on how far from our main character the killing has taken place. I personally never played Friday the 13th as a kid, but it would have been surely scarring to hear something like that.
Overall, while it would be fair to say that the game barely follows the original movie with a mostly superfluous license attached, I would say it used many of the classic slasher tropes for interesting – if underused – gameplay mechanics. But, again, along with Jason not even wearing the mask and preferring long sticks, none of the characters from the movies pop up (not even in name, which would have been simple to do!). Oh also, Jason’s mom is nowhere to be seen which – as fans of the original might be aware – definitely does feel like an important character missing altogether from the plot.
The game seems to still be hugely divisive – as much as a game from 1985 can be – with some people describing it as one of the worst horror games ever made, especially for the Commodore 64, and others loving its quirky ideas for an adventure title. The press at the time, with the sole exception of C/VG awarding it a decent 7/10, universally panned it, with Zzap! scoring it twice, first in 1986 with 13% and then a subsequent release in 1992, lowering it even further to 8%. “Surely, Fridays were never this dire?” they concluded.
The original Friday the 13th video game remains a quite effective tie-in product. Let us consider that the original movie series, while having a couple of solid entries, by then had already become little more than a guilty pleasure. It is also probably the weakest and more commercial along the various classic slashers series. So, indeed, its tie-in game follows suit, presenting cheap (but effective for the time) horror scares, along with working in many of the classic tropes. Granted, it is missing some fundamental elements, but all in all, it is fair to say the movies got the game they deserved.
A quick nod to the NES version: it goes well above and beyond the simple adventure design, presenting a pretty big map to explore on a 2D plane. The enemies list counts zombies, wolves and birds, along with Jason’s mom as a boss fight. It definitely aims for a different audience, since the original Friday the 13th offers the simple pleasure of making a 5 minute Cluedo-like match against the killer. Simpler and more primitive, yes, but perhaps, much more effective in scaring the players out of their seats.
Since the game was plagued by several bugs, not only in the Spectrum incarnation which is the worst, but also on the Commodore 64, for any fans of the original I would recommend checking out the sort of patched version, which also amps up the difficulty adding actual sanity effects: Sunday the 15th by Rodd and Todd Flanders. Time to diddley-die!