28/10/2013

FRIDAY THE 13TH (COMMODORE 64)

If I was forced to rank my favourite slasher movie icons - an unlikely situation, I know, but bear with me - the list would probably go Freddy Krueger, then Pinhead, and then Jason Voorhees at the top of the gore-caked totem pole. It's a list that's prone to fluctuation, with Pinhead sometimes moving up to the number one slot depending on how recently I've watched the first three Hellraiser movies, but for right now Jason tops the list. That's a shame, because as defined by the VGJunk Law of Inverse Fondness the more I like a franchise the less chance there is that a videogame based on said franchise will be any good. Will Domark's 1985 Commodore 64 title Friday the 13th buck this trend? Well, let's find out!


Okay, so we're off to a good start with this title screen, showing a decent recreation of Jason's famous hockey mask with a knife in the eye hole. Don't worry, Jason's not wearing the mask and even if he was a knife in the eyeball would do little to slow him down. For those of you not familiar with the mythos of the Friday the 13th movies, this colossus of the slasher canon tells the story of Jason Voorhees and sometimes of his deranged mother. Poor old Jason is a deformed, mentally challenged young boy who drowns at a summer camp while the camp counsellors who were supposed to be watching him are off doing drugs and engaging in pre-martial sex and all that other fun stuff that teens like to do. Jason's mother understandably takes this badly, as in revenge she starts murdering camp councellors until one of them manages to lop Mrs. Voorhee's head off.


The story would have ended there, but it turns out Jason actually survived his watery ordeal and in the second film he emerges from the lake to take his own revenge on the teens who killed his dear old mam and let him drown, a definition of "teens" that soon extends to "anyone who wanders near the Crystal Lake campgrounds where he died." Jason likes to kill teens, and he will do it with whatever comes to hand - harpoon guns, electric guitars - but he prefers to use a machete. As the films continue, Jason gains his trademark hockey mask as well as pretty much complete immortality, rising from the grave every time the studio thought they could squeeze another dollop of cash from his rotting, worm-ridden corpse, eventually becoming an implacable, unstoppable, remorse teen-slaying hate-golem who retains just the tiniest glimmer of sympathy from the audience. Well, he was just a kid who was bullied into a terrible accident on the lake.
For reference, this is what Jason Voorhees looks like.


Just bear that in mind.
There are two ways a game based on Friday the 13th could go: either you play as Jason and slaughter innocent young adults, or you play as the teens and try to avoid the murderous clutches of Crystal Lake's most famous son. I'm going to tell you now, in this game you don't play as Jason. I know, I know, I'm as disappointed as you are. I suppose we should meet the kids that we'll be playing as, then.


What a friendly-looking bunch of fresh-faced young people. Well, apart from Gerry King, he's clearly in his forties. It's a little concerning that only Stuart Palmer seems to have eyes, but being able to see isn't much of a defence against Jason anyway. He's pretty stealthy for a big lad. The fact that Amanda Baxter is a severed head balanced on a vacuum cleaner attachment might be more of a stumbling block for her.


We'll be taking control of middle-aged Camp Crystal lake visitor Gerry King first. Gerry has a taste for adventure, which I'm sure will be a great comfort to him when Jason is running him through with a shovel or something. You get a bio like this for each of the playable characters, but if you're not a fan of reading you're in luck because none of this bumf has any impact on the gameplay whatsoever.


Here's Gerry wandering around a garishly decorated house. There are no signs of Jason, which seems like a good reason to stay put, but Gerry's on holiday and he'll be damned if he's not going to see some of the beautiful Crystal Lake scenery before he's horribly butchered. Let's venture into the great outdoors to see what we can see. Maybe I'll find a clue as to just what the hell I'm supposed to be doing while I'm out there.


There's a farm nearby. In the above screenshot I have positioned Gerry in such a way that he appears to be driving that tractor. We had to make our own fun in the olden days, you see.


Here's a creepy copse of diseased-looking trees floating in a grey void. Probably best not to use this one as the photo for the cover for any Crystal Lake tourist brochures.


No, for that honour the tourist board should definitely go with a picturesque snap of Saint Cinderblock the Grey's First Unified Church and Fallout Shelter. This awe-inspiring place of worship has a history stretching back tens of weeks, and was designed by famous architect A Kid Who Only Had Grey Lego Bricks. If you do visit, please give generously to the Buy Our Church Tower a Roof fund.


The church is also home to the least spooky graveyard I have ever seen. At least the builders put some of the leftover breezeblocks to good use as tombstones.
Yes, wandering around Crystal Lake is a big part of Friday the 13th: The Computer Game. Aside from the church and the house there's also a barn, and you can enter all three and nose around the various rooms within. When you get bored of one building you can cross the woods or farmland to head to another building. If I hadn't seen that title screen with my own eyes, I'd swear I'd loaded up Extreme Rambling Challenge: Powerwalking Edition by mistake. Oh, and you know what this digital version of Crystal Lake doesn't have? A lake. Good work, Domark. Would it really have been that difficult to put a big patch of blue that you can't walk on somewhere amongst the screens of this game?


If I've learned one thing from playing these old computer games, it's that you should always read the instructions before you start because the game itself will tell you very little about what you're supposed to be doing and even less about how to do it. Fortunately, I found Friday the 13th's instructions and they informed me that there are two goals to accomplish. One is to find the cross pictured above and place it... somewhere. Wherever you like, it doesn't matter as long as it's indoors. The cross supposedly works as some kind of holy homing beacon, drawing your friends towards it and protecting them from harm while simultaneously repelling Jason because apparently Jason is a vampire now.


Eventually Jason will find the room you placed the cross in, scaring all the campers away and leaving you to set up another sanctuary. Or, as I did, to completely ignore the cross mechanics and focus on task number two - killing Jason.


To take the fight to Jason you have to collect one of the weapons that are scattered randomly throughout Camp Crystal Lake each time you start. Look at the screenshot above. There are two weapons in that screenshot. Yes, really. One is the red square with a white rectangle sticking out of it that's pictured next to the "WEAPON" label at the bottom. I think this is supposed to represent an axe, or possibly a small flag I stole from a child's sandcastle. The other weapon is that white line in the middle of the screen. That white line, ah ha, get this - I think that white line is supposed to be a machete. I know this is a Commodore 64 game and there are graphical limitations at play, but it's hard to feel safe when all I have to defend myself with is a row of white pixels that may or may not have certain machete-like characteristics. The reason I think it's a machete is that when Jason attacks you he does so with the same featureless white line and the machete is Jason's trademark weapon... but where is Jason?


I mentioned before that Jason can be surprisingly stealthy for someone of his considerable stature, but Domark decided that silently stalking his prey through the forests wasn't to keep Jason's menace level up and so they made him a shapeshifter. The reason you haven't seen Jason in any of these screenshots is because in this game, Jason spends most of his time perfectly camouflaged as one of the other campers. Any one of your friends could be Jason in disguise, and it's up to you to figure out which one it is before he manages to kill everyone. Luckily, there's a very simple way to find out if your fellow camper is a seven-foot tall undead murderer in disguise: you hit them with an axe.


I suppose it doesn't have to be an axe. Any weapon will do. Simply swing your axe / white line that might be a machete / thing that I'm guessing is supposed to be a chainsaw but which looks like a giant novelty key at a camper. If they flinch but are otherwise unperturbed by you swinging an axe at their heads, then they're not Jason. Make sure you resist the urge to "keep checking" their non-Jason status, because if you hit them enough times you will kill them. Just to recap, in this computer game you attempt to locate a masked killer by hitting your friends with a variety of lethal weapons, occasionally getting so into this brutal interrogation process that you accidentally bludgeon a fellow camper to death.
Eventually, you'll hit the camper who is actually Jason playing dress-up. When you do that, Jason reveals himself. Is everyone ready to meet Jason Voorhees? Because here he is!


What do you mean, "where"? He's standing right in the middle of the screen, ready to unleash the full force of his silent yet ceaseless fury up you. Here, look, I'll point him out to you.


Oh. Oh. Now I see why you might have been having trouble spotting Jason, because he doesn't usually wear crop-tops that reveal his toned midsection, nor does he have the bow-legged stance of a professional jockey. I can see how that might have thrown you off.


Once you've uncovered Jason, a fight to the death ensues. You attack by holding a direction on the joystick and pressing fire. Whether you hit anything has only the slightest correlation to where you're swinging your weapon, because the hit detection in Friday the 13th is vague at best and is sometimes absent entirely. Blocky, indecipherable weapon-shapes pass through heads and torso with no effect while attacks that are barely in the same postcode as their target will inexplicably score hits. Jason's strategy is simple but effective: he waves his machete around with great vigour, relying on the wonky collision detection to score him a bunch of free hits that you'll swear you were far enough away from to avoid. If your health, which is measured by the dumbbells in the status bar, reaches the bottom, then you die.


Your punishment for losing is some sub-Cryptkeeper punning and the knowledge that you just saw one of the icons of horror cinema reduced to looking like a beatnik whose clothes have shrunk in the wash.


If you win, you get a brief congratulatory message, a points bonus based on how many people were alive when you defeated Jason and a chance to do it all again with the next character. This young lady is called Wendy Watson. Her parents were worried that she wasn't making any friends, so they sent her to Crystal Lake in the hope that enduring the relentless horror of Jason's bloody rampage will forge deep and lasting emotional ties to anyone else who manages to survive. That, or they didn't bother to check the reviews on TripAdvisor. "The cabins were hideously decorated but otherwise comfortable, the local church was interesting but there was too much nerve-shredding terror for our liking, three out of ten, would not recommend" is the kind of review that might put you off.


Friday the 13th offers nothing different after your first playthrough - it's the same round of "bonk the survivors with a lump of pixels, uncover Jason, fight him to the death" every time, running on an endless loop. There's no win condition here, and no matter how many times you kill Jason he will rise again. In this regard, at least, the game is faithful to the movies. Going for a high score is your only goal, and as goals go it's a pretty crappy one. Still, there are a few more things I want to discuss about this game, starting with the sound.


On the one hand, whenever a camper is killed the game emits a harsh, grating and genuinely disturbing scream that I'd have to say is an unqualified success in building some atmosphere. It is a shame, then, that the music immediately kills off any tension. There's always a tune playing, but the developers didn't use any of the movies' score (which is fair enough, it'd be difficult to replicate the famous "ki, ki, ki, ma, ma, ma" noise on a C64) and instead uses poorly recreated versions of public domain music. It starts off okay, with a rendition of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor which is at least a bit spooky. Then I entered the church and the Wedding March started up. I could let that slide, because I was in a church, after all. However, going into the woods only to hear the jaunty refrain of The Teddy Bears' Picnic blaring out at me was enough to completely destroy any notion of Friday the 13th being a "scary" game, even if the lyrics to The Teddy Bears' Picnic are surprisingly appropriate:
If you go down to the woods today,
You're sure of a big surprise.
Behind the trees where nobody sees,
A masked psychopath will gut you like a fish.


One element of this game that had some potential is the "Panic" meter. As things get spooky and teens are dismembered, your character's panic level starts to rise, especially if you're nearby while Jason's getting on with his business. You can see how panicked you are at any time by looking at the head in the bottom-left corner of the screen: the more scared you are, the higher your hair stands on end. Supposedly Jason goes after the camper with the highest panic rating. That could be true, but because you can't see how scared the other teens are there's no way of really knowing and the evidence suggests that Jason's murder schedule is determined mostly by where his wandering feet take him.
The panic meter could have been an nice adjunct to the main gameplay elements if it actually did anything - maybe having a higher panic meter could have made you more likely to do a powerful, desperate attack at the cost of randomly tripping over, similar to the system in Clock Tower - but as it is it's just a way for Jason to select his next victim, maybe.


I've complained about the Commodore 64 version of Friday the 13th, and I'd say they were justifiable complaints, but it could have been worse; I could have been playing the ZX Spectrum version that you can see above. It's the same basic game as the Commodore version, only with even worse graphics in hues that no sensible person should be looking at without eye protection. Oh, and even when you've hit the camper that's really Jason in disguise, it's still impossible to tell which one he is because all the character sprites are the same pure black, vaguely humanoid lumps that give the ZX Spectrum version the feel of a crappy handheld LCD game.


Yet even this version has a couple of things to recommend it. One is that when you pick up and use a weapon, it looks much, much more like an actual weapon than in the C64 version. Sure, in this case the weapon in question appears to be a giant scimitar, but it looks better than a line with a square at the end. Also, the ZX Spectrum has no music.


That's Friday the 13th: a bad game, a boring game, but still a game I can't quite bring myself to be too harsh on. There are some decent ideas here that simply couldn't be executed properly on the home computers of the time - the panic meter, the idea of sniffing out a villain who looks just like your friends, setting up safe zones to protect them, these could all come together to create a good survival horror game... just not one the Commodore 64. Instead we're left with a wandering around aimlessly simulator, your aimless wandering occasionally punctuated by unenjoyable, tedious battles against someone who clearly isn't Jason Voorhees. Here, I managed to condense an average fight into one convenient animated GIF.


This brings me to Friday the 13th's most obvious flaw: it's got almost nothing to do with the Friday the 13th movies. Jason is an unthreatening adversary who dresses like I would if I had washboard abs, there's no lake at Camp Crystal Lake and did I mention that sometimes the music is The Teddy Bears' Picnic? Because that doesn't help. There are only a few days left until Halloween, and if you're looking for a fix of Friday the 13th I can heartily suggest that you watch some of the films instead of wasting your time with this. I'm quite partial to Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan myself.


It is with a heavy heart that I award Friday the 13th a lowly five on the Halloween-O-Meter. That title screen is worth two points alone, and the death-screams are worth another, but beyond that it's difficult to justify scoring the game any higher than a five. If only Jason Voorhees had made a proper appearance.

5 comments:

  1. In Super Mario Land 2 the Halloween level plays a remix of the Teddybear's Picnic too, which is weird because there are jason masks with a knife in it and the proportions of a goomba as enemies.

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    Replies
    1. Well, that confirms it: Teddy Bears' Picnic is clearly the official anthem of horror.

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  2. I'm assuming the NES game is better...but not by much.

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    Replies
    1. Well, it's got more appropriate music, I'll give it that.

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  3. You missed out on one of my favorite parts of the game: If you hack someone who is dead enough times with a weapon, they c ome back to life. It doesn't matter if you or Jason killed them originally.

    ReplyDelete

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