Friday, November 14, 2014

Shades of Resonance: Fond Reminiscence - Memory Log #18

Friday the 13th

No, not that one.

This was the Commodore 64 version of Friday the 13th, which I happened upon while skimming through the labels of my brother's Commodore 64 collection. Whenever I'd open up that case and flip through its growing selection of floppy disks, I never knew what I was going to find. Seeing the name "Friday the 13th" printed across one of the labels actually made me take pause. "They made a video game out of that?" I questioned, somewhat shocked by this discovery. "How do you make a video game about a brutally offensive series starring a supernatural serial killer who preys on helpless campers?"

"Is it some kind of trend with this computer?" I wondered. "Cursing kids, strip poker, and now a game about a mass murderer?" This Commodore 64 certainly didn't seem to share its boundaries with the 2600 and all of those arcade games I'd played, none of which featured anything of the sort (well, as far as I knew). I was intrigued, yes, but I had no idea if I was ready for whatever would be waiting for me after I typed up the command and hit Enter.

I remember being startled by the game's title screen, which violently flashed into focus. Not because I was scared by the unsettling depiction of Jason Voorhees' bloody hockey mask with a knife protruding from its left eye-hole but, rather, due to the accompanying sound sample--a blood-curdling scream that was about, oh, ten decibels higher than what my ears were prepared to handle. A little volume control was in order (I figured the neighbors would appreciate it, at least).

It wasn't immediately evident what the game wanted me to do, so my first session with Friday the 13th was mostly spent wandering around the game's overhead world and taking in the sights. After leaving the church, I wandered through a cemetery, some decayed woodland, a barn, and one of those ridiculously disproportionate houses that you only see in video games (as if anyone needs 12 50'-by-50' rooms for a few TVs and some bureaus). Weapons and tools could be seen lying around everywhere, and my experimentation with them revealed that each fit into one of two categories: Bludgeoning and Throwing. Thankfully, the game allowed me to swap between these items as often as I liked, so I'd never wind up stuck with, say, a short, useless knife.

I didn't have any preference at first, so I indiscriminately tested out each item's killing power on the other campers, who could be seen mindlessly walking about the map, randomly entering and leaving buildings and strolling around without any in the way of purpose. I discovered that you could actually kill them if you pummeled them enough, but doing so didn't strike me as very productive, since I assumed that camper deaths only brought me closer to a Game Over. So I ceased beating them over the head with every implement I could find.

Well, eventually.

I became aware of the campers' true function when that blood-curdling scream from the title screen repeated in-game and one of their representative character sprites (as seen in the bottom inventory) was suddenly replaced with a tombstone. It was now clear that Jason was walking among us and picking off my fellow campers one by one, his methods and whereabouts unknown. I looked toward the inventory's bottom-left portion for clues, but none of the illustrations made any sense (we had no manual for the game, of course). I had no clue what the blond-headed mugshot on the far left signified (it would only grow more disheveled over time), what the "barbell scale" was measuring, or what was being communicated by those white lines that were slowly forming on the right (it became obvious later that they were rendering an image of Jason's mask, but for what purpose I wasn't sure), so I began searching more intently.

As I continued wandering about in search of Jason, I became more and more invested in Friday the 13th's world--in large part due to the game's striking musical score. The soundtrack unfortunately didn't include a digital version of the movies' eerie "chi, chi, chi - kill, kill, kill" (or whatever) accompaniment, but it did feature a surprisingly engrossing, eclectic selection of stock music, classical music, and other untrademarked works. Each piece was composed adagio-style and in baritone, lending the game an uneasy, desperate tone and a feeling of impending doom, each screen haunted by an unseen force. There was a constant air of apprehension, present even if a room's music currently skewed more toward cheery-sounding. When married to the surrounding environment--with its darkly-hued, mostly gray color scheme and depressive atmosphere--it made for one nerve-wracking game.

The list of songs included J.S. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (from The Phantom of the Opera), Beethoven's Marcia Funebre: Adagio assai, Old MacDonald Had a Farm, Bridal Chorus, and Teddy Bear's Picnic. But my favorite was the game's excellent digital rendition of Bach's Sleepers Awake, which composed as such sounded powerfully creepy and really captured the game's spirit. Friday the 13th would normally shuffle through these songs as the game unfolded, but there were specific instances when an appropriate tune would trigger (the corresponding Old MacDonald would play as I scoured the barn, for instance). I liked to idle about the woods, hoping to trigger the more-fleeting Teddy Bear's Picnic, which always provided me momentary solace.

But sometimes a tune would suddenly cut off, surrendering to a more dire composition; it was probably some kind of programming flaw, but the ominous shift would always dampen my mood, as I interpreted it to mean that Jason was likely in the process of killing one of my friends. It contributed to the feeling of instability and created an elevated level of anxiety even if nothing was observed to have changed. No other game could play with my emotions like that.

The only clues as to Jason's whereabouts were the corpses I'd soon find after being alerted to a murder via a scream. In that first session, Jason was able to kill off most of my friends, and I only located him by chance--our paths crossing randomly as he stalked about in pursuit of a previously chosen target. This in-game representation of Jason had no mask, was dressed in all black, and sported a healthy-looking coiff, making him look less like a demonic killer and more like the Fonz. Really, I was half-expecting him to conjure in Danny Zuko and the T-Birds and perform an 8-bit rendition of Grease Lightning, which actually wouldn't have sounded too out of place in a game that featured a song about farm animals.

My perception quickly changed as he struck down one of my buddies and suddenly turned his attention to me. At first, I tried combating him with a bludgeoning item--that powerful-looking orange axe, specifically--since I suspected their class was stronger, but I had no success. The range of Jason's machete (which looked more like a steel club) seemed much longer than what the player's weapons were capable, and his diagonal movements made it difficult to create space between us. Getting close to him was just too dangerous, anyway. So I decided to stick to throwing weapons (mainly the spear or the shorter axe), using which I could pick him off from a distance. It didn't matter that these throwing weapons inflicted less damage; having the benefit of scoring hits while standing far across the screen more than made up for the drop in strength. Hell--it was practically the "easy mode."

One game element that originally escaped me was that Jason could mimic the form of other campers, which was precisely how he was able to kill them undetected; I didn't discover this until I randomly assaulted a camper and unexpectedly broke the disguise. At the least, it gave me the perfect justification to crack the other campers over their skulls whenever I felt like it.

Right about now, you're probably reassessing who the game's real villain was. And, really, I can't help you with that.

Even though Friday the 13th measured only 40 screens in total, including the buildings' innards, I really enjoyed exploring its world and bathing myself in its haunting atmosphere. The true goal was to continue slaying Jason with successive campers (five in all), but that wasn't really a priority for me. I mean, I'd take out Jason eventually, but in the meantime, I preferred to wander about and have some fun with the game's mechanics and funny glitches. I accidentally discovered, for instance, that you could bring dead campers back to life by standing over their corpses and tossing out any of the throwing weapons; it was as if applying the use of a defibrillator in that they'd sometimes rise up, seemingly resuscitated, only to promptly fall back down. Other times they'd successfully revive but instead just stand there, as if in suspended animation. The good news was that you could again slay non-functioning campers and try for a more successful resurrection.

Otherwise, I'd create my own goals, like trying to collect all of the weapons into a single room as quickly as possible (well, I did so that first time to see if the game would fall to pieces like Adventure) or attempting to kill off all of the other campers before Jason had the chance.


It's only recently that I learned about the functions of the inventory's indicators: The mugshot is a fear meter, which builds over time and can result in death if fully agitated (I never experienced this). The "barbell," as I accurately identified it, is a health meter, the weight dropping further down as the player takes damage. And the rendering mask represents the game's time-limit, which for some reason is so ungodly long that I don't believe anyone has ever legitimately perished by means of its expiration. I know I never did. 

In a way, I'm kind of sad that I looked into it, since not understanding their purpose was part of the game's mystery. That I was ill-informed about the game's mechanics going in was typical of my relationship with the C64 and its games, and I wouldn't have had it any other way.

That Friday the 13th's world was so small didn't make it any easier to navigate. No matter how many times I played it, that is, I could never seem to regularly locate any specific screen without looping around through those same spooky woods a dozen times over. The game had a way of making me feel as though I was perennially lost and probably miles away from the target--an attribute that worked to make the game feel much bigger than it actually was. But I didn't mind trekking over the same ground over and over. No--I considered it a prime opportunity to soak in the sights, the sounds, the music, and the atmosphere of a game that had no right to be as compelling as it was.

Years later, I can tell you that my only regret is that I wasn't able to stop Jason Voorhees from killing off so many of my wonderful friends.

Damn you, Jason. :::Lloyd Bridges voice::: That's my job.

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