Collins’ Crypt: NOES On NES

BC revisits the most successful slasher franchise adapted into a video game. 

I clearly don't use my NES very much - when I went to put in A Nightmare on Elm Street, I noticed Friday the 13th was still in there from the last time I did one of these columns, which in turn reminded me that I had to remove Ghosts n' Goblins after playing it for THAT article. Ever since Final Fantasy VII came along, I've fancied myself an RPG fan, which is a bummer since I barely ever have time for games - I really should stick to shorter ones so I can feel like I accomplished more.

And that's part of the appeal of NES - obviously there were RPGs that took several hours to beat, but most of its games were like NOES, which can be finished in under an hour if you're not looking at the death animation too often. It seemed like an epic to me when I was 9 years old, but compared to modern games it's lightning quick - some of them would still have you in the tutorial at that point. The quality of the games themselves varied, of course, but to a free-time-starved man such as myself, the fact that I was able to complete an entire game in a sitting felt pretty wonderful, regardless of whether it was actually good.

Luckily, NOES is one of the better movie tie-in games released for the system, and it goes without saying, light years ahead of its closest rival, the Friday the 13th game (also from LJN). As I mentioned in my piece on that one, the Nightmare films lent themselves much more easily to video game adaptation, as the "nightmare" aspect meant tossing random things like snakes and bats at you made a lot more sense than Friday the 13th's similar approach. Granted, these critters (and zombies, and finger blades, and other more supernaturally charged antagonists) were present even when your character was awake, but I'm willing to meet them halfway on the logic.

Especially when, again, unlike Friday the 13th, it seems the developers of the game actually watched some of the movies. They were clearly inspired by Dream Warriors first and foremost - not only does the game's objective revolve around finding Freddy's bones and tossing them into a fire (the film's third act mission for Craig Wasson and John Saxon's characters), but when you're in the dream world you earn superpowers not unlike Kristen and the others. One's a ninja, which seems to be inspired by Rick from the fourth film (the game came out in 1989, prior to The Dream Child), but the other two powers you can acquire (via icons in the real world) are an acrobat sort of like Kristen, and a wizard clearly inspired by Will ("I am the wizard master... I AM THE WIZARD MASTER!"). They all have their strengths and weaknesses, though I have little use for the acrobat - the other two are far more effective for both fighting and jumping.

Interestingly, I remember always using the wizard as much as possible when I was a kid, but as it turns out the ninja is really the best to use, especially against the bosses. All three of them have a projectile attack (your standard guy just has a weak punch), but the ninja also has a jump kick that automatically launches whenever you jump, making it a far more effective way of attacking than the projectiles. I suspect the reason I loved the wizard so much was the same reason I always picked the princess in Super Mario Bros 2 - I loved safely floating over jumps. I've never been great at platform games that require perfect/careful timing to navigate from one ledge to the next (often with an enemy bounding up and down out of the pit that would also kill you), so the wizard provided that extra bit of gravity defying joy for me.

But there's no question that the ninja is the guy you want for the boss fights, which are all kind of the same and not particularly difficult. They all just make their way diagonally across the screen, faster or slower depending on the angle that they hit the floor or wall (kind of like the ball in Arkanoid or something). Many of them spit out smaller enemies for you to contend with as you attempt to land the twelve to fifteen hits it takes to kill each one before moving on to the next of the game's seven levels (which consist of four houses, the high school, the graveyard, and the junkyard), and they're all variations on Freddy's glove or head. The repetition is a red mark, of course, but again, at least they prove someone involved was a fan of at least Dream Warriors - one boss is a giant Freddy head not unlike the one that tries to eat Kristen, but he also shoots tongues around like the nurse did to Joey in a different scene. It's that extra bit of fan-service that made the game all the more appealing to me both as a kid who wasn't very discerning when it came to these things, but also nowadays as I'm old enough to realize how cynical these tie-in games really were.

And really, it's not all bad for this kind of thing. The difficulty isn't nearly as punishing as you'd expect given the system/era (that it has some basic similarities to Ghosts n Goblins makes it seem downright simple in comparison); if you're a skilled platformer and quickly adapt to the game's abilities and timing (i.e. how far you can jump, whether or not an enemy will be in your way by the time you land, etc) you can probably finish it without needing a Game Genie or whatever. I admit I did use the cheating device (as explained before, it has a 99% success rate at keeping the temperamental NES from glitching on me, even if I don't enter anything), entering the code for infinite lives, but I can get to level 5 without it, and could probably get to 6 on another try. Many of my deaths were just me being impatient (or carefree knowing I couldn't really "lose"), and the game gives you a total of 20 lives (five to start, plus three continues), PLUS you are regenerated from the last solid platform you were on, not at some arbitrary midway point or (worse) at the start of the level, making progress that much easier.

In fact, beyond the repetition (those levels sound varied but there isn't much difference, though they each have their own spooky theme) the only major flaw in the game is the nearly impossible task of proceeding in the later levels when you're in the awake world. As you get further and further, the game tosses more enemies on screen at once, and ones with more randomized moving patterns as well - making jumps a frustrating experience as you may be all but forced into jumping directly into an enemy that you have no way of attacking from your starting ledge. It's also one of those games that will throw you back when you get hit, so as a result I'm guessing at least half of my deaths were caused by an enemy I had no way of defending myself against knocking me back and down into the abyss. To be fair the game offers a more generous than usual period of invincibility after being hit (which you can use to your advantage if a tricky jump is required right there), but it's mighty frustrating to die over and over because the game's hit detection makes landing a midair punch all but impossible.

For these parts, it's best to just stand there and wait to fall asleep - the dream world enemies are tougher (meaning they take 2x as many hits to take down) but at least you can attack from a few pixels away, clearing out an area before you jump into it. It's actually kind of an ingenious system for its day - in addition to your unseen health (four hits kills you) you have a "Zzz meter" which tracks how awake you are. If the meter runs out, you go to the dream world, where you must locate a boombox to wake back up (in the real world, cups of coffee refill the meter). Stay in the dream world too long, and an instrumental version of Freddy's theme ("One, two, Freddy's coming for you...") begins to play, meaning you have until the end of it to find the boombox (or get to the level's end), or be forced into a fight with the big man himself. It's best not to do this too often - this version of Freddy is identical to the final boss version (which comes after a gauntlet of all six previous bosses), so it can feel anticlimactic if you've already defeated him four or five times in the game.

The game also allowed you to use one of the NES' four player add-on devices (the Four Score or the Satellite) to have up to three friends join you, though I never had one (or a friend with one - we have Xbox Live and PSN now, but back in the day, bringing your games/accessories over to a friend's was how multiplayer was done) to try it out. I assume it'll be a nightmare; not only does the game occasionally slow down immensely if too many things are on screen, but it's also one of those games where you can die for no reason other than the position of your co-player, so having three extra players would cause that many more insta-deaths, I assume.

But like I said, it's one of the better tie-in games, and that's even more impressive when you consider it was completely overhauled from its original design. If you were lucky enough to still have a flier from LJN (inserted in their other games at the time), you have physical proof of a very different incarnation of the game, which not only had a top down view of the neighborhood (the final game offers the same sort of side-scrolling action as the levels) but let you play as Freddy instead of some nameless random. No gameplay video has ever surfaced, just these screenshots from the ad, but given that those ads ran in the same year that the game was released, it must have been a quick turnaround, which could have resulted in a broken mess of a game. So good on them!

I guess it's safe to say that of all the big slasher franchises that got video games, this was the most successful. Halloween and Texas Chainsaw for the Atari are dreadful, the Friday the 13th game is too difficult and confusing to ever be any fun, and while I've never played it I don't expect the Pumpkinhead CD-Rom game is worth tracking down (then there's the Chucky game, which never got released at all). A Nightmare on Elm Street, on the other hand, is worth adding to your collection if you're a horror and/or NES aficionado. I played it a lot as a kid (the first couple levels came back to me the same way Super Mario Bros does for probably every single person who ever owned an NES) and found that it held up to my memories; hell, for my money it held up better than some of the actual films!