As a huge fan of the film series this title takes its inspiration from I was sad to have somehow missed out on the game until college. I had played Friday the 13th though and was not impressed, and something in my mind tied the two games together, causing me to pass it by in the video store. I would later learn that both games were published by the same company—the infamous rainbow, LJN. A Nightmare on Elm Street is quite different though and is its own interesting cut into 8-bit horror.
The game was actually made by one of my favorite companies, Rare, back in their early days before I had begun worshiping at the altar of Donkey Kong Country. The game was released in 1990, appropriately in October for Halloween. In this adventure the player must collect the bones of the legendary killer and burn them in the furnace to stop a series of mysterious deaths on Elm St. for good—if they can stay awake that is.
“Something frightening has been happening on Elm Street lately.”
The game starts with a wonderfully creepy opening scene and Krueger’s signature smile as he looks down ominously. Yes, the blades are coming out of his fingertips instead of a glove like in the movies—I like it. This title plays like a platformer in most areas, with some action and boss fights, as the main protagonist is often punching snakes and bats like a complete badass. There is an actual street the player walks along and must find certain houses that can be entered. In these, all of the bones must be collected before the player can move on, and they can be quite annoying to spot. I kept having to go back and find one or two more, but the enemies keep respawning as well, so screw that.
What makes Nightmare different is the sleep meter. It drains slowly—faster if the character is standing still—and a little bit more is deducted each time the player is hit. Don’t sweat it though—there is coffee to help keep the meter up. When that eventually does happen though, the game pulls a Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest and shifts to a darker world where the enemies are tougher, look different, and now the real fun begins. Randomly the player must fight the man himself, Freddy Krueger, in what is a rather simple rumble. It happens a lot though, so keep calm and remember the pattern. With that knowledge, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that there is a boss rush at the end. Boomboxes can wake the player up, but the real item to keep an eye out for are the dream tokens.
These marks can be used to transform the main character into one of three dream personas, each with their own abilities. Acrobat, Shadow Warrior (Ninja), Necromancer, all with strengths and weaknesses for different situations that can make collecting less annoying or one of Krueger’s boss forms much simpler. I think this is where the ball was dropped for Nightmare, as the form switching is the most fun part of the experience and it should have been the focus of gameplay.
“You had better hurry though, it’s getting late and you can feel your eyelids getting heavier and heavier by the minute.”
Play can be tough here, just because of everything the game asks of those who wish to see the destruction through to the end. The sleep meter should not be confused for the health bar, there isn’t one. It seems the player can take four or five hits before he turns into an angel. There are continues, but they are limited and needed. The game does not offer hints as to where the player is supposed to go, so I would recommend a way to look at the manual or some type of guide. There are a few different types of enemies that each have different looks in the dream world, and they are all annoying. These things will kill a character with some cheap double teaming or just knocking them down a hole, as well, some hits feel unavoidable.
This game was almost very different though. It appeared in Nintendo Power (1988) with an advertisement that touted a similar game, but where the player took control of Freddy Krueger rushing to kill all of the teenagers before they could destroy his bones. “You ARE Freddy Krueger.” The villain would travel through sewers, electrical sockets, and mirrors, entering the dream world and fighting the teens with their dream warrior avatars. A lot of speculation is brought up about why this was changed. Nintendo could have simply not liked the idea, or one party could have seen how poorly the Texas Chainsaw Massacre game did on Atari, where the player also took control of the killer. I’m not sure this game would have necessarily been better, but a working prototype is rumored to have been made and would be fun to try. There is also a Commodore 64/PC game for the franchise that is similar but plays quite differently. I wouldn’t mind trying that one at some point.
I do applaud what the game did with its atmosphere and mood in an 8-bit playground. Tension is helped by the soundtrack—except for the boss track, which is just a short loop—and the visuals work, other than the enemy sprites. The flashing colors and screen effect that act as a transition between the awakened world and dreamscape are excellent for the time, and Freddy himself doesn’t look bad. I also just think it is neat that when the ‘start’ button is hit it says HOLD instead of the traditional PAUSE. Also, up to four friends could play the game together as long as someone has a NES Four Score or Satellite, but I don’t, nor could I get that many friends together in one physical location. The ideas for the game do seem loosely based off of the movies, so I give some credit for that. No, it isn’t great, not one I’d go back to a lot, but I do still think it is better than its Jason-centric counterpart.