Back in December 2021 we looked at Splatterhouse 2 on Sega Mega Drive, and by coincidence at the time I was also making my way through the entire Friday the 13th movie series, so as it was visually-related at least, we went on a bit of a tangent and had a look at that too, and also attempted to establish a favourite because, as regular listeners will know, I do like to be on top of things like that but had never thought about this one! It was Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, in case you’re interested! And when we’d eventually finished up with everything else, I mentioned how much I’d enjoyed the movie discussion alongside the old game we were looking at, so at some point I’d do the same with A Nightmare on Elm Street. And here we are! I’ve finally been through the whole lot again, so we’re going to take a look at those, as well, of course, as the NES game we’re really here for, and a quick look at the totally unrelated Commodore 64 game, which, as I type these very words, I’ve still never even seen in action, let alone played!
Before that, though, let’s quickly recap the where we’re coming from… The original movie, A Nightmare on Elm Street, written and directed by Wes Craven, hit cinemas in 1984 – yet another reason why it’s the greatest year of them all! He’d be back for third and then the last of the original nine movies, all released within just ten years, then later on there’d be a crossover and a remake no-one needed, plus twelve original novels that I’m aware of, loads of comics (including loads more crossovers) and a TV series. The whole lot is based around Freddy Krueger, a supernatural child murderer who was burnt alive by their vengeful parents and is back from the grave to get his own vengeance on the teenagers of Springwood, Ohio. In their messed-up dreams! I think it was the third film, Dream Warriors in 1987, that was the first I saw, and I think that was at the cinema, but every eighties school kid knew about Freddy Krueger, even if they hadn’t somehow wangled a VHS rental or borrowed a dodgy copy in the playground! And while it’s not a series I watch regularly in its entirety like I do with Friday the 13th or Halloween, I’ll always watch one when the chance arises, and if not I’ll occasionally dig out the DVD box set. Which is precisely where I started this little journey we’re about to set off on to see if we can decide on a favourite, but before we do, a quick story about a night in my first year of university…
A bunch of us used to hang out together of an evening, often in a twin room in a hall of residence shared by a couple of the guys. For all the hours we spent in there, my abiding memory is the games of Chuckie Egg on one of them’s Amstrad CPC while we were waiting for everyone else to turn up before heading off out somewhere. Of course, these were the days before mobile phones so it was easy just to turn up there whenever then make our plans, but quite often those plans would just involve risking a trip into Hatfield’s take on The Bronx for a bag of chips and a film to rent, then heading back to their room to watch it. And stink out the place for the next 24 hours! Anyway, one day we rented the fourth Nightmare on Elm Street, The Dream Master, which I reckon would only have just come to video at the time, but it wasn’t a popular choice with one of the gang, only ever known to anyone as Lemon, who absolutely hated horror films. Terrified of everything! He really was too, and sat cowering behind his saveloy for the whole thing, to the point we spent more time trying to force him to watch it than watching it ourselves. Despite that, he wasn’t too keen on leaving when we were all kicked out later on, even though he only lived up the stairs, but little did he know we’d already hatched a plan to reconvene so we could terrorise him with a set of regular dining knives out of the kitchen that sounded absolutely spot-on against his bedroom window a couple of hours later! His reaction was worth every second of being knackered for lectures the next morning!
With that, let’s go to the movies! Now, I know what some of you are already thinking – why go through the whole series when everyone knows the first is the best already, but the whole ending of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street means it can’t be that, from the A-Team DIY weapon construction sequence (all completed in the time it takes main victim’s dad, better known as Roper from Enter the Dragon, to go up a single flight of stairs) to the idiot policeman outside her house… It’s hard to watch, although the so bad it’s good eighties music over the end credits does make up for it a bit! The second one, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, has a couple of great set pieces but not enough of anything else, preferring to focus on some kind of homoerotic crusade over horror. The school bus dangling over hell will always be cool though. “Welcome to prime-time, bitch!” The one-liners, the creativity and the raw sadism make A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors prime-time Freddy Krueger. Pretty much perfect supporting cast of victims too. It’s also prime time eighties, with special effects that could only come from 1987 and the same for some of the best (worst!) music in the series, not least the Dokken title track! This could be the one! Next instalment, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, is another contender though, despite Freddy Krueger and The Fat Boys closing down our hair metal playground… “Fred Krueger’s the name, you know my game. Elm Street’s the place if you got the time, listen to this you’ll bust a rhyme.” Anyone that made it through the last film is back to be seen off here with some of the best-looking deaths in the series. Freddy’s haunted house looks great in this one too. Still some good music hanging around despite Robert Englund’s rapping, and a bit of flesh and a lot more Freddy. Choice is getting tough now!
The series would probably have benefitted from A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child not existing. It’s alright in places, with some of the most atmospheric dream sequences so far and some really good deaths, but it undermines what’s come before it by padding out backstories that didn’t need padding out, and it ends up a bit of a mess in its own right as a result. The series would definitely have benefitted by ending before Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare came along! There’s simply nothing new here, the horror’s dried up and Freddy is left as a pale imitation of himself. Freddy’s dead, indeed. Just like the eighties… As for the rest, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare came along in 1994 and did at least bring back the horror, as well as some clever plot devices that are interesting in retrospect because you can see the seeds being planted for Scream a couple of years later. We’d been waiting for decades by the time Freddy vs Jason finally turned from rumour to reality in 2003, though I don’t think the words “clever plot” were ever associated with that mess! It’s a fun mess though, and everything you could have wanted of it really. Still needs a sequel though! Like pretty much all remakes, what we didn’t need was the vacuous 2010 A Nightmare on Elm Street, but as always, if you don’t watch it then it doesn’t exist!
Looks like it’s a choice of the third and fourth films then, so while we’re thinking about that it’s high-time we also had a think about that NES game too, although what we eventually got was quite different to what was first announced! The original plan was to have you playing Freddy, killing all those pesky kids before they could find your bones, scattered about the town, then rebury them, in turn presumably putting an end to your sleepy reign of terror somehow. But, would you believe, those spoilsports at Nintendo put a stop to everyone’s fun as usual, although not before a couple of features and an advert appeared in places like Nintendo Power magazine. As well as a few screenshots, including a cool snake-Freddy, that advert also tells us that to assist you on your murder spree, you could travel along Elm Street through the electrical and plumbing lines, or step into a mirror then step out into another room. It also hints that we’re in Dream Warriors, the third film’s territory, with the teenagers able to call upon their dream alter-ego’s special powers, so you’d better “sharpen up your finger razors and get ready to slash, ‘cause Freddy’s here!” Best game ever…
What we got in the end might not be the best game ever, but we weren’t too hard done by with the game on the NES that did arrive just in time for Halloween of 1989! The back of the box tells us that something frightening has been happening on Elm Street of late, with each waking day bringing the discovery of a new neighbourhood teen having passed away in the dark stillness of the night. Natural causes, they say, but it’s like they were being picked off one by one as they slept. “It’s a horrible nightmare come true, and this one has a name… Freddy Krueger!” It’s now up to you and your remaining friends to search Elm Street for his scattered bones and throw them into the high school furnace, and if you can stay awake for long enough, you might just put a stop to him. Good start, though I’m not sure telling potential customers they just need stay awake for long enough is ideal back of the box material! What is interesting, though, is that it does tell us that if your fight for survival seems a little too much to handle by yourself, this game comes on a NES Satellite compatible cartridge, so you can call on three friends to help via the magic of the NES Four Score multitap accessory, but if you don’t have one of those I think you could still play two-player.
The game starts down one end of Elm Street, and from there you’re side-scrolling your way past homes, buildings and other places of interest, like junkyards and graveyards. It’s no midnight stroll though, and there’s a lot more than Freddy to worry about, so you need to look out for shambling zombies, skeletons, little demon dudes, hell-hounds and what the manual calls “NIGHTPROWLER” but as far as I can tell is just someone’s pet cat out for a wander. Evil bugger, that Tiddles, though! Run into too many of these meanies and it’s game over, so you need to tread (but mostly jump) carefully. Because it’s close to midnight, some of the places you want to have a look around in for old bones will probably be locked up for the night, so you’ll also be after some keys so you can come back later. Once you are in though, you’ll then have to collect all the scattered bones in that level before you can get out again, and as you might expect, these are all as full of dangerous creatures as they are out of the way hiding places for bones! Proper old-school platforming going on now – way more dangerous than a bloke in desperate needs of a manicure – but once you’ve got to all those out of the way places, don’t expect an easy exit because now Freddy will be on your case, and whatever form he happens to be in, he’s not letting you leave! Beat him though, and not only do you get out, but you’ll get a key for the next building for your trouble too.
One thing you’ll also need to keep an eye on is your sleep meter, which shows how close you or any of your group is to dozing off, because if even one person falls asleep, you’ll all be dragged to Dream World, and you can imagine who’s waiting there for you! This meter decreases continuously, and even faster if you stand still for too long, so you need to keep on the move, and also look out for cups of coffee as you explore for a quick boost. Just make sure it’s whoever is closest to drifting off that gets the boost though! However, not all is lost if you do end up in the Dream World, because while you’re there you might just come across one of three types of power icons, each of which represents a Dream Warrior, and that’s where the anti-Freddy fun really begins! There’s three types of Dream Warrior – Shadow Warrior, Acrobat and Necromancer, just like in the third movie, and there’s pros and cons to each, but in short, the Shadow Warrior is a ninja with a throwing star and flying kick; the Acrobat does have a javelin but is more suited to keeping out of harm’s way with a flying somersault; and finally the Necromancer has fire magic and a handy mystical hover. Collect all three icons and you can switch between them at will, then, last but not least, if you collect a boombox in the Dream World you’ll be snapped back to the waking world to carry on your sniffing about for bones.
There’s two things I want to mention before anything else… First (and the very first thing you’ll notice when you fire this up) is the music. It’s superb, and it keeps getting better! The title music is this perfectly ominous, almost out of time, melodic drone, interspersed with simple higher-pitched melodies and white-noise rhythms. Actually, the latter is about all that lets it down, and I was suddenly pining for a Mega Drive version! In-game is the biggest musical treat though, with a much more upbeat and complete composition that reflects the humour of the movies and accompanies your trip along Elm Street. It’s a multi-layered, multi-melody eighties-military synth affair that reminded me of a slowed-down Commodore 64 Commando theme, and while I’m not a total expert on NES music, I’d even go so far as to say that apart from the Skull Man level in Mega Man 4, it’s my favourite on the system. There’s a much spookier mix of themes – from jaunty and Addams Family-esque to full on funeral dirge – once you’re in a house or other location that serves to remind you to keep moving, and things get far more tense and frantic as you enter the Dream World, climaxing in the most-boss-music boss music you could wish for. And yes, you’ll get some “one, two Freddy’s coming for you” as well! I genuinely wasn’t expecting this, but the music in this game has really blown me away!
The other thing I wasn’t expecting, and our second thing to mention first, are the controls, and specifically the jumping, which feels great! It’s very responsive and immediately intuitive, sitting just the right side of twitchy, and unless you’re packing some power-ups, is going to be your best friend against the enemies, where avoidance is often the best option. I like that you can attack in flight, and there’s a nice mid-air adjustment possible too, which is helpful on some of the more demanding moving platforms or more complex and enemy-dense areas. As you progress through the seven main locations, these really ramp up, and while the game might not be the longest, even with those near-invincibility power-ups, you’ll be lucky to get there once the saw blades stuck appearing out of the floor or the regular bad things start joining in the boss fights.
The boss fights are a bit of a mixed bag, which I think is down to every location having one of its own, and obviously it’s always Freddy, and obviously there were limitations with what they could get the NES to do with him. They’re generally more unpredictable and reactive over thought-provoking, but some work better than others at not just being a drawn-out slog. Same for the creativity on offer – I loved the disembodied arm that extends all over the screen to slash at you, which is truly sinister, but seeing the same trick again but with Freddy’s head on the end of a line of balls less so, and even less so when it’s his head with a sheet over it to look like a ghost! The best of the lot is a Mega Man-style arena battle with whole Freddy, but like the aforementioned Mega Man’s penchant for boss rushes, I could really do without the one at the end here, even if the entrance to the final showdown looks incredible!
That fiery vista aside, while the music might be among the best on the system, the graphics aren’t so much to write home about. We’ll come back to the Commodore 64 again in a minute, but for my whole time playing I couldn’t get the idea of this looking like a really good C64 game out of my head! In fairness, I’m not sure where else they could have gone though, but full-on Castlevania rather than hints of it might have been an option! While the environments might be very functional over full of character, they’re also very colourful and detailed, providing plenty of atmosphere, and they move well too. Just not very exciting! Apart from Freddy and his various incarnations, the characters themselves are also pretty generic, moving okay but without much personality. Freddy is definitely Freddy though, strangely even more so when he’s disembodied somehow, but the whole cartoon vibe pretty much negates any horror that might have been intended. Quick mention of the sound effects too because we didn’t earlier – same as the graphics, they’re punchy but not outstanding; I guess with that music they don’t need to be though. And with that, I reckon we should quickly jump to that Commodore 64 take on the game!
I realise I’m maybe doing this a huge disservice by trying to cram this into a footnote, though I’m not sure I want to play it for any longer than that demands! This came out around the same time as the NES game, and actually got a DOS release too, but despite also being based around the third film, it’s a totally different beast. You’ve got a choice of the cast of six victims from the film, each with their own special dream powers, then whoever you choose needs to first find Freddy’s house, track down the rest of the gang and take down the man himself. Both bits are top-down maze ‘em ups, with the first a tediously simple avoid Freddy search around the town with really crappy graphics, and the second a more complex set of levels to explore with less crappy graphics. I don’t know, some people might really dig this, but for me it plays like a budget Gauntlet with a few items to collect to make up for the lack of excitement, in a set of mazes that are far too big for their own good and it’s all very bland as a result. The loading screen is cool though, and the theme tune is alright, I suppose…
It’s got nothing on the NES version though, just like the rest of the game. And that version had been such a welcome surprise! In both cases, the setting, around the Dream Warriors film, makes total sense for a video game adaptation, with its character’s various Dream World abilities offering way more gameplay options than would otherwise be justifiable. And while we’re talking Dream Warriors, now would be a good time to decide that’s got to be my series favourite! So over the top, so brutal and so eighties! The NES game might not quite live up to that billing (thanks again Nintendo!), and it might not be a Legend of Zelda or a Mega Man 2, a Dr Mario or a Balloon Fight, but I’ve got to genuinely say that it’s made a rapid and wholly unexpected climb into my NES favourites list! It’s a very well-built platform adventure with occasional flourishes of creativity and atmosphere thanks to its Nightmare on Elm Street burnt and disfigured skin (in a very kid-friendly fashion!) that offers loads of challenge and loads of fun. And an absolutely sublime soundtrack… Just like its source material, which I am now going to go back for one more watch of to celebrate its new-found status!