A Nightmare on Elm Street (Rare/LJN, 1990)
To kick off this month’s series of game reviews, we’re headed back the NES to look at one of my personal favorites. It’s a game I consider to be underrated, and it stars one of horror’s contemporary icons… Freddy Krueger.
Released in October 1990, Nightmare on Elm Street was one of the first notable titles for the NES to take advantage of its blossoming 4-player capability, using the Four Score or Satellite peripheral devices to connect four controllers to the console and allow up to four separate players to enjoy the action. While this aspect of the game has its ups and downs, Nightmare is actually a pretty solid platform style title. It gets a bad rap because it was published by LJN, who were notorious for squirting out turd after turd for the NES. However, the actual game itself was developed by Rare, the same company that went on to make Battletoads and other incredible games for the NES and other systems. When played with 1 or 2 players, Nightmare isn’t too different from what you’d expect… but remember, in the dream world, nothing is exactly as it seems.
The storyline is actually a bare-bones version of the plot for NoES 3: Dream Warriors, which is maybe the best of the original run of films. Freddy is killing teens in their dreams, and no one can stop him but you. To put the razor-fingered maniac in Hell where he belongs, you must gather all of his bones (which, in a startling attempt at realism, look exactly like cartoon dog bones) and burn them in his boiler room in the high school. The undead murderer doesn’t plan on making this easy for you, even when you’re wide awake; he’s somehow recruited zombies, wolves, and all manner of other baddies to head you off at the pass. You can drift into the dream world during gameplay, however, and that’s got its own pros and cons. On the upside, when you’re dreaming, you can use tokens you found while awake to transform into one of three forms: a wizard, acrobat, or ninja. Unfortunately, Freddy can do all kinds of crazy shit to give you a headache in the dream world, including paying you a personal visit. Not to mention that all the normal bad guys mutate and become much tougher, making getting around a little more challenging than it already was. If you want to stay awake and just use your fists, picking up coffee will help you keep going. While in the dream world, you can also find a boom box that jars you awake and returns things to normal. This whole duality adds an interesting element to the game by allowing you a little bit of choice: do you engage Freddy Krueger on his terms or yours, going for a pitched-up fight or a slower, more cautious approach?
NES enthusiasts have mixed feelings on Nightmare’s gameplay experience. I find the controls to be responsive and the difficulty to be somewhere around “moderate.” It’s got a lot of things like spikes and falling rocks (Freddy’s obviously called in a lot of weird favors here), but with patience and a good sense of timing, any competent player can eventually make it through the hard parts. Your basic punch, to be frank, kind of sucks; it’s often better to let yourself fall asleep, turn into the acrobat, and take advantage of his ranged javelin and superior mobility. Most of the enemies just move in set patterns, jumping or shambling in a predictable way. The enemies are goofy as hell, not just because they have nothing to do with the franchise being represented, but because they basically look like stuff you’d see on a cartoon about Dracula. Still, if you can detach yourself from how murdered the authenticity is, the game’s worth playing. Every boss is some interpretation of Freddy, and he can also show up out of nowhere (to some pretty kickass music) if you stay in the dream world too long. The “1, 2, Freddy’s coming for you” music will start to play as a warning, and then this screen pops up to let you know it’s party time:
This form of Freddy isn’t actually that bad, jumping from side to side and taking a good hearty swipe at anyone nearby. If you do get hit by him though, he really lays it in. After all, he IS Freddy.
What really falls short is the multiplayer experience. Because it’s a side-scroller, having four players onscreen can really gum up your progress. It requires a lot of teamwork to keep from screwing each other constantly, getting stuck, or having to backtrack. You also have to remember to pick up every bone. You can blaze right through a whole stage, and then have to go back and look for the one bone you missed… it won’t let you go forward until you do.
The graphics are just okay. I’m not going to spend much time talking about them. It’s pretty easy to tell what’s what, and the background visuals at least match where you are (junkyards, houses, etc.). The title screen looks pretty good, but even that isn’t anything to write love poems about. The music is pretty good, or at least more memorable. Some of it’s a bit meandering and trite, but Freddy’s music and this level theme are examples of where the soundtrack really shines.
One interesting thing I learned while reading up on this one: the game was originally meant to be very different. The original plot had you controlling Freddy himself, killing those very same kids trying to burn his bones. A similar approach had failed with the Atari 2600’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre game, and so the idea was revamped before work begun. It is likely there would have been some controversy; killing kids is a shaky foundation for the premise of a video game… that will likely be played by kids.
Overall, I’d give Nightmare on Elm Street 6 out of 10. It’s better than a lot of critics may say, and while the 4 player thing doesn’t fly too well, the game plays no worse than a lot of prominent titles of the time period. Plus, I’ve always loved Freddy. I have the 7 DVD set, t shirts, even the action figure and other collectibles. Krueger is a big part of 80s horror, and if you bought or rented a lot of games, it’s likely you tried this one at least once. I, for one, always thought it was pretty good.