Yet another Chicago-based pinball company, Stern Electronics, enters the arcade videogame scene with a vengeance with 1980’s Berzerk, an early entry in the maze game genre. Stern is founded by Gary Stern, who forms the company out of the ashes of Chicago Coin, a pinball and arcade amusement company started in 1932 and eventually entering bankruptcy in 1977. Employee Alan McNeil has just finished work on pinball game Meteor, a tie-in game with the 1979 special-effects extravaganza movie of the same name by American International Pictures. Stern brass then decide he and his team are ready to take on the video game market. Working at Stern subsidiary Universal Research Laboratories in the suburbs of Chicago, McNeil has an idea for a game based on a dream he has had of playing a B&W robot game, as well as reminisces of the classic BASIC game Robots (aka Daleks in the UK, from the salt-shaker shaped villains in their popular SF TV series Doctor Who). McNeil also draws inspiration for the game from Fred Saberhagen’s Berzerker series of SF novels about a race of murderous robots built by ancient beings, designed to destroy all life, and the band of Earth descendants who battle them. While games like Atari’s Indy 800 and Namco’s Galaxian have ushered in colour graphics, Stern amazingly sees colour as a fad and Berzerk’s video hardware initially matches McNeil’s black and white dream. But as more colour games start hitting the market, the system is quickly retooled to follow suit.
Intruder alert! Intruder alert!
In the game the player guides the onscreen runner through a series of mazes while avoiding the indigenous population…up to 11 robots each screen, spewing laser death. The humanoid must make his way past his adversaries to the exits at the top and sides of each screen, armed with only his own laser gun and his intelligence. The robots, however, are as dumb as posts…they often get in the way of each other’s shots or bump into one another, all such actions causing quick disintegration. Also for the player to avoid are the electrically charged walls, which spell destruction for all who touch them. And added to the mix is Evil Otto, pure malevolence in the form of a smiling, bouncing ball, used by McNeil in lieu of a forced time-limit to keep players from loitering in a room after the robots have been eliminated. He gets the name from Dave Otto, a sadistic security chief who had terrorized the Berzerk creator during his tenure at game maker Dave Nutting Associates, by locking McNeil and his fellow employees out of the building to enforce a noon-hour lunch, as well as piping “beautiful” music into every room. As the game progresses the robots get faster and Otto makes his appearance sooner. Along with some impressive character animations on the running humanoid and the shifty-eyed robots, Berzerk features groundbreaking speech synthesis, in the form of a National Speech microchip. 16 words are mixed up into a pool for the phrases, such as “Intruder Alert! Intruder Alert!”, “Chicken, fight like a robot!”, “Destroy the humanoid”,”The humanoid must not escape”, and the famous attract mode accusation “Coins detected in pocket!”. It isn’t a massive vocabulary, but with the cost of digitization at $1000 a word it’s the best the company can afford.
During the test-market phase at a Chicago singles bar, Berzerk proves to be a major attraction indeed. Upon release in 1980, the game goes on to become the biggest arcade hit for Stern, selling upwards of 50,000 units. A new building and three shifts are required to keep up with demand as 300 units are produced a day. This in spite of a dodgy optical joystick with the game that has to eventually be replaced by a Wico stick.
Destroy the Humanoid!
Unfortunately, Berzerk also goes down in the history books as the first videogame to apparently kill people. The first case is 19 year-old Jeff Dailey, who suffers a massive heart attack after posting a score of 16,660 on a Berzerk machine in January 1981. 18 year old Peter Burkowski is in Friar Tuck’s Game Room in Calumet City, Ill. for about 15 minutes at around 8:30pm Saturday April 3 1982, and puts his initials up twice on the high score list on the Berzerk machine there. He turns and puts a quarter into another machine, then falls to the ground. He is dead within half an hour. The cause of death is a heart attack, and while an autopsy finds previously undetected scar tissue at least two-weeks old on Burkowski’s heart, the coroner does not rule out prolonged stress from the videogame as the triggering factor. The Burkowski incident later becomes fodder for right wing cranks such as Phyllis Schafly in their support of laws to ban videogame sales to minors.
Despite the negative PR (which, lets face it, probably increases sales), Berzerk is followed by sequel Frenzy in 1982, also designed by McNeil under solicitation by URL even though he has left the company by this point, in order to use up surplus circuit boards left from Berzerk. It sports a slight increase in graphical quality, along with play improvements like walls you can shoot through, improved robot AI, reflecting laser shots and multiple Ottos. 3000 units are eventually shipped. Atari licenses Berzerk for their 2600 home console for a cool 4 million dollars and produces an amazingly faithful home version in August of 1982, resulting in a big hit. Alan McNeil’s salary for that year? $30,000.
McNeil goes on to further fame, however, as creator of Macromind’s Director and MediaMaker programs, which then evolve into MacroMedia, and eventually are folded into Abode’s Creative Suite bundle of media manipulation programs. While Stern themselves never quite reach the upper echelon of game producers like Atari and Midway, they are however one of the bigger secondary players in the arcade market, with titles including Astro Invader (1980), Scramble (1981), Super Cobra (1981), Amidar (1982), Bagman (1982), Pooyan (1982), and Tutankham (1982). They also ride the laser game fad with the anime-based Cliff Hanger in 1983.
Sources (inert links are kept for historical purposes)
Electro Mechanical Arcade Machines – historyofracinggames.files.wordpress.com/2007/06/005-em-machines4.pdf
The Arcade Flyer Archive – www.arcadeflyers.com/?page=home
CoinOpSpace.com – Berzerk – Classic Arcade Game Forum – www.coinopspace.com
Atari Age, “EPROM Report”, pg. 9 Vol. 1 Num. 2 (relaunch), Jul/Aug 1982
wikia – Frenzy – Encyclopedia Gamia – gaming.wikia.com/wiki/Frenzy
Video Games, “Blips – Death of a Video Gamer”, by Stephen Kiesling, pgs. 14 – 15, Oct 1982
Amicus Brief, Eagle Forum Education & Legal Defense, In Support of Petitioners against Video Software Dealers Association and Entertainment Software Association, Jun 22, 2009, pg. 14
Thanks to Alan McNeil for his additional information provided for this entry.