Category Archives: Berzerk

Excerpt from screenshot of Berzerk, an arcade video game by Stern 1980

Video Games Go Berzerk

When the arcade ruled the entertainment landscape, I played a tonne of Berzerk, an arcade video game released by Stern in 1980.

Atari’s Gotcha might have been the first maze game, but Berzerk really brought the genre to life. You are a lone survivor of a robot uprising, racing through room after room trying to avoid the indigenous population of up to 11 of the murderous machines. If you touch one of them, you die. If you get shot by one of them, you die. You touch the walls, you die. You also cannot linger too long in a room, even if you clear out all of the robots, because soon Evil Otto will appear, pure hate in the form of a smiling, bouncing ball. Designer Alan McNeil based the game on his dreams, as well as taking inspiration from Fred Saberhagen’s Berzerker series of SF books. Otto himself comes from a security guard McNeil had run-ins with while working at Nutting Associates.

Even though it doesn’t seem to be part of a larger overall maze, running from room to room in Berzerk gave one a sense of wandering a complex, hopelessly lost and unsure of what you’ll face when you pass through the next door. It’s an extremely early example of an open-world game, although what kind of world and what you’re supposed to be doing besides surviving is anyone’s guess. Another thing that brought the game alive was the groundbreaking speech synthesis used to give voice to the robots, taunting the player with gems like “Chicken, fight like a robot!” and “The humanoid must not escape!”. If you dared try to walk past the cabinet in the arcade without stopping, you might be admonished with “Coins detected in pocket!”.

Berzerk rightfully earned a lot of love in the arcades, as well as at home with a wonderfully done adaptation to the Atari 2600 in 1981. This was followed by a version for Atari’s 5200 console, which actually included the speech. An arcade sequel was commissioned, released as Frenzy in 1982, although it didn’t meet with the same success.  The original, however, had a wide-ranging influence on the industry, including inspiring Eugene Jarvis to improve upon the formula with his classic Robotron: 2048, as well as the later Smash TV.

For more information on the history of Berzerk, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.