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BERZERK - Diary of an Arcade Employee Podcast

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The Diary of an Arcade Employee Podcast is a weekly podcast that dives deep into Arcade Life and takes a look back at classic coin-op games and arcade memories of yesteryear! The podcast is hosted by The Retroist's Vic Sage along with his arcade co-worker Andy Pickle. 




Berzerk video arcade game



This week's episode is about Berzerk, the 1980 multi-directional shooter video arcade game developed and released to arcades by Stern Electronics of Chicago




The player controls a green stick man. Using a joystick and a firing button that activates a laser-like weapon, the player navigates a simple maze filled with many robots, who fire lasers back at the player character. A player can be killed by being shot, by running into a robot or an exploding robot, coming into contact with the electrified walls of the maze itself, or by being touched by the player's nemesis, Evil Otto. 


As a player's score increases, the colors of the enemy robots change, and the robots can have more bullets on the screen at the same time. Once they reach the limit of simultaneous onscreen bullets, they cannot fire again until one or more of their bullets detonates; the limit applies to the robots as a group, not as individuals. The game allows up to six shots on the screen at one time, including the player and up to five from the robots at any one time.



Berzerk arcade gameplay



Evil Otto

The function of Evil Otto, represented by a bouncing smiley face, is to quicken the pace of the game. Otto is unusual, with regard to games of the period, in that there is no way to kill him. Otto can go through walls with impunity and is attracted to the player character. If robots remain in the maze Otto moves slowly, about half as fast as the humanoid, but he speeds up to match the humanoid's speed once all the robots are killed. Evil Otto moves exactly the same speed as the player going left and right but he can move faster than the player going up and down; thus, no matter how close Otto is, the player can escape as long as they can avoid moving straight up or down.




Another memorable feature is the action of the robots. Unlike adversaries in most other contemporary games, Berzerk's robots are known for being noticeably stupid, killing themselves by running into walls or each other, shooting each other, or colliding with Evil Otto. Since they shoot from the right and from the top, it is advantageous to shoot them from around walls coming from the left or from the bottom. This creates a substantial disadvantage for the second player for beginning players, since the second player starts on the right side of the screen. This can be corrected by exiting top or bottom on the first screen and then exiting right on the second screen. From then on, the second player can go left to right like the first player starts out. Anybody who can get through the second screen without losing a life consistently and who understands the left-to-right advantage no longer has a disadvantage for starting second. Thus, in championship play, a two-player game can be used without problem.












Alan McNeil, an employee of Stern Electronics, had a dream one night involving a black-and-white video game in which he had to fight robots. This dream, with heavy borrowing from the BASIC game Robots (Daleks in the UK), was the basis for Berzerk. The game was named after Fred Saberhagen's Berserker series of science fiction novels.


Evil Otto was named after Dave Otto, security chief at McNeil's former employer Dave Nutting Associates. According to McNeil, Otto would, "smile while he chewed you out." He would also lock McNeil and his fellow employees out of the building to enforce a noon-hour lunch, as well as piping beautiful music into every room.


The idea for the black-and-white game was abandoned when the color game Defender was released earlier the same year to significant success. At that point Stern decided to use a color overlay board for Berzerk. A quick conversion was made, and all but the earliest versions of the game shipped with a color CRT display. The game was test-marketed successfully at a Chicago singles bar before general release.




Berzerk for Atari 2600



Speech Synthesis

Berzerk is notably one of the first video games to use speech synthesis, featuring talking robots. In 1980, computer voice compression was extremely expensive—estimates were that this cost the manufacturer US$1,000 per word while the English version had a thirty-word vocabulary. Stern nevertheless did not spare this expense.


The game's voice synthesizer generates speech for the robots during certain in-game events:

  • "Coin detected in pocket": During attract mode, specifically while showing the high score list.
  • "Intruder alert! Intruder alert!": Spoken when Evil Otto appears.
  • "The humanoid must not escape" or "The intruder must not escape": Heard when the player escapes a room after destroying every robot.
  • "Chicken, fight like a robot": Heard when the player escapes a room without destroying every robot.
  • "Got the humanoid, got the intruder!": Heard when the player loses a life.

There is also random robot chatter playing in the background, phrases usually consisting of "Charge", "Attack", "Kill", "Destroy", "Shoot", or "Get", followed by "The Humanoid", "The intruder", "it", or "the chicken". The speed and pitch of the phrases vary, from deep and slow, to high and fast.




Berzerk board game from Milton Bradley



Home Releases of Berzerk

Berzerk was officially ported to the Atari 2600, Atari 5200, and Vectrex. The Atari 2600 version features an option in which Evil Otto could be temporarily killed, though he always returns. The Atari 5200 version is the only home version to include digitized speech. A port for the Atari 8-bit family of computers, identical to the Atari 5200 version, was ready in 1983, but was not published.


Milton-Bradley produced a Berzerk board game designed for two players, one playing Evil Otto and the robots, the other playing the hero. The playing pieces are plastic yellow rectangular panels that are labeled with the corresponding characters. The hero figure is differently shaped and labeled only on one side. It also has a slot in which a second piece is inserted representing the character's arms, both equipped with laser pistols. Pressing down on the back tab raises the guns and if the figure is properly positioned in the space, it knocks down a robot. Firing the weapon counts as one move.






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Here's what Vic Sage had to say about the episode:



Diary of an Arcade Employee Podcast – Episode 014 – Berzerk


View this episode at The Retroist


Welcome friends to the thirteenth episode of the Diary of An Arcade Employee podcast! Each show I will not only discuss a particular classic arcade game but share some behind the scenes information of what it’s like to work at a retro arcade. 


For this show I discuss Stern Electronics’ 1980 arcade classic “Berzerk”, I also share some of the more interesting history on the creation of the game as well as a few choice vintage video game commercials.

If you have any suggestions for future games to cover or comments on the show itself you may email them to me at VicSage@Retroist.com. You can also contact me on Twitter and of course on Facebook. You can also keep up to date on what is going down at the Arkadia Retrocade by making sure to “Like” their Facebook Page.
















Trivia: Berzerk is the first video game known to have coincided with the death of players. In January 1981, Jeff Dailey made the Berzerk top-ten list after posting a high score of 16,660 points and suddenly died of a heart attack at age 19 a few seconds after the game was over. One year later in October 1982, Peter Burkowski entered Friar Tuck's Game Room in Calumet City, Illinois and made the Berzerk top-ten list twice in fifteen minutes. Astonishingly, he collapsed just a few seconds after the game was over, before dying of a heart attack at age 18. His high scores are unknown.

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I have this game for the 2600 and 5200 consoles...although my 2600 copy looks like it seen some kind of oil as the label has a dark contrast. I never seen Berzerk in the arcades when I was a kid.  I enjoy both versions but the 5200 is mind blowing with that speech synthesis.  Impressive for the time.  Really good stuff here.   :berzerk:

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I have this one for the 2600 and Vectrex............. my Vectrex copy (my first cart - Christmas '82) is an original "bugged" GCE Berzerk cart from 1982. After scoring about 5,000 points, it goes "Berzerk" - makes different noises, blinks on and off, changes the score (usually in the 100k-400k range) and then loads the room with ALOT of robots shooting at the player like crazy!

Brian Matherne - owner/curator of "The MOST comprehensive list of Atari VCS/2600 homebrews ever compiled." http://tiny.cc/Atari2600Homebrew

author of "The Atari 2600 Homebrew Companion" book series available on Amazon! www.amazon.com/author/brianmatherne

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