Berzerk is a 1980 video game developed by Stern Electronics of Chicago. Supposedly Alan McNeil, the designer of Berzerk, had a dream about a black and white video game involving fighting robots. During the development of Berzerk, Defender was released and the decision was made to release Berzerk in color instead of B&W. A few early units were, supposedly, released in B&W with color overlays. The color units were produced in two distinct batches with the second batch having more variety in the colors of the robots and the number of bullets that they fire. The Berzerk arcade systems are based around a Z80 CPU and it is one of the first video games to feature speech synthesis. This may not seem like a big deal in 2013, but it was really amazing in 1980. The first time anyone played Berzerk, they had to be amazed to hear the game talk to them!
The concept of Berzerk is pretty simple…the player is a humanoid in a maze with a bunch of killer robots. To survive, you must shoot the robots before they shoot you. You also have to avoid running into the robots, the electrified walls, and Evil Otto. Evil Otto adds a significant amount of complexity to the game as you must avoid him as you can not kill him. Alan supposedly named Evil Otto after the security chief at a previous employer. The robots in Berzerk are not the ‘sharpest tools in the shed’ as they have a tendency to kill themselves by running into the walls or each other. Although the concept of the game is simple, players would find themselves putting quarter after quarter into the game. Berzerk was the first popular ‘shoot em up’ video game and all of today’s popular shooter games can trace their roots back to 1980. Berzerk was ported to the Vectrex and the Atari 2600 and 5200 consoles.
In 1982, Stern followed up Berzerk with Frenzy. Frenzy was similar, but a little more difficult than Berzerk. There are several key differences between Berzerk and Frenzy. In Frenzy:
- The walls are not electrified
- Portions of the walls can be shot through, other parts ‘reflect’ bullets
- The humanoid will not die if he comes into contact with a robot
- Crazy Otto can be shot and ‘temporarily’ killed
- Every fourth screen, there are interactive maze elements
At least in Frenzy, it is possible to kill Evil Otto. Frenzy was ported to the Colecovision, but not to any Atari home consoles.
The 2600 version of Berzerk was released in 1982 and was a smash hit. Berzerk’s simple graphics were faithfully replicated on the 2600 and the game play was almost identical to the arcade. Atari included 12 variations including ones with and without Evil Otto, non-shooting Robots, and even one where Evil Otto can be shot and will disappear for a few seconds. I fondly remember playing Berzerk over and over on my Sears Video Arcade (Atari 2600) in the early 80′s. It is a fantastic game and there was something cool about the green label and box. There was one big thing missing, however, from Atari’s 2600 version…voice synthesis. Back in 1982, most of us figured that this just could not be done on a 2600.
In 2002, Mike Mika proved this wrong when he developed an improved version of Berzerk featuring voice synthesis. In ‘Berzerk Voice Enhanced‘, Mike also improved the graphics to make them more closely resemble the arcade. At various points in Mike’s version you will hear ‘intruder alert!’, ‘chicken, fight like a robot’, and ‘humanoid must not escape’. Berzerk is a great game for the 2600, but Berzerk VE is an outstanding game that belongs in every 2600 collection!
The 5200 version of Berzerk was released in 1983 and became an instant classic. Like its 2600 cousin, the 5200 version faithfully replicates the arcade graphics and game play. The 5200 version takes it to the next level, however, and features full voice synthesis. Mike’s Berzerk VE for the 2600 is pretty awesome, but the 5200 version is one step better. The voice synthesis is tied to the game play so that when Evil Otto is about to appear, you will hear ‘intruder alert!’. The 5200 port is one of the best arcade conversions in the 5200 library and belongs in every 5200 collection. The only thing missing is a coin slot and ‘coins detected in pocket’.
Sadly, no 7800 version of Berzerk was developed. Until this week, 7800 fans had to settle for playing the 2600 version of Berzerk or Berzerk VE on their 7800. This coming weekend, at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo, everything changes as Berzerk/Frenzy will be released for the 7800 by AtariAge. The latest game(s) from 7800 master programmer Bob ‘PacManPlus’ DeCrescenzo, will be released with a full color box and eight page manual. Bob has managed to pack both Berzerk and Frenzy into a single 48K, non-bank switched cart. Even more amazingly, the games feature voice synthesis for an authentic, arcade quality experience. If that wasn’t good enough, Bob includes two player versions of the games as well. Having tested the latest release candidate for these two games, I can say that Bob has done a fantastic job! For those lucky enough to be in Portland this weekend, be sure to pick up a copy for your collection. For those of you who can’t make it to Portland, don’t worry, Berzerk/Frenzy will soon be available in the AtariAge store.
One really cool note that I should add is that Alan McNeil was an adviser on this project and assisted Bob with tips and ideas for the games. Thus, Bob’s 7800 versions are as close to the arcade originals as possible, given the constraints of the 7800.
Berzerk is now available for all three Atari systems and there is no bad version. If you have a 2600, go for the Voice Enhanced version as the voice really makes this game. The 5200 version is one of that console’s best arcade ports and belongs in every library. For 7800 fans, Bob’s Berzerk/Frenzy is destined to become another classic that fills a void in that console’s library. No matter which console you have, Berzerk belongs in your collection. If you are lucky enough to have a 7800, you will absolutely want to get a copy of Bob’s new game!