Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


Screenshot of Berzerk arcade game

Berzerk is a shooter video game, released in 1980 by Stern Electronics of Chicago.

The player is in control of a green stick-figure, representing a "humanoid." Using a joystick (and a firing button to activate a laser-like weapon), the player negotiates a maze filled with as many as eleven robots, who fire lasers back at the player character. A player can be killed by being shot, by running into a robot, by running into a wall of the maze, or by being touched by the player's nemesis, "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, but he speeds up once all the robots are killed.

The player advances by escaping from the maze through an opening at one of the far walls. Each robot destroyed is worth 50 points. Ideally, all the robots in the current maze have been destroyed before the player escapes, thus gaining the player a per-maze bonus (ten points per robot). The game has 64,000 mazes, and each level is designed to be more difficult to finish than the last. It has only one controller, but two-player games can be accomplished by alternating at the joystick.


Alan McNeil, an employee of Universal Research Laboratories (a division 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, which was named for Fred Saberhagen's Berserker series of science fiction novels. ("Evil Otto" was named for a disliked fellow-employee.)

The idea for a 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.


Probably the best-remembered feature of Berzerk is that the robots talk (thus making it one of the earliest talking games). While the game remains unplayed, the robots will taunt potential players with the phrase "coins detected in pocket." Evil Otto's entrance into play is announced with "Intruder Alert!" Successful destruction of the robots and escape from the maze results in the lament, "The humanoid must not escape!" If the player escapes the maze without destroying all the robots however, the remaining ones will tease, "Chicken! Fight like a robot!"

In 1980 computer voice simulation was extremely expensive—estimates were that this accomplishment cost the manufacturer US$1,000 per word; the English version had a thirty-word vocabulary. Stern nevertheless did not spare this expense, and some non-English versions were made, for example a Spanish version in which the robots would say "Intruso alerta" and "El humanoide no debe escapar."

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. Advanced players learned how to manipulate this quirk to their advantage to achieve a higher score. Notably, points and bonuses for the player are the same regardless of whether he or she personally kills the robots or not—as long as the robots are destroyed, the points are awarded. This feature also somewhat balanced the indestructibility of Evil Otto.

A free man can be awarded at 5,000 and 10,000 points, set by internal DIP switches. As a player's score increases, the color of the robots changes (yellow, to red, to light blue, to yellow/green, to purple, back to yellow, and then to white). The color change recycles at 10,000 points; after 20,000 points the robots stay light blue for the remainder of play.


The game was originally planned around a Motorola 6809E processor, but problems with the external clock for this CPU led to its abandonment in favor of a Zilog Z80.

The game units were particularly known for failure of the optical joystick unit; Stern suffered the cancellation of about 4,200 orders for new games because of previous purchasers' bad experiences with these joysticks. The company responded by issuing free replacement joysticks in a leaf-switch design by Wico.

Berzerk was the first video game known to have been involved in the death of a player. In January 1981, 19-year-old Jeff Dailey died of a heart attack soon after posting a score of 16,660 on Berzerk. In October of the following year, Peter Burkowski made the Berzerk top-ten list twice in fifteen minutes, just a few seconds before also dying of a heart attack at the age of 18.


Berzerk was later ported to several home game machines, including the Apple II, Atari 2600, Atari 5200, and Vectrex. ROMs also exist for use with the MAME videogame emulator.

Stern later released a similar game called Frenzy as a sequel, and a Berzerk console can be converted to Frenzy simply by replacing one processor (ZPU-1000 to ZPU-1001). The game also served as an inspiration for later, more sophisticated robot-based games such as Xybots and Robotron: 2084, as well as (less directly) Castle Wolfenstein and DOOM.

External links