Berzerk was released in October 1980 in the USA.
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. 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.
The title of the game comes from the series of books called 'The Berzerker Stories' by Fred Saberhagen. It's a novel about robots which go Berzerk and kill everybody.
Berzerk is the first robot killing game but the big selling point of Berzerk was speech.
From Tony Miller : "The speech was done using LPC coding that I believe was invented by T.I., although I remember we used a National Speech chip in it. This was when speech and memory was expensive, so we didn't just digitize sounds and dump them out through a DAC. I remember it cost something like $1000 per word to have the compression done, so we tried to come up with a limited vocabulary which could be rearranged and reused as much as possible.There was some guy up in Silicon Gulch who did this stuff for a living - so it is possible to make money while talking in a monotone.".
The Artist Richard D. James, using his alter ego Caustic Window, has the sample : 'Humanoid must not escape' from this game in his song with the same name as the sample. It's from the album 'Caustic Window Compilation'.
Berzerk was also the first game to attempt a bit of on-screen comedy. Your robot opponents often fell foul of slapstick misfortune, shooting each other in the head or walking into walls and exploding in their attempts to kill you. And if you legged it out of a room without killing them all, the survivors would taunt you in their Speak & Spell voices : "Chicken! Fight like a robot!". Okay, it's not hilarious, but even Bob Monkhouse had to start somewhere. Sometimes when you escape as above, it will just utter "Chicken
'Evil Otto' was named for 'Dave Otto', who worked for Dave Nutting's Arcade Engineering group as R & D director at the time Alan McNeil did. 'Evil Otto' can be considered one of the most intimidating video game villains of all time. He is, and even travels through walls, preventing a player from loafing in the room. He resembles a bouncing smiley face, and has been called a 'Malicious basketball' by some.
Berzerk was Stern's first major video game success. It was made in both upright (approx. 37500 units) and cocktail (approx. 1200 units) models. Berzerk suffered a bit in sales due to frequent breakdowns of it's original giant sized optical 8-way joystick. Approximately 4200 orders were canceled by distributors and operators whose machines were frequently down from the opto-stick. Stern issued free WICO leaf switch sticks to operators after they had so much trouble with the optical stick, but this still hurt sales.
Berzerk shares a rather chilling distinction of being the first known game to be blamed for an actual player's death. In January 1981, Jeff Dailey was the first person to die playing a video game, a 19-year old Berzerk player, died of a massive heart attack right after playing his favorite game. His score was 16,660 (a very respectable score but disturbing for obvious reasons). On an equally distressing note, in October 1982 at the 'Friar Tuck Game Room' in Calumet City, Illinois : 18-year old Peter Burkowski, a physically healthy person who was alcohol-free and drug-free, inscribed his initials in Berzerk's top ten list twice in a matter of only 15 minutes. A few seconds after that, he collapsed and died of a heart attack.
In Retrogamer Issue #47, Alan McNeil addressed these legends, and has a different perspective: "...one player did die while playing the game (Alan refutes reports that claim two died). The unfortunate fellow was obese and had run upstairs to play the game", Alan explains: "The legend is he set a high score and died, but the owner of the arcade said he didn’t finish the game – he was out of breath from the moment he arrived until he dropped. The legend is way better than reality: the excitement of playing a game killing a player after setting a high score..."
Steve Wagner holds the official record for this game on the 'Fast Bullets' setting with 350340 points on March 12, 2009.
Phil Younger holds the official record for this game on the 'Slow Bullets' setting with 304570 points on August 12, 2007.
A Berzerk unit appears in the 1982 movie 'Tron' and in the 1983 movie 'Joysticks'.
A Berzerk unit appears in the ZZ Top music video 'Legs'.
Milton Bradley (MB) released a board game based on this video game (same name) in 1983. 'Can You Survive the Frenzied Attack of the Robot Army?' In this board game version, 2 players face off. One player controls the Humanoid and the other player controls Evil Otto and the robots. Players alternate sides for a maximum of three rounds or until both have been zapped three times and destroyed as the Humanoid. Humanoid lives are represented by chips placed in front of the player. Each time a player's Humanoid is zapped, the player surrenders one chip. Once a player loses all three chips, that player's Humanoid is destroyed, and therefore he/she cannot control the Humanoid for the rest of the game. The object of the game is to zap more robots while controlling the Humanoid than your opponent.
Berzerk inspired a catchy hit song by Buckner and Garcia called 'Goin' Berzerk' released on the 'Pac-Man Fever' album, here are the full lyrics! :
Humanoid - This is you.
You can move in eight directions.
Once you start you're never done.
You can go from room to room,
You can crawl or you can run.
You can wander through the maze.
It's a wonderland at night,
You can stop and aim your gun when,
there's a robot in your sights.
Robots - The various colored robots.
I think I'm going berzerk.
I think I'm losing my mind.
I'm getting lost in the shuffle.
It happens every time.
I think I'm going berzerk.
Would you like to come to?
I can't stop now - I'm addicted!
I'm berzerk over you.
Evil Otto - The bouncing smiley face.
If we fight this thing together
there's a chance that we might win.
Now here comes Evil Otto,
push the fire buttons in.
I'm sure he's crazy too because
he's bouncing off the floor.
There's no way to destroy him ,
let him bounce right out the door.
The speech, 'Humanoid' and 'Intruder Alert!' featured heavily in 1988's seminal UK Acid track, 'Stakker Humanoid' by later Future Sound of London member Brian Dougans. His use of distortion and slightly lower pitch, leaves the game sounding quite tame by comparison...