Retro Review: Berzerk smiles as it tries to destroy you0 Comments
Reviewed on: Arcade
Also available on: Atari 2600, Vectrex, Atari 5200
Developer: Alan McNeil
It was one of the most intense games of the early 1980s, and one of the most successful. Stern's Berzerk was a huge hit, so much so that it spawned t-shirts, board games, and even a song. It was one of the earliest games accused of inspiring real-world violence, and after a player dropped dead following an afternoon of playing the game, Berzerk was also used to claim how video games were bad for our health. It was ported onto numerous home video game consoles of the time and, if it hadn't been for Pac-Man and Defender, the game might have been the next king of the arcade earnings charts.
Then, the party was over. When the American video game industry crashed in 1983, Berzerk just sort of vaporized. When the industry made a comeback in the late 80s, seemingly every arcade classic came along with it, except Berzerk. There have been no official home console ports since the pre-crash Atari days, no retro remakes on Steam or Xbox Live, and no smartphone or tablet versions.
To look at the game is to look back in time, a factor that might be at least part of the reason behind Berzerk's relative fall from grace. Whereas other classics such as Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and Centipede contained distinct and colorful on-screen characters, Berzerk was somewhat plain. You are a "humanoid" who is represented on-screen by a simple stick figure who runs funny and has no neck attaching his head to his body. You are trapped in a simple maze, surrounded by robots who are attempting to shoot you. The robots are a bit fancier, yet still rather basic, somewhat resembling the Cyclons from the original Battlestar Galactica TV show, which was popular around the time this game came out.
The reason for this simplicity is more of a result of the era in which Berzerk was made. Younger gamers might be shocked to learn that color graphics were considered an arcade game luxury until the end of 1970s. When this game went into production, the graphics were designed with black and white monitors in mind. A late change to the hardware attempted to turn the game into a color title, a factor that somewhat ages the game. That aside, the graphics are just one factor. To truly review Berzerk, they must be looked past.
Each room has an exit that can be taken at any time, even without destroying all of the robots within it. This makes Berzerk into more of a survival game well before that sort of term existed. The sales materials for the game boasted that Berzerk contained tens of thousands of room combinations. The walls are electrified, so contact with them will result in the loss of your humanoid.
Each room has a certain number of robots, which vary in difficulty based on their colors. The robots aren't too bright, and they can suffer from the same dangers as the player. They can be led into shooting each other or walking into the same electrified walls that are a danger to you, a factor that is pretty fun once you get the hang of it. You just can't take too much time playing with the robots, as there is one more enemy in the game.
Evil Otto is a bouncing smiley face with the power to destroy everything. He comes out in Berzerk once you've spent too much time in a single room, with this speed and timing varying throughout the game. Walls mean nothing to Otto, who can and will bounce right through them as he aims you down. The enemy robots also mean nothing to him, as he will plow right through them as well. When Otto gets hold of you, he will not only destroy you but do so while continuing to smile. He will also bounce on top of you as you die, a move that could arguably be credited as video gaming's first example of teabagging. There's nothing you can do but run from Otto, who cannot be shot or killed. The constant fear that Otto will appear, especially when you are pinned into a corner with no exit, is one of the things that makes Berzerk work in the gameplay department.
The game also uses an early example of voice, another factor that hasn't aged well, but nonetheless is fun for what it is. The robots will scream out about their desires to "Destroy the Humanoid" while you engage them, but the real fun comes when you take an exit. The robots will then trash talk you, doubting your ability to escape them for long and even shouting "Chicken, fight like a robot" as you move to the next screen.
Berzerk is hard, easily one of the hardest games from the early 80s arcade era. It is also slow and clunky, especially when compared to the fast-action of many other far more famous coin-ops from that time period. These issues, combined with the graphics, seem to answer the question as to why Berzerk might have been left behind, even as other titles from the first "golden age" seem to continue to live on. However, all of that aside, the game is fun, the only factor that should matter, and the reason why older players should revisit the game and why younger players should give it a go as well.
One saving grace regarding Berzerk's simplicity is that it ported well to the very limited home consoles of the era. While the average person might not have some of the consoles it was released for laying around, the Atari Video Computer System - or 2600 - version is one of the more accurate arcade game ports ever made for the console. And it is common and cheap, too, so if you have a 2600 or can get one, it is an easy way to see what Berzerk was about.
If you'd prefer to try or rediscover the arcade original, there are still ways to do that as well. According to website database Aurcade, there are more than 20 gaming locations in North America which still have one up and running, including Chicago-area super arcade Galloping Ghost, the famous Funspot in New Hampshire, and Brewcade in San Francisco. Berzerk might not have aged as well as some of the early arcade classics, but you should still check it out and see how the game's fun and challenge have remained timeless.