Berzerk (video game)

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North American cover of the Atari 2600 version of the game
Developer(s) Stern Electronics
Publisher(s) Stern Electronics
Designer(s) Alan McNeil
Platform(s) Arcade game, Atari 2600, Atari 5200, GCE Vectrex
Release November 12, 1980 (Arcade)[1]
1982 (GCE Vectrex)
August 1982 (Atari 2600)
1983 (Atari 5200)
Genre(s) Multi-directional shooter/Run and gun
Mode(s) Up to 2 players, alternating turns
Cabinet Standard and cocktail
CPU Z80 2.50 MHz
Sound TSI S14001A ~20 kHz (Variable), M6840 PTM 5.0 MHz
Display Raster, standard resolution (Used: 256 × 224), 16 colors, 19 inch

Berzerk is a multi-directional shooter video arcade game, released in 1980 by Stern Electronics of Chicago. It is one of the canonical examples of a maze game, in which the player has to navigate around a maze-like building while shooting enemies.


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, get electrocuted by the electrified walls of the maze itself, 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, 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.

The player advances by escaping from the maze through an opening in the far wall. 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 65,536 rooms (256×256 grid), but due to limitations of the random number generation there are fewer than 1,024 maze layouts (876 unique). It has only one controller, but two-player games can be accomplished by alternating at the joystick.

The game is most difficult when the player enters a new maze, as there is only a short interval between entering the maze and all the robots in range firing at the player. For the beginner, this often means several deaths in rapid succession, as each death means starting a new maze layout.

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.

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.

Two different versions of the game were released. In the original version, the sequence goes as follows:

  • Dark yellow robots that do not fire
  • Red robots that can fire 1 bullet (500 points)
  • Dark cyan robots that can fire 2 bullets (1,500 points)

In this version of the game, after 5,000 points to the end, Evil Otto doubles his speed, moving as fast as the player while robots remain in the maze, and twice as fast as the player after all the robots are destroyed, .

The revised version, which had the much larger production run of the two, features a longer color sequence after the cyan robots:

  • Green robots that fire 3 bullets (3k)
  • Dark purple robots that fire 4 bullets (4.5k)
  • Light yellow robots that fire 5 bullets (6k)
  • White robots that fire 1 fast bullet (7.5k)
  • Dark cyan robots that fire 2 fast bullets (10k)
  • Light purple robots that fire 3 fast bullets (11k)
  • Gray robots that fire 4 fast bullets (13k)
  • Dark yellow robots that fire 5 fast bullets (15k)
  • Red robots that fire 5 fast bullets (17k)
  • Light cyan robots that fire 5 fast bullets (19k)

The game allows up to six shots on the screen at one time. This include the player, and five total from any robots at any one time.

To balance the greatly increased threat from the robots in the second version, Evil Otto's pursuit speed remains at its normal level—half or equal the player's speed—throughout.

In both versions, a free man can be awarded at 5,000 or 10,000 points, set by internal DIP switches; no extra lives thereafter.


In the game, the player's objective is to destroy robots and navigate a maze of randomly generated rooms.

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.[2]

"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."[3] 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.[2]

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.[4] 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 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.[4]

The game units were particularly known for failure of the optical 8-way 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.[4]

Speech synthesis[edit]

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;[4] 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. (The "got the intruder" part is a minor third higher than the "got the humanoid" part.)

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 last only if the player got the "Chicken, fight like a robot" message from the previous room), creating sentences such as "Attack it", "Get the Humanoid", "Destroy the intruder", "Kill the chicken", and so on. The speed and pitch of the phrases vary, from deep and slow, to high and fast.

The text for phrases like "Insert Coin," "Press Start," "High Scores" is in English, French, German and Spanish. MAME source code also shows those languages as DIP switch settings.


Berzerk was well received, with the Atari 2600 version picking up a Certificate of Merit in the category of "Best Solitaire Video Game" at the 4th annual Arkie Awards.[5]:30 In 2010, IGN Evil Otto was ranked 78th in "Top 100 Videogames Villains".[6]


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, though the 2600 version was hacked in 2002 to include speech.[7] A port for the Atari 8-bit family of computers, identical to the Atari 5200 version, was ready in 1983, but was not published.[8]

A portable version of Berzerk was planned by Coleco, similar in design to its line of VFD tabletop games including Pac-Man and Frogger, but was never released.[9]

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.

In 1982, Stern released Frenzy as a sequel. A Berzerk coin-op can be converted to Frenzy simply by replacing one processor (ZPU-1000 to ZPU-1001) and installing a different ROM.

Berzerk was released for iOS in 2013 as part of the Vectrex Regeneration app.[10]

High score competition[edit]

The world record high score for the Arcade version of Berzerk (fast bullets setting) is 350,340 by Steve Wagner of the USA.[11][not in citation given]

While playing at the "E for All" event in the Los Angeles Convention Center on October 4, 2008, Phil Younger, of Whittier, USA, scored 401,130 points on the slow bullet version of Berzerk, beating the long-standing world record of 178,500 points logged by Ron Bailey of Shelby, USA, on August 30, 1982. With Twin Galaxies founder Walter Day in attendance as the official referee, Younger's gameplay employed the controversial "box pattern," which was described in Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade, a documentary film screened at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. The film featured Berzerk rivals, Ron Bailey, Chris Ayra and Joel West who argued the relative merits of using the box pattern. Bailey and West were among a select group of video game superstars who posed for a famous LIFE Magazine group photo at Twin Galaxies in Ottumwa, Iowa on November 7, 1982. This group photograph was the subject of Chasing Ghosts, which followed the lives of these gamers and, in part, focused on Bailey and West as they discussed their plans to win back the Berzerk crown from Chris Ayra.

In popular culture[edit]

Berzerk is the first video game known to have coincided with the death of a player. 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.[12][13]


  • In 1982, Buckner & Garcia recorded a song titled "Goin' Berzerk", using sound effects from the game, and released it on the album Pac-Man Fever.[14]
  • 1988 saw the release of the acid-house track Stakker Humanoid, which made prominent use of the "humanoid" and "intruder alert" samples and laser gunshot sound effects from the game. The track reached #1 on the UK Dance Chart that year, and came to be considered a classic of Rave history, as evidenced by the numerous remixes and compilation re-releases[15] in the years since; it has been described as a "hard techno anthem"[16] and an "international acid house hit"[17] in Mixmag.
  • Richard D. James recorded a track entitled "Humanoid Must Not Escape", which samples the eponymous robot quote, for alias Caustic Window's 1998 album Compilation.[18] James later reused samples from the video game in the song 54 Cymru Beats on his 2001 album Drukqs under his Aphex Twin alias.[19]
  • In 2001, hard dance producers Knuckleheadz released a track titled 'Bezerk' (sic) which features the game's "Humanoid" and "Got the intruder" samples throughout.[20]
  • The name of the chipspeech character Otto Mozer is based on Evil Otto. The character's voice is based on the same synthesizer used for the game and appears in a cover of "Stakker Humanoid" for an official album.[21][22]


  • In the sitcom My Name is Earl (Season 1, Episode 8), the character "Crabman" is portrayed, playing Berzerk and scoring high. He afterwards would take a polaroid photograph of the screen, pinning the highscore to his personal wall of fame.[23]
  • In the Futurama episode "Fear of a Bot Planet", the Anti-Human Patrol robots, along with the PA loudspeaker, use the sound samples of "Get the humanoid!" and "Intruder alert! Intruder alert!" from the original game.[24] The episode "Anthology of Interest II" features an actual robot from the game, and the spoken line of the robot references the style of the sound samples ("Fork 'em over! FORK 'EM OVER!").[25]
  • In The Simpsons episode "Homer Goes to College", Homer visits some nerds who mutter "Intruder alert" and "Stop the humanoid".[26]
  • In the NewsRadio episode "Rosebowl", news director Dave Nelson introduces an unpopular new employee evaluation system. In the fracas following the adoption of this new system, Dave is referred to as "Evil Otto" by the two news anchors, Bill McNeal and Catherine Duke.[27]
  • In The Venture Bros. episode "A Party for Tarzan", Henchman 21 claims that, while attacking Doctor Vibrations with the rest of The Monarch's henchmen, the doctor fell over dead from what 21 assumes to be "happiness", which he compares to Peter Burkowski's death while playing Berzerk (though he refers to Burkowski as "Jeff Daily").


  1. ^ "Stern Production Numbers and More CCI Photos". May 1, 2012. Retrieved July 21, 2013. 
  2. ^ a b "Berzerk - The Dot Eaters". Retrieved January 28, 2009. 
  3. ^ Thomasson, Michael. "Berzerk". Manci Games Magazine, Issue #2. Manci Games Publishing. Archived from the original on 2008-10-15. 
  4. ^ a b c d "Berzerk - Videogame by Stern Electronics". Retrieved March 14, 2015. 
  5. ^ Kunkel, Bill; Katz, Arnie (February 1983). "Arcade Alley: The Fourth Annual Arcade Awards". Video. Reese Communications. 6 (11): 30, 108. ISSN 0147-8907. 
  6. ^ "Evil Otto is number 78". IGN. Archived from the original on March 9, 2012. Retrieved March 14, 2015. 
  7. ^ "Atari 2600 Hacks – Berzerk Voice Enhanced". 2011. Retrieved September 23, 2011. 
  8. ^ Reichert, Matt. "Berzerk". Retrieved September 19, 2014. 
  9. ^ "Coleco Berzerk". Coleco Handheld Games. Handheld Games Museum. Retrieved January 12, 2009. 
  10. ^ 2013 Vectrex Regeneration
  11. ^ Archived October 4, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
  12. ^ Kiesling, Stephen (October 1982). "Death of a Video Gamer". Video Games: 14–15. 
  13. ^ "Berzerk". The International Arcade Museum®, Museum of the Game®. 2016. 
  14. ^ Allmusic: Pac-Man Fever
  15. ^ "Humanoid". Discogs. Retrieved 27 April 2016. 
  16. ^ 1993 Mixmag interview, From archived press cuttings at FSOL fansite
  17. ^ 1996 Mixmag interview, as above
  18. ^ Allmusic: Compilation
  19. ^ Allmusic: Drukqs
  20. ^ "Knuckleheadz - Bezerk / You Can Feel It". Discogs. Retrieved 27 April 2016. 
  21. ^ "Plogue - chipspeech :: Vintage speech synthesizer". PLOGUE - Music Software - Developers. Retrieved 27 April 2016. 
  22. ^ "chipspeech AUTOMATE SONGS .01 - ToyCompany". ToyCompany. 14 January 2015. Retrieved 27 April 2016. 
  23. ^ "Gaming Steve - My Name Is Earl". Archived from the original on September 28, 2011. Retrieved September 1, 2011. 
  24. ^ "Futurama Madhouse - The Leela Zone". Archived from the original on August 28, 2008. Retrieved March 12, 2009. 
  25. ^ "Futurama Madhouse - The Leela Zone". Archived from the original on August 28, 2008. Retrieved March 12, 2009. 
  26. ^ Conan O'Brien (writer); Jim Reardon (director) (2002). "[1F02] Homer Goes to College". Retrieved September 23, 2011. When he greets the three nerds, who are tapping furiously at their keyboards, they answer in robotic voices, 'Intruder Alert', and laugh. 
  27. ^ "Episode Guide: The Third Season". Retrieved June 30, 2009. 

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