Berzerk is another classic that doesn’t seem like I should bother reviewing. Everybody knows it is a classic. Everybody has played it, and every major YouTube star on the internet has told you how awesome it is. Except they haven’t. I’m always finding myself surprised when someone over the age of 30 tells me they haven’t played this timeless classic. But spent hundreds of quarters on Space Invaders, Dig Dug, Donkey Kong, Defender, Tempest, Galaga, and Missile Command as a child.
PROS: Robots! Electrified walls! Voice Samples! Robots!
CONS: Evil Otto.
STRANGE: Two people have died while playing Berzerk.
Released by Stern way back in 1980, Berzerk was, and is one of the most important games ever made. It was a pioneer in many ways. It was one of the first games to have voice samples. It was one of the first games, to really change what you could do with a maze. Months prior, Pac-Man was an international smash. In a short span there were a number of Pac-Man clones, with similar goals. Mouse Trap, let you open doors. Ladybug altered the maze as well. But none of them ever matched what made Pac-Man so special. But before they came around, Berzerk was already taking the idea of a maze game into completely different territory. Other games were trying to expand on the aspect of puzzle game mechanics. Berzerk showed the world mazes could be used in action gameplay.
Berzerk places you in the role of a human trapped on a world of hostile, sentient robots. Being a game about getting a Hi-Score, there is no other narrative. It’s about surviving as long as possible while getting as many points as possible. In short; you see how many killer robots you can take with you. There are hundreds of maze layouts. The primary objective is to escape each maze. But doing that alone isn’t going to give you the points necessary to get on the board. You have to shoot, and destroy as many robots as possible in the process. When you first start playing, the robots are quite frankly, rather easy. They shoot slow projectile lasers, will often walk into each other, causing themselves to explode, or accidentally shoot each other. They’ll also have fascinatingly slow movement.
But before long the robots will be faster, begin to aim more accurately, and kill themselves a little bit less often. Before you know it, these things will be spawn killing you so fast you’ll have flashbacks to Modern Warfare 2 griefers. It becomes an insurmountable challenge. Making matters worse for you are two major obstacles. Electrified walls, and Evil Otto. You see, every wall in Berzerk is electrified. Touching a wall will net you the same effect as being shot by a robot’s death beam. Also, being too close to an exploding robot will kill you from the blast damage.
Evil Otto is the game’s boss, and quite frankly deserves his place in the pantheon of video game despots. He was named after designer Alan McNeil’s former boss, Dave Otto, who would smile when he was yelling at people. As such, Evil Otto is represented by an invincible smiley face. He appears at random. He takes no damage if you shoot him. He is lethal to the touch, and he will hump your electrified corpse into oblivion.
Berzerk also has some really great voice samples in it. The hordes of robots will exclaim quips like “Do not let the humanoid escape!”, “Chicken! Fight like a robot!”, or “Coin detected in pocket!” at least the arcade, and Atari 5200 versions do. Berzerk saw three official home ports. The Atari 2600, Atari 5200, and Vectrex. The 2600 version is very faithful to the arcade version. The robots have a similar look, and you’ll even see a similar electrocution effect when you die. The game controls pretty fluidly, with eight way movement, and shooting. It even retains the neck trick, where a laser can pass the space between your head, and body without killing you. It is also the most common of the ports these days, and isn’t very expensive. The game also adds new difficulty settings.
These difficulty settings change a number of mechanics from the robots’ ability to shoot, their run speed, and even affect Evil Otto. One mode shuts him off entirely, so you’ll never have to face him. Another actually does make him killable. But doing so awards you no points, and he will resurrect himself a few seconds later. These can be fun to tinker around with. But ultimately the game is best played with him on, and invincible because it presents a much higher challenge.
The Atari 5200 version retains the voice samples that the Atari 2600 version doesn’t have. The graphics are improved, and most of the 2600 features are also here. Sadly it still isn’t the best of these versions. Because the 5200 controller doesn’t always give you the precise control the game requires. On top of this, the 5200 controllers are notorious for breaking. It’s still a very good port overall, but if you have the option, pick up the 2600 version instead. Unless you find the inclusion of the voice samples absolutely necessary.
Finally there is the Vectrex port. This is the most expensive version of the three, and appears to be a pretty good conversion considering the difference in graphics technology. The Vectrex version also has a nice screen overlay, should you find a complete copy. Unfortunately, it’s the only version I’ve never had the opportunity to play. So I can’t really critique the game play. But for those who do have a Vectrex, and want it for their collection, they can expect to pay between $20, and $60 depending on whether or not the game is loose or complete. By contrast the Atari ports are both fairly inexpensive, each costing a few dollars at most loose. Boxed copies go for a bit more however.
Berzerk deserves to be recognized for the greatness that it is. It is as fun, and addictive now, as it was when it came out. The graphics, while dated, still manage to evoke both an appreciated charm, and a sense of dread. There is a lot of video game history centered around it, and even a pair of strange occurrences. Two people died from heart attacks while playing the arcade machine. Berzerk is also one of a handful of video games that was turned into a board game. It has even be referenced in Television shows like Futurama, making it even stranger that it hasn’t been as well remembered. If you never fired up this game back in the days of your childhood play Berzerk. If you’re someone who wasn’t around for it, play Berzerk.
Final Score: 9 out of 10