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Berzerk (Arcade) artwork

Berzerk (Arcade) review

"Every once in a while, the screen will fade, the sound clatters even more unrecognizably, or the button will jam, but these are inconsequential annoyances which do not interrupt the unconscious flow of gaming."

“Intruder Alert!” It drones from the dimly-lit corner. Its console looks archaic compared to the shiny Tekken or Street Fighter (insert number here) sitting next to it. Only one player can play, since the second joystick doesn’t respond, but only newbies don’t know that. Every once in a while, the screen will fade, the sound clatters even more unrecognizably, or the button will jam, but these are inconsequential annoyances which do not interrupt the unconscious flow of gaming. Papa Gino’s, an east coast chain pizza restaurant, is hardly a gaming Mecca, or a “Mecca” of anything else for the matter, but it houses one of the few sentimental structures of my gaming life.

It started innocently enough. Three years ago, after watching a forgettable movie at the overpriced theatre with the guys, we ventured to Papa Gino’s because it was All-You-Can-Eat Pizza Night. “Wow, look at how old this game is. It’s so old I wanna play it.” A quarter dropped into the coin box.

More quarters soon followed. It was old, and no doubt dying a slow death due to the new fighting game flanking it. But there was no denying its addictive qualities, namely simplicity, a steep difficulty curve, bragging-rights potential, and retro shtick appeal. The more you played it, the more nuances you noticed, and you were further entrapped.

Being simple was a drawing point. Out of my friends, I was the only diehard gamer. The rest led “normal” lives, as soccer referees, pizza delivery boys, and slackers. The control scheme is easily mastered - a joystick and a button. The joystick allows your tiny character model to navigate through the electrified walls of the maze. Pressing the button causes a ray to seemingly materialize out of thin air and hurtle towards the direction last indicated by the joystick.

We had no idea what the game was about; my guess is escape of some sort. In every level, you made your way through tangled hallways, making sure not to touch the walls because of their “shocking” capabilities. Exits were located at the four cardinal directions, although “exit” is really the wrong word for it. Like many older games, exiting or winning were impossible; you just kept playing until you lost your three lives.

Your escape attempt is not without adversaries, however. Like any other stereotypical early arcade game, your ray serves the purpose of vaporizing the robots that would dare to stand in your way. They fire back though, using their own spontaneous hand laser ability. Each destroyed robot is worth fifty points, with a bonus of ten points per robot if you can clear out the entire room. An extra life is granted when the benchmark of ten thousand points is reached.

An additional enemy is present which pushes the gameplay over the top: Evil Otto. He is an indestructible smiley face that bounces towards you. Yes, an evil smiley face. He might inadvertently destroy a few of the robots on the way, but his goal is your eradication. He is just so utterly bizarre and out-of-place with the rest of the game. It is deliciously ironic to think that death comes from a bouncing happy face which, in a monosyllabic drone, belts out, “Intruder Alert!”

It was by no means an easy game. Easy to learn, yes, easy itself, no. Robots were upgraded as you destroyed them, from yellow non-shooting drones to one-shot reds to quick moving machine gun fire aquas. Evil Otto bounces faster and faster as you advance. Simply pounding on the button did not help, as there was a delay between shots, and your maneuverability is impeded by the deadly electric walls. The maze layout and enemy quantity were always randomized, so you never knew if it was a three robot breather or a pulse pounding ten.

Therefore, noticing the nuances and strategy of the game were of the utmost importance. The robots’ heads were on a swivel, and once they spotted you, they stalked you until your (or their) destruction. You could use this to your advantage, steering them into walls, laser shots, Evil Otto, or even each other. Evil Otto could be used in much the same way - he always made a straight beeline for your character. Plot a course through the labyrinth which purposely steered him towards the robots, and watch the points pile up.

Because of the skill involved, it was immediately a game for which bragging rights were up for grabs. A high scores list made the process easier, as did the fact that nobody else at Papa Gino’s would go near the game while we were there. Some would identify it as a pathetic sight; a group of teenagers and young adults trash talking and boasting of scores on an arcade console from the Carter administration. We didn’t make a conscious effort to play the game, but every time we were in Warwick, we somehow managed to end up at that Papa Gino’s.

The retro sheen was impossible to ignore. In a time when old school Converse and Nike shoes were in high demand, a stereotypical old school game like this refused to be ignored. The color scheme was straight out of a CGA monitor - three colors (red, aqua, yellow) were used and presented against a black background. All the game’s characters were of incredibly simple design, one color blocks, presumably because of technical limitations. Whirls and mechanical whooshes of robots exploding are the only accompanying effects to Evil Otto’s “Intruder Alert” chant. It would not have stood out in its own time, but two decades later, it is definitively out of place.

Until a few months ago, I had no idea that this game was Berzerk. Going off to college made me realize how much I missed the experience, and the desire to recreate it led me to hunt down the title. It was odd; Berzerk was so immersive to us that it never occurred to us that it might have a name. Silly, really, but it was just there. And although it’s probably not a “ten” game to anyone else, it is to me. The point of a game is to forget everything not related to it, to allow your mind to shut off while instincts and survival skills takeover in the parameters of the game environment. Berzerk provides this, and that’s more than enough for me.

sgreenwell's avatar
Staff review by Stephen Greenwell (December 21, 2003)

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