MANUFACTURER: STERN ELECTRONICS
TEAM LEADER: DESIGNED AND PROGRAMMED BY ALAN MCNEIL
Berzerk is a two-dimensional maze-style game that involves you attempting to escape killer robots in a never- ending gallery of mazes. Somewhat simple in design, Berzerk can also be fiendishly devious depending on where you get located in the next maze. The robots are programmed to terminate you with extreme prejudice and they do their job well. One of the most unique aspects of this game is that it has speech (to be precise, a vocabulary of 24 words). Depending on what one rates as speech (via a speech data ROM or through electronic means with no data ROM), it is either Berzerk or Stratovox (also made in 1980) that can be considered the first game to incorporate speech. Berzerk is also considered to be the “grandfather” of Robotron 2084, since Eugene Jarvis cites it as being his inspiration to create a game of this nature but with significantly more intensity. For a more detailed description of the game and gameplay, go to https://gamefaqs.gamespot.com/arcade/584080-berzerk/faqs/24584 for my FAQ.
Berzerk can be considered a game with two components. The first component itself is the game. The game consists of the player, robots, Evil Otto (named after a disliked boss), and the various mazes. The player is controlled via an eight-way joystick and a fire button (aim controlled by eight-way joystick). There are 876 unique mazes you can go through (more explained later on how this works). The second component is the speech component itself. Speech is provided by the TSI S14001A chip. The TSI S14001A used a data file with the 24 words to provide the speech for Berzerk. This is what gave Berzerk its uniqueness among video games up to that time.
During these early days of arcade games, the goal was to create a game with as few chips as possible. This meant pro- gramming space was at a premium and one had to get the most amount of program in the least amount of space. Alan had 8Kb of ROM to create this game. This meant everything from the mazes to the AI of the robots had to be put into that small space. Creative programming was a must and Alan was able to implement some unique programming to get the most out of the 8Kb. Since Alan already was well versed in computer graphics, he was able to design all the various parts of the game (player, robots, Otto, e.g.) – it was the maze that was a challenge. Alan realized that he couldn’t put hundreds of completed mazes into the program or they would definitely take him way beyond the 8Kb he was allotted. This meant he had to find another way to do it. He did this by creating a maze generator by using a 16 x 16 “box” in which the mazes were created. This gave 65536 possible rooms. After eliminating all the duplicates, you end up with 876 unique rooms. The maze generator started at the zero room. A random number was then generated and it provided the “seed” for the next room to be created. This enabled a player to traverse an apparent endless array of mazes. One unique feature was that the game would remember the last room you were in and, if you backtracked, you would end up in the same maze you left. After various tweaks and play testing, Alan had achieved a true miracle by getting a lot of content into a very small space.
Unfortunately, Alan McNeil passed away in December 2017. I was able to talk to his brother Bruce McNeil and get more information about Alan before he created Berzerk as well as things that Alan did during and after Berzerk.
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