Retro Rated: Berzerk

Developed by:Stern Electronics
Format played:Atari 2600


What Is It

In this age of photo-realistic graphics it has become almost an irrelevance but once upon a time a debate raged in gaming circles about graphics over gameplay.

To some, a game was judged worthy by it’s looks. To others, gameplay was king, regardless of whether it had a graphical sheen. Think FIFA versus Sensible Soccer.

Thank goodness then for a game like Berzerk that very firmly answers this question once and for all. Graphically this is as simple as it gets; single screens, blocky characters, horrendous animation. And it’s bloody brilliant.

You take control of a little stick man, dumped into a maze of death. Not only are there a bunch of psychotic robots out for your blood, even the walls hate you, their merest touch sending 50,000 volts through you. Luckily you’ve come prepared, armed with a deadly laser pistol which takes out the mechanised beasts with a single shot. But don’t stand still to admire your handiwork because these automated killers can fire back with deadly speed.

It’s great fun to play. Right from the off you need your wits about you as you never know where you will start off, the game sometimes landing you almost face to face with a robot or two. The maze offers a combination of shelter, tactical vantage point and danger. It will absorb fire so you can position yourself at just such an angle for the robots shot to thud against it harmlessly whilst you take him out at the leg. Your man can fire at all 8 direction points too, although he can’t really move and shoot at the same time, you find yourself sort of shuffling and stuttering along as you shoot, so you need to get your timing and accuracy right. Whilst the walls are fatal to you, they are also fatal to the robots and fortunately they are none too bright, often steamrollering towards you, only to go headlong into the barrier and get zapped out of existence. Not only that but their laser blasts are deadly to each other, stepping out of the line of fire sometimes as effective a tactic as firing your own shots.

Each maze has at least one exit and whilst maximum points will be gained by clearing the screen, you can exit whilst robots are still present. There are no links between the screens, no sense of continuity or progression in that sense. Rather this is a series of unconnected single screen challenges, the game getting progressively harder as robots move and shoot quicker.

Animation is gloriously awful. The robots themselves look suitably menacing, reminding me to some extent of the ‘Recognisers’ from Tron (the sentinel type machines that police the digital landscape) with a touch of Horace thrown in for good measure. When they move they have a comedy, lumbering gait but it’s nothing compared to the hilarious leg flapping of our protagonist as he moves around the screen.

Sound is sparse, limited to thudding laser blasts unless you make the mistake of touching a wall or eating laser fire, in which case an ear splitting screech signals electric death.


Conversion Capers

As would be the case with a number of games from this era, I was first exposed to them on the home console, only realising some time later that they were conversions of an arcade game.

The original arcade cabinet released in 1980 and it shows the pretty remarkable job the programmers did with the Atari version. Looks wise it is almost identical, the admittedly simple premise carried over near flawlessly. The biggest difference is in the sound, the arcade original boasting not only a superior laser fire but also synthesised speech, later sampled by Stakker Humanoid in a 90s rave classic, as the robots bellow out, ‘Humanoid! or ‘Intruder Alert!’ amongst other warnings.

The mazes have a greater sense of interconnectivity to them as well. It is a superficial touch but whereas in the Atari port a completed room fades away to be replaced by another. Here the screen scrolls so that you see clearly that you have gone into a new room, the door behind you sealing that exit, although it makes little tangible difference to the gameplay.

The arcade version offers a more nimble main character than its home counterpart that makes the game feel that much more frenetic. This sense is aided by the presence of a weird floating eye that chases you round the screen, impervious to your laser fire. I’m not sure if it also makes an appearance on the Atari version if you play long enough but I haven’t encountered him yet.


Worth Playing

This is a classic, old fashioned arcade blaster.

Inevitably it all gets a bit monotonous after a time but while it lasts this is great fun and a real challenge.

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