Missile Command and Berzerk | Early Arcade History – 1980

Berzerk (1980)

In 1980, Stern Electronics released Berzerk, which was a multi-directional shooter game. However, Berzerk had very controversial past, becoming the first videogame to be blamed for the death of a player. Berzerk is also held up as one of the first video games to use speech synthesis, which was a brand-new technology in 1980 and cost around $1,000 per word used.

Berzerk was in the genre of maze games, as the player navigated a green stick-man around a building shooting enemy robots. The player could be killed in the game through various methods, which included: being shot by robots, being electrified by the walls of the maze or being touched by the antagonist and arch nemesis of the character, Evil Otto.

Evil Otto was represented by a bouncing smiley face, and was there to fasten the pace of the game. The unusual aspect of this adversary was the fact that he simply could not be killed. The immortal characteristics of Otto are clear to the player as he could freely walk through the maze walls and seemed to be drawn to the player. To add a level of difficulty to the game, whilst there were robots in the maze Otto appeared to travel at around at half the speed of the main character. However, when the player had eliminated all of the robots, Otto matched the players speed whilst travelling left and right. Though Otto was shown to be able to move faster than the player while moving up and down.

The player could advance through levels by escaping the maze. For each robot destroyed, the player received 50 points. Furthermore, if all the robots in a maze had been destroyed the player received a per-maze bonus at 10 points per robot. In the entire game there were 65,536 rooms, and 1024 maze layouts. (However, only 876 of these were unique.)

The controversy that surrounded Berzerk involved the death of at least two separate players. Reports claimed that in January 1981, Jeff Dailey (a 19 year old) collapsed only seconds after reaching a high-score of 16,660 points. It was released to the public that Dailey suffered a heart attack even though he had showed no signs of ill-health previously.

Another incident appearing one year after. 18 year old Peter Burkowski collapsed due to a heart attack seconds after making the top-ten list twice within 15 minutes. It was found that Burkowski had no background with drugs or alcohol and was declared as having perfect health.

Missile Command (1980)

Atari’s Missile Command can be considered as another notable release during the golden age of video games. The gameplay consisted of two players controlling opposite sides of a screen, firing at missiles that fired down the centre of the screen and shoot in both directions. The game allows the player to attack your enemies after successfully defending the city. The original design process of the game included six cities that were said to be California: Eureka, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and San Diego. The popularity of the game is clear as during YouTube’s ‘Geek Week’ in 2013, an Easter Egg was introduced where if a viewer was watching any video and typed 1980 outside of the video, a small, playable, on-screen version of Missile Command would appear for the viewer to enjoy.

The player controlled the game via a trackball, which moved a crosshair across the screen; and through pressing one (of three) buttons, the gamer would release a counter missile. The counter-missiles exploded once reaching the crosshair and continued to leave a fireball that remained on the screen for a short while after, destroying any enemy fire that made contact with it.

The end of the game occurred when all six cities were destroyed, as there was no way to completely ‘win’ the game. Instead, the game continued to go on, with gameplay becoming faster and faster at every level. An interesting addition to Missile Command is that when the player has lost the words ‘The End’ appear on the screen (replacing game over). This was said to signify that the game has an end, and that all is lost with no prevailing winner.