Yet another Chicago-based pinball company, Stern Electronics enters the arcade videogame scene with a vengeance with 1980's Berzerk, an early entry in the maze game genre. Alan McNeil has just finished work on pinball game Meteor, and the brass decide he and his team are ready to take on video. Working at Stern subsidiary Universal Research Laboratories in the suburbs of Chicago, McNeil has an idea for a game based on a dream he has had of playing a B&W robot game, as well as the classic BASIC game "Robots" (aka "Daleks" in the UK, from the salt-shaker shaped villains in their popular SF TV series "Doctor Who"). While games like Atari's Indy 800 and Taito's Galaxian have ushered in colour graphics, Stern amazingly sees colour as a fad and Berzerk's video hardware initially matches McNeil's black and white dream. But as more colour games start hitting the market, the system is quickly retooled to follow suit. In the game the player guides the onscreen runner through a series of mazes while avoiding the indigenous population...up to 11 robots each screen, spewing laser death. The humanoid must make his way past his adversaries to the exits at the top and sides of each screen, armed with only his own laser gun and his intelligence. The robots, however, are as dumb as posts...they often get in the way of each other's shots or bump into one another, all such actions causing quick disintegration. Also for the player to avoid are the electrically charged walls, which spell destruction for all who touch them. And added to the mix is Evil Otto, pure malevolence in the form of a smiling, bouncing ball, used by designers in lieu of a forced time-limit to keep players from loitering in a room after the robots have been eliminated. He gets his name from Dave Otto, a sadistic security chief who had terrorized the Berzerk creator during his tenure at game maker Dave Nutting Associates by locking McNeil and his fellow employees out of the building to enforce a noon-hour lunch, as well as piping "beautiful" music into every room. As the game progresses the robots get faster and Otto makes his appearance sooner. McNeil also draws inspiration for the game from Fred Saberhagen's Berzerker series of SF novels about a race of murderous robots built by ancient beings, designed to destroy all life, and the band of Earth descendants who battle them. Along with some impressive character animations on the running humanoid and the shifty-eyed robots, Berzerk features groundbreaking speech synthesis, in the form of a National Speech microchip. 16 words are mixed up into a pool for the phrases, such as "Intruder Alert! Intruder Alert!", "Chicken, fight like a robot!", "Destroy the humanoid", "The humanoid must not escape", and the famous attract mode accusation "Coins detected in pocket!". It isn't a massive vocabulary, but with the cost of digitization at $1000 a word it's the best the company can afford.
the test-market phase at a Chicago singles bar, Berzerk proves to be a major
attraction indeed. Upon release the game goes on to become the biggest arcade hit for Stern, selling upwards of 50,000 units.
A new building and three shifts are required to keep up with demand as 300 units
are produced a day. This in spite of a dodgy optical joystick with the
game that has to eventually be replaced by a Wico stick. Unfortunately, it also goes down in the history books as the first videogame to apparently kill a person. 18 year old Peter Burkowski is in Friar Tuck's Game Room in Calumet City, Ill. for about 15 minutes on Saturday April 3 1982, and puts his initials up twice on the high score list on the Berzerk machine there. He then turns to put a quarter into another machine and falls to the ground. He is dead within half an hour. The cause of death is a heart attack, and while an autopsy finds previously undetected, two-week-old scar tissue on Burkowski's heart, the coroner
does not rule out prolonged stress from the videogame as the triggering factor. Despite the negative PR (which, lets face it, probably increases sales), Berzerk is followed by sequel Frenzy in 1982,
also designed by McNeil under solicitation by URL even though he has left the
company by this point, in order to use up surplus circuit boards left from
Berzerk. It sports a slight increase in graphical quality, along with play improvements like walls you can shoot through, improved robot AI, reflecting laser shots and multiple Ottos.
3000 units are eventually shipped. In 1981, Atari licences Berzerk for the
2600 for a cool 4 million dollars and produces an amazingly faithful home
version for their console, resulting in a big videogame hit. Alan McNeil's
salary for that year? $30,000. While Stern themselves never quite
reach the upper echelon of game producers like Atari and Midway, they are however one of the bigger
secondary players in the arcade market, with titles including Astro Invader (1980), Scramble (1981), Super Cobra (1981), Amidar (1982), Bagman (1982), Pooyan (1982), Tutankham (1982) and Cliff Hanger (1983).
Well, there's a bit more to tell, actually. These are the days before ten-person game development teams, so a game creator must be a double-threat - designer AND programmer. Utilizing Williams' advanced 16-colour video graphics hardware, Jarvis begins work on the project virtually by himself. After toying with colour variations of current arcade hits such as Space Invaders and Asteroids, Jarvis settles on the concept of a space game exhibiting plausible rules of physics, and comes up with the title Defender, so he knows the player's job will be to defend something. He fleshes out the game by creating a planet surface, with mountainous terrain who's horizontal scrolling is staggered with a star field background to further enhance the feeling of velocity. A spaceship comes next, enjoying full movement left and right over the planet. After creating a host of alien villains for players to shoot at, Jarvis now has something that could be a full videogame, but which still lacks that elusive play ingredient that would set his game apart from the plethora of space-based combat arcade games currently vying for quarters. While he waits for
With gameplay now fully coalesced only a week before the prototype is to be demonstrated, practically the entire programming staff at Williams throws in with Jarvis to complete the project, including Williams pinball master Larry DeMar. Also helping out is Sam Dicker, responsible for the memorable sound effects heard throughout the game. Working around the clock, the team has the code finished and burned into a ROM chip in the early morning hours of the day of the show, and it is raced to the game cabinet already located on the floor at the Williams booth. Both Defender and the other maverick at the show, Midway's Pac-Man, are considered potential bombs by industry players...top-down racing game Rally X is touted at the next big thing. When Williams releases the game in 1980, however, the industry pundits are proved wrong on all counts. Defender explodes into the arcades, rocketing up to the top of the sales charts, muscling for first place with Pac-Man and then Donkey Kong the following year. It is as far from the 'cutesy' phenomena forming in the arcades as you can get, a loud and brash macho shootfest. Even in an arcade ringing with videogame bloops and bleeps, you can hear when someone drops a quarter into the eardrum rattling Defender game. Audio cues include startup, ship materializing, lander pickup, and free man. It goes on to beat Pac-Man for the AMOA's Videogame of the Year award in 1981, and Williams eventually sells around 60,000 Defender units. There are, of course, plenty of Defender imitators and knockoffs, and more than 5 million cartridge versions are sold of Atari's own immensely popular VCS Defender port.
At the time of Defender's release, Eugene Jarvis is making about $40,000 a year as a salaried employee at Williams. As his creation begins bringing in an obscene amount of money for the company, Jarvis feels he should be compensated for his work. Williams' offering, a cash bonus and stock options spread out over four years, does not appease him. Amid the swirl of chaos in the wake of Defender's smash success and subsequent influx of designers and technicians into the company, Jarvis walks and with DeMar forms videogame design company Vid Kidz. But despite the rather insulting salary offer Williams has presented, the two don't want to create games for anyone other than their former employer and they rebuff offers from other videogame distributors, almost immediately entering into an agreement with Williams. The first product on the slate is the Defender sequel Stargate, released in 1981 and later renamed Defender II for legal reasons. If people at the 1980 AMOA thought Defender was too complicated to be a success, one wonders what they must have thought of its sequel, featuring an astounding six buttons, controlling reverse, thrust, fire, hyperspace and the new Inviso cloaking device...used to render the ship indestructible for a short period of time. The Stargates of the title are portals onscreen that if entered while a human is being kidnapped will warp the player to the scene of the attack. The game carefully retains the play value of the original, but added are a number of new enemies to destroy, and the evil alien attackers now have names, such as the Irata and Yllabain...which by some strange coincidence happen to be the names of Williams' competition spelled backwards. Also present is an improved colour palette adding new spice to the graphics. Shipping near the end of 1981, only 26,000 machines are eventually sold, still a solid success but seen as a disappointment to Jarvis who considers the sequel superior to the original in many respects. Next from Vid Kidz comes Robotron: 2084 in 1982, originally called Robot War: 1984 while under development. The groundbreaking control scheme features two joysticks; one for moving the onscreen character around and another for firing. Berzerk provides inspiration for the game and its two sticks; Jarvis likes Stern's product but is frustrated by only being able to fire in the direction the character is moving. With the extra joystick at his disposal, the player can fire in eight directions while running from the enemy. Robotron also sports a fairly complex SF plotline, taking place in the future with a species of robots known as Robotrons finally fed-up with the liabilities of humans, who they try to wipe from the planet. The hero, a genetic freak "superhuman", must save the last (although apparently vastly extended) human family from a cornucopia of evil machines. Wave upon wave has the player appearing in the centre of the screen, surrounded by a multitude of enemies who quickly begin swarming towards him. And in the fine tradition of loud Williams games, Robotron sports lots of cabinet rattling sound effects, including enforcer, brainwave, grunt, gunfire and warping. The game moves extremely fast, and many in the hardware team and their revolutionary bit blitter graphics technology eventually end up in the Amiga computer project. Upon release, Williams sells 19,000 Robotron units, a good showing considering its departure from the Defender formula.
The next Vid Kidz release, Blaster (1983), is a huge flop. Only 500 machines are produced due to its expensive 3D graphics hardware, housed inside a practically indestructible Duramold plastic cabinet. The team drifts apart as DeMar moves back into pinball, and along with Pat Lawlor goes on to design the Addams Family game in 1992 for Williams, which becomes the best-selling pinball game of all time. Jarvis goes back to school, getting his masters degree from Stanford University in 1986. Williams has other hits outside of the Vid Kidz team, including Joust (1982) by John Newcomer and Bill Pfutzenreuter, and classic 1982 speech synthesis game Sinistar. Sinistar's design is led by Sam Dicker, he of the great Defender sound effects, and the game includes
such voice synthesised taunting from the evil title character as "Aaaarggghhh!", "Beware, coward!", "Beware, I live..", "I am Sinistar", "Run, coward!", and "Run run run!". Upon graduation Jarvis returns to Williams, develops the Z-Unit videogame system, and a game to go with it called NARC (1989), which heralds Williams' return to the videogame market after a prolonged absence. A blatant anti-drug tirade, the game takes a more liberal stance against videogame violence as the player-controlled narcotics officer strolls down the street mowing down suspected drug pushers, with a carefully placed bazooka shot sending a shower of bloody limbs and burning bodies into the air. Next year comes Smash TV, little more than a technically enhanced Robotron, and High Impact Football in 1991. Eugene Jarvis' latest efforts are the best-selling Cruis'n racing games he creates for Midway, who end up purchasing the videogame division of Williams. Cruis'n USA is released in 1994 and Cruis'n World in 1996. Both are also big successes when ported to Nintendo's N64 home console. Jarvis is one of the very few game creators from the golden arcade days still producing today, and still enjoying great success to boot.
Some information, images and sounds came from the following sources, in no
Robotron: 2084 - http://home1.gte.net/eschonni/r2084/
defender.avi - Defender movie clip (157K)
robotron.avi - Robotron movie clip (118K)
joust.avi - Joust movie clip (317K)
Some information, images and sounds came from the following sources, in no