The Robot vs the Fox: Strategizing Berzerk

Shooters are not known for requiring a great deal of strategic nuance, but the 1980 Stern Electronics game, Berzerk, is a clear exception.  Every room spreads out before you like a puzzle box, with a randomly generated maze layout and enemy AI that's simple enough to be exploitable in multiple ways.

That's not to say that hand-eye coordination is useless here -- quick reflexes and a sharp eye are key -- but mastering the game requires understanding its pieces.

Basics

The premise of Berzerk is simple: move from room-to-room, killing as many robots as you can without getting killed.  Your primary obstacle is the robots' blasts, which will come at you with increasing speed and frequency the further you progress in the game, but you can also die by running into barriers or being chased down by the enigmatic Evil Otto.

Gameplay from the 1980 arcade game, Berzerk.  It shows the player destroying red robots.

Geometry

Some of the most important strategic decisions in Berzerk are a simple matter of geometry.  Your first concern when entering a room is figuring out which robots can hit you with their blasts.  Each can fire along one of eight different sight lines.

Gameplay from the 1980 arcade game, Berzerk.  It shows the eight-directional firing lines of the robots in a crowded room.

In the above example, there are three robots close enough to the player to pose an immediate threat.  By positioning himself in between their possible firing lines, he assures his safety, at least for the moment, so he can plan his next move.  Beware of diagonal sight lines, they tend to be more difficult to keep track of than the cardinal directions.

It's also important to consider how much of your body is exposed to each robot.  Robots below and above you have a much smaller target than the ones to your sides because your body is much taller than it is wide.  For this reason, you'll want to try to enter a room from the left or right, whenever possible.  

Gameplay from the 1980 arcade game, Berzerk.  It shows the player getting killed by robots after entering the room from the top.

To understand why, consider how the robots can be laid out when you enter a room.  If you enter the room from the top or bottom, that means that robots can fire at your full vertical body length from two different directions, whereas entering from the side, you only need to worry about being fully exposed to robots in front of you.

Another important thing to consider is where you and the robots are shooting from.  Robots fire from the center of their bodies, while the player fires from the top.  This means that you can peek out over the top of a barrier and fire at the robots while their shots are hitting the wall.  In fact, if you're positioned correctly, they'll freeze in that position and continue firing into the wall.

Gameplay from the 1980 arcade game, Berzerk.  It shows the player shooting over a barrier to destroy robots.

Things can be a bit trickier when you're at the edge of a barrier and firing at the enemy from above or below.  They can fire from the same part of their bodies as you can in this situation, so you will sometimes find your blasts colliding with theirs, as in the clip below.

Gameplay from the 1980 arcade game, Berzerk.  It shows the player's blasts continually colliding with those of a robot.

When this happens, you might have to move around a bit to coerce the AI into a different location.  Note that the enemy will sometimes charge you in these situations, so fire from a distance as much as possible.

Evil Otto

Evil Otto is a bouncing smiley face that, given enough time, will appear in every room.  His speed depends on how many enemies are remaining in the level -- the fewer there are, the faster he'll go.  He cannot be destroyed, but he can be escaped, even at his maximum speed.

Gameplay from the 1980 arcade game, Berzerk.  It shows evil otto following the player after a room is cleared.

This is because his maximum horizontal speed is the same as yours, even if you're moving diagonally.  So you don't need to escape the room the moment Otto appears -- take your time.

However, be aware of the maze layout.  There are some maze configurations that make it especially difficult to escape Otto.

Gameplay from the 1980 arcade game, Berzerk.  It shows evil otto catching the player in a vertical corridor.

If you need to go up to escape and your player starts below Otto's maximum bounce height, he will eventually catch you.  So you may need to hurry a bit more than usual when the maze is laid out with vertical corridors.

Otto is not all bad; in fact, you can make great use of him at the end of some levels.

Gameplay from the 1980 arcade game, Berzerk.  It shows evil otto bouncing into the last robot in the room.

He will destroy any robot he hits during his bounce, so if there's a robot you didn't have time to take out on your way through the maze, sometimes you can get Otto to clean him up.  Just like the robots, Otto tries to line himself up with the player, so you can adjust his vertical position by moving up or down in the maze.

The AI

The robot AI in Berzerk is really only good at two things -- avoiding collisions with walls and tracking the player.  You can use the latter fact to great advantage to expose the things that the AI is not so good at.

The robots fire mindlessly and have no awareness, or no concern, for what else is in front of them.  This includes other robots, so sometimes taking out enemies is just a matter of lining them up.

Gameplay from the 1980 arcade game, Berzerk.  It shows three robots in a line, firing at the player, and hitting each other.

Another thing that the robots are really bad at is avoiding each other.

Gameplay from the 1980 arcade game, Berzerk.  It shows two robots being tricked into colliding with each other.

In this case, the robots are tracking the player's vertical motion even though they can't hit him.  Forcing robot collisions is even better than forcing them to shoot each other because it kills both robots.  Note that they aren't always dumb enough to run into each other right away, so sometimes you have to move back and forth a few times to force the collision.  But it will happen eventually.

And even though robots won't walk into walls, they will walk into the ends of the maze.

Gameplay from the 1980 arcade game, Berzerk.  I shows a robot being tricked into hitting the maze.

This trick is most useful in taking out the last robots in a room.  Their speed increases as their numbers thin, so at that point, you don't always have time to line up for a shot and guiding them into the maze can be the most efficient solution.

And sometimes the AI doesn't even need your help to fail; in fact, when a room is crowded, you can expect at least a third of the robots to take each other out on their own.

Gameplay from the 1980 arcade game, Berzerk.  It shows five robots getting killed without the player firing.

Here I took out the last five robots in a room without firing a shot, but that final collision was just a bit of luck.

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