When an arcade machine became a REAL killing machine

In the 1980s, Atari’s game Berzerk caused the death of several teenagers. Curse or fatal coincidence?

When an arcade machine became a REAL killing machine

Mr. Smiley, Source: RoadsideAmerica

In the flood of urban legends of the arcade era, some have a more particular resonance than others. If you had the slightest intuition, know that this time it is not about that of Polybius, this famous killer machine supposedly developed by the FBI (and whose story is already told in this previous article) . The story that we share with you today is that of a title which, truly, is the starting point of the death of two teenagers. To know its dark expanse, let’s take the road to Illinois. Miles up, not far from Route 83, two water towers with smiling faces welcome you. Their silhouettes strangely echo that of Evil Otto, the antagonist of the arcade game Berzerk released in 1980 by Atari. Video Ace, a small independent games magazine, published two issues at this time before shutting down completely. In one of them, we recount the misadventure of a certain Jeff Daily, a 19-year-old kid who accidentally rubbed shoulders with the mischievous yellow ball. Posted faithfully at his game terminal, he peaked one day with a score of 16,660 points. Proudly, he inscribed his initials in the machine’s scoreboard. And when his name appears on the screen, he has a devastating heart attack. He will lose his life shortly after. The numbers “666” visible in the score torment the most fearful. And since the tragedy is only the first in a series, it is said that by some supernatural means, Evil Otto is able to blast some unlucky players to the spot.

Meet at the Friar Tuck

A year passes after the death of the name Jeff. It’s Saturday, April 3, 1982. Eighteen-year-old Peter Burkowski wakes up in his small bedroom in South Holland, Illinois. On television, meteorologists warn of the imminent arrival of a blizzard. This will be the twelfth in just two years. Winter seems endless. Caulked in his cocoon, Peter spends the morning playing at his console. Then he finally decides to step outside to visit his girlfriend. Around 8 p.m., he then walks with a friend to Friar Tuck’s Game Room in Calumet City. On the way, the young boy says he is out of breath and needs something to drink. Perhaps because of the snow covering the ground and making the road more laborious. So before arriving at their destination, the two friends stop to enjoy a soda at a convenience store. A few minutes later, they are off again. The Friar Tuck is a bit dilapidated, or medieval depending on perceptions; wrought iron lamps hang from the ceiling, sturdy wooden doors adorn the walls. But the atmosphere is warm. Entire families gather there in the afternoon. The venue is only two miles from Peter’s. He goes there regularly to find the arcade machine for his favorite game, Berzerk. Tom Blankley, owner of the premises, knows him well now: “He is a very nice child. Quiet and a bit shy. No problem(Source: Cat DeSpira).

Berzerk (1980)

When an arcade machine became a REAL killing machine

It was in 1980 that Stern Electronics, a pinball machine specialist, published Berzerk in collaboration with Atari. The game is inspired by the novel series Berserker by author Fred Saberhagen. They tell the story of killing machines that have come to eradicate all forms of life. A precursor to Run & Gun, the title tasks the player with making their way through randomly generated labyrinthine spaces overrun with killer robots. He was one of the first to use voice synthesis, an incredibly expensive technique for the time. We are talking about an amount of about 1000 dollars per word. If the protagonist exits the maze before eliminating all the robots, a small voice may shout “Wet chicken! Fight like a robot!“. Inevitably, it has its effect. If the player delays too long in a level, the yellow ball Evil Otto in turn launches after him. She is unfazed. With her blissful smile, she crosses the walls and follows you relentlessly, without ever being able to die. Its name is a tribute to Dave Otto, a nice guy who worked for Dave Nutting’s Arcade Engineering group as R&D director. He was a friend of Alan McNeil, the newly hired designer at Stern for pinball programming. “I asked if I could make a video game after fixing the pinball problem, and they said yes“, he recounted.

Berzerk falls into this category of games in which teenagers gather to achieve the best score. And Peter Burkowski clearly has that in his blood. He registers his initials at least twice in the “Top 10” of the game. In the Friar Tuck room, an hour passes. Tired of his tireless victories, he finally turns his back on the machine, takes four steps and drops a coin into another terminal. Then he collapses. Around 9 p.m., Peter Burkowski dies of a heart attack. Looks like Evil Otto has struck again.

“Death by Video Game”

When an arcade machine became a REAL killing machine

This evening of Saturday April 3, 1982, Peter neither drank nor took drugs. He left this world after letting go of the terminal of Berzerk. The next day, the incident made the front page of the local newspapers. “Death by video gamereads in the headlines of one of them. An author from Video Games magazine takes the subject by storm. Was Peter, indeed, a victim of the games?Yes and no“, answers Mark Allen, assistant coroner of Lake County, to the journalist Stephen Kiesling.

Although the autopsy revealed the presence of unsuspected scar tissue on Peter’s heart, which is at least two weeks old, Mark Allen believes it is possible that the stress of the games triggered the attack in the heart weakened from peter -Stephen Kiesling.

When an arcade machine became a REAL killing machine

Videogames (1982)

Kiesling supports the theory: “The next time you’re in an arcade, take a few moments to observe the other players. Notice the movements of concentration, the way some players’ hands and feet are shaking with excitement. Often they pound the machines as if they were fighting real invaders”. Five years earlier, cardiologist Robert S. Eliot of the University of Nebraska Medical Center has already seen in pong players increases in heart rate of 60 beats per minute and blood pressures reaching 220 in the minute following the start of a game. And often, patients are not even aware of it. Coupled with critical physiological conditions, the reactions can turn out to be dramatic. And it turns out that Peter harbored within him a rare form of ventricular cardiomyopathy. Said like that, the problem probably remains quite nebulous for you; just mean that his heart was just a ticking time bomb. He could have lost his life in a lot of stressful situations. But it had to be in front of the infamous terminal of Berzerk. A sufficiently sinister coincidence for a slew of film crews to flock to the halls of the Friar Tuck to the chagrin of its owner Tom Blanky. “I don’t like this kind of advertising”, he breathes. But at the same time… “Peter’s heart contained a ticking time bomb that just exploded here. I expected this to hurt business, but on the contrary, business increasedAnd meanwhile, the story winds its way, often omitting the undiagnosed congenital condition that Peter suffered from.

When an arcade machine became a REAL killing machine

Last victim

But what about Jeff Daily, the first alleged victim of Evil Otto? How to explain his sudden death? To lift the veil on this mystery, journalist Cat DeSpira has made it her subject of research. In the midst of urban legends and stories of yesteryear, she has a reputation that is second to none. And it didn’t take him long to track down Daily. Or at least that of his corpse. He is buried in Holly Lawn Cemetery in Suffolk City. So it does exist. But he didn’t die playing Berzerk in January 1981. He died in a car accident on May 29, 1981. He may have never even touched the title of Atari. And in reality, the score of 16,660 points is absolutely nothing impressive. “It’s impossible to play a game of Berzerk for hours on one coin and only get 16,000 points“, confides to Cat Grant Theinemann, champion of Berzerk. “If Evil Otto wasn’t part of the game, then I’d be okay“. So here it is, finally, Peter may be just a sad isolated case. But there is still another very real story remembered by Cat DeSpira.

When an arcade machine became a REAL killing machine

Berzerk arcade terminal

It was March 20, 1988 in Lansing. Edward Clark Jr, 17, goes with a gang of friends to the Friar Tuck, scene of Peter’s death. Edward has nothing to do with young Peter. He is rather one of those who dabble in petty crime. But a few days ago, he was selected to join the green berets. Then his mother finds a little hope concerning the future of her cherub. Edward is holding his own right now. At the Friar Tuck, he knows he is out of harm’s way. He hangs around the Battlezone terminal for a few moments, then chooses the machine of Berzerk, the same as in 1982. A handful of coins are strewn on the glass. That’s good, he’s out of money. Edward looks left, right. Nobody. So he grabs it and slips one into the terminal. That’s when Pedro Roberts rushes out of an alley. The fellow is only 16 years old, but he already has the build of the thug that we prefer to avoid on the public sidewalk. It falsely claims ownership of the parts. But Edward doesn’t budge, the money is his. The tension rises, they come to blows. “The two young men argued and then fought over who got to play the Berzerk game, or maybe just insult each other”, says DeSpira. No one can affirm from a reliable source that the two kids knew each other. But Tom Blankely, still the owner of the place, heard some rumors about it: “I remember someone said Clark stole Roberts’ girlfriend or something. I do not know if that’s true. But whatever it was, it quickly escalated and they had a good fight before we (game room security) kicked them all out.“. Edward is kept inside the Friar Tuck while Pedro is fired. Then 10 minutes pass. And Clark is invited out, this time going in the opposite direction. But he disobeys, wrongly. waited in an alley and stabbed him quickly in the chest. He was pronounced dead moments later, in the backseat of a car speeding towards the local hospital. Pedro Roberts was sentenced in May 1990 to eleven years in prison for his murder. He will serve only three and will be released on parole. Once again, the Berzerk arcade terminal is the starting point for a very real corpse.

So you guessed it, the story has encouraged some whistleblowers to wonder if video games aren’t too “exciting” for people. But arcades are still in full swing in their golden age and their popularity is thankfully not waning. With over 50,000 units sold, Berzerk received a sequel in 1982, frenzy. It comes with more robots and an ever-fleeting Evil Otto. And good news, no one died. On Route 83, the smiling water towers are erected like fatal winks and still remind some locals of the legend of Evil Otto.

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