In the world of video games, rumors are a dime a dozen. Whether it be finding the legendary Mew in Pokemon Red and Blue beneath a truck or reviving Aerith from Sephiroth in Final Fantasy VIII, you can always count on there being a video game that can provide you with a plethora of potential ways to do, or find, something special. All you have to do is just do a series of absurd and/or convoluted tasks.
Rumors centered on video games aren't limited to within the games themselves however. The rumored landfill that contained the unsold cartridges for the Atari 2600’s ET was an immensely popular one for decades until they were found in September of 2014.
However, sometimes, there comes a rumor that stumps the general community due to the nature of it. It’s rumor that's circulated for decades, yet has no actual evidence for either side to really craft a sturdy enough argument—or explanation—with. In spite of this, there exists, and persists, a rumor that has attained the status as perhaps video gaming's urban myth.
The story goes that in 1981, a few arcades in Portland, Oregon received a new arcade game: Polybius, developed by a company named Sinneslöschen (German for “Sense-Deletion”). The game was described as being a shoot ‘em up similar to Tempest, though others have claimed that it was puzzle game. Regardless of its genre, the game proved to be extremely popular, with large crowds forming around the game and fights frequently breaking out over who would play the game next.
While this went on, mysterious Men in Black would wait outside the arcade shops until the crowds had dispersed to collect data (presumably high scores) from the machines and then leave.
Not long after the game had been released, those that played the game became to experience an array of odd symptoms. These included insomnia, amnesia, seizures (due to the games supposed extreme strobing effects), night terrors, hallucinations, nausea, blackouts. In some more extreme cases, those that played the game are said to have committed suicide. Others are said to have swore off playing video games all together, while some became anti-game activists.
A month after Polybius was released, the game vanished without a trace; presumably having been recalled due to the side-effects it caused. Whatever the case may have been, Polybius was never seen again and no arcade cabinets—if they ever existed—have been found.
Or have they?
A few photographs of supposed arcade cabinets have surfaced on the web, but have never been proven to be the actual game. It’s more than likely these are fanmade recreations of the game and aren’t the real deal.
In 2003, the owner of a website by the name of coinop, Kris Kroller, sent a letter to the now defunct gaming magazine GamePro, informing them about the game. It was then that, for the first time ever, Polybius appeared in printed media—and in a mainstream magazine no less for a video game called Secrets and Lies. By the end, the writer had came to the conclusion that there was “inconclusive evidence” to prove the existence of Polybius.
Not long after the publishing of the article, a number of people came forward to say they had worked on the game. While most were proven to be hoaxes, one of the claims stood out. In 2006, a man who went by the name of Steven Roach came forward saying to have been one of the original programmers on the game. He gave very detailed descriptions of the game, claiming that the game was “very intense” and had “cutting-edge graphics”. However, the company pulled the game in a knee-jerk reaction after a boy played the game and suffered an epileptic seizure.
Roach—if he ever existed—never gave any photographic or video evidence to backup his claims. However, his testimony helped bring to light more details on what the game—if it existed—looked like. It was through this that the developers and arcade constructors at Rogue Synapse helped create a freeware version of Polybius for the PC.
With the lack of any physical evidence, a popular theory that’s been pushed is that Polybius was never a normal video game, but rather one that was made by the United States government. Around the time of its release, video games were still in their infancy and light had been shed on the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) “mind control” project, MKUltra.
MKUltra was a top-secret experiment carried out that utilized psychedelic drugs such as LSD, among other things such as physical abuse and morphine, in an attempt to alter the brain's function. The end goal was to brainwash someone so they’d spill secrets. Other claims are that they wished to mind control the general populace of the United States.
Whatever the case may have been, the project was eventually terminated and nothing of Project MKUltra exists—officially. There are some that believe that Polybius took inspiration from it and was another attempt by the CIA to brainwash the population—this time via video games, a sparkly new toy to enact whatever it is they wished to do. If it’s true, it would explain why the game vanished without a trace so easily and why nobody has ever spoken out about it.
But is it true?
Like many things related to the CIA, it’s nearly impossible to prove—or disprove, depending on how you look at things. Something like Polybius, with the effects that it’s claimed to have had on people, let alone citizens of the United States, and children at that. The backlash would be unprecedented, even decades later.
Other explanations for Polybius are less extreme in their nature. Author Brian Dunning claims that Polybius spawned from mixture of events that happened in Portland in ‘81. He states that two kids fell ill while playing in an arcade: one getting a migraine while playing Tempest and another getting a stomach ache from playing Asteroids for 28 hours in an attempt to beat a world record. Dunning went on to state that in the same area, a mere ten days later, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) raided a few arcades under the suspicion of being used for gambling.
Dunning claims that, combined with the legend that the government used arcade machines to monitor people, and the plot to the 1984 film The Last Starfighter, caused the legend to be birthed that same year.
Not all are convinced by Dunning’s explanation though. Others claim that people simply misremember Polybius for another video game: Cube Quest, which had surreal graphics, was a shoot ‘em up, and utilized a laserdisc. With similarities to the way Polybius is described, this has lead some to speculate that Polybius is a case of falsified memories, and that it is in reality just Cube Quest that people remember.
A more recent explanation for the game is that it was simply made-up by the owner of coinop, and that the whole thing was set in the 1980’s to throw off the fact that it was made up.
A fourth and final explanation is that it’s a mix-up of the still-unsolved Usenet mystery, the Publius Enigma, which is a legend centered around the rock band Pink Floyd.
Regardless if the game existed or not, Polybius’ legacy lives on to this day. In a 2006 episode of Fox’s long running animated television series, The Simpsons, entitled Please Homer, Don’t Hammer ‘Em, an arcade cabinet can be seen in the background behind Bart for Polybius. On it reads Property of the US Government.
A total of three fanmade recreations of the game have been one made: the aforementioned developed by Rogue Synapse, another by Lost Classics owner Chris Trimiew for the Atari 2600, and a virtual reality rendition by Llamasoft for the PlayStation 4.
It’s unlikely the truth about Polybius will ever be known. Whether or not it existed however doesn’t matter at this point as the game’s left an everlasting footprint in the history of video gaming, and it’s one that continues to intrigue the minds of gamers and non-gamers alike.