The Game That Wasn’t There

I don’t think I’d heard the legend of the video game Polybius until I came across a post about it on Tumblr earlier this week. All evidence points to the fact that the game never existed, for various reasons, but there’s quite an elaborate story that developed around it. Supposedly the game was released in arcades near Portland, Oregon in 1981, and was known for causing seizures, amnesia, and night terrors.

Oh, here’s your problem. This game was set to “evil.”
Some players would even commit suicide or become totally adverse to video games. Despite all this, people were always lining up to play it. Okay, I could definitely see people wanting to see what all the fuss was.

It was less of a big deal in 2012, when everyone was into candy-themed racing games.
Government agents would show up at the arcades to collect data on the machines, and they were all removed after about a month, never to be seen again. They were apparently part of a secret government experiment, one whose creators didn’t realize there were much cheaper ways of making people sick and confused. But then, didn’t Reagan think it was possible to increase government spending AND cut taxes and somehow still take in money? Not that the government hasn’t been involved in a lot of creepy non-consensual experimentation, like that whole Tuskegee syphilis thing. Some sites specifically link Polybius with Project MKUltra, a series of torturous and often illegal experiments by the CIA that ended in 1973 (or so they want us to think). Anyway, the first specific mention of the game appears to have been on Usenet in 1998, with information that can be seen on the CoinOp site. While the title certainly sounds like an old-school video game, it’s also the name of a Greek historian in the second century BC who stressed the importance of using first-hand sources. Well played, Internet troll.

The historian also came up with a system of telegraphy known as the Polybius square, in which numbers stand for letters. The company that supposedly made the game, Senneslöschen, is basically bad German for “sense deletion.”

While the long gap between the supposed appearance of the game and anyone talking about it online is another good indication that it’s a joke, I’ve heard that people remember playing the game, but can’t seem to agree on what it was like. It seems like it’s most commonly thought to be a space shooter with psychedelic graphics and some puzzle elements, but other people think it was a geometric puzzler or a maze game. These people could just be in on the joke, but it could also be an example of how easy it is to remember things that never really happened, especially if similar things DID happen. There are reports of two people getting sick at an arcade in Beaverton, outside Portland, in November 1981. One had been playing Asteroids for twenty-eight hours straight, trying to break the world record, and succumbed to cramps and gastrointestinal distress. Another had a migraine headache while playing Tempest. Prototypes of Tempest were known to cause motion sickness, but I don’t think that version was what this particular kid was playing. Still, both likely contributed to the legend, as descriptions of Polybius often sound a lot like Tempest.

Tempest itself was a game originally intended to be a first-person Space Invaders, but it didn’t really work out. Instead, it turned into a space shooter with a ship flying through polygonal tunnels.

It’s rumored that designer Dave Theurer got the idea from a dream about monsters coming through a hole in the ground. It functions like a first-person game, but it isn’t exactly one as you can see the ship you’re controlling on screen. Despite the name, the game has nothing to do with a wizard who’s the Duke of Milan and lives on a remote island. In 1985, an East German company released a game called Poly Play that was in arcades for only a little while, which could have influenced the “Poly” in the name. Poly Play was called that because it contained seven different games, many of them rip-offs of existing products.

The copyright issues might have been why it was pulled so quickly.

There were actually federal agents hanging around arcades in the early eighties as well, there to investigate gambling and drug deals. The idea that they were monitoring high scores to recruit players for special missions was incorporated in the 1984 movie The Last Starfighter, which I saw last year or so and was pretty non-memorable except for the protagonist’s little brother using “diarrhea” as a curse word.

In 1998, the person or people who came up Polybius might have also been thinking of the episode of the Pokémon anime that gave kids seizures. Not surprisingly, fans have tried to create their own versions of Polybius, and have built mock arcade cabinets.

It’s become a bit of an inside joke referenced in several places, including showing up in the background in The Simpsons and Wreck-It Ralph.

You probably should just stick to Triangle Wars instead. All that causes is boredom.

This entry was posted in Cold War, Conspiracy Theories, History, Television, The Simpsons, Urban Legends, Video Games and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Game That Wasn’t There

  1. Never heard this urban legend before, but it’s pretty cool. I’d have played it! I used to love Tempest and other “scary” games like Sinistar (“Beware, I live! Run! Run! Run!” Check out a clip here:

    A lot of imagination in those old games!

    • Nathan says:

      In the Captain SNES comic, which is still occasionally updated, the protagonist has a long-standing fear of Evil Otto from Berserk. I haven’t played that game, but there’s another similar one called Shamus that I have, and I can’t say I blame him.

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