The Crazy Urban Legend Of The Killer Arcade Machine

Polybius. If you read that and know what I'm talking about, you've probably got a wry smile spread across your face. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, boy have I got a story for you.

It involves an arcade game, the CIA, epilepsy, suicide and one of the greatest urban legends in all of video gaming.

Long before the internet existed as we know it today, and long before 4chan and it's hoaxes, came the story of Polybius. It exists in many forms, each a little different from the last and each altered slightly to suit the tastes (or memory) of the teller. But all have a few things in common.

The story normally begins in Portland in the early 1980s. It involves crazy lines spurred by feverish word-of-mouth from local arcade gamers. And many of those gamers end up addicted, sick and plagued by nightmares. Some tellers even sprinkle in reports of the game wiping people's memory, or even driving players to commit suicide.

And that's just for starters. The myth of Polybius would have you believe that the game was actually operated by the CIA, or the CIA working with Atari, or a company called Sinneslöschen which may have been German or may have been the US government. Apparently "men in black" would collect data from the machines from time to time, gathered not just from player's performance but from the subliminal messages that would flash on the screen (and were supposedly the cause of many of the deadly side effects).

Bananas, right? Yet that's the beauty of it, and the reason it grew into such a fanciful tale. While it's easy to assume it's bullshit, there's been no way to prove it never existed. And so the tale has lived on, and even today, there are those who believe that, in some form or another, the game actually existed, and actually made people sick.

One such tale, and if there's to be any truth to the matter must surely be the origin of the whole mess, is that the Polybius myth originated from location testing for arcade classic Tempest. The urban legend has Polybius as playing very similarly to Atari's 1980 shooter, so it's possible, however, remotely, that it was a faulty Tempest cabinet - one perhaps inducing photosensitive seizures - that's the grain of truth at the heart of this grand, decades-old lie.

While everything you read about Polybius will be tainted by the tale and the nature of the legend (even the game's Wikipedia entry is a minefield), this 2007 write-up is probably the most comprehensive (and entertaining) you'll find of the game if you'd like to read more. More lies and half-truths, sure, but more nonetheless.

You can also, if you dare, check out some fan-made recreations (or...creations) of Polybius, which I'll warn you, will cause seizures regardless of your state of health.

FUN FACT: Polybius makes a cameo in a 2006 episode of The Simpsons, complete with "Property of US Government" branding .
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    It's crazy stuff like this that makes the world an interesting place to live in...

    I remember hearing something similar to this in Machine Mania in the early 90s at my local arcade.

    Another interesting theory is that the myth was inspired/influenced by the movie "Nightmares", specifically the "Bishop of Battle" segment. Look it up, its on youtube.

    "While it’s easy to assume it’s bullshit, there’s been no way to prove it never existed"

    Welcome to every argument about religion ever

    So how long before we see Polybius HD on PSN and XBL?

    I've read so much about Polybius. I wish it were real, but ehhh... who knows. GOOD CONSPIRACY!

    It's probably bullshit and was inspired by The Last Starfighter movie that was out at the time, which has a suspiciously similar plotline to these urban legends.

    Writing like "More lies and half-truths, sure, but more nonetheless" when you never bother to say HOW YOU KNOW or PROVE ANYTHING is what gives conspiracy fans ammunition. Why does Kotaku fancifully prognosticate on what's true or false with nothing to back it up? If no one has any evidence of anything, all you achieve is showing a lack of journalistic integrity. None of which is to say I believe any particular conspiracy theory; I just hate a site I frequently read having corrupt journalists. Yes we DO care if we can trust you.

    The story would make a great DTV horror movie.

    I think they remade it over here...

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