The Strange History of Polybius

Some video game urban legends turn out to be true – like that massive pile of discarded E.T. games – while others are no more myths. But myths can be fun — and despite no one ever turning up any concrete evidence of the fabled Polybius arcade game, it hasn’t stopped popular culture from latching onto it and further feeding the monster.

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If you haven’t heard the legend, there was supposedly a cabinet back in the hey-day of arcade machines called Polybius that had strange, sickening effects on players. Dated around 1981, it was thought to have a Tempest-like schmup style of gameplay. It would cause physical discomfort like headaches and nausea, and in some cases, more serious conditions like amnesia and night terrors. So the story goes, occasionally “men in black” would be seen collecting data from the machines, and eventually they disappeared and were never seen again.

Perhaps just because the reference itself is fun, Polybius has appeared in The Simpsons, The Goldbergs, Wreck It Ralph, G4TV’s Blister (in which they search in vain for the lost arcade game), and eventually the king of using references as a crutch himself, Ernest Cline, who uses Polybius as a plot setup for Armada: A Novel.

The game does has an entry on CoinOp – which attempts to catalogue arcade games – but it’s suspiciously lacking in any solid information. As its popularity as an urban legend blew up and more references were made to it, people started contributing “found evidence”. The irreparably gullible can even go to a Sinnesloschen website and download the “new version” of the game. Some people thought it was worthy of a whole new cabinet.

Perhaps it’s an intentional joke that the name Polybius refers to a Greek historian that believed information shouldn’t be considered official unless it can be verified by sufficient witnesses and evidence. But writer Brian Dunning believes he has put together enough evidence to make at least an educated guess.

According to local news in Portland, Oregon, two kids fell ill at the same time in the same arcade — one of them while playing Tempest, and one notably while attempting to break the Asteroids world record. Around the same time, the FBI was looking into arcades potentially using machines as a form of illegal gambling, which could explain the visits from “men in black”.

If Dunning is right, that means a couple of small coincidences in Portland, Oregon became far better known and embellished that they had any right to. But as we’ve seen with things like Slenderman, the internet can sometimes take something and really run with it. He also points to the game’s supposed publisher, Sinneslöschen (a combination of “senses” and “to delete” in German), as the type of glued-together word that only someone who doesn’t speak German would create.

According to Dave Theurer, the original Tempest’s creator, that kind of vertigo-like feeling was actually what he was going for.

“I had grown up playing Space Invaders, like we all had back then,” says Theurer. “But I was obsessed with making my own versions of it. I’d try to make better versions of it on my old Apple II and seeing what effects I could have on the player. It kind of spiralled out of control from there — first I’d stick hidden codes inside the games for my friends, and then I really started messing around with trippy perspectives.”

Even cloning an arcade game directly is impressive work for a child under 10 with no help. Theurer was kind enough to provide an early version as an example, which you can play below — use the arrow keys to move and the space key to fire.

Early influences and experiments with vertigo aside, I think it’s fair to count this one as a myth — at least until a documentary team unearths a massive dump of arcade cabinets. In that event, I’d happily volunteer someone else to be the first to test its effects.

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