The Strange History of Polybius

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.

Kotaku’s Stranger Things series is presented by the new Netflix original: Stranger Things. When a young boy vanishes, a town uncovers a mystery of secret experiments, supernatural forces, and one strange little girl. Watch it only on Netflix from July 15.

  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 Strange History of Polybius

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.

The Strange History of Polybius

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.


  • Hard to believe something with next to no evidence is so persistent.

    Also, thanks for the next puzzle piece. 🙂

  • In my opinion, the legend doesn’t sound so far fetched but it does suffer from the old chinese whispers syndrome in which the story has been retold so many times.

    Maybe a game company was testing a new game, didn’t want too much getting out, maybe they thought it was going to be the next big smash so maybe they gave it a placeholder name and released it in a backwater test market no little to no information about the game would be leaked before a big full scale release but for whatever reason they never released the full thing.

    Maybe im just full of shit but it is make for a pretty good urban legend though

    • Man, didn’t even notice since I never have sound on at work. I guess because I’d died by the time I scrolled down I just assumed it started paused until you pressed a key!

    • I don’t know what browser you use, but Firefox gives you the option to mute a tab.

    • And probably just worth writing down the “Death” screen for quick reference.

      1. GRX 23
      2. OYR 13
      3. VJS 8
      4. CKJ 4

    • Hah, I didn’t even know there was a Polybius cipher. I guess I would have googled that next if I’d gotten stuck.

      • So I assume that means you’ve figured it out already and it’s got nothing to do with a cipher like that? Back to the drawing board then I guess.

        • My first guess was actually right, I just did it wrong the first time. Good thing I went back and checked my work!

          • I edited my reply because originally I said “My first guess was ***** – but it was gibberish”, and figured I should probably double check my work. I’m glad I did. Do you like anchovies? I do.

          • Yeah…nup. Didn’t see the unedited reply and I feel like you’re trying to drop a clue but I’m not picking it up.

          • Well I’m not going to make the clue easy. Hell, my clue is probably harder than the puzzle itself.

          • And did you think “Wait… he’s saying his first thought was the right way to do it but it was gibberish? Is he insane?”

            Yes. I am. But just the usual amount of insane.

          • Can you at least say if it’s anything to do with ciphers like I was originally thinking? I at least need to know if I should stop pursuing that particular course.

            I seriously don’t know where to go from here:

            – Tried looking at some various ciphers based on the Polybius Square, but there are so many of them and they all have variations that it’s a needle in a haystack.
            – Tried looking for any patterns in the text, can’t see anything.
            – Even tried playing the space invaders game for a while, up to wave 6, and nothing there.

          • I actually finished the game! Eventually just took me to the high scores again 🙁

          • Don’t give up on the ciphers. Polybius isn’t all the rage nowadays anyway.

    • I don’t even know where to start with this one anymore. I thought I was on the right track but I was apparently asleep on a completely wrong train headed into the outback.

  • Do you have to play it to get enough info to solve the puzzle?

    Edit: By it I mean the space invaders thing

  • Apparently I’m half way there (my answer took me to a page that told me I was close)….

    I have no clue what to do next though…

    • ARGGG ok nevermind, got it. Pshhh, I put way too much work into that one – the whole ‘put code in their for friends’ threw me way off, had me scrawling through a bunch of javascript at one point :/

  • Holy shiznits! That took me 4 and a half hours and it was in front of my face the whole time.

    • I really don’t know where you guys are getting this answer from. The only thing on this entire page that looks like a clue is the high scores on the game but there must be something else somewhere.

          • While I understand what you’re trying to say, that only narrows it down to potentially a thousand other ciphers.

            This is what I’ve tried so far:

            1. Scanned the entire article so many times I can recite it by heart.
            2. Looked for any potential patterns, or out of place words, or weirdly worded sentences in the text. Nothing there, aside from “has” instead of “have” (which I assume is just a simple typo). I’m actually pretty convinced the text itself is just superfluous for the puzzle.
            3. Looked closely at the embedded images from The Simpsons and Wreck-It Ralph. Nothing there.
            4. That basically only leaves the embedded game, specifically the high scores:
            – The numbers 4, 8, 13 and 23 do not form any kind of mathematical sequence
            – The letters GRXOYRVJSCKJ do not mean anything on their own
            – Tried plugging the letters (including substituting and not substituting the numbers 23, 13, 8 and 4 for the corresponding letters in the alphabet – W, M, H and D) into various forms of the Polybius cipher, including the Playfair cipher (honestly thought I had it with Playfair, the name seemed like a good fit), trying keywords such as polybius, asteroids, space invaders, tempest, stranger things and even locked. Nothing comes out as a coherent word or phrase.
            – Tried converting the letters into numbers. Still nothing.
            5. I even played through the various levels of the game and took note where the red and yellow aliens were positioned as perhaps these corresponded to letters in the alphabet (as there are 26 aliens). No dice there either.

            At this point, I’m out of ideas.

          • I too lingered a bit too long on the Playfair cipher. Someone left a hint in these comments that might give you a nod in the right direction too. Don’t read too much into the whole article. And be weary of misdirects. They make you spend too long on one path. If it seems too obvious it probably is.

          • If you’re referring to the anchovy hint, that really doesn’t help me at all. While I know the Playfair stuff is a dead end now, I really don’t know where else I could go from there as I feel like I’ve exhausted all my options. I feel so stupid.

            EDIT: Also now tried a simple Caeser cipher by shifting the alphabet by the number next to each set of 3 letters. That didn’t work either.

            This is actually really frustrating. I have no idea how you guys solved this. There’s something I’m not seeing but I have no idea what it is.

          • Also now tried a simple Caeser cipher by shifting the alphabet by the number next to each set of 3 letters. That didn’t work either.

            I honestly think you should try again.

          • The problem is, there’s NOTHING obvious here to me. Nothing. Everything I’ve tried has been at least a partially educated guess but everything’s come up a dead end. And now I’m completely out of ideas.

          • Nah, I think I give up on this one. I have absolutely no clue how you guys found the solution but you’re smarter than me for doing so. Everything I try just comes out as gibberish, and I’ve tried so many ciphers now, and various combinations of converting letters to numbers and vice versa that it’s silly. I don’t even know if I’m using the *correct* letters and numbers! For all I know there’s some hidden thing in the article text somewhere that tells me what they are.

            I managed to solve the first puzzle but there is not enough information in the article for me to solve this. I don’t do subtle very well, I need more information.

            EDIT: I got it but like I said there wasn’t really enough information for me in the article to go on. Only ended up brute forcing it with the help of someone else and some dumb luck.

          • Agreed, I finally got it, but only by brute forcing the cipher angle, really no pointers to the ‘correct’ cipher, just luck of the draw really.
            Also this is NOT a more often used cipher these days as shifting math matrixes are far more common. Think simple.

  • Bugger it, I can’t figure this one out, I figure it is like the first one and I am overthinking it. But I just cannot figure it out.

    • I over thought it the other day so decided to not read the comments and that helped. I’d say the comments have more red herrings than answers. There are some good tips in the replies though.

  • ok I think I am in the same boat that others are in that are stuck, just over thinking it.
    1. GRX 23
    2. OYR 13
    3. VJS 8
    4. CKJ 4

    LOCKED I think is the keyword. Now the coded text is either
    – OR –
    – OR –

    So am I close even???

    • Not really .. I’m not sure how to give you a clue without being too obvious 🙁 but move away from your keyword, it’s leading you down the wrong path.

      • I ran the Caesar cipher
        1. GRX 23 -> JUA
        2. OYR 13 -> BLE
        3. VJS 8 -> NBK
        4. CKJ 4 -> YGF
        so any combination of the words decoded doesnt work.

        I have tried using all the alphabets and and running them via the same cipher but this time recursively using 23, 13, 8 & 4 shift, I get nada…

        I must be missing something obvious here.

        • It’s not exactly a Caesar cipher I guess, you made the same mistake as white pointer. Try doing it the other way.

          • man i got the same results as hakt0r
            used the numbers as the Key for the cipher and then i inputted each of the 4 into the screen and got nothing returned…
            @dpc783 said one of the answers is correct but it seems non of the 4 go in :/
            God i can see why i failed Cryptography back at uni….

          • I ended up with DOT BLE DRA GOX
            tried them backwards as well, did the JUA BLE NBK YGF both normal and backwards.
            i think i am on the brink of crazyness….

          • You’re close, there’s a couple of errors that I honestly can’t explain.

          • My lord!! i got it !! you said i got errors and im like ok read it again and what do i see…. it hit me and i feel dumb…
            Thank you for your incite

    • You’re in the right area, but using the wrong method. Think carefully. And also note that each high score is numbered seperately.

        • You’re other comment shows that you are very very close! Try the Caesar cipher again, but with 1 small change

          • Thank you Thank you Thank you Thank you Thank you Thank you
            Phew! my flu brain was shot and even with your clue it took me 15 minutes.

  • I had to bang my head against this for a while. Also went away and came back to it a few times throughout the day.

    As some others have said here in the comments once you figure out exactly how it works it becomes obvious very quickly what the answer is.

    I’d recommend doing the working out by hand though.

  • Well, rather than resent the myth or insult it, i like that videogames are developing their own wierd folklore yhe way theatre, film and music have. I know we’re in a place where percieved (not actual) skepticism is almost a commodity and generalisation a wafting aroma of cooling windowsill cookies, enticing all to take part in it’s chewy goodness but this was obviously never real, just a fun story that developed over time. Why kick it when it’s down? What is the harm of enjoying the myth the article seems to be protecting us from?

  • That is the stupidest god damn puzzle. The article itself has no information about how to do it.

    Everything you need is on the high scores screen of the game. Use the Caesar Cipher that they don’t mention at all in the article.

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