Polybius (video game)
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Polybius is an arcade cabinet described in an urban legend, which is said to have induced various psychological effects on players. The story describes players suffering from amnesia, night terrors and a tendency to stop playing all video games. Around a month after its supposed release in 1981, Polybius is said to have disappeared without a trace. There is no evidence that such a game has ever existed.
Polybius is thought to take its name from the Greek historian of the same name who was known for his assertion that historians should never report what they cannot verify through interviews with witnesses, as well as for his works in relation to cryptography and for developing the Polybius square.
The story tells of an unheard-of new arcade game appearing in several suburbs of Portland, Oregon in 1981, something of a rarity at the time. The game is described as proving very popular, to the point of addiction, with lines forming around the machines, often resulting in fighting over who would play next. The urban legend describes how the machines were visited by men in black, who collected unknown data from the machines, allegedly testing responses to the game's psychoactive effects. Players supposedly suffered from a series of unpleasant side effects, including amnesia, insomnia, stress, nightmares and night terrors. The story tells of how Polybius players stopped playing video games, while one became an anti-gaming activist. The company named in most accounts of the game is Sinneslöschen.
The first documented reference to the game was an anonymously authored entry added to the site coinop.org on August 3, 1998. The entry mentions the name Polybius and a copyright date of 1981, and its "About the game" describes the "bizarre rumours" that make up the legend. The author of the entry claims in the description to be in possession of a ROM image of the game, and to have extracted fragments of text from it, including "(C) 1981 Sinneslöschen". The remainder of the information about the game is listed as "unknown".
Some commentators think the game is an urban legend that grew out of exaggerated and distorted tales of an early release version of Tempest that caused problems with photosensitive epilepsy, motion sickness, and vertigo. Writer Brian Dunning notes that two players fell ill in Portland on the same day in 1981, one of them suffering from stomach pain after playing Asteroids for 28 hours in a filmed attempt to break a world record, and the other collapsing with a migraine headache after playing Tempest at the same arcade. Dunning records that the FBI raided several video arcades in the area just ten days later, where the owners were suspected of using the machines for gambling, and the lead-up to the raid involved FBI agents monitoring arcade cabinets for signs of tampering and recording high scores. Dunning suggests that these two events were combined in an urban legend about government-monitored arcade machines making players ill, and believes that such a myth must have been established by 1984, as it was referenced in the plot of the film The Last Starfighter, in which a teenager is recruited by a man in black who monitors him playing a covertly-developed arcade game.
Dunning considers the Sinneslöschen company name to be "not-quite-idiomatic German" meaning "sense delete" or "sensory deprivation", and sees it as being the kind of name that a non-German speaker would generate if they tried to create a compound word using an English-to-German dictionary.
An entry from 1998 at the site coinop.org claims that the author of that entry has a ROM image of the game. No attributable source has ever claimed to have seen a ROM image for the game. Conflicting information is even circulated regarding the style or genre of the game. The 1998 material claims that it is "weird looking, kind of abstract, fast action with some puzzle elements". Others describe it as an action space-fighter. For some it has even been said to be a shooter/puzzle game with some mazes thrown in, a combination of both. In his version of the legend, Steven Roach claimed that that game centered around shooting waves of aliens attacking a "moonbase" and solving at the same time a numeric problem associated with destroying the aliens.
Polybius received some mass-market attention in the September 2003 issue of GamePro magazine, as part of a feature story on video games called "Secrets and Lies". The magazine declared the existence of the game to be "inconclusive". Snopes.com claims to have debunked the existence of the game as a modern-day version of 1980s rumors of "Men in Black" visiting arcades and taking down the names of high scorers at arcade games. This led to the hypothesis that the government was hosting some sort of experiment and sending subliminal messages to the players.
In 2011, a Polybius machine was allegedly found in a Newport, Oregon storage locker. An unnamed person said that the game was recognizable from its "name on the side of what looks like an old Pac-Man game." The game reportedly vanished soon after its existence was revealed.
On April 26, 2006, Duane Weatherall of Gamepulse.co.uk (now bitparade.co.uk) interviewed Roach who had claimed to be involved with the development of Polybius, and wanted to "lay it to rest". Roach claimed to have been working as a subcontractor in Czechoslovakia for a South American company (which he declined to name) around 1980 that wished to promote a "new approach" to computer graphics. The game was claimed to be very inventive and addictive, but the graphics, through mistake rather than design, were dangerous and prompted epileptic fits. The product was recalled, the subcontractors Sinneslöschen were disbanded, and the program was lost.
On March 22, 2006, three days before the coinop.org post, a user claiming to be Steven Roach also posted on the retrogamer.net forums making the same claim that he would like to answer questions about the creation of Polybius. The conversations on these forums were engaged in largely by users named Space_Ace, porkpie, Baxter, and Astro Blaster, along with Stevenroach himself. A forum moderator later revealed that these users were all coming from the same IP address, indicating the person claiming to be Steven Roach was using these accounts as sockpuppets.
On October 5 2013, at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo, a limited run of 30 homebrew Polybius games was marketed for use with the Atari 2600 by author, Chris Trimiew owner of Lost Classics. Gameplay is DIY and not claimed to be based on the original ROM, and the author expressed doubt that the Atari 2600 hardware would be able to emulate anything close to the claimed original arcade game.
A Polybius machine was featured as a gag in the September 24, 2006 episode of The Simpsons, titled "Please Homer, Don't Hammer 'Em." In an arcade full of outdated arcade machines from the 1970s and 1980s, Polybius can be seen in the background. On its panel only one button can be seen, presumably the start button. To further the spoof, the front of the machine was printed with the words "property of US Government".
Polybius was among the various upright cabinets shown in an arcade on the television show The Goldbergs on April 29, 2014. The episode "The Age of Darkness" featured Barry Goldberg battling an addiction to Punch-Out, and so Polybius was not visibly played. However, an unnamed girl could be seen in the background staring at the cabinet's screen.
The Polybius legend is an integral part of the plot of Doomsday Arcade, a video series hosted by Escapist Magazine. In the comic book series Hack/Slash, a slasher by the name "Grin Face" was jointly inspired by Polybius and Splatterhouse, according to writer Tim Seeley. In Batman Inc. #1 (2012), a man can be seen playing Polybius in a bar, standing next to Pandora.
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- Silverman, Ben (January 25, 2008). "Video Game Myths: Fact or Fiction? - Video Game Feature". Yahoo! Video Games. p. 2. Archived from the original on 2008-01-28. "Unfortunately, there is no evidence that the game ever existed, no less turned its users into babbling lunatics. No machines have ever been found and no ROMS have ever been produced."
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- "Episode One - Doomsday Arcade Video Gallery - The Escapist". The Escapist. Retrieved 13 October 2014.