Polybius (video game)

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Alleged main screen of Polybius

Polybius is a theoretical arcade cabinet. The focus of an urban legend, [1]it was said to be released to the public in 1981, and caused its players to go insane, causing them to suffer from intense stress, horrific nightmares, and even suicidal tendencies. A short time after its release, it disappeared without a trace. Not much evidence for the existence of such a game has ever been discovered.[2]

Polybius takes 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 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, the testing of the game in Portland Oregon, a copyright date of 1981, the collection of data from the games and claims that the author(s) are in possession of ROMs from the game.

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, 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 (German meaning "deletion/erasure of senses, Sense-delete").

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.


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".[3] The magazine declared the existence of the game to be "inconclusive".[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] In October 2012, a Polybius cabinet appeared in the lineup of arcade games at Barcade in Brooklyn, New York. The owners claimed it to be original but this was quickly revealed to be a Halloween joke.[7]

Steven Roach[edit]

On March 20, 2006, a man by the name of Steven Roach made a post on coinop.org telling a story of his involvement with Polybius, and how he hoped to "lay it to rest".[8] He claimed to have been working as a subcontractor in Czechoslovakia for a South American company (which he has 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 - German for "to delete the senses") 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.[9] 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 April 26, 2006, Duane Weatherall of Gamepulse.co.uk (now bitparade.co.uk) interviewed Roach after he posted this message on another forum.[8] The Roach story contained a number of inconsistencies and omissions. For example, he has never disclosed the name of the South American company he claimed to have created the game for. The interview also included some of Roach's background, including the revelation that he comes from Rhyl, Wales, and a possible recreation of the game storyline.

PC game and other formats[edit]

On July 20, 2007,[10] a Sinneslöschen website went online that offered a freeware Polybius game and cabinet art for download. The game, created with DarkBASIC, features gameplay and graphics based on the interview with Steven Roach and messages taken from the 1988 movie They Live. The game and site were made by the same person who created and released other freeware games at the site RogueSynapse. In fact, both sinnesloschen.com and roguesynapse.com point at the same IP address,[11] while the PC Polybius game can be seen running in a custom cabinet in a photograph at RogueSynapse (shown upper right).

Several videos of this game have been made and uploaded to YouTube, where it is often described as if it were the actual game the urban legend is about.

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.[12]

Popular culture[edit]

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 short-lived G4 TV series Blister had a story arc centered around the search for Polybius (although the final installment was never filmed due to the series' cancellation).

The Polybius legend is an integral part of the plot of Doomsday Arcade, a video series hosted by Escapist Magazine.[13]

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.


  1. ^ http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4362
  2. ^ 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. 
  3. ^ Elektro, D. "Secrets and Lies", GamePro magazine, September 2003, page 41
  4. ^ "Secrets & Lies (page 2) Feature". GamePro.com. Archived from the original on 2011-07-17. 
  5. ^ "Urban Legends Reference Pages: Hoax Round-Up". Snopes.com. November 29, 2007.
  6. ^ Masko, Dave (May 31, 2011). "Polybus Video Game Surfaces in Oregon Resort". Huliq. Retrieved 22 July 2012. 
  7. ^ {http://instagram.com/p/RLBoqaxy0C "Polybius at Barcade"}
  8. ^ a b Weatherall, Duane (March 2, 2007). "Polybius". Republished from Gamepulse.co.uk. bitparade.co.uk. Archived from the original on 2008-04-07. Retrieved March 10, 2007. 
  9. ^ Porter, Christian (January 31, 2012). "Power Gloves & Tinfoil Hats: Videogames, Sensory Deletion, and The Shadow Government". gamecola.net. 
  10. ^ Whois entry on sinnesloschen.com. who.is.
  11. ^ Whois entry on roguesynapse.com. who.is.
  12. ^ Cottell, Pete (October 20, 2013). "Pac From the Grave: 128 bytes and 35 years later, people are still making new games for the Atari 2600". Willamette Week. Archived from the original on 2013-10-02. 
  13. ^ [1]

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