Polybius is a supposed arcade game featured in an Internet urban legend. According to the story, the Tempest-style game was 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 supposedly disappeared without a trace. Not much evidence for the existence of such a game has ever been discovered.
Polybius gets its name from the Greek historian 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.
According to the story, an unheard-of new arcade game appeared in several suburbs of Portland, Oregon in 1981, something of a rarity at the time. The game proved to be incredibly popular, to the point of addiction, and lines formed around the machines, often resulting in fighting over who played next. This was followed by clusters of visits from men in black. Rather than the usual marketing data collected by company visitors to arcade machines, they collected some unknown data, allegedly testing responses to the psychoactive machines. The players themselves suffered from a series of unpleasant side effects, including amnesia, insomnia, nightmares, night terrors, and even suicide in some versions of the legend. Some players stopped playing video games, while reportedly one became an antigaming activist. The supposed creator of Polybius is Ed Rotberg, and the company named in the urban legend is Sinneslöschen (what seems to be a slightly incorrect German translation for “To have erased your mind”), often named as either a secret government organization or a codename for Atari. The gameplay is said to be similar to Tempest (a shoot ’em up game using vector graphics), while the game is said to contain subliminal messages which would influence the action of anyone playing it.
The exact origin of the legend is unknown. Some internet commentators think it originated as a usenet hoax. Other bloggers believe the story is a true urban legend – one 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; the early release of the game was therefore pulled.
Several people have claimed to have a ROM image of the game, but none of them have made it available for public scrutiny, a “lack of hard evidence” situation typical of hoaxes. Conflicting information is even circulated regarding the style or genre of the game, with some sources claiming it is a maze-style game, while others describe it as an action space-fighter.
The Polybius legend received some mass-market attention in the September 2003 issue of GamePro magazine, as part of a feature story on video game urban legends called “Secrets and Lies”. The magazine determined the legend to be neither true nor false, but “inconclusive”. Additionally, Snopes.com claims to have debunked the myth as a modern-day version of 1980’s rumors of “Men in Black” visiting arcades and taking down the names of high scorers at arcade games. 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 alleged game soon vanished after the reports. 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.
On March 20, 2006, a man by the name of Steven Roach made a post on coinop.org telling the story of his involvement with Polybius, and how he hoped to “lay it to rest”. He claimed to have been working for a South American company that wished to promote a “new approach” to computer graphics (probably vector 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.
A Polybius machine was featured 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. The front of the machine was printed with the words “property of US Government”.
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.
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.
Hoax or not?