An urban legend says that back in 1981 a new arcade game named “Polybius” started appearing in several “backwater alley” arcades of Portland, Oregon. The game was previously unheard of and rumor has it that it was the most addictive arcade game ever made. Supposedly, kids from the Oregon suburbs lined up in order to play this new and exciting arcade game, which was named after the Greek historian Polybius, who developed the Polybius square.
- Little did they know that Polybius could be the last game they would ever play..
Men in black
The Oregon video arcade owners, who had Polybius machines in their shops, reported that suspicious looking men in black suits frequently visited their establishments in order to extract data from the game. The men were not emptying the coin boxes for quarters, like the other vendors did, but they wanted data on how the game was played, for how long it was played and how the players reacted to the game.
These men were believed to be part of a secret government organization and the Polybius was their way to experiment with the human mind, or in this case, the minds of children.
Nightmares and memory loss
Some of the kids who had played Polybius are said to have suffered severe psychological side effects, including horrible nightmares, memory loss and even death. It is also said that some kids had wandered off to never be seen again.
According to the story, the children were playing Polybius continuously for hours, because of its hyper-addictive gameplay and then they could suddenly walk away, not remembering a thing from what they had just been doing. Some had even completely lost their interest in video games after playing it, despite being video game addicts.
Only a couple of months after its release, Polybius suddenly started disappearing from the arcades and no one ever heard about it again.
The Tempest prototype
The game itself was disturbingly looking, featuring abstract triangles, squares and circles, all in psychedelic colors. Some say that Polybius was a 3D vector game, featuring puzzle elements in a rotating play style comparable to Pac-Man, while some claim that you were flying through a tunnel, trying to dodge obstacles in your path. The latter theory is one of the reasons why some people claim that Polybius was a prototype of Tempest, the classic arcade game from Atari. Also, the prototype of Tempest was said to have caused motion sickness if you played it for too long.
In the alleged screenshot of Polybius’ title screen, the text ”(C) 1981 SINNESLOSCHEN INC.”, tells us that the game was released in 1981 by a company called Sinnesloschen. ”Sinnesloschen” is believed to be the German “sinneslöschen” which roughly translates into “sensory-extinguishing”, or “removing senses”. Many people believe that this was the name of a secret government organization, or; – a codename for Atari, the well renowned company with a countless number of classics on their resume. Atari was also known back then for working with the US Government, adapting their game Battle Zone to function as a training program for the US military.
When we did research on who was believed to have developed Polybius, one name constantly popped up on our screens; – Ed Rotberg. Ed Rotberg was a key member of Atari’s coin-op division back in the late 70s and early 80s. He worked on a number of classic Atari games including Missile Command, Asteroids, Centipede and of course, Tempest.
Judging by the vague descriptions of Polybius, the game bears close resemblance to Tempest, of which the prototype was known for causing motion sickness. This strengthens the theory that Polybius was a Tempest prototype, which would make even more sense if Polybius actually was a vector-based game. But, if the screenshot of the title screen is real, then it contradicts with the theory that Polybius was a vector game. Why? – Because the monitors used in the old vector game cabinets were not capable of showing pixel graphics, so the title screens and game logos had to be drawn using vector graphics only. Therefore, if Polybius was a vector game, then the title screenshot pictured above is a fake.
In March 2006, a comment was written on Coinop.org’s Polybius listing. The author’s name was Steven Roach, a Czech Republic-based computer programmer who claims to be the author of Polybius and that he was part of Sinnesloschen, a small company set up by him and a few other amateur programmers. Steven was about to stir up the legend of Polybius and bury the rumor that Ed Rotberg was the man responsible for this infamous, mind-manipulating arcade game.
Sinnesloschen was primarily producing printed circuit boards, but soon also found programming to be a profitable side business. They were supposedly contacted in 1980 by a South American company who wanted them to help develop a new puzzle-based arcade game with groundbreaking, never-seen-before graphics. The game was eventually given a temporary limited release, but shortly after, Steven Roach and the rest of the developers received the shocking news; – it turned out that a thirteen year old boy from Portland had suffered from an epilectic seizure while playing the game. This incident was not looked brightly upon in a time where video games were still new and considered a malady of the mind by many. Shortly after the incident, all the Polybius cabinets were pulled from the market, which quickly led to the disbanding of Sinnesloschen and the burial of Polybius.
The legend grows
Arcade game addicts had been searching for the true story behind Polybius for years and the legend grew so popular that even the producers of The Simpsons picked it up. Polybius could be seen in an episode of the Simpsons, which aired in September 2006, where Bart walks past it in a closed down shopping mall.
Even though many had tried to hunt down the game, no one had been able to find it anywhere, not even a ROM dump of it. That was until the 20th of July 2007, where the website Sinnesloschen.com suddenly popped up from out of nowhere.
The website featured Polybius information, cabinet artwork and even the game itself. Now, before you jump out of your seat in excitement; the game is a reproduction made in DarkBASIC, based off the information from an interview with Steven Roach featured on Gamepulse.co.uk (now Bitparade.co.uk). It features colorful epilepsy-triggering graphics and several videos have been uploaded to Youtube showing off the gameplay.
Some of the Youtube videos are even claimed to be actual footage, from the real game.
If you want to experience the game for yourself, Polybius can be downloaded from Sinnesloschen.com.
Read BitParade’s exclusive Steven Roach interview, where he explains Polybius in details, here.