During the 1980s, youthful gamers flocked to arcades with quarters in hand to play legendary games like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. In Portland, Oregon, amongst these colorful cabinets laid Polybius.

This video game was apparently so dangerous it made players sick, and government agents used it to control minds. The game’s biggest mystery, however, is whether it ever existed in the first place.

The Legend of Polybius

Polybius is allegedly an arcade game that occupied the soda-stained rugs of Portland arcades in 1981. Dressed in an unmarked black cabinet, it attracted players through its colorful gameplay of geometric patterns and shapes dancing across the screen. The legend goes that upon pressing start, unsuspecting gamers quickly became addicted, falling into a trance-like state that triggered memory loss, seizures, blackouts, and hallucinations.

Greeks, Geeks, and Government Conspiracy

The Polybius arcade game shares a name with a Greek philosopher. Born in Megalopolis, Arcadia, in 208 B.C., Polybius the philosopher is known for creating the Polybius Square. This device functioned as an encryption table that converts Greek letters into numbers to share secret messages. Polybius also translates to “many lives” in Greek.

Credit: Manfred Werner – Tsui Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

When players fell under the spell of Polybius, the gameplay seemed to deliver subliminal messages to them. Combined with reports of government workers in black suits removing not quarters but data from the arcade machines, surely something sinister was afoot. Eventually, these same workers removed the game from arcades one month later, with Polybius never returning to any establishment ever again.

Many thought that government workers used Polybius as an extension of MKUltra, government experiments ran by the CIA to determine ways to mind-control the populace through hypnosis and drugs. Whether Greek or geek, this sounds concerning. 

Online Myths and Tricks

Despite its apparent haunting of 1980s arcades, the first public record of Polybius surfaced in February 2000 on CoinOp.org, a database for arcade games. The database page provided the basis for myths surrounding the game, alongside an image of the start screen.

The Polybius start screen lacks any significant detail apart from the game’s title in large letters and “1981 Sinneslöschen Inc.” The latter text is the supposed copyright date and game developer, but neither seems to check out. No copyright was ever filed for the game at the time, to the point of the FBI confirming it never existed in the first place. “Sinneslöschen” also means “mind erasing” in German, at least according to Google Translate.

Game Over for Myths

While the myths of Polybius made it seem a treacherous plot was unfolding in Oregon arcades, these rumors were disputable with real-world evidence.

As for the soulless, blank cabinets used for Polybius, black cabinets were utilized as test machines for new games. The artwork was not applied until the arcade cabinets were ready for a wide release.

While players may not have experienced the side effects of long arcade sessions through Polybius, many reports of them getting sick while playing games. In a Portland arcade, the Eugene Register Newspaper outlined the story of Brian Mauro, a 12-year-old who experienced stomach pains while playing Asteroids for 28 hours straight. Instead of being put in a Polybius-like trance, Mauro’s stomach couldn’t handle the endless supply of soda he drank, fizzling up his chance at beating the high score.

In a report from Cat DeSpia, on the same day in the same arcade, 14-year-old Michael Lopez suffered from a migraine and threw up in the parking lot after a long session of Tempest. Tempest has graphics in line with Polybius’ rumored pixels that could have been confused for the cursed cabinet.

What about the government agents? Law enforcement would put cameras and wires inside arcade machines, hoping criminals would spill their beans between rounds of gaming. Besides gaming, gambling and drug dealing were common occurrences in arcades.

All these scenarios culminate into a realistic foundation for one of gaming’s infamous urban legends.

Ludicrous Legacy

Despite debates of its existence, Polybius has appeared in many TV shows and inspired other video games. Polybius machines appeared in the background of The Simpsons season 18 episode 3, “Please Homer, Don’t Hammer Him,” and Marvel’s Loki episode 5, “Journey Into Mystery.”

Polybius also inspired two real video games of the same name. In 2007, developer Rogue Synapse created a free game based on the rumored descriptions of Polybius. In 2017, developer Llamasoft released their version of Polybius for PlayStation 4.

Rogue Synapse intended to simulate the rumored gameplay of Polybius. On the other hand, Llamasoft only used the urban legend as inspiration, with no intention of replicating any rumored gameplay.

So, did Polybius ever exist? All signs point to no, so it is probably best you save your quarters for another game.

By James Whelan, contributor for Ripleys.com


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