Welcome to the Strange: Polybius (The Mysterious Video Game)

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Hey strangers, sometimes I stumble across something so cool that I’m shocked that I’ve never heard of it before. Case (of beer) in hand, Polybius.

So I’m going to talk about Polybius, not the Greek historian of the same name but the arcade cabinet game that was an urban legend, they say  it would 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.

The first documented reference to the game was an anonymously authored entry added to the site called coinop.org on August 3, 1998. Wow back in the ancient internet times. 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 “© 1981 Sinneslöschen”. The remainder of the information about the game is listed as unknown, and its About the game section describes the bizarre rumors that make up the legend.

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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 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.

On September 2003 an issue of Gamepro magazine had Polybius as part of a feature story called Secrets and Lies. In 2011, a Polybius machine was rumored to have been 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 was reported by unnamed sources to have been moved to Portland with its owners said to be intending to auction the game on eBay.

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You can also find this game in popular culture. Check out the Simpsons episode “Please Homer, Don’t Hammer ‘Em” you can see the game in the background and printed on the cabinet is (property of US Government). The game also has  appeared in the shows The Goldbergs and Blister, who knows how many others. It has also appeared in a few novels as well. My favorite popular culture info on this game is in the comic book series Hack/Slash, a slasher by the name Grin Face McGee was jointly inspired by Polybius and Splatterhouse a favorite game of mine.

I love urban legends and video games so this is a great double for me. I would really like this urban legend to become a movie, who wants to write it with me? STAY STRANGE!

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