The Cosmos’ Most Ridiculously Implausible Videogames: Polybius – the most mysterious game of all time?

Jason investigates the mythical game Polybius. Did it ever exist? Could it be the trippiest videogame ever? Here's what he found out...

So my crazy aunt once told me that videogames were a secret first strike weapon, created by the Japanese, to exact revenge on their defeat in World War II. Their diabolical scheme was to get American kids hooked on videogames, to make them all fat, lazy and stupid, and eventually brainwash them into not resisting when the Japanese launched their secret invasion.

Little did she know that the Japanese would accomplish this with the release of Pokemon, but she mentioned this back in the mid 80s, way before the Pokemon First Strike. This brings me to my topic du jour.

Now, normally the Cosmos’ Most Ridiculously Implausable Videogames address the science, logic and history of the action inside the game, but this time we are going to address the very existence of a game. This time, we are going to take a look at Polybius, the alleged game of DOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!

Legend has it, that long ago, before the time of Sigourney Weaver, there were these things called arcades. In the early 80s, arcades were the cool place to go. There were home videogames, but they didn’t compare to the quality of arcade video games. If you want an example of this, go and play the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man. I dare you, tell me it can even hold the slightest of candles to the arcade version. Prove it to me and I’ll give you a cookie. But I digress.

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See, arcade game manufacturers were always trying to come up with the next killer app, the next machine that would have kids lined up to deposit their allowances. Sometimes they came up with something awesome, like Ms. Pac-Man and Dragon’s Lair. Sometimes not so awesome, like Burgertime. And according to legend, sometimes they came up with something diabolical, like the fabled Polybius. Allegedly, some time in 1981, a game showed up in just a handful of Portland, Oregon arcades, called Polybius. It was described as being similar to Tempest, and it had children, teens and adults lined up out the door for a chance to play the machine.

The game’s diabolical intentions were revealed when players reported experiencing nausea, nightmares, insomnia and amnesia. Players with epilepsy had seizures induced, and some people even say that the game caused them to have suicidal thoughts.

Yes, friends. This, indeed, was to be a true ‘killer app’. Interestingly enough, there are no credible reports of the game’s existence, or people suffering due to playing it.

A little over three years ago, someone by the name Steven Roach wrote on about his involvement with the development of the game, but again, without much credible evidence that the game was made.

Other reports found online indicated the famed Atari designer Ed Rotberg was instrumental in the development of the game. The existence of this game has long been debated in the internet age. There are some who believe it is real, some who don’t, and some who think that anyone who thinks the game is real are morons. My opinion will come at the end.

Allegedly, the game was similar to Tempest, involving some kind of tunnel effect on the screen. In recent years, a freeware ‘interpretation’ of the game has been released, complete with subliminal messages, strange video effects, bizarre sounds, and strange, if not captivating gameplay. The makers of the freeware interpretation of the game allegedly based it around design information given by Steven Roach or other sources.

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For the sake of this discussion, we’ll say that this version is an accurate interpretation of the original phantom game of doom that haunted a few Portland arcades.

Why it wouldn’t exist:

I. Raster and vector images just don’t splice

  1. According to the freeware interpretation of Polybius, the gameplay consisted of a central mass of enemies, with your ship on the right hand side of the screen. You could move closer to the enemies, but the left and right motion consisted of the enemies in the center rotating, not your ship moving around them. This gave the game an eerie tunnel effect, rendered using vector graphics. After the first level, strange video effects make the game more vertigo inducing, as the action is centered on a screen displaying multiple colors, tunnel effects and strobes, all designed for a raster style monitor. Nowadays, vector monitors aren’t really used anymore, but back then, when building an arcade game, you had the choice of either a raster or vector display. The thing is, back then, you couldn’t combine the two; vector displays couldn’t display raster images, and games using raster displays couldn’t emulate vector graphics. You can do it today on a PC, but in 1981 I have serious doubts that this could have been achieved.

II. You can’t make someone off themselves using the Jedi mind trick

  1. So, we’ve all seen comedian hypnotists like Flip Orley hypnotize their prey into doing odd things such as clucking like chickens whenever they hear the word ‘buttermilk’. But scientists, or at least the Mythbusters, say you can’t hypnotize a person to do something that they would find morally reprehensible. And since suicide is something that most people would not think about in a positive light, I highly doubt that flashes of a videogame would cause you to want to off yourself. Now, I have seen people get so involved in a game that they end up pissing themselves, but that’s a story for another time.

III. 50 million Elvis fans can’t be wrong

  1. So, according to legend, the game is very popular on location, and has people lining up to play. If that’s the case, where is the myriad of former Polybius players, waiting to debunk my theory that the game doesn’t exist? Particularly if the game had a negative effect. There is a principle out there that says if you tell someone a positive experience with a business or some sort, they will in turn tell four of their friends. However, if you tell someone about a negative experience, they will tell 10 of their friends about it. If that were the case, then I would think players of a game that made them wake up screaming in the night would be shouting it from the frakking rooftops not to play the game. Or perhaps the poor sons of bitches were all lined up and neurolized.

  2. Additionally, there are people out on the net who say they have the ROM of the original game. If that were the case, are they just doing their civic duty by preventing the game from getting out to the general public? The internet is one big Petri dish for viral material. I can’t believe that out of the many people who supposedly have this game, not a single one has leaked it. We’re not talking about the Lament Configuration here. That, and a lot of people in this world are assholes, and if they had a chance to frak with people remotely, many would take it. I seriously doubt all in possession of this ROM have taken the moral high ground. If you have it, I dare you, send it to me. I will sign waivers, hold harmless agreements etc. Bring that shit.

IV. Because the big man told me so!

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  1. So, because his name has been attached to this game from multiple internet sources, I decided to e-mail Ed Rotberg himself. He graciously e-mailed me back from his deluxe flat in The Village, to tell me: “…I can state with confidence that I never saw or heard of, and certainly never worked on any game called Polybius. I understand that my name has somehow gotten connected to this game (if it ever existed), and have even seen some sites that purport to show the screen display, ‘game play’, etc. I have had nothing to do with any of those.”

V. Subliminal messages don’t always work

  1. There is not much scientific proof out there that can say without a doubt that subliminal messages really work. Even if it were possible, the odds that everyone would be affected by these would be even slimmer then me scoring with Megan Fox. The fact is, there is no credible scientific study out there that can, without a doubt, confirm that subliminal messages can affect human behavior.

  2. Looks like the FCC bought the hype. Apparently, fearing the potential for advertisers to program their views into buying products, the FCC banned the use of subliminal messages in 1974. Now, legend has it that the US government was in on this diabolical scheme, so I guess they could have forced the FCC to look the other way. Either way, for some reason I have an intense desire to buy more Coke and popcorn.

VI. This game actually has an educational message

  1. So, interestingly enough, this game requires you to at least have a halfway basic knowledge of math. In fact, the better you are at math, the better you will be at this game. Knowledge of your square roots will really help you go far. But everyone knows that videogames aren’t supposed to be educational. They’re supposed to melt our brains! In fact, the first ‘edutainment’ game I remember playing was the ill-fated Professor Pac-Man, and that steaming pile of crap taught me absolutely nothing. Polybius was allegedly this very addictive game, but most of Americans probably couldn’t make it past level one to all the cool trippy shit.

Why it could exist:

I. The US Government has had a keen interest in videogames for many years

  1. Ed Rotberg himself worked on a conversion of his classic game Battlezone for the US Army. The Bradley Trainer, as it was called, was the government’s first foray into videogames. Over the years, videogames were used by the US Army, including a SNES cart that included a modified M-16 used for simulating M-16 operations, and America’s Army, currently in its third version, a highly popular first person shooter/recruiting tool.

  2. The government has also been interested in mind control, hypnosis, and psy-ops for many years. Allegedly, groups like the CIA, FBI and Majestic 12 were responsible for researching and developing tools that would do just what Polybius was supposed to do.

II. There is a myriad of games that never left the prototype stage

  1. From Ed Rotberg: “…I will say that there have been many games that were worked on at Atari, ‘back in the day’, that have never been released to the general public, some barely making it to the prototype stage, and that most of those few people who knew about them barely remember some of them, if at all. It was a long time ago now – 25 to 30 years.”

III. Videogames have been known to cause epileptic seizures

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  1. In 1981, the first case of a photosensitive epileptic having a seizure due to a videogame was reported. Videogames have flashing, recurring patterns, and other factors which can cause both children and adults to have seizures if they have a history of epilepsy. In recent years, just about all videogames must include a warning about the possibility of seizures in epileptic users. Having played the recent interpretation of Polybius, I can safely say, this game would give people seizures.

The Test

So, I wouldn’t be a good journalist if I wasn’t willing to do anything to get my story. That being said, I threw caution to the wind and sacrificed mind and body, and spent a good four hours playing the interpretation of Polybius in the past few days. Once I got my eyeballs to stop bleeding, I did come up with a few observations.

The goal of the game is to clear the numbers out of the central arms of an object in the center. This is done by shooting targets that have a number circling them.

If you shoot a number which the center number is divisible by (following this?), the number in the center is reduced by the amount on the target. Not divisible, then the number in the center goes up by one. Hit the square root, and instantly you warp to the next level. While trying to target the polygons with the numbers and do the required math in your head, you are pounded by numerous enemy polygons, who try to kick your sorry ass.

Now, level one seems safe enough, no background, just the object in the center with the numbers and numerous enemy shapes trying to shoot or collide with me. So, I am playing when, all of a sudden, I notice a flash in the background every 30 seconds or so. Upon looking closer, they are subliminal messages, reminiscent of “They Live”. Things like “No Imagination” or “Consume” flash up there periodically.

Now, reading the readme file, it specifically states that there are subliminals in the game, so I was not surprised, and found it pretty humorous. The interesting thing about it is, as the game went on and the backgrounds and action got more complex, I started paying more attention to my ship and the action, but I stopped noticing the subliminals almost altogether. In fact, I only noticed them again many levels later where there was not a trippy, LSD influenced background.

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So, theoretically, if subliminals really work, and I am unable to distinguish them from the action, could I really be programmed to think these things? I’m sure it wouldn’t work on everyone, but the game effectively hides the fact that it is trying to influence you.

People with vertigo, motion sickness, epilepsy or those who like to get high need not apply. This game, straightforward, will fuck you up. The backgrounds in further levels are mesmerizing, and would certainly be vomit-inducing to those of the weaker stomach.

The backgrounds made it hard to see my ship and the action on the screen, so I continued to have to look closer and deeper into the screen to be able to effectively play. I’m guessing that this would be intentional to make a person see less of the screen and be more unlikely to see the messages being passed off to their subconscious.

Either way, as the game went on, I felt like I was trippin’ balls. The room did start to spin or shift a little when I looked at other objects, kind of like the way a room seems to stretch after a long drawn out session of Guitar Hero or Beatmania. By the time I was finished, I was certainly a little dizzy, but no worse for wear.

Thankfully, the next day I got a clean bill of health (aside from being overweight, snoring like crazy, and needing to shave) from the wife (a physician assistant). At no point during the night did I wake up screaming, remember any nightmares, suffer erectile dysfunction, piss myself, paint ‘REDRUM’ on the mirror, sleep walk or any other bizarre behavior. My memory was about as shitty as it normally is, but it was no worse, and I have certainly not sworn off videogames in the slightest.

Looking back at it, it really wasn’t a particularly fun game. Aside from the trippy graphic effects and eerie sounds, it just reminded me of a typical early 80s dime-a-dozen arcade game. There was really nothing special about it, and the gameplay was certainly not addicting. It was entertaining for the ‘scare factor’ for a few minutes, but once I finish this article, I doubt I will play it again, unless I want to scare someone.

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So, I know you’re just dying to know: do I think Polybius exists? That answer is no. In my research I found no credible evidence that the game existed. I talked to the alleged developer who specifically said he had nothing to do with it. I haven’t found a ROM of it, and I highly doubt that all of the people allegedly affected by it would have stayed silent for so long.

That being said, the following are a list of other ‘killer’ videogames from history:

Star Castle – Cinamatronics (vector shooter, 1980) A poor truck driver met his end by a Star Castle machine in the Stephen King written and directed classic Maximum Overdrive. Just goes to show you that when videogames and vending machines start acting haywire, you shouldn’t touch them, even if it looks like you’ll be able to play for free.

The Game – Some Ktarian Chick on Risa (VR version of Discs Of Tron, without being cool in the slightest, Stardate 45208.2) So little Wesley Crusher returns to the Enterprise to find the crew hopelessly addicted to a crack-like videogame that attaches to their head, and it’s up to him and Ashley Frakking Hot Judd to save the day. Turns out this game gets you addicted by stimulating the ‘pleasure centers’ of the brain when you complete a level. Sounds to me like the Orgasmatron thing from Barbarella, and trust me, if there was a game that ‘stimulated the pleasure center’, I’d be playing. So would the rest of you. You know you would, don’t deny it.

World Of Warcraft – Blizzard (MMORPG, 2004) So, tell me how pathetic you must be if you die by playing WoW? Even more so, how pathetic are you if you commit murder because of WoW? Well, there are people to ask, because as far as I can count, WoW has indirectly caused more deaths then any other videogame out there. There have been multiple reports of people dying of exhaustion after marathon sessions, murdering after in game transactions go wrong, and killing their children via neglect. Even some suicides have occurred from players dying in game, having their stuff looted, and feeling that they just can’t go on. Sorry, guys. If you feel that WoW is more important than life, see a shrink, get over it and start your life over. It can be done. It’s certainly not worth your life, marriage, children, job etc.


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Whether this game exists or not, it certainly has a bit of a legacy. Between conspiracy theories, interpretations of the game, and numerous people claiming to have the game, the mark of Polybius is all over the internet.

While Ed Rotberg states that he had nothing to do with the Polybius, he has had an incredible career, producing titles like Battlezone, S.T.U.N. Runner, and many other classic games. He is currently a co-founder and director at Mine Shaft Entertainment, releasing many new games for the iPhone platform. And no, he really doesn’t have a flat in The Village. Look forward to an interview with him sometime in 2010.

As for me, I will be happy to not have to play this game again, and now that I’ve publically stated that I don’t believe it exists, hopefully, I will get my credit rating back, they’ll stop bugging my phone, and I’ll start having an imagination again. The men in black say the effects should wear off in a few months.

Jason Helton is the Co-Creator/Executive Producer of Iron Otaku Radio, formerly on XM and Worldspace Satellite Radio. While the show ceased production in 2006, Jason is still a geek at heart, and continues to write about videogames, anime, and sci-fi. Currently, he is not leaving the fucking house because them Men with Blue Hands will get him. He promises to never play or talk about Polybius again; just please don’t hurt him.