Polybius is probably the most mysterious arcade game ever. It's probably the most mysterious video game ever, full stop.
However, there is very little information around as to exactly what it was like, and there are a whole host of Area 51* style ideas about it floating around on the Internet. Googling for "Polybius" turns up a whole heap of information on the philosopher mentioned above, and not a whole lot of information on the game. I set google to 100 results per page, and found a handful of references to the game, mostly people posting on forums after having seen the page at http://coinop.org. However, this is what I have been able to scrape together. Should you happen to find something else around that looks like it has a shred of a chance of not being a hoax, I would appreciate if you could /msg me so that the writeup can be updated. Please note: NONE of this is guaranteed to be true. This is all rumour, and will remain so until the day when someone comes up with a working machine, so don't go around saying "Polybius exists, malcster from E2 said so".
Although you can find a few postings about it, if you really look hard, they have all been copied and pasted from one location - god knows who wrote that originally. www.GoodDealGames.com has an article about it by a Michael Thomasson, and that seems to be the piece that has been pasted into many message board postings. The other relatively solid source I found was at coinop.org, and while the comments to the story are relatively interesting to read, they are all pretty much "Email me this ROM, I don't care about any harmful effects" or "I HAD THIS GAME IT WAS WEIRD BUT THEN I SOLD IT TO THIS PERSON WHO SEEMED TO REALLY WANT IT!!" which is quite far fetched to me. What's weird is that a lot of the messages posted that I found were very recently... as in, they were all this year or the last... Anyway, on with the "facts"...
What is "known" about the game.
- It was an arcade game, a prototype, which was only ever released to perhaps a dozen arcades, back in about 1981. They were removed again after about 4 to 6 weeks.
- These arcades were all in a small suburb of Portland, Oregon, although I saw a message board posting from someone who lived there and wanted to know which suburb it was in (the general impression was that he had not heard about it).
- The game was reportedly made by a company called Sinneslöchen, which is German for sense deleting.
- The game was "abstract in design with fast action and puzzle elements".
- The real point about the game is the effect it had on players. Supposedly, people who played would suffer amnesia, supposedly forgetting the way home and sometimes their own name. Also, players would wake up at night screaming from terrifying nightmares.
- Apparently an owner of an arcade which had a machine witnessed men in black style people turn up regularly to retrieve "play statistics and other records" from the coin-op. Also, "The mysterious collectors failed to take the coin earnings, nor did they seem interested in or recognize any monetary potential that is usually associated with such devices."
- The children who played it gave up video games and one became an ardent anti-games campaigner.
- Polybius was a Greek guy who dabbled in crytography (this is known, and not a rumour, silly), and putting "Polybius" into the decrypter at www.oneacross.com comes out with a whole bunch of words which appear to "support the story". I've done it, you can check it out at the link below, but if you can't be bothered, the words are things like "children", "problems".. I suppose if you look at it in the right light then it's odd, but I'm sure you could get "odd" results with any word.
This would all be considered to be bullshit, except for two points.. the ROM and the screenshot. Supposedly a ROM has appeared, and apparently if you load it in an emulator it freezes on the title screen before letting out a "weird noise". Also, a screenshot of the title screen has appeared, and can be found from the coinop.org link below. The ROM apparently has text in it like "insert coin", "press 1 player start" and "only", and so the only thing that has been confirmed is that it's a 1 or 2 player game. It's "supported in MAME, but not officially", which is a handy way of explaining why all the big mame sites like mame.dk don't have any mention of it, and why MAME will not spit out the CRC32 values for it when the command (-listinfo or something) to create a dat file is made, and that's also why MAME32 doesn't show it under "all games". Paul and antibasic at www.edgeemu.com claim that they have the ROM, but mame.dk has the policy that only contributors can access ROMs for all the systems. Since the full MAME set includes this ROM according to them, you need to contribute $30 or more to the site to get to it.
The screenshot looks... well, like nothing much. I daresay I could've made it in MSPaint if I'd tried. It is simply "Polybius" on a black background, with "(c) 1981 Sinneslöchen inc." and "0 credit". One poster said putting it in Photoshop and turning up the brightness would expose artifacts indicating a fake, but another poster said that happened on any screenshot you cared to try it with.
Malcster debunks rumour and saves day. Gets home in time for tea.
And there we have it. What with all the smoke and mirrors, and stuff that just sounds not even slightly believable (hoards of people confirming the story and saying they have screenshots to email in... Although no further screenshots have been displayed on the site) it's hard to get a really clear picture, but I have to say there are an amazing number of points that with no research I can smack on the head right now.
Paul from Edge Emu says it's "supported in MAME, but not officially". Well, the problem is, MAME is open source. If there is any code in MAME that plays Polybius, then it will have been added by Nicola Salmoria, because all the changes to the main source are up to him. And he will know who wrote it. I invite anyone to come along with some source code of the driver which supports Polybius. I would download the source, but I am confident of it not being there, else at least one of the Mamedev team would be able to shed some light on this situation. Which brings me to my next point.
"It boots but freezes at the title screen"? I'm sorry, I'm not claiming to be an emulation expert, but this much I know. As far as arcade emulation goes, you need to have a fair bit of knowledge about what hardware the game was run on - CPU at least. Without knowing that, how does it even boot?
The "wanted prototypes for dumping" page at http://targets.mame.net doesn't mention it, so they are clearly not goin all out to find it, and they are some of the most knowledgeable arcade games people around.
The ROM that exists is almost certainly a fake ROM. I am not exactly sure of my opinion as to whether the game itself used to exist, but if the ROM does exist, and is "unofficially supported in MAME", then how come all we have is one grainy title screenshot, which uses the font that Williams used to use? If and when someone appears with a ROM that doesn't appear to have been faked (although even the fake ROM is unfindable), I might take notice. Until then, I say that it is undumped and unemulated.
Whether it existed in the first place, well, that's a little harder to write off straight away. If it seems a little odd to you that a "small Portland suburb" would have a dozen arcades, well, that's another point that doesn't quite add up. Sure, I live in the UK, where everything from our cars to our shops are smaller than the US, but jesus, how big is a small suburb of Portland? I can't believe that it would be big enough to have 12 arcades... And obviously the reluctance of anyone to name a suburb is very suspicious.
About the men in black, well, if I was an arcade operator and some people came in and started pulling reams of printouts (or whatever) from a machine of mine, I'd probably go and do something. I mean when you see someone open an arcade machine, you'd think they would be doing it to get the money, and you wouldn't just stand around doing nothing. Besides, you'd probably notice the huge number of kids coming up to the change desk and saying "'scuse me mister, but I can't remember where I live".
Overall, I'd say that on the evidence currently available, I don't think the game existed. Prank Hoax. Urban Legend. Lie. Bullshit. The fact that so many people claim to have played it and "I HAVE MANY SCREENSHOTS" while no new shots appear is just far too ridiculous to believe. Maybe someone will come along with a working machine and prove me wrong, but I doubt it. The "Sense deleting" company name is just the kind of in joke I would put in if I was going to start a weird hoax like this, and the amnesia / men in black thing is just like the plot of a bad B-movie. The other thing which is weird is that it all appears to have appeared very recently - message board posts that I found were predominantly this year or last year. If it was there, giving people amnesia in 1981, then how the hell has no one said anything till 20 years later?
The clincher for me is this "Anti-games crusader" who became so after playing the game. Well, I know we have a lot of anti games crusaders... but surely if one of them had the ultimate proof that games were bad "I used to play this game once, and it gave me and everyone else who tried it nightmares!!" they would be spouting it out constantly. That kind of stuff is priceless for people who want to get games banned - just line up a bunch of these people who all got amnesia from it, and have them tell the world about it, and you win. The claim made by a site that they "contacted a person who met (the anti games crusader)" is ludicrous - I want to know this person's name, and why exactly he hasn't managed to get games banned in 22 years (I'm sure with that kind of evidence I could do it faster than you can forget your way home).
It would be nice to believe this, but if you look at the people seriously into arcade emulation, they are not asking for dumps or requesting that people contact them with information. They don't think it's anything more than a prank which has managed to go on for a hell of a long time. I have to say I agree with them, and until any further information comes to light (I'm not holding my breath) I think we can all rest easy, and rack up those high scores without fear of G-men coming round to collect information on us.
And to the person who started the hoax? Well, I have to congratulate you. You definitely did it right, even down to making a fake ROM. Your professionalism should be an example to aspiring bullshitters the world over. Especially nice touch on the german. But you failed to fool the people who really know what they're on about... so better luck next time.
UPDATE!! - McCritical saves day even more. Gets home before malcster.
HUGE thanks to McCritical who just messaged me a very interesting link:
As any relatively mild arcade geek might know, Tempest was originally a game where the tubes rotated and the player's "claw" stayed still. This was changed after it caused motion sickness to the tubes being stationary and the claw rotating, and apparently the Polybius name was just a prototype for Tempest. "Sense deleting" refers to a lead coders Herculean alcohol consumption. Someone clearly took the stories of a prototype game in Oregon causing motion sickness and added a load of Men in Black for good measure, before faking a ROM.
Although this is obviously not officially confirmed from Atari, it does seem incredibly likely. I guess that's a solved mystery then... a pity, because it did all seem kind of cool as a conspiracy theory. I guess we'll all have to find something else to be paranoid about.
Did anyone else hear that?
Cheers to Servo5678 for a correction, and MASSIVE thanks to McCritical for clearing the story up by giving me the Vimm's link.
* - as in conspiracy theories. not as in arcade shooting game.