Polybius is a supposed arcade game featured in an Internet urban legend. According to the story, the Tempest-style game was released to the public in 1981, and drove its players insane, causing them to suffer from intense stress, horrific nightmares, and even suicidal tendencies. A short time after its release, it supposedly disappeared without a trace. Not much evidence for the existence of such a game has ever been discovered. Polybius gets its name from the Greek historian who’s works are are relevant to modern cryptography.

According to the story, an unheard-of new arcade game appeared in several suburbs of Portland, Oregon in 1981, something of a rarity at the time. The game, ‘Polybius,’ proved to be incredibly popular, to the point of addiction, and lines formed around the machines, often resulting in fighting over who played next. This was followed by clusters of visits from men in black. Rather than the usual marketing data collected by company visitors to arcade machines, they collected some unknown data, allegedly testing responses to the psychoactive machines. The players themselves suffered from a series of unpleasant side-effects, including amnesia, insomnia, nightmares, night terrors, and even suicide in some versions of the legend.

Some players stopped playing video games, while it is reported that one became an anti-gaming activist. The supposed creator of Polybius is Ed Rotberg, and the company named in the urban legend is Sinneslöschen (German for ‘sensory-extinguishing’), often named as either a secret government organization or a codename for Atari. The gameplay is said to be similar to ‘Tempest’ (a shoot ’em up game utilizing vector graphics), while the game is said to contain subliminal messages which would influence the action of anyone playing it.

The origin of the legend is unknown. Some internet commentators think it originated as a usenet hoax. Other bloggers believe the story is a true urban legend – one that grew out of exaggerated and distorted tales of an early release version of ‘Tempest’ that caused problems with photosensitive epilepsy, motion sickness and vertigo; the early release of the game was therefore pulled.

Several people have claimed to have a ROM of the game, but none of them have made it available for public scrutiny, a ‘lack of hard evidence’ situation typical of hoaxes. Conflicting information is even circulated regarding the style or genre of the game. Some sources claim it is a maze-style game, while others describe it as an action space-fighter.

Snopes.com claims to have debunked the myth as a modern-day version of 1980’s rumors of Men in Black visiting arcades and taking down the names of high scorers at arcade games.

In 2006, a man under the name of Steven Roach came forward with a story of his involvement with ‘Polybius.’ He claimed to have been working for a South American company that wished to promote a ‘new approach’ to computer graphics (probably vector graphics). The game was claimed to be very inventive and addictive but the graphics, through mistake rather than design, were dangerous and prompted epileptic fits. The product was recalled, the subcontractors (Sinneslöschen) were disbanded, and the program was lost. Roach’s story contained a number of inconsistencies and was disregarded by most.

The next year, a Sinneslöschen website went online, offering a freeware ‘Polybius’ game for download, as well as artwork for the cabinet. The game, created with DarkBASIC, features gameplay and graphics based on the interview with Steven Roach and includes messages with the same text as those in the 1988 movie ‘They Live.’ The game and the website were made by the same person who created and released other freeware games at the site RogueSynapse.

Several videos of this game have been made and uploaded to YouTube, where it is often described as if it was the actual game the urban legend is about. Some videos, due to their spinning graphics, may cause negative effects to those with epilepsy.

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