POLYBIUS – The Video Game That Doesn’t Exist

There is a video game that doesn’t exist. It’s a myth: an urban legend; a hoax. It’s called Polybius – and you might have
heard of it. Let me take you back to 1981, back when arcade
games were at their peak. A multi-billion dollar industry, and a fever
that had a grip on pop culture. Video arcades were a new social nexus, and had sprung up
everywhere. Dimly-lit by neon light, adorned with garish
carpet – they played host both to crowds of teenagers – and cabinet after cabinet of the
hottest games of the era: Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Galaga. However, in an unnamed arcade in some sleepy
suburb of Portland, there lurked something more obscure. A limited release of a game that would evaporate
as silently as it appeared. The stories are vague: the cabinet is described
as plain, and the gameplay: ‘weird looking’; abstract’; ‘fast action with puzzle elements’.
Sometimes it’s described as being particularly addictive, despite the unassuming appearance. The only concrete details are the name, year
of release and the company behind it: Polybius, 1981, Sinneslöschen. Really, it was just like any other arcade
machine – except for the side effects. Reports of sickness, amnesia, night terrors
and behavioural changes followed those who played it. It was no accident either, if you believe
the rumours: instead a secret project by government agency – developed from military tech for
the CIA or some other men in black. The machines were observed, gameplay records
were taken – and then, after a month or so – they disappeared without notice, along with
any shred of evidence. To this day, no authentic cabinets, boards
or dumped ROMs have surfaced – but there are some who claim to hold them. Quite the yarn. But could there be any merit to this myth
– or even a basis in truth? It’s probably safe to assume that the story
has been subject to quite some embellishment – the accounts are full of conjecture and
weasel words: ‘supposedly’, ‘according to’, et cetera. One thing remains consistent across all of
the stories – and that’s the name. Polybius. Why Polybius? It’s not novel – it belongs to a Greek of
some repute, a prominent historian born in Megalopolis, Arcadia. This could be a deliberate choice to muddy
search queries about the game – or perhaps it was chosen on its own merits. Polybius covered the Roman’s rise to power
in detail: an important primary source and an early example of rigour in historiography. He also lends his name to a simple cipher:
The Polybius Square, in which letters are substituted by their co-ordinates on a grid. This doesn’t tell us much, although the meaning
of the name is interesting: the Poly- prefix means ‘many’, and ‘bios’,
‘life’. ‘Many lives’ from ‘Arcadia’? Convenient. It could be coincidence – but we can assume
whoever named the game has at least some knowledge of either history – or cryptography. Real or not, the name was chosen. Another word consistent to the myth is the
supposed developer or publisher: ‘Sinneslöschen’. It’s a German word – almost – a not-quite-grammatical
combination of Sinne, meaning ‘sense’, and ‘löschen’, meaning ‘to erase’. To erase senses. To become senseless. It seems to allude to the mythical side effects
of Polybius, which implies a deliberate choice: It’s almost certainly not a real company,
as there are no other games attributed to them, nor any trace of company records. So Polybius could be of German origin – but
the incorrect grammar might also indicate the use of machine translation, something
chosen by a non-native speaker to sound suitably obscure – or sinister? There isn’t much visual evidence for the game,
and most can be discounted as fake – but there is one screenshot that is consistently upheld
as canon. It’s rather basic – a black background with
a Polybius logo, copyright information and credits – and nothing else. However, compared to contemporary games from
1981, one thing stands out – the logo is unusually large and detailed. Back then, fancy graphics were confined to
the printed marquees – every kilobyte of the ROM was valuable, so most game titles were
rendered in the standard font, or at a much smaller scale. This did change over the next few years, and
by 1983 larger, more lavishly designed title screens were more common. The closest match in terms of style might
be from Nintendo: their games favour large, bold titles with similar lettering: perhaps
Polybius drew inspiration from Vs. Pinball or Duck Hunt? Of course, both of these date to 1984 – which
makes Polybius’ 1981 claimed year of release look spurious. Perhaps it was just ahead of
its time? Another detail from the screenshot is the
font used for the smaller text. Those with a keen eye might recognise a similarity
to those used by Williams games, such as Defender or Robotron – and it’s definitely a close
match, but they’re not identical. The smallest, 5-pixel high text does match
Robotron – but the larger, 7-pixel text does not. There is one game that comes closer, nearly
a perfect match – and while still a Williams title, it’s the much less well-known ‘Bubbles’. It’s still not a pixel perfect fit, but it’s
closer than any other: the minor differences could be attributed to font hinting, JPEG
artifaction – or perhaps a deliberate alteration. In any case, the text is distinctly Williams
– either Polybius is some lost prototype, or the image was fabricated by someone who
drew influence from their games. The screenshot has been around almost as long
as the myth, and is likely the original source for the turquoise bubble-lettered logo. It doesn’t exactly give us much to go on – and
it certainly doesn’t reveal what the gameplay might have been like. There are some that claim to reveal more of
Polybius – such as these vector-esque images distributed on the now-defunct ‘polybiuslives.com’ First emerging around April in 2008, there’s
little supporting evidence for their veracity – all signs point to a fan-made creation. Besides, it doesn’t make sense – if you had
the ROMs and were able to take screenshots of a functioning game, why not show it in
motion? To see the game running would be a revelation. There have been multiple people who claim
to hold the Polybius ROMs: and yet there’s no sign of them anywhere. However, there is no shortage of gameplay
footage out there – but these are fan-made interpretations: impressions of what Polybius
may have been like. One of the first emerged around April 2004,
distributed by a site called gooddealgames.com – the original source unknown. With a spooky icon, it’s clearly supposed
to evoke the myth – and those who are brave enough to run it are given a warning: ‘The Polybius video game has been linked to
impaired memory and psychological changes. Game play may cause epileptic seizures in
susceptible individuals.’ ‘Do you still want to continue?” Click OK, and you’ll be met with the familiar
title screen (reformatted for a 4:3 monitor), with the logo rapidly flashing while a sound
effect plays – a sequence of rising tones. The flashing continues until you press a key
– and then: nothing. The game exits with fatal error, and a message box that reads ‘APRIL
FOOLS!! Send this urban legend to a friend.’ Interestingly enough, if you take the executable
into a hex editor you’ll find the 2Mb file is not quite what it seems – the first 10
kilobytes consists of some data – but the rest? Empty space. Acres of zeroes – terminated
with a few bytes of text. ‘April Fools!’ So we can write that one off as an obvious
joke – but there is another game that has become the dominant example when searching
for ‘polybius gameplay’. It came from a site at sinnesloschen.com,
the supposed developers of the original – but the site explains that it’s just a fan-made
attempt to recreate what might have been. Launch the executable, and you’re presented
with the obligatory warning screens: ‘Do not play this game’, etc – and ominous mentions
of cognitive interface and ‘higher functions’. A familiar logo appears, but this is no mere
prank – there’s an actual game amidst all the spooky theatrics. The gameplay is admittedly simple, giving
you control of a ship that can move in, out, or rotate the playfield. Like the original legend insists, there’s
more to the game than simple shooting – glowing shapes bearing numbers appear, and if these
numbers match either digit appearing on the base – or are evenly divisible – then you’ll
reduce the base’s number by that amount. Once the base reaches zero, you advance onto
the next level – where the visuals get progressively trippier. Aside from the puzzle element, the gameplay
resembles vector games like Tempest or Star Castle – although some aspects are inconsistent
with vector graphics, such as the swirling backgrounds. Entering the code ’35-34-31-54-12-24-45-43′
– the code that corresponds to ‘Polybius’ on a Polybius square – grants access to the
‘higher game functions’. There’s a host of extra settings here – some
relating to ‘auditory entrainment’, ‘subliminals’ and ‘colour strobe’ which disable some elements
of the game. Others are more fanciful, however – ‘REM imprinting’,
‘Gameplay amnesia’, ‘Operant Paradigm Triggers’ – countless settings designed to inspire the
right level of paranoia. Cracking open the .exe’s resources reveals
the game was made in DarkBasic – a game creation tool. Using a more specialised tool called ‘DarkExplorer’
we can reveal all the game’s assets – graphics, sound effects, etc. All of the subliminal aspects are laid bare
– a variety of messages written in dark grey, flashed briefly during gameplay: ‘Obey’, ‘Consume’, ‘Submit’: like something
straight out of ‘They Live’. The sound effects are similar: most are synthetic
tones, but some feature voice recordings, and sounds of breathing: presumably these
are played at a barely audible level. Altogether, a pretty neat package for those
who want to build their own Polybius cabinet – but who’s behind it? The credits hidden in the ‘higher functions’
menu give us some insight: Ygor Euspanes, PhD; and a mysterious number sequence – 4
8 15 16 23 42. The numbers should be familiar if you’ve ever
watched Lost – and it turns out the name is equally cryptic: it’s an anagram of ‘Rogue
Synapse’. The whois data for sinnesloschen.com lists
an email from the domain gawkerweb.com, which in turn links to – roguesynapse.com. It’s the site of an arcade enthusiast with
a particular passion for recreating fictional arcade games: such as ‘Space Paranoids’ seen
in Tron or the eponymous cabinet from ‘The Last Starfighter’. It’s a fantastic fan-made project, but as
far as the Polybius myth is concerned – it’s just a tribute. With the explosion of indie developers over
the last decade, there have been quite a few other interpretations made – both for desktop
and mobile. There was even a version made for the Atari
2600 – with very limited distribution at the Retro Gaming Expo 2013. Few of these later examples make any claims
of authenticity, and they generally follow a simple shoot-em-up formula. One particularly recent game that bears the
Polybius name is Jeff Minter’s version for PSVR. Minter is a veteran game dev long noted for
his unusual games and lightsynths: since 1981, he’s been responsible for a steady stream
of psychedelic experiences. Polybius stays true to the Minter mould, and
with the rapidly strobing colours and breakneck pace of gameplay, you can see why the game
has pretty strong warnings before you start. Its pulsating visuals and trance soundtrack
mesh together to keep you in the ‘zone’: but its intentions are benevolent, with subliminal
messages reminding players of the virtues of a nice cup of tea. It’s good… but it’s Polybius in name only.
An homage to a legend. “I certainly think there’s some truth to Polybius
– lots of random arcades have been used as test beds for legendary unreleased arcade
games, such as Marble Madness 2, and Primal Rage 2. Several other unreleased games have
also been spotted in the background of old news reports, so Polybius could have easily
been one of those. What I don’t buy is the whole governmental
conspiracy behind it – I mean, why would the FBI want to test a machine that makes people
nauseous not only in public, but also on children? I mean, what possible benefit could they have
from giving kids migraines? Heh, if they really wanted to make kids feels
sick – all they needed to do was wait ten years for Nintendo to invent the Virtual Boy”. So despite all the promises, and these fan-made
interpretations, nothing resembling a Polybius ROM has ever surfaced. A few fan-made versions and some screenshots
of dubious origin are all that exist in the digital domain – but arcade machines are physical
things: so what about any physical evidence? Of course, the original story tells of the
machine’s sudden disappearance – but what if one unit was forgotten? What if they weren’t
destroyed – but sequestered in some warehouse? What if someone found one? Well, there are those who claim they have. The videos all follow a familiar pattern:
a shaky camera led by rumours of arcade haul, to the reveal: a dark cabinet bearing a familiar
name. Some even feature gameplay – normally it’s
just the Rogue Synapse version, but sometimes it’s something original. And then – just as things are getting interesting:
‘What was that?’ – Jumpscare. Roll credits. Invariably, it’s arcade enthusiasts showing
off their custom cabinet work – and having a bit of fun in the process. Who can blame them? Polybius is an essential
part of arcade myth – and to have your own machine is quite the talking point. Only one Polybius cabinet is unaccounted for
– a low-resolution black and white photo that appears on the Killer List of Video Games’
entry for Polybius. It’s a Namco-style cabinet, dating from 1979
to 1981 – you can see the same style in Galaxian, Galaga or Pac-Man examples. The black panels and t-moulding most strongly
suggest a Galaga cabinet with the decals removed – but the sides appear to be lighter, perhaps
white: which means it could be the rarer Bosconian, or a converted Bosconian cabinet. The controls don’t match, however – just a
single button and stick – and the coin-box isn’t consistent with Namco machines of that
era. It’s period correct – definitely from the early 80s – but the dual steel plate style
is more likely to be from a Data East or Nichibutsu machine. So it could be a custom build, repainted and
assembled from spares – or even built from scratch. There’s also the very real possibility
that it’s simply a photoshop – the Polybius marquee could have been applied directly from
the screenshot. The low resolution and lack of colour make
detecting a fake difficult – and I suspect it’s deliberate. An original photo of a custom
cabinet, perhaps – but it seems altered to fit the myth. It’s not just cabinets – sometimes someone
will claim to have a circuit board from the fabled game: such as the one featured here. If it were real, it might even be playable
(with the right connections) – or the ROMs could be dumped and subsequently emulated. It would be a very valuable find – if it were
real. This is definitely an arcade PCB – but it’s
not Polybius. It’s a bootleg Ms. Pacman with some minor photoshopping to obfuscate its
origin. It’s not even enough to fool Google’s reverse
image search – so we can confidently ignore this particular claim. Manufacturing an arcade game is something
which involves a lot of people – engineers, programmers, artists: it’s not a task undertaken
solo. So, with multiple people involved – surely
by now someone would have come forward with information? Well, as it happens there have been a few
– although whether they tell convincing stories is another matter. One testimony comes from an anonymous source
who claims Polybius was associated with SEGA’s arcade division – he’s known only as PRG017. “I know I will not be believed – but still,
I believe this must be told. I have information on the video game called
Polybius. This game is real! I was a programmer in SEGA’s arcade division”. They play the myth straight, insisting that
their secret project was designed to stimulate specific parts of the human brain – with testers
suffering amnesia and ‘loss of arcadegame fandom’. They then go on to explain that the Sega Genesis
CD made use of Polybius code fragments in order to get ‘the two processors synching
up’ The account is poorly written, and loose on
real detail – it leans rather too heavily on the original myth, and the introduction
of a link to SEGA doesn’t seem to make much sense. The technical details are vague, and the timeline
doesn’t quite match up: the Sega CD wasn’t released until 1991, a decade after Polybius. Given the overly-dramatic ending, unverified
status and complete lack of supporting evidence – PRG017 is a fraud. Perhaps the most prominent claimant of responsibility
is a man named Steven Roach: who, in a series of posts in early 2006, claimed to be one
of the original programmers of Polybius. “I think it’s about time I laid this to rest.
My name is Steven Roach. Sinnesloschen was a company set up by myself
and several other amateur programmers in 1978”. He says he’s primarily based in the Czech
Republic, where he set up a company called Sinnesloschen with several ‘mainly amateur’
programmers that worked on ‘component parts for PCBs’ with ‘programming as a limited but
very profitable sideline’ Interesting how a band of several programmers
saw programming as a ‘sideline’, but anyway: he goes on to detail the beginning of Polybius. “We were approached around 1980 by a Southern
American company that shall remain nameless for legal purposes to develop an Arcade Game
that centred around a new approach to Video Game Graphics”. So a Czech company that specialised in PCBs
was approached by an unnamed Southern American company to develop an Arcade game which would
be tested in a limited North American market. Truly a global conspiracy! He goes on to explain how the side effects
started happening early in playtesting – and how the resultant cover up might have inspired
the stories of ‘men in black’. I’ll be honest, the writing smacks of impostorship
– It’s all recounted in run-on sentences dressed in dramatic language that wouldn’t be out
of place in a poorly written ghost story – and several things just don’t add up. He claims to have been born in Rhyl in Wales,
and moved to Czechoslovakia in 1965 at the age of 15 ‘due to his parent’s business interests’
– an interesting proposition, given the fact that the country was under communist control
at the time. He claims the Polybius name was chosen by
one of his colleagues ‘who studied Greek Mythology’ – but Polybius is a historical figure, not
a mythological one. The majority of his ramblings are just expansions
of the original myth: and what little novel detail exists is presented without proof. I reached out to him via his email address
– but received no reply. He did reply to an interview call from bitparade.co.uk,
however – where he answered some questions about his role in making the game. Disappointingly, much of it is copied verbatim
from his original post – perhaps he wanted to keep his story straight, or didn’t want
to expend too much creative effort in developing the story. He does go into more detail about the gameplay,
however – describing the puzzle elements that would later influence RogueSynapse’s interpretation
of the game. In Cat DeSpira’s 2012 article, ‘Reinvestigating
Polybius’, she found a possible link between Steven Roach and the Czech Republic: someone
with that name was running a ‘troubled teen’ facility in Brno. The ‘Morava Academy’ opened in 1998 and was
closed by authorities the same year. However, this Steven Roach was originally
a policeman from Utah – whereas the one associated with Polybius claims to have been born in
Wales: so perhaps it’s just a coincident name. Everything about Steven Roach reeked of a
hoax. I had one lead left to follow: the original
claims were made on a few different sites – but Roach was most active on the RetroGamer
forums, where there are a number of follow-up posts. The thread goes on for several pages. A few
suspiciously new accounts are quite active – it seems someone might have been using sock
puppets to fuel discussion. Later, a moderator confirms that several names
are posting from the same IP – and stevenroach is amongst them. Most of these accounts were created specifically
for the ruse: but the oldest had been used in good faith. I checked the post history – an introduction.
I had the prankster’s full name, and an approximate location. A quick google search turned up social media
accounts that matched. I sent him a tweet – and waited. I originally said that I received no reply
from Steven Roach via email – and this was true at the time of writing, and up until
a few days after I sent this tweet. As if by magic, two and a half months after
sending the original email, he finally gets back to me. I was approaching the end of this project
– I didn’t have time for his games. I had to call his bluff. So, I addressed him by his real name. I said,
‘Perhaps it’s time to retire the Steven Roach persona?’ It was a long shot – and it didn’t work. He
kept up the pretence. Even in the face of the evidence I had, he wasn’t going to give
it up. Shortly after, I received a reply on twitter
from my suspect: My original enquiry was polite, pretty straightforward – but the response
was obtuse – hostile, even. I wasn’t going to get a confession – but by
now I was fairly sure I’d found the guy responsible. Let there be no doubt: Stephen Roach is a
red herring – and his story? Entirely fabricated. “Most of what we know about Polybius comes
second hand – and this lack of primary evidence makes me suspicious of the whole thing. However, what we do have is primary evidence
for real events that are a bit like some of the things that happened in the Polybius
legend. And it’s quite easy to see how this could have been embellished or misunderstood
to create the Polybius story in these second-hand accounts as they’re re-told. History isn’t necessarily what happened – it’s
what people say happened.” So, there’s a lot of evidence wrapped within
the Polybius myth – but not much of it is convincing. The same stories crop up time and time again,
sometimes with embellishment – sometimes with new theories, but never anything that links
the game to its supposed origin in the arcades. Making sense of it all and establishing the
truth is a difficult task – and I’m not the first to try. Perhaps the best way to establish Polybius’
origin is to start in the present – rather than chasing unverifiable rumours from nearly
40 years ago, instead we can trace the evidence that exists today back to its source. This trail might not lead all the way to 1981
– but wherever it ends might provide insight as to how this story began. As a starting point, we can look to Wikipedia:
its article history is transparent, and the site has been around for a while. On February 25th, 2005, the Polybius video
game page was created – but this isn’t the first mention of the game on Wikipedia. Going back to November 30th 2004, The main
‘Polybius’ article – the one about the historian – was amended with a section titled ‘The Arcade
Game/Hoax’. Going back further, there was a short-lived
edit on the 29th of February the same year that read ‘Polybius is also the name of a
possibly fictitious videogame in contemporary folklore – related to Atari’s Tempest, it
legendarily led to mental illness in players.’ This is the earliest mention I could find
– but what exactly prompted its Wikipedia inclusion early in 2004? The internet was young, and ‘going viral’
an as-yet unknown concept, but in August, Polybius was featured on Slashdot, which was
a pretty big deal back in 2003 – and it mentions an inclusion in a recent issue of GamePro. At the time, GamePro was ‘The World’s Largest
Independent Multiplatform Gaming Magazine’ and claimed to be read by ‘over 3 million
gamers a month’. In issue 180, cover date September 2003 – although
published some weeks earlier – there was an article called ‘Secrets and Lies’. The article featured six gaming myths, with
each assigned a verdict: true, false or inconclusive. Polybius was number six. The article expressed doubts over the game’s
veracity – citing a lack of evidence and the relative ease of fabrication – but it ultimately
awards an ‘inconclusive’. It was this GamePro article that played an
important role in propagating the Polybius myth, exposing the game to a widespread audience
that might not have had access to the internet. It’s not the origin of the story, but a key
catalyst that transformed the game from obscure rumour to a widespread legend. “Yeah, I think GamePro was probably a primary
source for gamers to find out about Polybius. I think that writing about it in a national
magazine certainly brought it to attention. And then, of course, after it appeared in
GamePro a lot of people then spread the legend, then told their friends or asked other other
people have you known anything about it and probably added a lot of their own details
along the way because that’s how urban legends work, right?” Polybius’ activity pre-Gamepro was much more
subdued, but even in early 2003 the game was still well-known to arcade enthusiasts. It turned up on snopes’ forums in July, and
had mention in a hoax round-up sometime shortly afterwards – asserting that ‘This one is just
a gag someone invented several years ago which has now become enshrined on the web’. Sometime shortly before February 15th 2003,
an article on Polybius appeared on gooddealgames.com. A familiar screenshot appears, and at some
point there was also a link on the site to the ‘April fools’ version of the Polybius
executable. Most interestingly, at the bottom of the article,
there is a small banner with special thanks – to a site called coinop.org. Coinop.org is a resource for collectors and
enthusiasts of arcade games: it features a fairly comprehensive database of games, along
with a knowledge base populated with repair and maintenance documents. The site is a common factor in many of these
early articles – it seems they’ve had a page on Polybius longer than anybody else. Their description of the game is quite familiar
– it seems most later articles have been based on this one: the screenshot appears here,
too. At the bottom of the page is a creation date:
the 3rd of August, 1998 – our earliest yet. But is it verifiable? The URI for this page has changed several
times over its lifetime, so tracking down the first date of appearance is tricky – but
with enough digging (and copious use of the wayback machine), we can attempt to discern
an origin. The current page’s history only goes back
to February 2014 – at this point URI rewriting rules made things more human-readable. The page prior can be tracked all the way
back to 2003: before this the site used lengthy GUIDs, with a minor change in 2002. This URI is the oldest I could find on the
coinop.org domain: which takes us all the way back to June 21st, 2000. The entire site moved domain around this time. While it originally started on coinop.org,
at some point during 1999 it was incorporated into clickto.com – first as a subdomain (coinop.clickto.com),
then later as a subdirectory. It’s here where we can track the Polybius
page as far back as possible: a capture exists from March 3rd, 2000. Interestingly, the creation date of 1998 is
missing: as is the screenshot. However, there is a last modified date instead:
given as the 6th of February, 2000 – along with a note. ‘New addition – anyone heard of this game?’ This seems to imply that the 6th of February
is the date the page was added: I mean, it says ‘new addition’! So why does the page today insist that it
was created in 1998? When did the ‘date created’ field first appear? A capture from April 29th, 2003 lacks the
page created date: the next capture has it: this means it was added between these two
dates. The date might have been recorded before this
but not displayed: but another possibility is that the ‘date created’ field was made
later on – and populated with a default value. I suspect the latter case is true – principally
because almost all the other game pages share the same creation date, down to the 4am time. It is possible that Polybius was present in
the database back then – but there’s absolutely no evidence for it. What we do have is a verified capture from
early 2000 with a date of February 6th and a claim of a ‘new addition’. I had nothing earlier in my timeline. This
could be our origin point. Day zero. The day the myth started. So how can we prove this was the starting
point? Or, more accurately – how can we disprove it? We’re nowhere close to the supposed release
date of 1981 – so is it possible to find any earlier evidence? Anything at all – a throwaway
mention, a forum post, or magazine article? Now, rumour has it that the myth first emerged
on Usenet – circa 1994. It’s not as popular today, but Usenet was
once the go-to place for news, discussion and rumour. It’s also fairly-well preserved: Since 1995,
Deja News has archived Usenet – and in 2001, they were acquired by Google. Today, Google Groups is the largest archive
of Usenet posts, with the full deja archive searchable, along with supplementary data
that goes all the way back to 1981. Its search is imperfect but with some patience
we might get some results. A broad search for ‘Polybius’ pre-2000 turns
up some predictable results – it is the name of a Greek historian, after all. It is matters of history that most often come
up – with the occasional reference to a Polybius cipher in cryptological talk. There’s also a user named Polybius who was
quite active in alt.mag.playboy between 1997 and 1998. Narrowing the search domain to known groups
helps improve results: and one in particular is a nexus for arcade collectors – rec.games.video.arcade.collecting.
RGVAC for short. These guys are invested in arcade rarities
– because if something’s rare, it’s valuable. So – Polybius would be right up their alley. Once of the first instances of the word was
posted in April, 2000 – just a couple of months after the game first appeared on coinop.org. Posted by a user called ‘nymechanicalbr08’,
it links to coinop.org – a reply to a request for information on an obscure German video
game, which triggered an association. The OP of this particular thread is a German
fellow called Christian Windler – also known as CYBERYOGI – but we’ll get to him later. On the 27th February, 2000 – just 3 weeks
after it was first posted to coinop.org – a user named ‘Zube’ posted a link to Polybius’s
page on clickto.com. ‘No, not the Greek historian. An arcade game.’
he says. ‘I am skeptical of the claims made on the following page, but they certainly
make for interesting reading.’ I actually spoke to Zube – I wondered how
he had found Polybius. He told me ‘I simply wandered across it in
one of my random walks on the net […] It was serendipity, nothing more.’ Google Groups’ search is far from perfect,
so it’s possible we’ve missed something – so what about other Usenet archives? A manual grep of the UTZOO NetNews archive
from archive.org – some 5GB of text when uncompressed – yields just 3 results, all of which refer
to the historian. A discussion of the ‘Evidence For The Historical
Jesus’ from net.religion.christian in 1985 and a passing mention in net.politics the
same year. I even tried a paid search of ‘The Usenet
Archive’ – a site that claims to be broader and more easily searchable than Google’s inherited
dataset. I found zero results pre-2000. If there’s nothing within the Usenet archives,
perhaps another domain entirely will prove fruitful: perhaps there is a mention of Polybius
in print? Google Books describes itself as ‘the world’s
most comprehensive index of full-text books’ – and it’s freely searchable. Searching for ‘Polybius’ between the years
1980 and 2000 yields several pages of results – but every single last one of them refers
to the historian. Google Newspapers is a similar story. Perhaps a more specific search is needed – within
the enthusiast press, perhaps? In the 1980s and 90s, video games were better served by
magazines than any other media. I searched nearly 200GB of gaming magazines
– over 3,000 issues worth – for any instance of the word ‘Polybius’. There were 3 results. One from the September 1998 issue of Acorn
User – a review of ‘Ancient Greeks’, a multimedia CD-ROM. Another pair from two adjacent issues of Commodore
User: January and February, 1986. Programming listings for ‘Codes and ciphers
on your Commodore micro’ – and an implementation of the Polybius square. That’s it – the only instances of the word
‘Polybius’ across 20 years of the gaming press. If the Polybius myth existed prior to the
year 2000, it wasn’t widespread. To my knowledge, no 20th century evidence
exists. It’s impossible to say for certain – but with
no trace of prior evidence, we can only presume coinop.org is where the story began – and
whoever posted it there might be responsible for everything. One name I’ve seen frequently implicated in
the Polybius myth is a German fellow named Christian Oliver Windler – also known as Cyberyogi,
‘teachmaster of Logologie – the first cyberage-religion!’ The denizens of RGVAC were quick to pin the
blame for Polybius on him – he had a bit of a reputation, it seems. It does all seem to fit – he was in the right
place at the right time, and his interests align – there’s also the German connection
with ‘Sinnesloschen’. However, I believe Cyberyogi is innocent. “Stop harassaing me with this damn myth! I didn’t make Polybius, otherwise the men
in black would now go after me. I have absolutely nothing to do with it”. True, he did pull an April Fool’s day prank
in 2000 (he fabricated a supposedly-lost East German variant of Phoenix): True, he was interested in obscure arcade
games – particularly trance-inducing ‘zoner’ games; And true – he is a little eccentric. But why would a native German speaker use
a mangled word – and if he didn’t want to be caught, why use German at all? Why would he conduct two rather ornate pranks
in the same year? And why would he come clean about one – but not the other? Critically, how did he get an entry for the
game on coinop.org? The coinop.org
domain has been around since 1993 – although the earliest page capture dates back to late
1996, approaching the limit of the wayback machine. Back then the domain was home to ‘The Virtual
Coin-Op Museum’ – run by Stephen W. Ryner, it was a collection of photographs and articles
relating to arcade machines. However, in 1998 Stephen offered the coinop.org
domain to the users of the RGVAC newsgroup – he didn’t have the time to maintain it,
and so sought someone who could make better use of it. He ended up giving the domain to a web developer
named Kurt Koller. By August 1998 Kurt had taken ownership of
the domain – and had relaunched the site as a games database. In April, 1999 he moved the site to a subdomain
of clickto.com – and, interestingly, he mentions the addition of a German language version. In early 2000 we see another flurry of activity:
the coinop site moves from a subdomain of clickto.com to a subdirectory instead. It’s around this time that the first evidence
of Polybius emerges. By August 2000, the coinop site had moved
back to its own domain – where it has lived ever since. So who provided the information for the site? The bulk of the games database is sourced
from community-maintained lists of games (some of which are still present in coinop.org’s
knowledge base) – and data contributed from other sites and projects – the MAME arcade
emulator, for instance. Coinop.org has always had an open call for
contributors – but the presented entries for games are manually curated and incorporated
into the database – presumably by Kurt. He had exact control over what appeared on
the site – and he’s always had that control. So perhaps he received a tip about Polybius?
Perhaps someone emailed him the description, and he reproduced it in good faith? Maybe – but if his intent was to maintain
an accurate list of games, why would he keep the text unaltered if most of his arcade-collecting
peers were quickly prepared to write it off as a hoax? Why would he update the entry in 2009 promising
more information – ‘stay tuned’? – information that has yet to transpire. Finally – Remember the GamePro article? – the
one that exposed Polybius to a mainstream gaming audience, and is perhaps the single
largest factor in the legend’s persistence today? I spoke to the author of that article, Dan
Amrich, and asked him where he first found out about Polybius. “Kurt was the person who first tipped me off
about Polybius. I’ve thought about it for a long time and ultimately I came to the conclusion
some years ago that Kurt was probably just making all of this up and pulling the wool
over my eyes and he sent it in as a tip to see if I would bite – and obviously, I bit.” Everything pointed towards Kurt. He was behind coinop.org – and thus responsible
for the earliest confirmed emergence of the myth. As an arcade enthusiast, he would have been
familiar with the games from Polybius’ era – in fact he owned some of them. As a web developer, he would have had the
necessary skills to forge a convincing-looking screenshot. He also had at least some familiarity with
the German language – but he wasn’t fluent, hence ‘Sinnesloschen’. He’s no stranger to internet fame, either
– he’s behind the ‘Taco Bell 2 dollar bill refusal’ story, under the Usenet psuedonym
‘Captain Sarcastic’. Finally, he had a motive: he wanted to drive
traffic to coinop.org – and when he sent a tip-off to GamePro magazine, it paid off – and
immortalised the legend. In any case, to uncover the truth, I was going
to have to speak to him. So I emailed him – asked if he’d answer a
few questions. He said sure. I asked him directly: Were you responsible
for the game’s addition to the site? If not, who was the source? Where did the screenshot
come from? His answers weren’t helpful. He insisted the
game was present on the site since day one – 3rd August, 1998 – despite the contradicting
evidence. He went on: ‘The entry’s wording on coinop.org is very
specific. That’s all I’m allowed to comment on.’ Hmm. I didn’t expect a confession – but it was
clear he wasn’t going to let me ruin his fun without some resistance. By this point I was almost certain he was
behind the Polybius myth – he was, at the very least, complicit. So he was definitely hiding something – but
what did he mean by ‘very specific’ wording? My mind was cast back to the connection between
Polybius and cryptology: the Polybius square. Could the ‘very specific’ wording of the Polybius
entry be hiding something – a coded message? At this point I’m not even sure: it could
just be me reading between the lines, a wild goose chase – but I suppose it’s worth a try. Re-reading the text I noticed some unusual
things: the writing is odd, with rather too many commas – and some peculiar wording choices. There’s also a spelling mistake: ‘disappeard’
with a missing ‘e’ – which is not necessarily unusual, but it has gone untouched for 17
years. Maybe he never noticed it? But he did notice a spelling mistake on the
Polybius Wikipedia article – there’s an edit by a ‘Kurt S Koller’ made on the 27th October,
2005 where he corrects the spelling of ‘non-existent’. So maybe – maybe the misspelling is intentional
– but what does that mean? Perhaps word length is a factor? Perhaps his
code needed a 10 letter word, and nothing else would fit? Despite my suspicions my attempts to decipher
a message (that may or may not exist) were fruitless. Besides, codebreaking was outside the scope
of my intention. We already had an origin – and we had a likely suspect. Maybe I was hoping for something more? During my search for Polybius’ origin, I had
seen numerous claims that the myth first emerged on Usenet in 1994 – but I never saw any direct
evidence for this. However: There is one thing which definitely
emerged on Usenet in 1994 – a puzzle that has a startlingly similar name. It’s called the Publius Enigma: Anonymous
claims of a hidden meaning within Pink Floyd’s ‘The Division Bell’ album. On alt.music.pink-floyd, an anonymous source
emerged with cryptic clues. Few believed it at first, but when the words ‘Enigma Publius’
appeared in lights at a Pink Floyd concert: well, clearly there was something to it. However – to this day, the Publius Enigma
remains unsolved. No hidden message was ever found. The parallels could be a coincidence, but
I know Kurt was active on Usenet at the time – it’s fairly likely he was familiar with
this story. Perhaps this might be part of the inspiration
behind the Polybius myth? There was no shortage of ideas for the avid
prankster in the late 90s: government conspiracies were en vogue due to the popularity of ‘The
X-Files’. Couple this paranoia with the emergence of
an exciting new digital frontier: the internet was a fertile ground for ideas to spread – a
critical mass of gullibility. One hoax that gained traction around this
time was the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus – proof that people will even believe stories
of arbour-bound cephalopods if you tell it earnestly enough. This emerged at around the same time Kurt
was working on coinop.org, and again may be part of the inspiration for Polybius – particularly
the link to Portland. For as long as there have been internet hoaxes,
there have been those who attempt to debunk them: Snopes being perhaps the most famous
example. The site was born out of the alt.folklore.urban
newsgroup – and while you won’t find any trace of the Polybius myth, there is some discussion
given to video game related urban legends. Some of them are quite familiar: we can even
see hints of proto-myths which might have help form Polybius. One legend states that if you’re able to attain
a particularly impressive high score, government agents – FBI, CIA or similar – would seek
you out. Why? Who knows – recruitment, perhaps? This is strikingly similar to the plot of
‘The Last Starfighter’ – in which a teenage boy is contacted by aliens in desperate need
of a saviour with his shoot-em-up skills. Maybe the myth inspired the film, or vice
versa – it probably doesn’t matter. The link between the FBI and arcades is further
strengthened by the ‘Winners Don’t Use Drugs’ campaign that appeared in all North American
arcade games between 1989 and 2000. Quite how effective the anti-drug message
was is not for me to say – but the FBI’s seal is imprinted on the memory of every arcade-goer
from that time. There’s also the very real possibility that
the myths were inspired by real FBI involvement in the arcades – between bootleg machines,
drugs and illegal gambling – it’s entirely plausible that the ‘men in black’ did raid
the ocassional arcade: or seize the odd arcade machine. However, it’s far less likely that there was
a coordinated plan to control the minds of gamers – although the CIA did conduct mind-control
experiments with its MKUltra program. It was really more of a test of the utility
of psychoactive drugs in combat and interrogation – long fodder for conspiracy nuts, but its
lack of success is well-documented. The government has dabbled in using video
games as training aids – Atari’s Battlezone, for instance – and even Doom: but a full on
mind-control conspiracy? That’s a pretty far out theory. “I think that the idea of the government having
its act together to the point where they could put in an arcade game in a town and use it
to neuro-linguistically program or otherwise brainwash the populace is a pretty scary one
just due to the fact that when I was a kid, literally every politician that I can think
of was terribly frightened by video games. So the though that the government would understand
techology and be be able to use that against the rest of us – I think is inherently creepy,
inherently cool.” Another film with shades of Polybius is the
‘Bishop of Battle’ from 1983 film ‘Nightmares’ – a reflection of the feared potential harm
of arcades, as a hyper-addictive game gradually takes control of a boy’s life – as he attempts
to beat the mysterious 13th level. The rapid rise in the popularity of arcades,
particularly with children, caused a bit of a moral panic in the early 80s. Most concerns were relatively unfounded – the
kids were there to play video games, not for drugs or gambling – but even so, the pursuit
of high scores through marathon play sessions could prove deleterious. In 1981, Brian Mauro of Beaverton, Portland
suffered stomach discomfort after 28 hours of shooting for an Asteroids record. It wasn’t the video game that caused it, but
a heady mix of sleep deprivation with a cocktail of caffeine and sugar. The odd headache and upset stomach aside,
it’s difficult to find evidence of any serious injury that has come from video games. However, there was a arcade-related death
reported in 1982: Peter Bukowski of South Holland, Illinois was playing Berzerk when
he collapsed. It was a pre-existing heart condition, possibly
aggravated by stress – but for some it was evidence that an arcade game could directly
cause harm. One very real health risk that video games
can pose is photosensitive epilepsy: to those who are sensitive, flashing images or patterns
can trigger a seizure. In the earliest days of the arcades, this
wasn’t commonly understood – and so some flashing effects could be pretty intense. Couple that with a darkened room, long play
sessions – despite not being particularly common, eventually someone is going to have
a seizure. The first reported case of a video game triggering
such a seizure was in 1981: Astro Fighter was one game implicated around this time. Today, you can see the lasting effect of these
concerns: flashing effects are rare, and in every manual, for every game – you’ll find
the same boilerplate disclaimer. “Oh sure, back in the 90s, an episode of Pokemon
appeared on Japanese television that caused seizures and sent 700 kids to the hospital;
and that was just at 30 frames per second, imagine what you could do with a game at 50
or 60. I bet there were some Atari games that gave
susceptible kids an not-so-happy Christmas. I watched that banned footage. It made me
feel weird.” The ‘motif of harmful sensation’ is a recurring
theme in fiction, particularly in horror: the idea that something can hurt you just
by observing it. From Medusa: to the Basilisk; The Ring; Polybius.
A long line of legends. Sometimes they’re self-propagating, like chain letters or ‘U
HAVE BEEN SPOOKED’ memes. It’s a huge cliché, but somehow the notion
that you shouldn’t look compels us all the more. Culture is full of repeating patterns – and
as Polybius took inspiration, it too has influenced others. It makes frequent cameos – seen in the background
of The Simpsons: The Goldbergs; Batman Inc. The Llamasoft version is a central focus in
the ‘Less Than’ video by Nine Inch Nails. We love to tell stories that send shivers
down spines, and with usual cynicism suspended – the Internet has brought a new dimension
to horror. Creepypasta is the latest face in a long line
of folklore – and quite a few focus on video games: I mean, even Polybius itself fits the
description. There’s a whole parade of fictional games
with a dark secret: The tale of a haunted Zelda cartridge told
in Ben Drowned; A forbidden game from the dark web in Sad
Satan; and the supposedly lost Playstation title
Petscop. It’s a form of horror with mainstream appeal
– hence the popularity of Minecraft’s Herobrine, Slender Man – or Five Nights at Freddy’s. It seems we have a hard-wired attraction to
mystery – A desire to cast light on our fears: and on what might lurk in the shadows. Gaming is full of secrets, and in a social
setting like an arcade they can spread like wildfire. Rumours about hidden screens, secret characters
and levels abound: most were gated behind skill demands – difficult to execute, and
so nearly impossible to verify. It was easy to believe such secrets existed
– and to a younger observer, witnessing an arcade technician accessing the diagnostic
menus must have been mind-blowing. Hidden options, behind lock and key – cryptic
messages on-screen such as the ‘Special Function’ seen in within the Defender service options. It’s no wonder that teen imagination ran riot
with possibility. So what does the ‘Special Function’ do? It exits the diagnostic menu and returns to
the game. That’s it. Invariably, when you cast a light on things,
they turn out to be mundane: but the sounds, and the experience of the arcades were a lot
to take in. With each play costing a coin, most of us
could only scratch the surface – some games relegated to a fleeting glimpse, lost to memory. The human mind is an unreliable thing when
it comes to recollection, and when we hear stories like Polybius the mind scrambles to
make connections – somewhere, somehow. Maybe this is why some people swear they remember:
perhaps a lost memory triggered, the details hazy – but it have must have been, surely? Simutrek’s Cube Quest from 1983 would have
left quite an impression on anyone who saw it: its hypnotic visuals and tempest-style
gameplay were unlike anything else of the era. However, it was an expensive cabinet – and
probably more expensive per-play to recoup costs: and Laserdisc games were notoriously
unreliable. It’s entirely possible such machines would
disappear silently and without trace – not for conspiracy’s sake, but for simple profitability. There are plenty of rarities out there that
went uncatalogued for a long time: take the East German ‘Poly-Play’ from 1985, for instance. Poly Play has been implicated in the Polybius
myth – the name is similar, after all – and even the stylised ‘P’ on the cabinet bears
a similarity to Polybius’ logo. Previously forgotten, one example appeared
at Berlin’s Computerspielemuseum around 1998 – just prior to the emergence of Polybius. There were a thousand or so units made – they
were found in swimming pools, leisure centres, all over. But when the Berlin Wall fell, the
machines were recalled – and destroyed. Just a few remain. Perhaps a government cover-up? Or maybe just
an attempt to recover state-owned assets for profit? Who knows. Not every machine was as successful as Space
Invaders, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, or Galaga. There are countless games long forgotten – obscurities,
bootlegs, and prototypes of no interest to anyone but collectors. Not every game was catalogued, not every ROM
dumped – and with the passage of time and the destruction of cabinets – Some may even be lost. It’s a worrying void of uncertainty. What
if a game called Polybius did exist after all? It could be real! Like Russell’s teapot, it’s impossible to
entirely disprove its existence – but the burden of proof lies with those telling the
story. With absolutely no evidence that pre-dates
the original story, it’s safe to assume that it’s just a myth. But from this melange of arcade mystery, a
myth like Polybius was almost inevitable. And so, as the internet came of age, that’s
how it began: A man inspired saw opportunity, and hatched
a plan. A sprinkling of detail – touch of paranoid
nerve: Add a mysterious screenshot – and you’re ready
to serve. It wasn’t enough for collectors well-seasoned
– most were quite cynical, and with good reason. As the tale almost stalled, a new trick was
needed: a magazine tip-off ensured exposure was seeded. An explosion of interest, and any doubt drowned
– curious waves of the gullible inbound. By now, the story was simply too big to kill: Inscribed in folklore, echoed in forum posts
still. An in-joke for arcade fans of spooky allusion and for low-effort listicles, an essential
inclusion. An indelible myth, but at least we know the
deal: Polybius never existed – but the legend is real. Thank you very much for watching – and until
next time, farewell.

Comments 37

  • Nice X-files reference lol.

  • Sooo petscop

  • Was that SoraTheTroll????

  • Keep looking for this game… that's the name of the game.

  • At the 14:48 mark if you slow the video speed down you'll see some Subliminal messages flash like "Death" Conspiracy people have always claimed a death cult runs the world, some even say they're not human. Woah so it says "Death, Mine, Suffer, Work, Pain, Car, and Kill" so far.. yes totally Psychological Warfare if you ask meh

  • This is a far stretch in asking you this…here it goes though. Is there any chance you still have the "8-bit" clips you created, without the chapters and commentary? I want to use this as an intro to my hyperspin cabinet. It would be personal use only.

  • I'm shocked at the Subliminal messages hidden in the Atari version god only knows how that poor teen died playing it… I believe it all after slowing down those Subliminals myself… needlessly putting suffering and pain and death in someone's Subconscious seems EVIL

  • Ahoy: "a game that doesnt exist"

    Youtube, about to but it in the description: "Saywhatnow-"

  • That PRG017 Guy kind of sounds like that Infrastructure guy from Infra.

  • What is Super Hexagon is a version of Polybius? Just a thought.

  • Living on the West Coast, and playing in the arcades in the 1980's, I think I would have heard of the legend if it had been from 1981.

  • Thumbs up for the copious use of Eras font. One of my all-time favorites.

  • I know I'm late to the show, but you got it wrong at 43:50 – The word "sinnlosen" is a finite (3rd/4th case) form of "sinnlos", which means senseless or pointless. The sentence speaks about disdain for brutality and pointless degeneracy and has nothing to do with the fictitious company name. It's just a common German word.

  • 0:56 "Galaga"
    shows Galaxian

  • The weird thing about polybius to me is that I have somewhat of a personal experience with it. When I was little I was really into old video games, like NES and classic Namco, so arcades held this kind of magical appeal to me. I don't remember how old I was, or where I was, but I feel like it was at that arcade they had right by space mountain at Disneyland in California. All I remember is that i was with my cousins, and because I was just a little kid I didn't have any tokens to play or anything, but it was right next to the pac man machine. Nobody was playing it, and if I remember correctly it was out of order. Next time I went there it was gone. The only merit any of the rumors have in my eyes is that it dissappeared, and even then I'm not sure how quickly they got rid of it because I couldn't go to arcades all that often. Maybe none of this happened in the first place, but the first time I heard about it was from the Some Ordinary Gamers video on it. I was excited because I thought it was going to be about the game and I wanted to know what it was. I guess it's a rumor/internet myth. Just kind of frustrating because something in me says I've seen it before. I just want to find an old game, not a ghost story.

  • I will say that the existence of a fake German portmanteau in Sinnesloschen doesn't itself point to the game being fake. Made-up portmanteaus are extremely common in company names in all languages. Hell, look at Microsoft. That's a fake portmanteau of Micro Computers and Software. Obviously the rest of this disproves that Polybius is real, but the name isn't as dead of a giveaway as Stuart makes it out to be.

  • In the comments of another YouTube video I saw someone insisting that he'd seen Polybius (replete with the usual Men in Black fiddling with it, etc.) in an arcade at the Mall at Rockingham Park in Salem, NH in the early 1980s.

    Mentioned it to a friend, and he immediately pointed out that the mall didn't exist until 1991.

  • I remember "Publius" being a pretty popular pseudonym on Usenet, because it had been used by the authors of the Federalist Papers, and probably because that fact was mentioned in Orson Scott Card's science-fiction novel "Ender's Game" in connection with kids becoming pseudonymous essayists ("Locke" and "Demosthenes") on a Usenet-like computer network. Any given instance of "Publius" on Usenet might not mean much.

    ("Ender's Game", of course, is also one of the many instances from science fiction of that era of a fictional military using video-game-like experiences to train kids as military officers and even to fight real battles, though in that story it's not a game in an arcade. If there's a Polybius/Publius connection, it might be there.)

  • 1:00:11 why does this guy sound like Freeman’s mind?

  • Check this out


  • Why so many dislikes? This should have a way better like/dislike ratio LOOK AT THE QUALITY FFS!
    I guess some people didn't want to let go of their childish delusions and conspiracy theories.

  • Hello Ahoy, can you give the list of musics you use in this video ?

    Btw great job =)

  • 59:14 excuse me when did we start talking about MKULTRA?

  • So it definitely sounds like the original Polybius post is a coded message.

  • What is the music at 58:03 ?

  • Isn't there a game on YouTube about crashing a blue bus into stuff called Polybius? Or polybus.. I'm not sure

  • I find it funny that GamePros stated that the whole Nintendo making the PSX was false, assuming someone found the Nintendo Playstation prototype a fee years ago.

  • No, I'm the hacker known as Polybius.

  • "Tree octopus"

    Is that like a dropbear?

  • Crazy, Todd Rogers has the record for Polybius also…

  • Ashens brought me here!

  • "There's also a user named polybius who was quite active in alt.mag.playboy between 1997 and 1998."

    Local man incidentally kinkshsmed by digital archaeologist from twenty years into the future

  • I have parania now

  • My own theory: It was a project created by a bunch of devs high on shrooms (may or may not have been provided by CIA) and when shit got too nauseating, they shut it down but someone on weed went, "shit man, this is some conspiracy, we gotta sneak it out to the public!" And then proceeded to leak a few cabinets out. It wasn't a monster per se, just a general cock up.

  • I've never seen a video on this that digs into sourcing the urban legend's origin like this. This is awesome.

  • Everyone's making jokes and puns but this video is beautiful to look at and has great writing, I got hooked by Ahoy by his simple yet intriguing videos.

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