Polybius: The game that never was

The early 1980s was a fantastic time for arcade gaming. Games like Pacman and Galaga fill arcades with those young and old. The large cabinets and pay to play system allowed developers to make game play much smoother and more sophisticated, however in 1981 there were rumours of another game, one that spelled danger for anyone who had the misfortune to play it. They called it Polybius.

The name Polybius itself came from a prominent Greek historian of the same name. His body of work detailed the rise to power of the Roman Empire and is a keystone into understanding the Roman era. The link between the historian and the game has not been verified to this day. 

There were only three things that anyone seemed to know about it for certain; the name Polybius, its release date of 1981 and the mysterious developer, Sinnesloschen. Nobody has any concrete evidence of what the gameplay was apart from that it was released in the Portland area in the USA. It was said, however to be housed in a plain grey casing, with the game itself featuring a strange mixture of colours and puzzle like elements.

The mystique around the game intensified when it was rumours that the FBI were showing up in arcades and taking away the Polybius machines. This in turn bought about rumours that the game was sending out subliminal messages and brainwashing those who were playing it. However all of this seemed to be nothing more than hearsay.

A mock-up of a Polybius machine by Rogue Synapse

However, at the height of the cold war in 1981, all of this fed into the paranoia that seemed to be swirling around the US at the time.  Technology had begun to make huge impacts on sectors such as banking and the games industry was still at a fledgling point in its development. People seemed egger to believe that technology could have such an impact on people.

In truth no evidence of the game has ever come to surface, but at the same time it’s probably one of the better known arcade games of the time. Its rise to cult status truly started with the rise of the internet age; where so many of these legends seem to stem.

In response many freedom of information requests have been sent to the FBI to try and get too the bottom of the mystery, although I response the FBI have said ‘We were unable to identify any file records responsive to the request’.

With its place now set in stone in the gaming world, many games have tried to capitalise on its infamy.  Three games have been released since 2007 under the name and the there is a feature film by Youtuber Ashens called “Ashens: and the Polybius Heist”.

Although in reality there probably wasn’t a game in the 80s that brainwashed people and broke their minds, the legend still lives through those who choose to believe in it.

By Ryan Pointon

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