Angry Video Game Nerd Wiki

Polybius - Angry Video Game Nerd (Episode 150)

The Nerd: They say there was once a game. A game unlike any other that infiltrated arcades in '81 when gaming fever was hot. It captivated the youth who lined up in a magnetic trance to play it at a price more than any other coins were worth. They would succumb to an addiction more powerful than any drug, and be struck down by an illness more dreadful than any virus. Memory loss, nightmares, seizures, possibly suicide, were all attributed to its ambiguous wake of terror. And then, it vanished, like a specter in the night. Its name, was Polybius.

The Nerd: Well, damn. I gotta play it then! This review's gonna be a little different than usual, because I can't show any footage of the game if it doesn't exist. They say it only existed in the Portland, Oregon area and that it was only there for a week or month, and that there were only a few of them, or just one, or as I've been inclined to believe, none. It breaks the rarity scale. It's so rare it probably never existed. But nobody really knows for sure, or those who know can't prove it.

The Nerd: Much of the myth could be explained with facts. There was a game called Poly-Play in '85 which may be what people were actually remembering. It was 8 games in one which seems to attribute to the conflicting descriptions of Polybius, or "Polee-bius" or however it's pronounced. The most common description was that it was some kind of space shooter. Also, there's actual reports of gamers getting sick around that time, probably from playing too much video games. Supposedly, somebody got a migraine headache from playing an early release of Tempest. But even more severe, and very sad to say, someone died of a pre-existing heart condition shortly after entering his initials for the high score in Berzerk. The most specific account I know of which could have been the origin of the Polybius legend, is when a 12-year-old boy was playing Asteroids in a long marathon to get the high score and got a stomach sickness. This was in November '81 in Portland. The time and place of Polybius.

The Nerd: A big part of the legend is that the Polybius machines were visited by mysterious men in black suits. FBI, CIA, MIB, (An image shows of Agent Jay and Agent Kay played by Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones from the first three Men in Black movies) your usual alphabet soup of government conspiracy. Some say Polybius was part of a top-secret experiment using humans as the guinea pigs, even connecting it to an actual mind-control program called MKUltra. Another possible source of the legend could be actual reports of FBI agents raiding arcades around that time, where the owners were suspected of gambling.

The Nerd: There was also a game called BattleZone which had a special version designed for the military to use as a combat simulator for training purposes. There was also a movie, The Last Starfighter, where a teenager gets the high score in a game but the game turns out to be a tool for recruiting fighters in an intergalactic war. The movie was in '84, a few years after the Polybius legend is said to have occurred, so the movie could have been inspired by it, or the other way around.

The Nerd: No early references of Polybius can be traced. The myth started getting traction later, sometime between '98 to 2000, the CoinOp website, which is a resource for arcade listings added an entry for Polybius, but with hardly any information. This is the earliest confirmed mention of the game anywhere. In 2003, it was featured in GamePro magazine, and in 2006, someone by the name Steven Roach posted a lengthy statement saying he was one of the game designers shedding light on the story, but I think it's a hoax.

The Nerd: On the Internet, anybody can say anything without any basis of fact. The Internet is made up of 90% prime-cut, free-range, Grade-B bullshit. In fact, when a bull takes a shit, it decomposes into digital matter which evaporates into cyber airwaves and becomes internet. Now you know.

The Nerd: Whatever the case, the Polybius legend caught on like wildfire. Many people have made playable PC games, even fake arcade cabinets, a home-brew Atari 2600 game, even a PS4 game. There's been fan-films, documentaries, a thousand YouTube videos, it appeared on The Simpsons, everybody's done it to death. The only thing that hasn't been done is for somebody to play the actual game and document it publicly. Even if the game once existed, it may be gone forever and that's probably for the best. I'd hope nobody would ever come face to face with a game so destructive. But then again I also hoped nobody would play Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but that happened. So in that same tradition, I'm gonna subject myself to the torment, because I found a possible lead to Polybius. If it's real, consider this a test to see what psychological effects it may have on me.

Day 1[]

(Camera pans around the back room of an arcade reseller)

The Nerd: So I'm at an arcade reseller right now, and my instinct tells me not to reveal the location just yet, until I can determine if this is the current resting place of Polybius. Now the owners recently acquired a large batch of games from another arcade shop that was liquidating their supplies. And they were kind to let me see the invoice, and on it, is Polybius. It's probably a joke, but they did nothing to draw attention to it. Uh, they didn't post anything about it online. I was actually waiting for them to bring it up but they didn't so the only way to know is, to see if it's here. They granted me permission and full access to the place which is great. And uh, look right there, this is The Simpsons arcade. So there's so many great things here, I should be checking out all these games, but, gotta stay focused.

(Camera focuses on a variety of arcade games until what looks like a Polybius console.)

The Nerd: Well, um, this is, Polybius! It is probably a fake, you know like I said before, a lot of people have made fake cabinets. There's no artwork on the side or anything which, you know, fits the description pretty much. But the real test would be, uh, see if I could turn this thing on. Okay, let's cross our fingers here. Let me borrow a power supply from this machine here. Here we go, let's see what happens. (Marquee lights up) Marquee's up. We have the marquee! (Polybius screen comes on) Somebody put a lot of effort into this, if it's a fake. If it's a fake.

The Nerd: What if it's real? Let's say it is, slim chance but you never know. What if it has dangerous effects and if those effect can be inflicted over a video recording? Doesn't have to be supernatural, it could legitimately cause epilepsy or something. I wouldn't want to endanger anybody. I want to do the right thing, so I'm not gonna show the game. At least not until I fully test on myself, so for now I'll just describe the game the best I can. (Plays Polybius)

The Nerd: Well, it's a game. Is it a good game? Not really. It's an average, early '80s arcade game, if it is early '80s, it's probably fake, um, but no way of knowing for sure. I'd describe it as Tempest, it's probably the best way to describe it. You're flyin' through a three-dimensional tunnel with green and black vector-type graphics. There's cubes comin' at ya and you're a triangle and ya move around and try to catch these cubes. And that's really...about all there is to it I think. It's a shame I'm surrounded by so many awesome games, but I'm stuck here playin' this. It's, not that special. I should just probably show you the game. But, I wanna wait a bit. I just wanna play it safe. I'll post the video for the night. I'll sleep on it, and let me know what you think.

Day 2[]

(Back in the Nerd Room)

The Nerd: So I posted my first day's test of Polybius and I've gotten lots of responses. Lots of people are saying it's fake, which I agree with so far. I haven't felt any weird side effects from playing it or anything. I just thought it was an average arcade game, and even if it was a real arcade game that was made in the '80s and called Polybius, that would only confirm that the game is real. But all the stories about addiction, memory loss, nightmares, seizures, that could all be explained without the supernatural, like all the stuff I talked about before, like the gamer who got sick while playing Asteroids. Probably had more to do with him playing the game for so long and drinking lots of soda. With any game, you gotta take a break. Speaking of which, I think I've taken a long enough break from Polybius so, I'm about to go back and play it some more, but first, I just want to read this really interesting email I got here which I'm sure is a hoax, but either way, it's pretty interesting, so I'll just read it here.

The Nerd: "Big fan of your work but I'll get straight to the point. Saw your Polybius Day 1 video. It's real. Judging from cabinet and your description, don't expect you to take my word, but it matches everything my father told me before he died. He worked for a secret government agency in charge of investigating unexplained phenomena. They found Polybius, an arcade. They removed it to keep the public safe. Kept it contained in a secret facility. My father was in charge of looking after it, and became infatuated with playing. It took over his mind. He was forced to leave the agency and he smuggled the game out. He hid it somewhere. He was sentenced to prison for federal theft. There died a raving lunatic. I never knew where he hid the game, but I've always believed he hid it in plain sight in another arcade. But it possibly sat in a backroom. It was a dull cabinet, no artwork, the owners possibly kept it in the back to leave more space for more appealing games on main floor. Now it ends up at the place you're at. You must not continue. I know this sounds silly but please do not play further. You must destroy the game."

The Nerd: Destroy it? I only do that to bad games. This game was actually, pretty average, or, I don't know, it's worth playing. (Back to the arcade resellers' back room)

The Nerd: Okay, giving Polybius another chance now. Y'know, I'm startin' to think it's above average. A little bit. It's simple, but it's intuitive. I'm tempted to show it, because it's really nothin' crazy. But I just wanna be safe. It's one of those games that repeats itself. In many of these old arcade games, you just play the same thing over and over again to get a high score, this is a lot like that. Not much left to say, so, just one more game, and then I'll go home. I let it set on free play, so I don't need any coins. So I've played through twice more now, um, thrice actually. And, I'm beginning to see more merits in the gameplay. In fact, if you were to put this into perspective; if this actually came out in the '80s, I may rank it as one of the best classic arcade games.

The Nerd: All right, I'm gettin' ready to go home for the night. I think I have enough material here. Let me just see, oh. How long have I been here, geez? I've definitely gotten enough footage, of me, that is. I know I haven't shown anything of the game, uh, but even if I did, I don't think it would do it justice, because the thing is when you play it, it doesn't demand and kind of urgent level of thinking, sorta like, watchin' a waterfall flow. It's constant, predictable, natural.


The Nerd: Okay, I really gotta get going. I just switched the car here, this is number, whatever. Um, so I'm all set up. I'm ready for tomorrow, but I don't think there's much left to do. Although I remembered one tiny piece of trivia. Polybius, or "Po-lee-bius", whichever it is, was the name of a Greek historian. He covered the rise of the Romans and invented the Polybius square, which is a form of code that translates letters into numbers by their placement on a grid. Well, it's very complicated to explain. (Plays) Oh, sorry, uh, I was gonna say somethin', but then I forgot, oh, yeah, yeah, there's a little piece of trivia I remembered. Polybius was the name of a Greek historian. He covered the rise of the Romans and invented the Polybius square. Did I say that already? Okay, I'm done. Just one more game.

Day 3[]

The Nerd: So this is Day 3, I was gonna come up with somethin' more to say here, but I really, just, it would help if I just had the game in front of me, right now, so I could, uh, play it, um, I know I've played it a lot so far, but I just need a little more, I just, there's just not much to it, but I really just, I dunno, I just, I just need to play it again. I might have to commend the game designers. This may be the greatest fuckin' game ever made. Who made it, you may ask? Well, according to the game and to popular legend, it was a company called Sinneslöchen, which I've heard is a bad translation from English to German to create a fake German compound word meaning "sense-delete" or "sensory deprivation". Seems way too convenient. I don't feel like my senses are deprived at all. I feel like my senses are heightened more than ever. I can see every pixel, every spec of light. I can smell the paint on the Pac-Man machine in the next room. I can hear the crickets, the rats, clawing on the sewer walls. I can hear the colors. I can hear the colors. Oh, I can't stop playing! I can't stop!

The Nerd: Okay, I need to show this right here. (Pans camera to tripod) The camera was pointing right at the screen, and there's the tripod, haven't moved it. It's right there, how did the tripod get there, and why, why was it looking at the screen?

The Nerd: All right, so I'm about to upload tonight's footage. But, I took a look at some of it first. And, I have about an hour of footage of the game. And keep in mind, I have no intention of showing the game yet, so I have no recollection of doing that. But the crazy thing, right before that, this happens!

(Cuts to the Nerd taking the camera off the tripod and pointing it at the screen)

The Nerd: I swear I have no recollection of doing that. Or this.

(The camera points at laptop screen showing the Nerd locking the door and then zooming in on the Nerd. Cut to the Nerd walking towards the door.)

The Nerd: All right, so I deliberately locked myself in, using my own word combination from my camera case. And I've tried every word that I would normally use, and nothing works, so I did this shit on purpose? I changed the, the fuckin' combination lock? Film myself doin' it; like, what the fuck?! T-there is a big loading door on the other side of all this, somewhere, so I can't get to that. (Camera pans to the Nerd)

The Nerd: I have some options here. I could do some damage to the door, or I could just wait for somebody to come, but I think I'm gonna throw in the towel here and say, come get me. The location is (collides with Polybius console) Oh! Oh my God, this fuckin' game. Not yet. I'll let you know when.

Day 4[]

The Nerd: It's Day 3, or whatever it is, um, I have a high score now. I don't remember when I got the high score, it's 35,311,151. I just wanna get that again and once I do that I'll call it quits. No I won't. I'll just keep fuckin' playin', because I can't-I can't stop playin' this fuckin' game! Just look at it! No! Don't look at it! Every day I have to keep editing out footage of the game, because, cuz it wants to be seen. It, want, it, fuckin' wants, to be seen.

(In the reflection of the Asteroids arcade cabinet screen, a clone of the Nerd with glowing red eyes pops up and walks off. The Nerd looks around.)

The Nerd: (crying softly) My mind has been opened to things that I never wanted to know. Things that I... see that no-nobody, all the connections with Greek, Polybius, no... More like the ferryman on the River Styx. You give him a coin, he takes you across the river, into the underworld. (Crying) SOMEBODY COME GET ME! THE LOCATION IS- (his eyes glaze then he takes the camera and he holds onto the console) It won't let me go, it won't let me go... it won't let me go... It won't let me go...

(The scene cuts to the Nerd who plays Polybius while the camera cuts to the Nerd a little further while he plays Polybius.)

Day 5[]

The Nerd: (gets up off the floor while he breathes heavily) It won't let me, it won't let me, it, it won't let me, come get me, the location-it won't, let me, let myself! Look at the game! Look-n-no! Don't look at it! Look, look at-Don't look at it! Look-at-DON'T! (struggling) You, if you can keep me from gettin' out, I can keep you from showin' yourself, you fuckin' game! (grunts) Don't look at it! Don't look at it! (Crying)

The Nerd: Wait a minute, that high score! It's not a high score, that's... it's a message! (Cut to Polybius square) Y-yeah, yeah, the Polybius square! Th-35 is P, and then 31 is L, 1-1 is A, and then, and then, it's PLAY... It's PLAY! The-the-th-the combination is PLAY! (Runs to the door) That's it, that's it...

(The Nerd grabs the lock, puts in the right combination, and the lock opens.)

The Nerd: It worked... It worked! IT WORKED! (Runs into the Polybius console.) Oh! Oh, you fuckin' game! The only way it'll let me go is, if I show the game! (Crying) I have to... I have no choice! I can't stand this anymore! Just, I'm so sorry... I'm so sorry! Just... (crying) just don't look... Don't look! TURN THE VIDEO OFF RIGHT NOW! Once you see it, it's in you forever.

(The camera pans to floor as the Nerd walks toward the Polybius console and looks up at the screen, which shows a 3-D-looking square tunnel and then a Tempest-like screen with other shapes. Then the screen flashes shapes randomly before the YouTube Video Unavailable screen appears. The face quickly changes into the Nerd's face before the screen becomes static.)

Todd Tuckey: What's going on? Hello? Well, the camera's here. (Lifts camera) Well, there's the game. (Static) Ah! (Static) Ah! (Static and credits screen)