Like all modern urban legends, this begins the same as just about every other opening to The X-Files. It's 1981 and the arcade business is booming. Kids and adults alike are gathering around the popular cabinets of the time. Forget what it's like today when the latest shooter drops and we're unfazed by the ability to blow some dude's dick clean off and hang it from our gun as some newly unlocked charm in photorealistic glory. This was a time when one extra damn square on the screen could draw lines around the block. These were bustling, vibrant, important cultural spaces and one innovative new game was said to be drawing quite the crowd: Polybius.
Atmosphere1/ShutterstockThe carpeting from these arcades will be the last thing remaining on our planet after the apocalypse.
At an arcade on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, this lone machine apparently popped up out of nowhere. While there's no concrete descriptions of what Polybius' gameplay was actually like, or basically anything about the cabinet from this time, let's just assume it's every game from that era. You're a space guy walking around on a 2D plane shooting at space bugs while avoiding space obstacles on your way to the next space, uh, space.
I'd do a lot to be a fly on the wall for a pitch meeting for an 80s arcade game. Imagine: some enthusiastic young programmer walks in with a briefcase full of old sci-fi comics. He plops them on the table and turns to the executive that's puffing a cigarette and has no fucking clue what goes into making games. He points at the comic's vibrant, illustrated hero and his battle with an alien force. "You guys see this?" the programmer exclaims. "What if we make a game that's like this? You're out there in space, going around, shooting aliens or whatever." The executive takes a long drag and looks at the programmer. "Great, but what's the hook?" The programmer shrugs. "Instead of this super elaborate and detailed style you see before us, your spaceman is a square, the aliens are triangles, and you shoot CIRCLES." After a long pause and another puff, the exec screams, "LOVE IT!" and busts out his checkbook before asking, "What do we call it?" The programmer stumbles -- he never got this far. "Uh, Zoopz Zapperz?" (The board room then bellows, borderline feral.)
For our purposes here, let's take this idea of the Zoopz Zapperz meeting and put it somewhere deep in the cellars of the CIA, and you'll have a good start for how this Polybius legend really gets out of hand.
Right away, players were supposedly drawn to the cabinet. Lines would form around the machine and players would have to be pulled away from the joysticks. The legend goes on to say that many would experience far more extreme physical side effects. Simply playing Polybius was causing everything from nausea and seizures, to nightmares and attempted suicide.
DocAtRS/Wikimedia CommonsThe power, the control, the freedom of... ONE BUTTON.