There probably is no definitive answer to video gaming’s greatest urban legend. Polybius, for which no ROM, no high score leaderboard, nothing exists, still lingers as a total fact in video gaming’s consciousness, and it’ll probably remain there as it is as impossible to disprove the game’s existence as it is to prove it.
The Gaming Historian, here, does as good a job as anyone could explaining not only the origins of the Polybius myth but also the contexts that could give rise to it. It may seem impossible to fathom now, but video gaming — in the arcades, its mainstream origin — really was a seedy subculture at its outset, linked to delinquency, substance abuse and teenage desire for immediate gratification. Throw in a nation in a time not yet networked by the immediacy of the Internet, with plausible “test markets” where nefarious concepts could be tried without the furore of a major games release, and it all seems to stitch together.
What is or was Polybius? For as much as has been written of it, I’ve never seen any first-hand account of its mesmerizing gameplay, much less any screenshot or ROM. When I consider that I can find a ROM of the Pac-Man ripoff that used Popeye’s head in place of Pac-Man’s, which my brother and I saw at an ice-cream parlor in 1980, but not Polybius, this is indeed strange.
Polybius exists today as a trademarked term (USPTO number 77372165, for “providing on-line downloadable software for computer games”) and has been in use since 2007. It’s doubtful some puckish games developer, much less publisher, will swoop in, take ownership of the myth and overwrite its sinister, murky history with some definitive closure. Thus Polybius must remain in video gaming folklore as the hooked hand, the mutant child locked in the basement, the original seething, menacing expression of video gaming’s id, never to be encountered, and never to be questioned.