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Polybius, gaming’s oldest urban legend, is mostly Atari’s fault

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Was Atari cursed? No, just sketchy.

Eagle-eyed urban legend fans might have spotted an old friend in Marvel’s Loki: a sinister black arcade cabinet labeled Polybius. Or you might have seen it in The Simpsons or in the music video for Nine Inch Nails’ “Less Than.”

These are references to one of the most enduring video game urban legends, one that pre-dates “Ben Drowns” and “Lavender Town.” As the story goes, Polybius was a cursed arcade machine created by the government to test out mind-control technology on children. Anybody who played it got addicted, and if they played for too long, they’d suffer from amnesia, nausea, hallucinations, seizures, and even death.

As far as urban legends go, Polybius is widely spread but not widely believed — there’s simply too little evidence to suggest it ever existed. But it is based on some real, fascinating history — most of it having to do with Atari’s sometime dubious business strategies.

Watch the video about to learn more about Atari’s hand in the creation of the Polybius myth.