Polybius – The Urban Legend Made Real

Developer Llamasoft recently announced that they were launching a new videogame for the PlayStation VR, a ‘trance shooter’ titled Polybius. The title raised some eyebrows among those of us with an interest in videogame history.

Polybius is a gaming urban legend dating back to the early days of videogame arcades. The story has spread amongst videogaming communities since the 1980s, but it was the advent of UseNet that allowed the rumour to explode to such an extent that it is known of all over the world.

The story goes that there was, in certain American arcades, a mysterious arcade cabinet containing a game called ‘Polybius’. In versions of the story where gameplay is described, it plays much like Tempest. Players who experienced the cabinet began to experience strange symptoms: migraines, memory loss, nightmares, nausea. Then, silent grim-faced men in black suits would show up to collect data from the arcade cabinet for unknown purposes.

It makes a good spooky story, of course. The reality is probably considerably more mundane. Early test builds of Tempest had the tunnel spinning while the ship and lane remained in place, but this version was known to cause vertigo and motion sickness in some playtesters – symptoms that are sadly all-too-familiar to players of modern virtual reality (VR). If any of these early versions managed to escape into the wild, well, it sounds like a great basis for an urban legend to me.

It’s also pretty curious that one of Llamasoft’s previous titles was Tempest 2000, a remake of the old Atari arcade videogame, which was likely responsible for the whole rumour in the first place. And with the new VR Polybius looking as trippy as psychedelic as it does, it certainly seems to fit the theme.

Polybius screenshot 1

Nor are Llamasoft the only ones on the VR gaming area to play with old urban legends in their new titles. The 1980 arcade title Battlezone had its own set of rumours, namely that it was possible to drive outside the edge of the map and climb the mountains to reach a volcano and a castle. Nonsense, of course, since 1980 vector graphics were not even remotely capable of this. Didn’t stop people spending fruitless hours trying, though, to the point where Atari had to introduce a feature in later versions where an instant death missile would strike the player if they spent too long without shooting anything.

Amusingly, though, is that in Rebellion’s VR remake, what is the final mission? Why, a volcano, of course! After all these years, Battlezone players can finally drive up those tantalising mountains and explore the volcano.

What other urban legends will come to life in VR? Only time will tell.VRFocus will, of course, tell you if and when they do.