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Polybius: the Portland arcade urban legend with infinite lives (and a few lies)

Rumors of mind control and “men in black” — what’s not to love about this weird tall tale?

Old arcade consoles sit beside one labeled Polybius.

Replicas of Polybius emerge every now and then.

Photo via Newsilver95

When it comes to Oregon’s most fascinating legends, the tale of Polybius probably ranks closer to Bigfoot in Forest Park (a well-executed April Fools’ prank) than the exploding whale (sounds fake, but actually happened).

However, that doesn’t make the reports of a government-funded, mind-controlling arcade game in a suburb of Portland any less interesting. Yep, you read that right. In November of 1981, when joystick jockeys were spending their hard-earned change to take on titles like “Donkey Kong” and “Frogger,” mysterious unmarked consoles allegedly popped up at Malibu Grand Prix in Beaverton.

The story goes that anyone who played Polybius would become addicted, experiencing a hypnotic state coupled with hallucinations, blackouts, and other mental afflictions. Apparently these machines were regularly visited by “men in black” who would open up the machines, collecting data while leaving the quarters untouched. Not long after the Polybius cabinets arrived, they were apparently removed without a trace.

A short clip shows Polybius, the urban legend arcade game in all green.

No one can even remember what Polybius’ gameplay entailed, though some have tried to recreate it.

For several decades, accounts of Polybius were spread by word-of-mouth, until a review was posted to, a vintage gaming database, in 1998. An image of the start-up screen surfaced, revealing the supposed company behind it — Sinneslöschen, a loosely German-inspired word derived from Sinne (“senses”) and löschen (“to extinguish” or “to delete”). The game itself is named after an ancient Greek philosopher who popularized a system for coded messages.

Pause. This is where we tell you that there is no hard evidence that Polybius ever even existed. But like every myth, it’s plugged into real-life context. It’s proven that the CIA has actually conducted behavioral experiments on the unwitting public. Arcades were also hotbeds for illegal gambling, attracting the attention of FBI agents. Plus, staring at flashing lights while drinking copious amounts of soda would make anyone sick.

Still, Polybius just won’t die; its legacy lives on in pop culture, including an episode of “The Simpsons” and more recently, “Loki” on Disney+.

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