Urban legends are prevalent throughout all mediums of popular culture, with dozens dating back to mysterious happenings on movie sets and subliminal messaging worked into popular musical hits, but the gaming industry has somehow managed to debunk or confirm most of these legends rather quickly.
This doesn’t leave much to be shared in terms of legends or tales, but rest assured, there’s a small number of urban legends surrounding videogames that still have players questioning their validity.
The Polybius Initiative
In 1981, a small number of mysterious cabinets started making their way into arcades throughout Portland, Oregon. There wasn’t much that was known about these machines, but they gained popularity at an alarming rate before causing extreme problems and disappearing completely.
The internet wasn’t around much in 1981, which meant that most of the information on arcade cabinets came from newsletters or straight from the cabinet distributor themselves. When Polybius started making its way around the Portland suburbs, there wasn’t too much information on it. It has been said that the gameplay was of a tempest-style but could have possibly had mazes and other puzzles built-in, there’s really no way to confirm either way.
This might not seem like all that unusual of a game, but some believe that the game was meant to test experimental behavior modification through subliminal and undetectable methods. The game was said to have had weird side effects as there were reports of the game causing players to suffer from cases of amnesia, night terrors, terrible nightmares, intense stress, seizures, and suicidal tendencies due to the subliminal messaging. It also introduced extreme addiction which cased problems at arcades due to the machine’s popularity. There were more reported cases of these side effects than usual after playing this game specifically, lending some credibility to the fact that the machine might have been the cause.
As if that wasn’t weird enough, the legend states that men in black suits would come to the arcades every week and dump data off of the machine. This could have been them simply dumping high scores off of the machine, but they came back at such a rate that it seemed like they were gathering large information off of the machine for research, citing the lease agreement as a reason to come check on the machine.
The strange behavior surrounding the game started gaining more attention, but all of the machines disappeared before anything could be done; only a month after they first appeared. It isn’t clear what caused them to move so quickly, perhaps they only needed to gather a month’s worth of data or things were escalating too quickly, whatever it was, they didn’t want it found.
There isn’t really any official evidence or documentation of the machine’s existence either, we’re mostly running off of secondhand stories from unconfirmed sources but what those sources independently remember of the game stays consistent throughout.
There was a man who posted on Coinop.org back in 2007, claiming that he was involved with the creation of Polybius, but when he was interviewed at a later time, his story started to fall apart. There were several inconsistencies that didn’t fit with what had been established earlier and it just didn’t make that much sense. He attempted to dispel the rumor, saying that it was a bad version of a game that they had been working on in South America that had been recalled, but again, it didn’t fit with the rest of the story; unless its existence was all being made up in the first place.
While there are collectors out there who claim to have ROMs of Polybius, none have come forward to show any proof or release it to the public. However, in July of 2007, a version of the game and cabinet art made its way online, hosted at www. sinnesloschen.com, which is actually significant, but was most likely a fan site rather than anything connecting to the original release.
It is believed that Polybius was by Atari in collaboration with the US Government under the code name Sinneslöschen, meaning sense-deletion in German. This makes it somewhat more believable that it was either an internal name for the title or a term that was mixed in as the name of the development studio throughout the years. If it was the name of the company, it would appear in the German corporation registry or the US corporation registry through the Secretary of State, but shows up in neither.
There’s no way for any of this to really be confirmed either, as the only real proof of the cabinet’s existence is a black-and-white photograph and a recreation of the game’s title screen. That is what makes it a great urban legend though, landing it references in popular shows like The Simpsons. It is entirely possible that something like this existed though, with the rise of videogames in the early ‘80s and the Cold War raging on, the military was doing whatever they could with new technologies. If the cabinet did exist, I’m hoping that more information will emerge in the next few years.
Haunted GHOST Pokémon Black Cartridge
Now, this legend supposedly originated on 4chan, so that should be kept in mind when discussing it. The original post can’t be found, but it was republished on tinycartridge.com back in 2011, so that’s where the credibility of this legend comes from.
As the legend goes, a collector of Pokémon bootlegs was scouring a local flea market and came across a Gameboy cartridge that showed the typical Pokémon cart label, but everything was in black. When booted up, it showed the title ‘Pokémon Black Version”. This was well before the DS version and appears to be based off of the source of Pokémon Red Version.
Things seemed normal from the start, but when the player is presented with the option of choosing a starting Pokémon, there is an extra choice. Along side Charmander, Squirtle and Bulbasaur is GHOST. Nothing seems especially out of the ordinary with GHOST, until he enters his first battle, that is. He starts at level 1, but only has one attack, Curse. (It has been noted that while Curse is a real Pokémon attack, it wasn’t introduced until the 2nd Generation, meaning that it isn’t in typical Red, Yellow, or Blue) The attack doesn’t work as it normally does though.
According to the original poster, when it is used, the screen turns back and the defending Pokémon lets out a warped and disturbing scream. When the battle returns, the enemy is gone and it is heavily implied that they have been killed. This is completely different than how the battles work normally, where the enemies only feint and can be revived later; no one dies.
What if the enemy was faster? They were too scared of GHOST to attack. This meant that it didn’t really matter if the enemy was better, they couldn’t attack and were too scared to run. Every battle was a guaranteed win.
This wasn’t the end of Curse’s effect though. Unlike the standard versions of the game, the battle commands would stay up after a battle was completed. If the player chose RUN, then things ended like they normally would. But if they chose Curse, GHOST would attack the trainer and kill them. When the player left the battle, there was a tombstone where the character had been standing prior. This definitely wasn’t normal.
Players could apparently get through the entire game using this one strategy, only capturing other Pokémon for the purpose of equipping HMs and defeating Ghost-type enemies. The person who found the cart claimed that they played through the game this way, but after they beat the Final Four and was touring the Hall of Fame, something even weirder happened.
The screen cut to black. Instead of ending, a dialogue prompt popped up with ‘many years later...’. The camera follows a much older version of your character, looking at a group of tombstones throughout Lavender Town. As the player is given control, they realize that they have no Pokémon, no items, and no restrictions on where to go. They have no direction though either. Once they make their way back to Pallet Town and to the starting point inside their house, the screen cuts to black again.
This time is different though. The sound warps and photos of Pokémon begin to flash across the screen. These are the Pokémon and rivals that the player killed using Curse. A message then appears.. “GHOST wants to fight” and enters the player into a battle against GHOST with nothing to attack or defend themselves with. GHOST attacks and kills the player. Once killed, the screen cuts to black. And it stays there. That’s the end.
Only a reset can get anything but the black screen. When booted back up, NEW GAME is the only option available. After GHOST killed the player, it erased the save. It’s not clear whether this mysterious version is real or not, as the original poster claims to have lost it in a move a few years back. Assuming that this version is real, it’s unclear where this Black Version came from. It could be a version that was modded by a fan and distributed in small numbers, but it could also have been put out in a more organized fashion by someone who was in a position to have access to the tool necessary to do this. Either way, I want nothing to do with it.
With the industry as secretive as it is, it wouldn’t surprise me to know of more games like these existing, known only of by player accounts, with no real evidence around to support it. But with the availability of the tools required to mod games, it is certainly harder to follow up on the validity of a situation like this. There are plenty more gaming urban legends out there to find and uncover. What are your favorite legends like these that people may not have heard of?