Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Two Great Arcade Urban Legends

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 14, 2012

On twitter (I’m @RampantCoyote ) I was chatting a little bit about arcade urban legends. Most of the ones I was familiar with were pretty local – some kid pulling my leg claiming to have gone to a totally new world through the Stargate in Defender Stargate (later redubbed Defender II). Or how it was possible to get into the ghost pen in Pac-Man (for what reason, I cannot fathom). There was no Internet back then (well, okay, technically there was, but it was inaccessible to anyone but certain colleges and defense contractors), and few magazines, so real information was hard to come by. These awesome machines seemed to appear as if by magic.

Here are a couple of awesome stories of the era. One is true. The other… probably not, but who knows? You’ve probably heard about them already, but in case you haven’t, here they are:

armybradleyArmy Battlezone

I remember a magazine publishing a short blurb about the U.S. Army contracting a custom version of Battlezone for training purposes way, WAY back circa 1981. And that was the last I heard of it. But I happily shared the rumor. After all, it was in print, so it must be true, right?

As it turns out, it was true.  Two prototypes were created, although there are rumors that there were others that were manufactured and actually used in training. The game simulated what would eventually be dubbed the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, and was purely for training the gunner. In the prototype, the vehicle did not move – although the programmers vaguely remember it was perhaps supposed to move under computer control. The enemy vehicles did not fire. The game presented a mix of friendly and enemy targets, and firing upon a friendly target immediately ended the game in failure. Otherwise, the only way to “lose” was to run out of ammunition.

The game had a variety of friendly and enemy targets, including helicopters, and simulated the three different weapon systems of the Bradley: a machine gun, the cannon (with selectable high-explosive or armor piercing rounds), and the TOW missile launcher with an optical range finder.

According to stories, the game was never completed fully to its intended specs, though it was reportedly a hit at the conference. Speculation was that the intention may have been to actually use it as an arcade game in commissaries and whatnot, to have the soldiers ‘practice’ with it as a game and yet hone real-life skills. Done this way, they could avoid dealing with Atari as a defense contractor. Nevertheless, there was a lot of resistance among many employees at Atari for working with the military.

There’s more information (and speculation) to be found here, and here. Sadly, between Atari’s storied penchant for secrecy and obfuscation, and the military’s natural tendency for the same (not always intentionally), there’s not a lot of concrete information. But at least there is a rescued prototype.

Of course, the stories like this – of arcade machines being used to train gamers in military skills, or perhaps to select extremely talented individuals for recruitment – abound, and were even made into a cheesy sci-fi movie – The Last Starfighter. It’s fun to know there was an element of truth there.


I never heard about this one until a few years ago, and was reminded of it by Hanako. As far as I can tell, this legend originated far more recently, suggesting that it truly is an invention. The story goes that an arcade machine appeared in a few select arcades in the Portland area for a few weeks. The game reputedly had gameplay somewhat similar to Tempest, and proved very popular (and… addictive). Yet strange things began happening to players after they played the game – from ill effects to amnesia, night terrors, and even suicide. Then there’s the rumors of men in black visiting the arcade and gathering unusual data about the players, and subliminal messages hidden in the graphics.

While rumors and accounts abound, most appear to be hoaxes.

What’s most likely is that the story is a conflation of several real elements with some fanciful embellishments.

First of all, it was common practice for game companies to place early prototypes of games in test arcades to see how actual gamers responded. If a game did poorly, it might be canceled rather than going into the cost of full production. In an era where the cost of manufacturing the machines could exceed the cost of developing the games,  this wasn’t unheard of.  It’s even possible that a “Polybius” game might have appeared in one or more select arcades, done poorly, and was canceled and never seen again.

Another possibility was that it was actually an early version of Tempest. Perhaps it was truly was popular with the test audience, but that beta version was causing problems with players prone to photosensitive epilepsy or motion sickness (I’ve gotten motion sick with a few games, myself… Descent, in particular, made me horribly ill for almost 24 hours after a 2 or 3 hour long session.) Maybe the early version was not named “Tempest,” although I suspect the reliance on word-of-mouth would make it likely that they wouldn’t want to change the name of something that proved popular.

The men in black, the night terrors and amnesia… I suspect that to all be embellishments thrown into whatever grains of truth may exist about Polybius. But the stories really would resonate back in the arcade days, particularly when the concept was new. People didn’t understand video games, and there were a lot of questions about what they were, what they could be, and what effects they might have on players – especially when they enjoyed such a sudden rise in popularity. And this was also an era where there was a bit of concern over subliminal messages and advertising. Mix these elements with the rumors (sometimes true, as with Battlezone) that they could be used for military recruitment and training, and it is surprising there aren’t more stories like this.

In the meantime, Polybius has become something of a video game culture “in joke,” even appearing in an episode of The Simpsons.

Did Polybius exist? Was it actually a front for a secret government experiment? We’ll probably never know for sure. But hey, sounds like ripe material for a story for a game, doesn’t it? HMMMMM….

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