Screenshot from Cube Quest

Artist's rendition of Polybius

Here: I am going to solve a mystery that has stumped people for the last thirty years.

There is an urban legend about "Polybius", a mysterious eighties videogame that made kids go insane. As the story goes, the videogame showed up without warning in 1981 various Portland arcades. It featured subliminal messages and trippy visuals that gave players nightmares and hallucinations. After a few months, shadowy "men in black" downloaded data off the machine and confiscated all copies of the videogame. Rumors persist of one remaining copy found in an Oregon storage locker. See for more details.
According to internet posts in 1998 that remember the gameplay, "Polybius was supposed to have the combined elements of Tempest and Galaga, resulting in a combination puzzle and shooter game. It was one of the earliest games to use vector graphics, geometrical primitives that are based on mathematical equations and represented by points, lines, curves and shapes. Game play involved a moving ship navigating a rotating screen and shooting at moving objects. As the player completed each level, the difficulty was increased by instilling increasingly distracting backgrounds. Consisting of wildly spinning graphics and brightly colored, fast moving, hypnotic backgrounds, Polybius was said to have excelled in popularity, and supposedly many people that played this game quickly became addicted."

I am certain that the videogame in question was actually Cube Quest ( Cube Quest was released in 1983, and was truly ground breaking. I loved playing it at my local arcade. Keep in mind that in 1983, computer graphics were pretty mediocre. There were "vector" videogames like Tempest which consisted of colored line drawing on a screen. Other examples of popular vector games were Asteroids and Battlezone. Fun games, sure, but they looked visually like primitive line drawings. The other option at the time for computer graphics was "raster", where the picture was made up of tiny blocks. You can see the raster pixelization and blocky characters in games such as Pac-man and Donkey Kong. Unfortunately, you can't mix the two types of video screens, even now. Computer monitors can either be manufactured as vector or raster. Except for minor attempts at commercial vector screens (like the portable Vectrex videogame system), all home monitors are raster.

Videodisc systems were an esoteric solution to this problem. in 1978 the LaserDisc player came out for home use, and prices soon dropped. Videodiscs were integrated into arcade games such as Dragon's Lair and Space Ace. One videodisc game "Time Traveler" was actually mounted upside-down in the cabinet, and projected in a parabolic mirror to look like a hologram floating inside the cabinet. With such games as Cube Quest and Astron Belt (another of of my favorites), they were able to put vector or raster graphics over a laserdisc background. This led to mind-blowing visuals that were revolutionary for the arcade games of the time. Unfortunately, those laserdiscs games broke down a lot, and the games themselves were criticized as being very linear, as if the player was shooting things while traveling "on rails".

Here is a video of some simulated Polybius gameplay that somebody coded, using the description of gamers who recalled the gameplay:
(you can download the fake re-created game at

And here is some sample gameplay for Cube Quest:
Look similar? I think so. To me, Polybius is more like Gyruss than Tempest, but the gameplay is the same. Aliens pop up from the center of the screen and need to be shot before they hit the player-character. The navigation screens were very unusual for the time, and might have triggered a bizarre "mathematics" memory in the kids who remembered the videogame ten years later. Cube Quest was such a rare videogame, and broke down so quickly, that it wasn't in arcades for very long.

But here is where my conspiracy theory gets weird. The programmer of Cube Quest was named Paul Allen Newell. There is a good interview with him at ( Paul's father was Allan Newell, who was an early computer pioneer (see Together with Herbert Simon, Newell (the father) basically invented the field of artificial intelligence. To make things weirder, when you stick a quarter into Cube Quest, you hear an introduction by Ken Nordine. Know him? Known for his "word jazz" albums, Ken specialized in freaky dream-like spoken-word songs in the sixties. What are the chances that a beat-era poet such as Nordine happened to combine with the cutting-edge computer graphics of the son of an AI pioneer, to make an seldom-played videogame that influenced kids years later to create an underground legend about a mind-warping arcade game? Perhaps there *is* something to the Polybius myth after all...