Polybius Reimagines an Urban Legend with Psychedelic Grace

DIGITAL GEMS: Finally, a reason to dust off your Playstation VR headset.

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The first thing I’m confronted with when I launch Polybius is an epilepsy warning. This game contains flashing imagery and bright colors, and I needed to accept this before going onwards. I did. And—knock on wood—I’ve been feeling pretty okay so far, contrary to the players of the once-urban legend.

In 1981, in a suburb of Portland, Oregon, the mysterious arcade cabinet Polybius once persevered. Or so the urban legend goes. Polybius was a lone arcade cabinet that attracted players in droves, but it also caused problems. The characteristically young players allegedly found themselves stricken with illness, migraines, nausea, seizures. They were drawn to the game always, even as ominous Men in Black from the “government” stopped by weekly to open up the cabinet, assumingly collecting data. Then the machine disappeared without a trace.

Polybius is a commonly told urban legend in the games space. Of course, there are other iterations of the tale bustling around the web. But game designer Jeff Minter believes it’s more than just a fictional dream: he allegedly played the game not too long ago. He found it to be so transcendent of an experience, as he described in a Playstation Blog, that he only recalls initially approaching the cabinet and the flashing “Robotronian” lights of the GAME OVER screen. Nothing in between. This experience illuminated Minter, sending his heart racing on edge. In the following months, fleeting memories of Polybius appeared back to him. It was then that he set out to recreate the experiences he felt while playing the game, or at least, what he remembers of it.

Minter's experience with the "original" Polybius is elusive. His threaded memories of it cloud the newly reimagined Polybius, a chaotic arcade shooter where the player funnels through tunnels, gates, pelting down objects in their path. The game is soundtracked by intense trance music, heightening the game considerably. Minter even credits the game as a "fast trance shooter." Fitting, as Polybius wholly mirrors the music it echoes: something kinetically lively.

The new version of Polybius, the one out today, is a Playstation VR game first, and a plainer Playstation 4 game second. To experience Polybius in its intended force is within VR, allowing its psychedelic colors and pulsing trance music absorb you, as much as Rez Infinite did last fall. Polybius at its core is an arcade sorta-on-rails shooter where you can turn your ship and occasionally fly, but you’re perpetually urged forwards, bullhorn gates beckoning you to pass through them and shoot away obstacles.

Polybius quickly dissolves into utter madness. At the start, you’re told to do what feels “natural,” assuming the player has played any sort of arcade shooter before. And so I did what felt natural. I pressed a button. I jilted the analog stick. And I shot down objects in my path. “Lovely,” a pixelated word shot out, in between all the typical praise-worthy phrases bid in games. Polybius often feels like a joke directed at the player: an arcade game in pure feeling, but constantly poking fun at the player for sliding down the endless effervescent digital caverns.

Minter is the creator behind such arcade action games as TxK and music visualizers like Psychedelia. Polybius is a blend of the two genres: still fundamentally a game where players race to achieve high scores and fire towards objects, but disorientingly relaxing as a visualizer, as the game shifts before the player’s eyes at top speeds. Things glitch out; textures smooth into a more low-poly style; colors constantly dip into new brightly-hued palettes. Polybius demands attention to its every detail, but mechanically, your thumbs work their magic almost all on their own.

The game itself flies by at 120 frames-per-second. Polybius, unlike its urban legend namesake, wants to leave players feeling pleased and happy rather than anxious and distraught, but it longs to consume the player all the same. It has three difficulties, balanced by the amount of shields a player gets: Standard, Pure, and YOLO. A PC version of Polybius is currently in development, and its Playstation 4 (with Playstation VR compatibility) is available now for $15.49 on PSN.

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Tagged with Analyses, arcade, Digital Gems, Jeff Minter, llamasoft, PlayStation 4, PlayStation VR, Shooters.

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