It’s hard to remember there was a time before you could just google anything and find factual information and opinions on things. Before there was was Wikipedia and forum stories, there were urban legends. And a few of them were about video games. Back then, games and game companies would come and go with very little notice. Even today, there are games that the internet has basically forgotten. A local company might manage to get their home brew game sold in a local store and never get any further than that. This environment lead to lots of urban legends about games. Here’s three video game urban legends that persist until today as well as some facts about them.
In the 80’s, arcades were the only place to play new state-of-the-art games. Games came and went with little or no fanfare. In 1981 a company called Sinneslöschen allegedly released Polybius, a Tempest-like game in mysterious unadorned black cabinets that appeared in Portland, Oregon arcades. The game had psychoactive qualities that caused insomnia, night terrors and hallucinations. Strange men in black allegedly collected data from the machines for the government.
The first mention of this legend comes in 1998 on coinop.org. Since then, pictures of arcade boxes have appeared and claims that a ROM image exists. The Polybius legend is so pervasive that the arcade cabinet had appeared in Wreck It Ralph (just offscreen), on a Simpsons episode and also on The Goldbergs.
The company name Sinneslöschen doesn’t really seem to be real, meaning something like “sense delete” or “sensory deprivation” but it’s not proper grammatical German, it’s more like something you’d get from Google language translators.
Like most legends, there are some nuggets of truth to be found in the exaggerations and rumors. The FBI did investigate arcades in the 80s and there were definitely games with addictive qualities, but it seems like Polybius never really existed.
Verdict: Probably False.
Massive Video Game Burial Ground
In 1983, the video game market crashed. Atari’s domination and over flooding of the market with so-so games basically stalled the video game industry until the NES came out. Rumors circulated that millions of copies of the ill-fated E.T. Game had to be dumped and buried in Alamogordo, New Mexico. This rumor has been referenced in several TV shows as well.
You can watch the epic documentary, Atari: Game Over to see the careful research and investigation come to fruition. Were there buried carts? Yes. Millions of them, no. The documentary shows how crazy Atari was in the 80s. It’s interesting to find out one of these urban legends that actually is true.
Verdict: Mostly True
Minus World in Super Mario Bros.
The mysterious “minus world” in Super Mario Bros was once subject of much speculation. There was no youtube so we only heard word of mouth stories of people finding this secret world in one of the most famous games of all time. The rumor was that there was a way to escape into the walls at the end of Level 1-2 and find yourself in a strange glitchy underwater world.
Turns out, it is for real. It’s apparently in the game’s data as level 36, but since there is no graphic for 36, it just says [blank]-1 for 36-1. The level can’t be completed, but as you can see in this hack, there are even more levels created beyond it if you use an editor to add a completion flag.
It is hard to do, but its definitely true. It can even be done on ports of the game that are based on the original code.
Secret Worlds in Original Metroid
Metroid was always kind of glitchy. You’d get stuck in walls sometimes, or see a creepy flutter of color at the edge of the screen as you leave a room making you wonder if something was just off screen waiting for you. Sometimes you’d run into a dead end that just seemed like a mistake in level design, and it was hard to accept there was really nothing beyond it. Another childhood urban legend of the 80s-90s was that there were entire worlds you could access by slowing jumping your way through the ceiling while stuck in a door. These rumors got exaggerated and embellished over time. One rumor was that there was a room where a dead space solider could be found, places with game dialogue and other things that sounded too good to be true.
The story on this one, as some rom hackers discovered, is that once you leave a vertical area via the top of the screen (instead of through a door like normal), the game’s adjacent blocks of data (often the horizontal stages) gets interpreted as vertical stages, creating entire worlds filled with enemies, terrain and paths. That’s why the room configurations seem familiar yet weird. It’s a super dangerous place, lava is everywhere and there are pits you can’t get out of. Some journeys into the secret worlds only last a few screens before you hit a dead end or die, others can go on for hours. There is of course, no goal, or way to return from them. There are similar bugs to be exploited with Metroid II and Super Metroid, but its amazing how substantial the secret worlds can be on the original. There is, however, no dead space solider, or game dialogue to be found. Those were just rumors.
Verdict: Mostly True
Its interesting to see that like most urban legends, there’s a little bit of truth behind each of these stories.