The 5 Creepiest Game Conspiracy Theories and Urban Legends
By Rob Crossley on
Stranger than fiction.
Summon your tin-foil hats, friends, as we take a ride through five chilling tall tales of video game folklore, from stories of mind-control, to secret playable ghosts, to the strange tale of an Iraqi tyrant turning consoles into WMDs.
Tempting as it is to calmly assure that these stories are likely myths dreamed up for the pleasures of fear and gossip, in the past 12 months two major game conspiracy theories have proven to be true. So, if Super Mario Bros 3 really was just a theatrical play, and if truckloads of copies of ET really were dropped in a landfill, perhaps a line of truth lies among the following five stories...
Polybius, the killer arcade machine
Possibly the most alluring of all video game urban legends is the story of Polybius, an arcade cabinet apparently built by the US military, or perhaps the CIA, in 1981. This story has circulated online since the mid-to-late-nineties and curiously, unlike most myths, its details have not been embellished in the two decades since. According to the earliest accounts of the story, only two Polybius machines were ever built, and were installed at separate arcades across Portland, Oregon.
Those who played the game apparently experienced headaches, nausea, and nightmares, while in some accounts of this story, such side-effects were followed by suicidal thoughts. Agents dressed in black were said to have frequented the arcades in Portland, apparently to download data stored on each cabinet. Months after they were installed, the legend goes, both machines disappeared.
The origin of this story remains a mystery, but one theory is that it's a cocktail of different truths, mixed together to create a far more interesting tale. There were local reports at the time of FBI agents visiting arcades, though this was apparently due to an investigation into illegal gambling rings. In the early eighties, when the old arcade business was in rude health, it was not unheard of that some customers would frequent arcade machines and stay for hours trying to bathe themselves with the fame of high scores. Naturally, doing this for extended periods would make some players sick.
No one has come forward to say they have played Polybius. Yet the tale has lingered, even appearing on an episode of the Simpsons.
The Lost Killswitch video
Continuing the theme of likely fake but nevertheless haunting video game stories, one urban tale surrounds a PC release called Killswitch, an eerie 2D survival-horror title developed by The Karvina Corporation (which is also likely the work of fiction, although its disturbing twitter feed suggests otherwise).
According to legend, Karvina published no more than 5,000 copies of Killswitch in 1989, and each version would self-delete once completed. It meant that the market value of a working version soared as each copy deleted itself, to the extent that in 2005, a mint-condition version was apparently sold on eBay for $733,000 to a Tokyo resident by the name of Yamamoto Ryuichi.
The story that follows is nearly always told the same way: Keen to expose the game to the world, Ryuichi set about to publish a Let's Play video. Apparently, a one minute and 45 second video clip found its way to YouTube, but the footage only showed Yamamoto slumped at his computer in front of the selection screen. With his back to the camera, he does not move, but you can hear him crying. The screen goes blank.
It's easy to see through such tall tales when you consider that Yamamoto's video isn't listed on YouTube. It is curious, however, that dozens of Killswitch gameplay videos can be found on the site; meaning that either someone has decided to build a game based on the legend, or you're looking at the real thing.
Squall Died As You Swapped Discs
If you wanted to place a bet on any video game conspiracy theory turning out to be true, make sure it's this one.
Due to the limited storage capacity of CD ROMs during the PlayStation 1 era, many games of sizable data were written on multiple discs. Final Fantasy VIII, for example, was carried on four discs that players needed to swap between when playing through the campaign.
But something strange happens during one of these transitions. At the end of disc one, an FMV is shown with the game's hero Squall confronting the sorceress Edea. At the end of the video, Edea launches an ice shard through the Squall's chest, knocking him off the platform he's standing on. The camera shows him falling, presumably to his death.
But when disc two begins, Squall is shown awakening from his fall, with no signs of the giant ice shard impaling him or his clothes. He says: "My wound...? No wound...? How...?" The theory here is that Squall has died, unbeknown to the player, and the remainder of the story is his dream of how he would have succeeded. A whole body of (somewhat shaky) evidence argues this point, including the game's final cut-scene, which for a millisecond flashes a haunting image of Squall with no face.
The Madden Curse
It started as a curious fact at the water-cooler, grew into a joke between NFL fans, and eventually became a bona fide superstition. Between the years of 1999 and 2014, nearly every NFL player who appeared on the front cover of EA's Madden games suffered a significant injury shortly after. "Nearly" is handy journalese term which the cynical among you will notice actually means "not all," and thus cannot be the description of a curse. However, in this case, "nearly" represents 15 out of 18 Madden cover stars who went on to suffer from either horrific injuries, sinking performances, or major losses to thier respective clubs.
As chronicled in this excellent Digital Trends article, the curse's first victim was Garrison Hearst, who broke his ankle shortly after his likeness was splashed on the front cover of Madden NFL 1999. In the fifteen years since, only three players appear to have dodged the curse: Richard Sherman, Calvin Johnson, and Larry Fitzgerald.
At one point, EA even discussed plans to make a movie about the curse.
Consoles of Mass Destruction
Before we begin, it's worth bearing in mind that this story first broke in the year 2000, an era of boisterous PR stunts, an age when political correctness wasn't so big a priority, and a time when PlayStation was legitimately run by people who were behaving like biz execs were the new rock stars. It's also a story that first emerged just before Christmas, and one that makes the PlayStation 2 come off as a machine that was decades ahead of its time. So yes, make sure you bullshit detector isn't drained of battery.
So according to a World News Daily article, published in December 2000, Iraq's former president Saddam Hussain was stockpiling hundreds of PlayStation 2s for purposes not quite as humble as playing a round of FantaVision. The story goes that the pugnacious war leader wanted to stockpile PS2s due to the console's 32-Bit CPU being rather powerful, and thus, to repeat an anonymous quote circulating at the time, "extremely useful in military design applications."
Apparently Kutaragi's much-lauded Emotion Engine could be used to calculate ballistic data for long-range missiles, and the combined CPU power of 15 PlayStation 2s would be enough to control a drone.
As terrifying as the prospect of war-mongering state officials going all A-Team on luxury household items is, this urban legend is surely a work of fiction. The problem, as with all good lies, is the slither of truth. PS2s were sold cheaper than basic 32-Bit chips, meaning it may have been a genuine frugal option for any penny-pinching tyrants. Silly, yes, but definitely scarier the more you think about it. At the very least, it brings new meaning to the term console war.
One final thing before you go; During Christmas 2000 there was a punishing global shortage of PS2s, and Sony Europe secretly hired four Antonov jets out of Afghanistan just to carry a shipment from Japan to Europe (this is not a lie). A creative mind on the inside would have all the inspiration they'd need to conjure a tale of why only a few PS2s made it to Europe.