Polybius is chaos until it isn’t.
This is true of Polybius’ operation as a real videogame in 2017 and past decades spent occupying videogame folklore. The latter, which posits Polybius as some kind of government black-op designed to infiltrate the 80’s arcade scene and liquefy the minds of its clientele, has endured for twenty years. It’s been referenced on The Simpsons and pulpy novels. It even has its own Wikipedia page. Polybius’ has a place on unkempt outskirts of videogame history, even if it’s usually played for laughs.
Of course Llamsoft assumed the task of transitioning Polybius from legend to reality. Jeff Minter has been making games since the early 80’s, the time that Polybius was rumored to invade arcades. He’s created titles for a range of systems, all the way from the VIC-20 and ZX Spectrum to iPad and PlayStation Vita. One of his more famous projects (which I own for some reason) was his update to Tempest, Tempest 2000, for the Atari’s imprudent Jaguar. Tempest, apparently, is an origin point for the Polybius’ story. Perhaps it was always going to end this way.
A maiden voyage through Polybius provides enough fuel to liquefy the average human brain. The top of the screen is an escalating, stationary parade of letters and numbers. The bottom contains a ship, which is you, which scoots horizontally across a tunnel-like surface. The ship can fire a stream of bullets that can be used to eviscerate almost anything in its path. Objects that look like they fell out of beloved arcade machines fill the track, and they’re all composed of neon-lit primary and secondary color. It all appears to be moving at one thousand miles-per-hour.
On a television, Polybius looks vaguely dangerous and feels incomprehensible. In virtual reality, if I may briefly submit to hyperbole, I have no idea what the fuck is happening in the game or my life. Soon, more words are flying at the screen, apparently there are shields and deflector shields and I’m losing them, and a female voice is reading off in-flight safety instructions. I don’t think I’m in hell because it all looks too nice, but if this were to continue for hours, unimpeded, my grip on reality would drop 15 percentage points every twenty minutes. All of this is to say that when you’re new to Polybius, it really does appear to embody an MKUltra splinter project.
Polybius isn’t actually that hard to play. It is difficult, however, to figure out what is happening. Going through bull horns builds speed, adds fractions of a second to a deflector shield, and creates a small shockwave that obliterates nearby enemies. Blasting giant pills modifies your bullet stream. I didn’t know any of this until I watched one of my own footage because it is impossible to pay attention to the peripheral when your eyeballs are retina-deep inside of Polybius. It’s not easy to learn context clues when your singular focus is pure survival.
It can be incredibly frustrating to die and not know why. In the beginning of Polybius, when so many objects are hurling toward you at dangerous speeds, what just killed me is a common question. Eventually you learn and adjust, and then every few levels Polybius unloads another obstacle. Here are some context free tips: (1) You should be on the correct side of oncoming flags. (2) Don’t stay on the part of the track that is turning red. (3) Red triangle signs are brick walls so don’t run into them. Maybe these are obvious and maybe I’m just bad at games, but I couldn’t help but feel that Polybius sacrifices instruction for spectacle.
An investment of time cracks away the spectacle and reveals more of Polybius’ operation. Levels can actually be navigated slowly by deliberately avoiding gates, but this is inadvisable because hitting every set of horns in sight turns your ship into an unstoppable killing machine. The deflector shield gates enable safe passage through obstacles, ensuring the faster you go (usually) the easier Polybius becomes. Destruction and chaos engulf your ship and, in addition to looking incredibly cool, it doubles as a device to make levels go by faster. Hitting gates isn’t easy—it’s impossible to hit all of them, and it comes with the risk of clanking off the side and losing a shield—but it’s almost always worth the risk.
Getting ahold of Polybius transitions it from a breakneck bastion of calamity to a serene glide through Tron’s unexplored wildlands. There’s a distinct flow to a composed performance, undoubtedly aided by an eclectic trance soundtrack, and it often persists for strings of levels. Polybius doesn’t have Rez Infinite’s level of uninhibited purity—levels 29 and 43 prove to be significant roadblocks, resetting the fury-to-Zen gauge—but Polybius maintains a subscription to the same principles. Enjoy the show and, when you’re ready, start playing for keeps.
All of Polybius, ostensibly, is performed in pursuit of a higher and higher score. Gates, Polybius’ omnipresent mechanic, build a depreciating score multiplier. Shooting enemies and eliminating rogue bulls (Minter’s penchant for cattle thrives in Polybius) adds points, as does passing as close as possible to flags, avoiding poison pills, and myriad other intangible, insane actions. Chains are preferred and possible, provided you possess the demanding manual dexterity.
Polybius’ default mode is actually fairly inventive. You start with three shields, and three more shields—up to nine—are added after each level. You’re free to restart from any previous level with the highest number of shields (and score!) you’ve obtained. With each level lasting fewer than five minutes, this is a generous concession to the player’s time and conducive to ailing Polybius’ frustrating aspects. A Pure mode, where you begin from level one, and a YOLO mode are also available.
PlayStation VR, while not literally the only way to play the Polybius, is the only way to play Polybius. Being inside that world and as close as possible to the action is paramount to mutating anarchy into order. It’s a common theme in virtual reality, but it helps transition Polybius from a game into an experience. 2D operation is functional—my performance dropped, but it was hard to tell if that was due to an adjustment period I didn’t want to take or feeling physically less close to the action—and it’s silly to think a $15 game demands $400 hardware, but there’s no other real way to live the fantasy. Polybius will melt your brain more efficiently when its centimeters away from your actual brain.
At some point, amid some light Brexit commentary and some other British references I didn’t understand because I live in Kentucky, Polybius decides to tell me: the sky uses the color of a television tuned to a dead channel. Words like these act as a prelude to every level. Some offer hints of upcoming challenges while others are cyberpunk-as-hell proclamations of what it must be like to navigate a digital existence. I love this. Even these lines are actually activation code words and Polybius really is some kind of mind control experiment, I’m good with dying inside of its aesthetic.
What’s certain is that Polybius’ tempestuous pace and kaleidoscopic assault indulge its urban legend while its principled operation betrays its sinister infamy. It’s a spiraling supersonic tunnel shooter that only seems like its bulldozing cognitive ability, and parsing its putative chaos tips its scale from pandemonium to precision. By allowing fury to give way to Zen, Polybius lives up to its legend.