Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Polybius – Not a parrot on public transport...

... but is it a game?

For those who don’t know the original Polybius game was apparently released in 1981 and has become a bit of an urban-myth.
It may, or may not have been an arcade cabinet system, programmed by a mysterious company called Sinnesloschen, which also may or may not have existed. The original game became famous for its apparent ability to cause seizures in its players, and become rolled up in wilder and wilder accusations of government cover-ups and experiments in mind control...

If you are interested in the ‘legend’ you could do worse than having a look at the Wikipedia page. I would also strongly suggest taking a look at the very strange, but hysterical, RetroGamer forum thread, where the apparent author ‘debated’ the game at length.

But this review isn’t about any of that!
This is a review of the fan-made re-make (or recreation) game produced in 2007...
... if you can re-make a game that may or may not have been real in the first place, from a company that may or may not have evere xisted, that is.
This game can be downloaded from the Sinnesloschen website...
N.B. This is not the original ROM, which may, or may not, exist.

Obviously no original code or graphics were made available for study, so this ‘re-make’ was put together from various (apparent) first, second, and third party accounts of what the original game looked like and how it played.Surprisingly very little reviewers have ever really taken the time to seriously review the resultant program on its own merits as a game. 

So I decided to have a go...

Probably somewhat unsurprisingly it seems that this game is often mistakenly sited by some as being a ‘found’ version of the original program, then immediately derided by others as a FAKE... yes, generally with capital letters.
They are of course, both all wrong. It doesn’t pretend to be the ‘real thing’ so as such it doesn’t deserve to be called a fake. On the other hand it doesn’t do much to help itself in this respect, because it is written as a firmly tongue-in-cheek homage to the original game’s legend.

On booting up the program you are immediately met by a set of pseudo MAME type ROM loading screens. An obvious pun to those who know it is a pastiche, but others have been fooled into thinking they are loading up a real MAME ROM image file, and so enter the ‘FAKE’ callers at round one...

Now it becomes immediately apparent that a large part of the in-game ‘joke’ comes with the plethora of ‘covert’ and ‘mind control’ type menu options and ‘hidden’ messages within the game itself.
They do add to the joke (if you get the joke) but have little impact on the actual game-play or selection process, other than to add unnecessary complex options that do nothing but cause confusion to those who don’t get the joke.

But this is a review, so on to that game-play... 
The game is basically 2D and viewed from above, as was the style at the time.
The main screen initially appears to be emulating a vector graphics type environment where you control a small ship that rotates around a circular core structure. This has been described as some sort of pseudo occult symbol which consistently shoots out, seemingly random, projectiles that you have to avoid whilst shooting at the central structure.

 The basic game-play involves revolving around the central object and shooting towards the middle and this can become quite repetitive. Again this repetitive game-play was the pretty much the norm for the time the original game was supposedly set. But today this doesn’t stack up well against many much more advanced (free) shooters.
As well as the central construction and its projectiles you also have a pretty much constantly moving background, the majority of which also come from the central point of the screen and radiate out towards the edges in a pseudo 3D fashion. These sometimes seem to be character-based sprites as opposed to the vector graphics of the main action. Did the original Arcade overlay two different types of screen, vector and CRT... assuming it existed that is.
The main difference between these levels is solely in the changing background graphics, and these can become very garish, in many cases they can obscure both your ship and your attackers.
I found that very little exposure too much of these backdrops began to hurt my eyes, having said that some of the effects are truly quite fascinating and artistic. And of course this is at least one of the main points of this game. I think this may be a graphics-demo at heart, but it does have a strange draw, and you do feel the ‘one more go’ pull when playing.
I doubt if much of the effects could be realistically produced in a 1981 arcade-cabinet though, at least not without a serious hardware cost.

On a serious note I would like give a real genuine warning....
No... I really am being serious here.
Please do consider not playing this game if you suffer from photo-sensitive epilepsy.
Many of the apparent ‘mind control’ elements of the original game have been implemented as quite violent strobe effects and colour cycling. In parts this is intentionally meant to emulate exactly the type of conditions that can illicit an adverse reaction in those susceptible to such things.
You may think this is irresponsible, but it is apparently defended as part of the ‘joke’ and is also an apparent real simulation of the original game, (based on those rather wobbly accounts) so was also included for ‘historical’ reasons.
If there was ever an original game, it is feasible to speculate that the truth behind the hype may have been liked with photo-sensitive epilepsy. It has been theorised that maybe someone did have a reaction to the arcade game; and that this was the cause of the game being pulled, and hence the start of the urban-myths; although it has never been proven.

In conclusion, this isn’t a bad little retro-style shooter, and some of the game-play ideas do work well.
It is intentionally a bit hard on the eyes, and I personally think the game could have been made more playable by cutting down on the eye-bleed strobe and colour cycling effects.

An option to remove all the superfluous (although funny if you know the history) joke content could also have made for a more immediately playable game. Some of the ‘hidden’ subliminal in-game popup content can be quite fun though.
Having said that, the game is probably inseparable from the idea it pastiches. And there is still a decent little arcade game in there.
Give it a go if you like 1980’s retro...

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