“MURDERED BY 1980’S VIDEO GAMES: THE TRUTH BEHIND POLYBIUS AND BERZERK” #WeirdDarkness
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Listen to ““MURDERED BY 1980’S VIDEO GAMES: THE TRUTH BEHIND POLYBIUS AND BERZERK” #WeirdDarkness” on Spreaker.
IN THIS EPISODE: It’s rumored that an arcade game from 1980 named Berzerk might lead to the real death of its players. Meanwhile, another arcade game from the early 80s, Polybius, was surrounded by controversy as well – causing its players amnesia, heart attacks, and paranoia. Some say the game never existed, others say it most certainly did.
SOURCES AND ESSENTIAL WEB LINKS…
“The Berzerk Death Curse” by Cat DeSpira: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/yckk96tv
“The Polybius Conspiracy” by Ryan Houlihan for InputMag.com: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/2p8h6v8z
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It’s 1981, and in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon a phenomenon has begun. Dozens of gamers are in line waiting to play the newest arcade sensation – Polybius; a game so exciting that people have come to physical blows just to be next in line to play. Perhaps addictive is a better word, as some players begin to suffer from a series of strange side effects, such as seizures, amnesia, insomnia, night terrors, and hallucinations. The machines are rumored to be a government experiment to test the game’s psychoactive properties – and official looking men in black have even been seen tending to the machines, extracting data from the consoles. Then suddenly, after only a month, Polybius disappears without a trace, with no explanation as to why. The story is so strange that it has been deemed an urban legend – but could there be some truth behind the Polybius happening?
I’m Darren Marlar and this is Weird Darkness.
Welcome, Weirdos – I’m Darren Marlar and this is Weird Darkness. Here you’ll find stories of the paranormal, supernatural, legends, lore, the strange and bizarre, crime, conspiracy, mysterious, macabre, unsolved and unexplained.
Coming up in this episode…
It’s rumored that an arcade game from 1980 might lead to the real death of its players. We’ll look at the death curse of Berzerk. (The Berzerker Death Curse, And The Polybius Urban Legend)
And another arcade game in the early 80s was surrounded by controversy – because the game never existed, despite so many saying it did. Or did it exist? We’ll look at the urban legend of Polybius. (The Urban Legend of Polybius)
If you’re new here, welcome to the show! While you’re listening, be sure to check out WeirdDarkness.com for merchandise, my newsletter, to connect with me on social media, and more!
Now.. bolt your doors, lock your windows, turn off your lights, and come with me into the Weird Darkness!
STORY: THE POLYBIUS CONSPIRACY=====
In 1981, an arcade in the Portland, Oregon area was the scene of countless gamers coming down with migraines, heart attacks, addiction, seizures, strokes, and even amnesia, all due to one game cabinet: Polybius.
The game itself was said to have been created by an unknown government agency to test mind control technology on unsuspecting civilians. It worked — almost too well. Or so the legend goes.
It’s almost quaint to discuss Polybius now. In the age of hyper-targeted Facebook propaganda, military recruiting via Twitch, and the looming specter of deepfakes, the idea that the public would be so terrified of an arcade game is adorable. It goes without saying that urban legends like this were the product of a more naïve time — a time before such tales would become weaponized and mutate into the far more dangerous genre of conspiracy theories.
The name Polybius itself was likely selected specifically as bait for the inquisitive and easily spooked. The original Polybius was an ancient Greek philosopher born around 208 B.C. in Megalopolis, Arcadia. He is known for his affinity for cryptography and puzzles (he created the Polybius square, naturally) as well as his belief that historians should strictly report what they can verify through hard evidence and by interviewing witnesses. His name itself means “many lives” in Greek. Get it? “Many lives,” Arcadia, cryptic puzzles, his famous skepticism — it’s almost too good a name for a spooky video game.
The urban legend of Polybius gained popularity on February 6, 2000 when a listing for the game popped up on CoinOp.org, a digital museum and database for arcade gaming. The page for Polybius listed the game as having been copyrighted in 1981 (though no such copyright exists) and only briefly mentions “bizarre rumors” about the title before classifying its history as “unknown.”
Though impossible to confirm without a confession from the man himself, the person believed to have created the post is Kurt Koller, the owner of the site. Koller would also tip off writer Dan Elektro of GamePro, which at the time claimed to be the world’s largest independent multiplatform gaming magazine, to the existence of the story. Eventually, in a 2003 listicle called “Secrets and Lies,” GamePro came to an “inconclusive” verdict regarding the veracity of the tip. The story went on to hit Slashdot — the closest thing to going viral in the early ’00s — on August 21, 2003.
But, as we in the age of “fake news” know, the point of getting the story out there was not to have it debunked — it was to lodge it in the popular imagination of American gamers. At this, Koller was wildly successful. Polybius has gone on to be the subject of television shows, music videos, documentaries, extensive investigations, an episode of The Simpsons, and has even become a real, purchasable game — more than once. CoinOp.org has had a similarly long life; it still exists on the internet today, with Polybius remaining its most popular entry.
On the page for Polybius are infamous comments left by a user claiming to be a man named “Steven Roach.” Roach details his involvement in the game’s supposed development. Quote:
“Marek Vachousek was the programmer who came up with the name Polybius — he had studied Greek Mythology at Masaryk University and came up with the name because it sounded quite bold and mysterious, which is what we wanted quite simply. The inspiried (sic) graphics combined with the puzzle elements and scintilating (sic) gameplay was something to behold — we playtested it for hours and hours and it certainly was an addictive game that was well-loved professionally and recreationally by all that played it. We then received a phone call stating that there were concerns within the company that the basic graphics which featured prominently in so many other games of the time were fine for the average gamer to spend hours at a time without any noticable (sic) physical or mental detriments but the intense and engrossing gameplay of this new step was very much an unknown quantity so the game was put back several months due to divided opinion within their board of directors, much to our consternation for breaking our backs to finish it on time. We disbanded … shortly afterwards because we didn’t want to restrict ourselves to the stringent deadlines of other companies and favoured distancing ourselves from the game in case of any lingering recriminations which could have done a great deal of damage to our personal and professional reputations which was our livelihood and with some of us having very young families, this was extremely important to us. As far as I’m aware, no ROM’s or otherwise exist unless they remain in the bowels of the company that distributed it. We only received a basic payment in view of the fact that the game was withdrawn without nationwide or international distribution so we grew to loathe it and was often a cursed word whenever we used to meet up and still is today, which is a shame.”
In his documentary investigating the game, called POLYBIUS: The Video Game That Doesn’t Exist, Stuart Brown of Ahoy, claims to have actually tracked down the user who claimed to be Steven Roach and states unequivocally that his addition to the story is entirely fabricated.
In addition to the would-be hoaxers, there were feature films about arcade machines with supernatural powers which would popularize the concept. 1984’s The Last Starfighter is about a boy so good at video games that aliens recruit him to wage an actual intergalactic war. Then there’s Nightmares, a 1983 horror anthology featuring a vignette called “The Battle of Bishop” about a game so addicting that it actually sucks a young Emilio Estevez into its secret 13th level.
The popularity of Polybius’ story is such that it transcends other video game tall tales. It’s easily more popular than Minecraft‘s Herobrine, GTA: San Andreas‘ sasquatch, or that time people thought Saddam Hussein was trying to conquer the world with a PS2. As mainstream urban legends go, Polybius is probably only slightly less successful than Slender Man or The Hook.
But is any of it true? Actually, yes.
We’ll look at the truth behind the Polybius Conspiracy when Weird Darkness returns!
To understand the truth behind the legend of the Polybius arcade game, one must fall down an internet rabbit hole that spans both time and cyberspace. Online listings for Polybius all contain the same blurry photo of the game’s cabinet and marquee. There’s no way to tell if this physical cabinet ever existed or if its an early photoshop job, thanks to its dubious quality. Listings also host the only known “screenshot” of the game.
The screenshot displays the game’s title screen, the aforementioned copyright date, and credits its development to a company called “Sinneslöschen,” a word which roughly translates to something along the lines of “sense-deleting” or “sensory deprivation” in broken German. There is no evidence of any such company having ever existed in Germany, the United States, or arcade gaming’s capital, Japan. So that’s a dead end.
The font used for the name “Polybius” itself is actually quite notable for being so large and colorful during an era when the memory required to produce such an effect was at a serious premium. Only games from powerhouses like Nintendo or Williams were known to spend such high-priced resources on something as fleeting as a title screen. In fact, the lettering is reminiscent of the one used for Nintendo’s Vs. Pinball and one used for Williams’ Bubbles, though not an exact match for either. It even resembles an East German cabinet called Poly-Play from the era, though it’s unlikely anything this obscure inspired the American legend. Again, there’s not much to go on here.
Some sources have claimed that the story of Polybius was making the rounds on Usenet as early as 1994, though there is, yet again, no record of this in any existing Usenet archives. This may be a case of the Mandela effect, where groups of people misremember the same events, as there was indeed a Pink Floyd-themed puzzle (or a hoax of a puzzle) going around Usenet in the early nineties called “Publius Enigma” which became so popular that its name was inexplicably displayed during one of the band’s concerts. The puzzle itself is near-incomprehensible and has never been solved.
Still other dubious sources have claimed that the gameplay of Polybius was similar to the vector stylings of Rez, Tempest, or Qix. Tempest was extremely popular at the time and known for its mesmerizing graphics, so it’s not a stretch to think it may have stuck in the memories of gamers from that era. Cube Quest, similarly, was a visually stunning title that was only in active use for a very short period of time, owing to its reliance on sensitive laserdisc technology. A local arcade can only afford so many high-priced repairs.
There’s also all the people that got sick while playing games like Tempest at the time. Just like Polybius.
As was the case with Michael Lopez of Beaverton, Oregon, who suffered a sudden migraine while playing Tempest with some friends at the Malibu Grand Prix arcade. “I began to feel a weird sensation in the back of my head, then my vision started going out. Little flashing lights,” recalls Lopez. “Suddenly I got sick and stumbled outside where I threw up all over the parking lot. One of my friends walked with me back home, but we didn’t make it all the way there. My head hurt so bad. It got to where I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t walk anymore. I collapsed on someone’s lawn, four blocks from my house, rolling and screaming in pain. It felt like my head was cracking open. Someone called the cops. That was the first migraine headache I ever had. I’ve had them off and on my whole life since. But it was freaky because I didn’t know what was happening at the time.”
Blame was put on the game’s flashing lights and intense visual effects and the incident was documented by a local paper. As was the case of Jeff Dailey, a gamer who suffered a heart attack and died after getting his name on the high score list of the game Bezerk. In that case, blame was also put on the stress-inducing arcade cabinet.
Similarly, Peter Bukowski also died of heart failure, possibly due to myocardial inflammation, while playing Bezerk. Then there’s Brian Mauro who, after 28 straight hours of playing Asteroids and drinking Coca-Cola, got sick and collapsed. Mauro survived, but it’s easy to see how the reporting of such events in the northwestern United States could lead to paranoia about the long-term effects of this new entertainment medium.
It’s hard to imagine now but at the time gaming was such a new phenomenon that it was labelled a “fad” and classified as part of the toy industry. Parents were suspicious of the machines that were, seemingly out of nowhere, mesmerizing a generation of American children. Who could blame them? Game developers have spent decades trying to wring the money out of their audience by making their games attention-grabbing, sensorily immersive, and increasingly addictive. If anything, parents today should be more skeptical about the immersive, addictive, gambling-adjacent games that are freely available on every conceivable screen in our homes.
But today, as was the case in the ’80s, people tend to be more suspicious of their own shadowy government than they are of corporations, whose motives are transparent (they want take your money). It doesn’t help matters that the FBI indeed was conducting top-secret operations out of America’s arcades.
The Bureau’s records indicate that the agency actually was monitoring and subsequently raiding arcades in the Portland area right around the time that stories of players collapsing in arcades had hit the mainstream media. In those days, arcades, which are naturally dark and maze-like, had seedy reputations as hotbeds of gambling, drug activity, and pickpockets looking to prey on teenagers. Though the extent to which arcades captured the public imagination was out of proportion with the actual issues in the establishments, some of that reputation was earned. Cabinets were being repurposed for gambling. People were selling weed in between rounds of Pac-Man. There are pickpockets wherever teenagers tend to gather — especially in the days before cell phones.
One more fanciful operation conducted by the FBI included agents rigging classic cabinets like Tempest, Scramble, and Galaxian with cameras and microphones in the hopes of catching criminals in the act. Games like Tempest were selected less for their mind-control abilities and more because their cabinets featured glass bezels, ideal for sticking cameras behind. The program was so extensive that it briefly caused a shortage of Tempest machines in the Seattle area during the early ’80s.
Just imagine teenagers watching men in black wheeling Tempestmachines in and out of arcades every few days. It only makes sense that they would start ascribing outlandish motives to the agents.
These stories of mind-control and government experiments are also, unfortunately, completely based in reality. Many people have heard of it by now but at the time there were only whispers about a CIA program known as MK-Ultra which was pursuing mind control techniques using technology, multimedia, and a whole lot of drugs. The experiments were conducted without the permission of their subjects, who have described the experience as extreme psychological torture. With that in mind, a mesmerizing video game doesn’t seem so fantastical.
These disturbing stories are all verifiable — but none of them contain the actual game Polybius. To actually play Polybius, you’ll have to settle for one of many fan games developed in tribute to the legend.
There’s the supposed copy distributed by gooddealgames.com around April 2004 called Polybius.exe. The game claims to contain its own emulation software and warns players “The Polybius video game has been linked to impaired memory and psychological changes. Game play may cause epileptic seizures in susceptible individuals. Do you still want to continue?” before booting into the familiar title screen. Once one presses any key, the game crashes and another pop-up message explains that it was simply an April Fool’s Day joke.
Freeware developers Rogue Synapse, known for creating fan-made cabinets of arcade games which never existed, like the one from The Last Starfighter, developed and distributed a game named Polybius in 2007. This version attempts to faithfully recreate the gameplay as described in the urban legend, including “trippy” visuals and “subliminal” messages. In an effort to further the immersive prank, the company’s owner, Dr. Estil Vance, registered the URL sinnesloschen.com and trademarked the usage of the name Polybius— though noted that it wasn’t an authentic original and was simply an “attempt to recreate the Polybius game as it might have existed in 1981.”
The most famous, and easily obtained, version of Polybius is from developer Llamasoft, who released its game for the PlayStation 4 and PSVR in 2016. Though the game contains vector-like graphics, it’s very obviously a modern creation intended to actually be played as a standalone title. It was in fact so popular that it was used for the music video “Less Than” by Nine Inch Nails in 2017.
None of those games are the true Polybius which, if it ever existed at all, only survives via word-of-mouth and onlinearticles. Polybius was almost certainly invented by Kurt Koller to promote his website — which obviously succeeded beyond any reasonable expectation.
But in the light of free-to-play mobile games with addicting visuals and mechanics, corporations and the governments hyper-targeting ads on Facebook — effectively mind control, and the alphabet soup of federal agencies torturing children, the themes of the legend are more relevant than ever before.
In a way, the story of Polybius is entirely true. People were dying while playing addictive video games. Men in black were using arcade machines in secret operations. The government was, and probably still is, pursuing mind control. The Portland area witnessed all of these things. It just wasn’t called Polybius.
Up next on Weird Darkness, Polybius wasn’t the only arcade game in the early 1980s rumored to cause the death of its players. Another is called Berzerk. And it might be even more sinister than Polybius, because this game really did exist.
STORY: THE BERZERK DEATH CURSE=====
When it comes to urban legends foreshadowing is everything.
To those who know the background of the Berzerk Death urban legend, it’s deeply curious that a certain coincidence happened to be overlooked by the majority of journalists writing on the subject over the decades. One wonders how something so eerily profound could have ever been missed.
In Calumet City, Illinois, if you drive north from I-94 near Hwy 83 and Pulaski Rd, you will see two smiley face water towers rise in the distance. Dubbed Mr. and Mrs. Smiley Face in 1973, the two well-known landmarks bear a striking resemblance to the arch nemesis, Evil Otto, from the Stern Electronics arcade game, Berzerk (1980), the arcade game whose gameplay has long been rumored to yield deadly consequences.
From any direction the smiling happy-face towers can be seen rising against the sky, to some a cheerful welcome yet to others –mostly arcade historians– they are an intimidating, if not ominously creepy sight. How did no one ever catch that before?
The game Berzerk, as the urban legend attests, can kill you, just like its partner in crime who was born in the same year, Polybius.
For as legend has it, in 1982, a young man walked into Friar Tuck’s Game Room, in Calumet City, IL., put a quarter in a Berzerk machine, had the game of his life…and then dropped dead.
Evil Otto, as the legend goes, possessed the supernatural ability to influence life threatening physiological conditions and cause instant death to any player (intruder) who failed to heed its alert. Okay…I’ll buy it for a moment. But the legend is far from complete and even farther from being accurate. There’s more. So much more.
On Saturday, April 3, 1982, 18-year old Peter Bukowski, (often reported incorrectly as ‘Burkowski”) of South Holland, Illinois, woke to a severely cold morning blanketed in a thick layer of snow. The iron grey sky churned with a weather system that prompted forecasters to issue a public announcement warning of an imminent blizzard.
The winter of 1981 had been a hard year for Illinois residents who had battled eleven “lake effect” blizzards since January. Peter Bukowski, a seemingly healthy, young man and no doubt one who had interests in common with others his age, must have felt a bit bored by the seemingly endless sieges of winter. Like all teens at the height of the video craze, video games were definitely something that was on his mind continuously as much as girls.
I envision him, standing at the window of his bedroom that last morning of his life, looking out, his young face lit by the bluish cast of dim daylight on snow. I wonder if he had any idea in his mind that something was amiss inside him? I wonder if he sensed today could be different than any other day he had lived on earth. Did he feel tired upon waking, sick or have chest pain? Apparently not, for he hung around his room playing video games that morning, entertained a girl at her home later on in the day, then went to the arcade with a friend after first going home for a warmer jacket.
According to census records, the Bukowski home was located on Price Avenue, in a tree-lined respectable neighborhood of single level homes, a mere two miles from Friar Tuck’s Game Room, once located at 674 River Oaks Drive, Calumet City, IL. Judging by events recorded by witnesses, this places him arriving at the arcade roughly around 8:00 p.m. From what reports remain, it appears he walked first to his girlfriend’s house, then back home, then to another friend’s house, then to the arcade, an estimated total distance of 4 miles. Trudging through snow often makes the journey far more strenuous, with many heart attacks reported annually from the act of merely shoveling snow. But Bukowski was young, strong and not a middle-aged man with a history of angina.
Legend has long supported the belief that Bukowski was obese when, in fact, he was 5’10” and as the coroner observed, weighed 172 pounds with no prior medical conditions. Bukowski, at 18, looked physically sound.
Berzerk had been on his mind from the moment he first saw the game. As Tom Blankley, community leader and former owner of Friar Tuck’s Game Room remembers, “Bukowski was on that game every chance he could get. Sometimes with a friend. But a lot of the time alone. He loved it. He was a real nice kid. Quiet and kind of shy. No Problems.”
For anyone who remembers the old Friar Tuck Game Room, it was a place of memorable good times. Themed like a medieval inn, with wrought iron lamps hanging from the ceiling and candle-light bulbs, stained glass windows and huge wooden doors as an entrance, it appeared as if Robin Hood and his Merry Men might be found enjoying a game of Joust inside. It was not, as some have reported over the years one of “those arcades”, where bad kids assembled smoking dope and causing trouble. It operated as a family style gaming parlor, offering complimentary coffee and donuts to parents accompanying children as well as fund raised many great community causes. It was not the kind of place one would expect a teenage boy to die. It was too clean. Too innocent. Too family oriented.
What happened on that snowy Saturday night, in 1982, is sketchy at best, contaminated by decades of added hearsay, newspaper reporting errors and convenient rewriting of “facts” that gave rise to an urban legend that persists to this day. But some clear facts do remain.
Prior to Bukowski arriving at Friar Tuck’s Game Room, he had complained to his friend, Burton“Ben” Everett, that he was feeling short of breath and thirsty. Stopping at a convenience store, Bukowski purchased a soda, drank it down quickly and the two continued on to the arcade.
Upon arriving at the arcade it became obvious to others in attendance that Bukowski was not well. Everett alleges Bukowski was laboring for breath but wanted to stay and play Berzerk anyway. Thinking he was just too hot from their long walk in the cold and snow, Bukowski removed his coat and began to play Berzerk. In less than 15-20 minutes he had played two games, both high scores, and put his initials in twice. On the last game, though, after putting in his initials, he stepped away from the game, took a few steps and collapsed. An arcade attendant rushed to his side and, noticing Bukowski was unresponsive, began CPR while an ambulance was called.
Bukowski was rushed to an Indiana hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival.
“It was so awful. Just such a tragedy,” Blankely, remembers. “My staff did what they could until the ambulance arrived. The attendant never left him and never stopped trying to revive him. But, for some reason, he couldn’t be brought back. That’s something I have never forgotten.”
Rumors spread immediately of Bukowski’s sudden death by Berzerk, making its way to schools and various arcades, prompting some operators, according to Blankely, to pull the game from the floor. Meanwhile, Bukowski’s family ordered an autopsy and what the coroner found was more surprising than what anyone could have ever expected. Unbeknownst to Bukowski’s parents, their son’s heart was riddled with scar tissue from an undiagnosed congenital condition.
Pediatric Cardiomyopathy (PC) has long been attributed to sudden heart failure in children and teens if left undiagnosed. Often having no symptoms, the child will often enter their teen years until a physically demanding exercise, like football or basketball, triggers a cardiac incident, often resulting in sudden death. Historically thousands of children have dropped on basketball courts and football fields across the world, momentarily baffling those around them as to what happened. There are several types of PC, and each form affects the heart muscle in different ways. But the rarest form is Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Cardiomyopathy (ARVC). As misfortune would have it, this is what Peter Bukowski had.
ARVC is caused by the death of healthy heart muscle and its replacement with scar tissue and fat. This results in a disorganized structure of heart muscle tissues causing abnormal electrical activities (arrhythmia) and problems with the heart’s contraction. Basically, Peter Bukowski’s heart was a ticking time bomb, and his physical exertion from walking miles in the snow, coupled with the caffeine in the soda he drank and his excitement at playing Berzerk, had been too much for his already damaged heart. In fact, the autopsy indicated he had had a mild heart attack three weeks before he died. It’s a good guess to surmise that today’s reports in the urban legend claiming Bukowski was obese came from the fact it was reported in autopsy reports that his heart was encased in a layer of fat -which it was. But this was not from being overweight but a result of ARVC.
Bukowski did not die from Berzerk. The game did not kill him. Evil Otto has no malevolent powers outside of his 8-bit bad-assedness. Bukowski just had the misfortune of having a bad heart.
But legends ache to be born, writhe beneath the surface of wonder and bloom in the minds of creative storytellers, like little rogue children clambering for the freedom of the streets. Such is the legend of Berzerk’s alleged hand in the death of Jeff Dailey, the game’s second victim, a ridiculous rumor that needs to be settled once and for all.
Jeff Dailey and the rumor of his “666 death” after playing Berzerk rose six months later (gotta love it) as a copycat story of The Bukowski Incident, after Video Game Magazine made mention of the death of Bukowski after playing Berzerk.
Post publication, the new legend was repeated in a small independent gaming magazine, called Video Ace, which released two issues in 1981 before going defunct. According to this publication 19-year old, Jeffrey Dailey, of Virginia, prior to Bukowski’s death, had suffered a massive heart attack on January 12, 1981, after playing Berzerk “for hours” and died at the scene. His ending score was allegedly 16,660, mysteriously containing the “number of the beast 666”, the biblical sign of The Devil.
But what is problematic, if not thoroughly cancels out any previous reports as evidence, is Jeffrey Dailey, aged 19, interned at Holly Lawn Cemetery in Suffolk City, VA, didn’t die playing Berzerk in January of 1981. He died in a car crash on May, 29, 1981 and had been nowhere near an arcade or a Berzerk machine.
Also, his score of 16,660 is not considered even by 80s standards to be that impressive of a score, let alone one that would take hours to accumulate. A good player can rack 16K up in under 20 minutes, 25 at the longest. Whoever wrote the initial story on Jeff Dailey was clearly not familiar with the game, Berzerk.
“There is no way possible to play hours on a game of Berzerk on one quarter and only get 16K,” observes Berzerk champion, Grant Theinemann. “If Evil Otto wasn’t a part of the game, I would then agree.”
In the 80s video craze era, people –and especially Hollywood– were eager to entertain the idea that video games had ethereal, supernatural powers, or were at least compelled to perpetuate those fallacies for profit. Technology was evolving at such an accelerated rate that with its propulsion came a certain level of public paranoia concerning if whether the future may see an Orwellian rise of machines take over mankind. You see this paranoid mindset over and over again in creative themes from The 80s, in movies and stories, like the short from Nightmares (1983), The Bishop of Battle or the movie, The Last Starfighter , where the protagonist finds himself chosen as a savior by an alien race from another world because he can beat a certain video game. In The Bishop of Battle, the protagonist finds himself being controlled by the game he seeks to beat. Tron exemplifies this paranoid concept completely as well, where the player becomes part of a game in a world where a program rules them all.
The urban legend of Polybius grew from such paranoid, if creative, ideologies as well.
Video game technologies, and just plain video games in The 80s, were something most members of the average public did not understand, with even more confusion surrounding how they affected people long term, especially children. No one knew just how video games, if ever, affected us. And to be frank, there simply was no way of even telling. 30 years later we’re still trying to figure that one out.
However, there is something to the Berzerk Legends. Something I found by complete accident. Perhaps not a supernatural manifestation, like a skull-faced ghost demon in the night, but there is some curious fog on the road of its history. For no other game in the history of the arcade catalog has as many myths surrounding it with actual facts as Berzerk does…including Polybius. And even more curious is that one of the most unknown events never written about is actually true.
I’ll give you the details of this true, little known story of Berzerk, when Weird Darkness returns.
Out of all the Berzerk Legends there is one of which few know anything about. Until now it has never been written about and only discussed in private conversations. The reason being is the memory of it is too painful for those who were there. Another reason is, the witnesses save two have been lost for over 30 years after the crash turned arcades into veritable ghost towns and people went their separate ways.
The other reason is, true tragic tales are often fogged in by an intentional act of mercy.
On an unusually warm Monday night, on March, 20, 1988, Edward Clark Jr., 17, of Lansing, IL, found himself at Friar Tuck’s Game Room, in Calumet City, the very same arcade that Bukowski had died at in 1982. Prior to arriving he had been hanging out for a while at the River Oaks Mall, across from Friar Tuck’s Game Room. The young man was no stranger to mischief having been already in trouble half a dozen times by the time he was 15. Nothing serious other than he had a problem with authority and an attitude to match. Having been selected to enlist in the Army Reserve’s Green Beret just days prior his mother was confident her son was moving in the right direction with his life.
Upon entering the arcade with his friends, Clark headed first for the Battlezone, had a few games, and then stepped to the Berzerk machine, the same one Bukowski had played. Seeing the game had a couple quarters up on the glass but no one around, Clark took a quarter, put it in the game and began to play. Someone immediately stepped from around a row of games, claiming ownership of the quarter (which was a lie) and wanting his money back. His name was Pedro Roberts and he was not someone you wanted to mess with for any reason, at any time.
At 16, Roberts was already showing distressing signs of a young man heading for early incarceration. He was street smart, tough and emotionally void of empathy when angered or engaged in conflict. Clark refused to give him his quarter back or get off the game. Some threats were thrown around, with Roberts demanding that Clark get off “or else”. Clark ignored him and kept playing the game. Robert’s then began a fight with one of Clark’s friends, pushing him in the chest. Some witnesses reported he pulled a knife and threatened Clarke and his friends with it, however court records claim the report of a knife inside the arcade was ruled out due to inconclusive evidence on grounds of hearsay.
“I’m not sure what happened between them prior, if there had been some bad blood for a while or what,” Tom Blankely, former owner of Friar Tuck’s recalls. “I remember someone saying Clark had stolen Roberts’ girl friend or something. I don’t know if that’s true. But whatever it was it got out of hand pretty quickly, and they beat each other up pretty good before we (the arcade security) kicked them all out.”
According to fragmented and conflicting incident reports, including testimony both from Blankely and a reported eye witness, the two young men got into an argument, then a fist fight over who had the right to play the game, Berzerk, or maybe just a swearing match. No one knows for sure. Court records report that Clarke stepped in to defend his friend being beat by Roberts. An arcade attendant on hand separated the two, and fearing it would escalate further if he kicked them both out at the same time, kept Clark inside as he sent Roberts off into the night. The attendant waited 10 minutes before he allowed Clark to leave, telling him to walk the opposite way. Edward Clark foolishly did not heed the attendant’s advice.
According to Blankely, Clark walked with his friends in the same direction where Roberts and his friends had gone and, hiding in an alleyway, Robert’s jumped out, ran across a small parking lot and attacked Clark, stabbing him with a knife in his chest. Not thinking he was seriously injured, Clark refused to allow his friends to drive him to a hospital until, moments later and near collapse, he was bundled into the back of a friend’s car and driven at high speed to an area hospital where he was pronounced dead shortly after from a stab wound in the heart. One witness claims he died in the backseat of the car.
Pedro Roberts was tried and convicted in May of 1990 after spending two years in jail pending trial. He was sentenced to prison for 11 years for the murder of Edward Clark Jr yet since his stabbing of Clark was ruled “self-defense” by the court (after Roberts made a plea deal) he was eligible for parole after serving only three years in prison.
Curiously enough, and more akin to the Polybius urban legend, Pedro Roberts served his sentence at Marion Prison in Southern Illinois, the prison that implemented a behavioral modification program entitled, Control and Rehabilitation Effort (CARE) beginning in 1968. Marion Prison pioneered lock-down techniques and sensory deprivation for the proliferation of mind-control experiments using young prisoners as guinea pigs.
Whether Roberts was subjected to these experiments is unknown. Given his young age upon incarceration it’s surely probable.
When Allen McNeil designed the game Berzerk in 1980, he claims he got the idea after having a dream in which he fought robots against a stark and colorless landscape. Reminiscent of the robot doomsday weapons in Fred Saberhagan’s 1967 science fiction series, Berzerkers, the game mimics the robot’s attempt to annihilate all living beings after taking control of its programmers. So it’s rather interesting to discover that without players having the knowledge found in a series of books, the game still managed to convey the very same thematic imagery to the public and turn it into legend; that the machine, or game, had the power to manipulate events outside its circuitry.
Even today, with the barrage of school and public shootings, video games have been blamed for their supposed manipulative effects, suspected of inciting violence, sexual debauchery and anti-social behaviors of every sort, just like nickelodeons, Swing music, television and rock and roll allegedly did before them. The paranoia of the video age of The 80s is alive and well in the 21st century as humans are still scrambling to make sense of what all this technology means to us, and more importantly, how it may affect us. Honestly, we may never know.
As human beings we search for the magical, the flamboyantly mythological and the seemingly malevolent as a way of coping with natural occurrences, negative and positive, that happen in our lives. It’s in our nature to seek blame for the dark and often cold, shadowy sides of our humanity, and pass it on so we don’t have to take the blame. We are flawed, amazingly flawed and so much so that we often can’t see our own or even the ones in others.
However the reality of it is this:
Video games are just video games.
They can’t make us do anything we aren’t already predisposed to.
We possess the controls that inhibit or exhibit our own actions.
We are the Berzerkers…We are The Machines.
Thanks for listening. If you like the show, please share it with someone you know who loves the paranormal or strange stories, true crime, monsters, or unsolved mysteries like you do! And please leave a rating and review of the show in the podcast app you listen from – doing so helps the show to get noticed! You can also email me anytime with your questions or comments through the website at WeirdDarkness.com. That’s also where you can find all of my social media, listen to free audiobooks, shop the Weird Darkness store, sign up for the newsletter to win monthly prizes, find my other podcast “Church of the Undead”, and more. Plus if you have a true paranormal or creepy tale to tell, you can click on TELL YOUR STORY – or call the DARKLINE toll free at 1-877-277-5944. That’s 1-877-277-5944.
All stories in Weird Darkness are purported to be true (unless stated otherwise) and you can find source links or links to the authors in the show notes.
“The Polybius Conspiracy” by Ryan Houlihan for InputMag.com
“The Berzerk Death Curse” by Cat DeSpira
WeirdDarkness™ – is a production and trademark of Marlar House Productions. Copyright, Weird Darkness.
Now that we’re coming out of the dark, I’ll leave you with a little light… “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” – Jeremiah 29:11
And a final thought… “Some people pay more attention to how much God doesn’t do for them than what He does do for them.” – Unknown
I’m Darren Marlar. Thanks for joining me in the Weird Darkness.