The Truth: Pong was released in 1972 as an arcade game, and was definitely one of the first videogames to have any sort of commercial success. Even now it’s a household name, though many people haven't played it. Beating it by a year however was the arcade game Computer Space, which released in 1971 to moderate success. Computer Space is considered the first arcade game, though it is worth noting that Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabne – the creators – did go on to found Atari, the company behind Pong.
Even Computer Space wasn’t the first videogame though, just the first popular one. Computer Space was based off Spacewar, a 1962 project from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was programmed by Steve Russell and several others, but would continuously be improved on later by students and university employees. It wasn’t easy to get your hands on though, and if you didn’t have connections to a handful of different universities, you wouldn’t have a chance to play it. Hence why Computer Space and Pong are much more well known.
Earlier than even 1962 is Tennis for Two. Playable in 1958 at the Brookhaven Library, there is no doubt that Tennis for Two was a game, but questions arise as to if it counts as a videogame. It was played through an oscilloscope, powered by analogue computers. These fed an image to the oscilloscope of a bouncing ball. Add a net and two controllers, and you’re looking at a brand new experience that proved very popular at Brookhaven Library. Legally, to be counted as a videogame however, there must be some sort of video signal manipulation, of which Tennis for Two lacked.
Videogame or not, it’s easy to see where the idea for Pong came from.
The Truth: Reaching the flag indicated the end of a Super Mario Bros level, yet some players obviously wanted more. Rumour floated around for years that if you jumped in just the right way, at just the right time, you could manoeuver Mario over the flagpole. Supposedly, you could do this on every level.
It just isn’t true. The levels weren’t designed to allow you that sweet flag-avoiding glory. Except, where there’s a will there’s a way, and while you weren’t designed to leap the flagpole, you technically can in two levels. When playing World 1-1 on a wide screen, you can take advantage of the horizontal and vertical looping techniques to make the jump.
World 3-3 however is the only world you can leap a flagpole in. By using a platform on a string you can gain the extra height to pass over the pole. Then you get to spend the next however-long running around doing nothing until timer runs out and Mario dies, making you play the level again.
Hey – you win some, you lose some.
The Truth: The rumour here is that Bill Gates hid a secret program in Windows 95 that took you through a sort of mini-game of horrors. Bloody halls, weird messages, and unsettling music.
Bill Gates is many things, but I think we all know that he’s not a devil worshipper. Or if he is, he has the sense to not bring that into his business. Of course there was no secret program hidden in Windows 95.
It was in Excel 95. Here’s how you accessed it.
The program was called the Hall of Tortured Souls and featured several disturbing rooms, narrow bridges, and – worst of all – images of the programmers that worked on Excel 95.
While the Hall of Tortured Souls does exist, it doesn’t have any of the aforementioned bloody halls, weird messages, or unsettling music. This easter egg was left by the programmers because – let’s face it – no one ever reads who created any of the Microsoft Office programs.
The Truth: Polybius was supposedly an arcade game from 1981. It has never been proven to actually exist, and is generally believed to be an urban legend. But what a legend it is.
It goes that Polybius suddenly appeared in several Portland arcades. It was addictively good, and had queues to play it. Despite being popular, it disappeared a month later with no trace of it to ever surface again. The game was meant to have caused severe psychoactive effects, such as insomnia, hallucinations and amnesia. Men in black suits were also said to have visited the arcade cabinets regularly, to collect unknown information.
Men in black suits means only one thing of course; the government was experimenting on people via videogames. The experiments ranged from subliminal messaging to brainwashing. It’s worth noting that Polybius shares a name with a Greek historian, who was known for firmly believing that nothing should be recorded as history until there was sufficient proof via interviews and witnesses. Something which this urban legend lacks.
American author Brian Dunning looked into Polybius in 2013 and raises several alternative ideas surrounding it. While he firmly believes that Polybius didn’t exist, it does have a few things in common with events that happened around the same time. Another game called Tempest released in the same year as Polybius, and supposedly had issues with vertigo, and photosensitive epilepsy.
Dunning believed that the Polybius rumours started with exaggerated reports of the effects of Tempest. This was combined with a couple of gamers falling ill in arcades in Portland; one with a migraine, another with stomach pains after trying to beat a world record for playing Asteroids.
Shortly after these illnesses was another incident. Apparently several arcades were raided by FBI during an investigation of gambling. In preparation of the raid, several FBI agents were said to have checked arcade cabinets for tampering, and recorded several high score tables.
It all mixes together rather well, and with no actual proof that Polybius existed (such as a patent), it’s pretty safe to say that this myth is just that.
But who knows, stranger things have happened.