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At the height of its power, Atari seemed to be able to do no wrong. It was the King of Video Games, but its time on the throne was borrowed against cheap, third-party games (and of sometimes even poorer quality) that flooded the market alongside a heavy handed hubris with retailers and developers that Nintendo would reputedly imitate to some extent later.

It wasn’t so much a mystery in seeing E.T. buried in a New Mexico landfill as it was a monument to a company’s decline. After all, the New York Times and Alamogordo Daily Mail had both reported on the event back in ’83. Since then, however, it had transformed into a kind of mythic enterprise, a cultural pop legend that grew larger and larger with every telling.

But gaming’s history is riddled plenty with legends and myths of its own, some weirder than others, and here are four more that have become legendary in their own way — and are still waiting to be answered.

The Arcade Game from the CIA

(image credit: International Arcade Museum via Wikipedia)

Above: Wikipedia says this is a “supposed” image of the game, but no one has been able to corroborate whether it’s real or a clever mock up.

With that America’s Army FPS and talk about the NSA masquerading as players in World of Warcraft, neither of these are the first time that the government has been tied to video games.

Polybius can also attest to that. Or would if anyone could find concrete proof if it really was some kind of government experiment that melted the sanity of whoever played it. Unlike its namesake’s insistence on historical fact, the story behind Polybius is something of the opposite.

So what was Polybius? It supposedly appeared in Portland, Oregon, in 1981, and was apparently the Flappy Bird of the local scene, drawing in lines of players. According to an anonymous posting in 1998 on which sparked renewed interest in the game:

The bizarre rumors about this game are that it was supposedly developed by some kind of weird military tech offshoot group, used some kind of proprietary behavior modification algorithms developed for the CIA or something, kids who played it woke up at night screaming, having horrible nightmares.

According to an operator who ran an arcade with one of these games, guys in black coats would come to collect “records” from the machines. They’re not interested in quarters or anything, they just collected information about how the game was played.

The game was weird looking, kind of abstract, fast action with some puzzle elements, the kids who played it stopped playing games entirely, one of them became a big anti videogame crusader or something. We’ve contacted one person who met him, and he claims the machines disappeard after a month or so and no one ever heard about them again.

Since then, its reputation began branching out into a variety of hoaxes, half-truths, and even mock-ups based on supposed descriptions of the game. It was even spoofed in an episode of The Simpsons.

So did it really exist? No one is really sure, but skeptics such as Brian Dunning over on Skeptoid argue that the urban legend is likely an amalgam of several events that went on in the early ’80s arcade scene.

A few isolated incidents where players suffered ill effects from playing arcade games such as a 12-year old playing Asteroids for 28 hours until he “bowed out with stomach discomfort, attributed to anxiety and all the Coke he drank” to another player suffering migraine headaches over playing Tempest contributed to the impression that video games were somehow harmful to play. This was also the ’80s when games like Dungeons & Dragons were being attacked as recruitment tools for Satan.

On the other hand, others insist Polybius exists, with photos of reputed cabinets mysteriously showing up from time to time. There are even one or two homebrew games built around what is speculated about Polybius. To this day, people are still wondering whether or not it’s another legend gone wild … or gaming’s own Priory of Zion.

Wizardry VIII: The Storage Locker of Ogdensburg

The Wizardry VIII that we know today wasn’t supposed to be the same Wizardry that Brenda Romero and her team had worked on in Canada.

According to the RPG Codex, the next Wizardry was outsourced to distributor, DirectSoft, in Australia instead. That was because longtime Wizardry designer D.W. Bradley and his team had left the building in the early ’90s. That also left Sir-Tech with a problem if they wanted to make a sequel to Wizardry VII.

It was to be called Wizardry VIII: Stones of Arnhem, but little else had been revealed on this version of Wizardry that was ultimately canceled. That is, until fairly recently towards the end of 2012.

As the Codex’s article explains, the Australian production’s development team was made up of an actor, a filmmaker, and programmers Michael Shamgar and Cleveland Mark Blakemore.

The epic thread paints the Stones of Arnhem as a bizarre mix of “genital” monsters, design woes, and broken promises. But it’s a fascinating read all the same. As to the degree of which pieces are true or not, that’s up to the reader to decide.

So it’s probably not surprising that there were doubters on whether Stones of Arnhem was actually a real thing until an eBayer under the moniker “Hotalibi” showed up in the thread claiming to have bought at auction a storage locker crammed with materials from Sir-Tech’s old Ogdensburg HQ.

Packed in with a host of other relics were the original design materials for Stones of Arnhem and to prove it, Hotalibi began posting scanned images of some of what was found. From a video game preservation perspective, it was a bombshell find — a lost cache of materials from one of CRPG’s iconic studios. Hotalibi wasn’t even a regular at the Codex — he (or she) dealt more with antiquities. This person found their way to the Codex by searching for info on this odd find and found people on the forums who were all too happy to help out, especially after the scans started coming in proving that Stones of Arnhem was real.

And it was all going up in batches on eBay.

Along with a few Codex members, the Museum of Computer Adventure Game History managed to snag some of that content and posted it up on their site to help preserve it. But the forum also noted that someone in particular was placing huge bids on certain pieces. An expensive race was roaring to life on eBay over Sir-Tech’s bones.

I say ‘managed,’ because shortly afterward, a number of the auctions were suddenly canceled, and the next batch never went up as far as I was able to tell. Speculation ran rampant on why — or who — might have been responsible for making Hotalibi cancel them prematurely — including the potential legal ramifications over the sensitivity of some of the other documents included in the haul. From what could be seen in the auctions, there was quite a bit of material covering Sir-Tech’s internal history from the ’80s onwards through ledgers and meeting notes.

So what happened to the rest of the trove? No one is sure, even today, although the Codex managed to preserve a few of the pics taken of the materials in question, saving what they could from disappearing into someone’s private collection. Or another storage locker.

Ultima VIII: The Lost Gold Master

Pagan: Ultima VIII was a heavily divisive game.

In reminiscing about it, I suggested that it was probably the “universal ammo” moment for the series to many longtime fans who grew up with the statistics heavy and party oriented mechanics of the previous titles. There’s a reason why some had gone so far as to call it “Super Avatar Bros.”, and no, that wasn’t a compliment. A patch had even gone out to make the platforming jumps easier to execute.

So it was big surprise to me when I learned years later that EA (who, by then, owned Origin) had actually planned an add-on for the ill-received game. After all, the popular Ultima VII had gotten its own add-on with the Forge of Virtue which tagged in a few more hours of side questing play along with The Silver Seed for Ultima VII: Part Two.

Unfortunately, back at Origin, the developers assigned to it were less than thrilled. As designer and author, Sheri Graner Ray, explains in a posting on her personal site in remembering her time on The Lost Vale:

It was after Ultima 8 shipped and we were exhausted. Warren Spector called me, Lisa Smith, Rob Corell into his office to tell us we were on the U8 add on. I will be honest and say we were NOT thrilled. We’d all had just about enough of U VIII and wanted to move on. But, it was a chance to do stuff, so we did it.

Sheri Graner Ray goes on to explain the finer points of what The Lost Vale included ranging from a soldier with PTSD that the Avatar could help to a tribe of NPCs that talked like Yoda. There was also a mystery surrounding missing gods and a city that slept atop a mountain (which you had to get through via a jumping puzzle).

At the end, as she explains, “Lost Vale was finaled and gold mastered” after a three month development period, and then, right before it was sent out to the publisher, it was canned.

Warren Spector broke the news to them citing the low sales of Ultima VIII. Over at Dino’s Guide to Ultima VIII, you can see a number of odds and ends on The Lost Vale collected together, including photos of the box art which apparently sold on eBay for the princely sum of $1,923 in 2005. Denis Loubet, the Origin artist responsible for much of the art on Ultima’s boxes and many of the games, confirmed that the box was the real deal.

The Ultima Codex, the fan-driven repository for all things Ultima, had also managed to get scans of the plot docs for the expansion that you can view at their site or download as PDFs. But what about the gold master?

Sadly, according to an interview that Sheri Graner Ray did for Gamesbanshee in March, 2013, she has little faith that it was archived, underscoring one of the problems video game preservation often faces when it comes to digging up the past — that companies may not have that in mind when they move from project to project.

Atari’s Crown Jewels

Above: The Chalice was life-sized, standing at “seven to eight inches tall” with the platinum cup “three or four inches” wide, making it some of the most precious gaming swag ever made.

As I mentioned at the start, Atari at the peak of its power seemed insurmountable. It was like staring into the black plastic face of an Atari Titan without any weaknesses as it pummeled shelves with amazing box art. Even a questionable Pac-Man port couldn’t stop this juggernaut alone.

It also seemed to be able to print money almost at will. That translated into titanic profits especially after Space Invaders became the killer app for the console in 1980, quadrupling sales seemingly overnight. In 1982, a year before the video game market’s fortunes turned, they launched a mega contest promising $150,000 in prizes with Swordquest.

Swordquest was planned out as a series of four games: EarthWorld, FireWorld, WaterWorld, and AirWorld. Though none of the puzzles in the games made a whole lot of sense by themselves, the included comics by DC explained what the stories were all about as well as provided key clues on discerning the hidden phrase buried in the games.

Players sent back proof after which Atari would invite, expenses paid, the winners to compete in a contest to determine a particular title’s champion. The games were also pretty tough because of how obscure the challenges were. For example, 4,000 entries claiming to have found the right answer were sent in the EarthWorld contest, but only eight people had actually put together the correct phrase from the clues.

And forget gold cartridges. This loot was actually made out of the stuff..

According to Scott Stilphen’s article over at 2600 Connection, each game had a prize attached to it worth $25,000 each (though as Stilphen notes, the first two prizes were actually estimated afterwards to be worth a bit less). A fifth prize would be awarded in one final contest to determine the ultimate winner from the four champions – a life-sized sword with a platinum blade and jeweled, gold hilt worth $50,000 patterned after the Sword of Ultimate Sorcery from the story behind the games as told by the comics.

Scans of the ad campaign are listed over at Stilphen’s article along with rare photos of the actual prizes – well, three of them anyway. Altogether, the prizes were:

  • For EarthWorld, a Talisman made out of 18kt “solid gold” and “studded with twelve diamonds and twelve other precious stones”. At its center was a small sword made out of “white gold” finishing it off.
  • For FireWorld, a Chalice made out of “platinum and gold, glistening with rubies, sapphires, diamonds, and pearls”.
  • For WaterWorld, a gold Crown “encrusted with diamonds, rubies, sapphires, green tourmalines, and aquamarines”
  • For AirWorld, a mock Philosopher’s Stone (apparently a chunk of white jade) “encased in an 18kt gold box studded with emeralds, rubies, diamonds, and citrines.”

The contest was never completed.

Above: The EarthWorld Talisman was a pretty big chunk of change –about $15,000 worth, far short of the $25,000 value boasted by Atari’s marketing. Winner, Stephen Bell, kept the sword but melted the rest down to pay for school.

In an interview over at Digitpress by John Hardie, Michael S. Rideout (winner of the FireWorld contest) recounts that the prizes do exist — he saw them himself as they were displayed under heavy guard at the FireWorld contest. He also notes that he has no idea what became of the Crown, the Philosopher’s Stone, or the biggest prize of all — the Sword of Ultimate Sorcery.

Atari decided to simply pay off the winners when they announced that the contest was ending prematurely, so instead of duking it out one final time, wrote checks to both Rideout and the champion of EarthWorld $15,000 apiece (and included an Atari 7800 with their choice of games) with the WaterWorld finalists earning $2,000 as consolation prizes. AirWorld just never was.

As the interview bears out, the EarthWorld Talisman was ultimately melted down by winner, Stephen Bell, for the metals and jewels. The Chalice is still kept by Rideout in a bank and looks pretty gorgeous. But as for the Crown, Philosopher’s Stone, and the Sword, who can say?

Speculation suggested that they eventually fell into the hands of Jack Tramiel, the father of the Commodore 64 and who had purchased Atari’s home console and computer divisions in ’84. Yet he had neither confirmed or denied that he or his family actually have them, leaving that a big question mark. Jack Tramiel passed away in 2012 at the age of 83.

They could also have been scrapped for their value by Atari. Or maybe they’re still in a vault somewhere, lost and forgotten, as Sir-Tech’s own past was, waiting for someone to rediscover them.