The Cult Of PICO-8

The ‘fan­tasy con­sole’ invit­ing game-mak­ers to search for suc­cess by scal­ing down


The ‘fan­tasy con­sole’ invit­ing game-mak­ers to search for suc­cess by scal­ing down their ap­proach

PICO-8 has ev­ery­thing you’d ex­pect from a con­sole. It has tech­ni­cal spec­i­fi­ca­tions, car­tridges, de­vel­oper tools, a ded­i­cated fan­base, and con­sole-ex­clu­sive games. All that’s miss­ing is the con­sole. Cre­ator Joseph White calls PICO-8 a ‘fan­tasy con­sole’. In re­al­ity, it’s a piece of soft­ware that runs on your computer, or in a browser, or on a tiny computer such as a Rasp­berry Pi. The car­tridges, mean­while, are ac­tu­ally just cute pixel-art images of car­tridges that se­cretly hold all of the game’s code, in­clud­ing graph­ics and au­dio, in their meta­data.

Like a con­sole, PICO-8 has strict lim­i­ta­tions on what it can de­liver. Games out­put at a boxy 128x128 res­o­lu­tion, which is slightly smaller than the orig­i­nal Game Boy screen, while the 32-kilo­byte car­tridge size is iden­ti­cal to that of Sega’s old Mas­ter Sys­tem cards.

Be­cause it can dis­play just 16 colours, which come from a pre­de­ter­mined pal­ette, and out­put mu­sic from only four chan­nels, games made for the con­sole have a dis­tinct, in­stantly recog­nis­able feel, re­mind­ing you how NES and Mas­ter Sys­tem games felt unique, while PS4 and Xbox One games are prac­ti­cally in­dis­tin­guish­able.

The spe­cific lim­i­ta­tions are in­spired by the tech­nol­ogy White grew up with. “I pinched ideas from var­i­ous older ma­chines,” he ex­plains, “and the choices were driven by a com­bi­na­tion of see­ing how those for­mats panned out over time and also just what in­tu­itively felt right”.

The 16-colour pal­ette is in­spired by his Com­modore 64, the four-chan­nel au­dio is based on an Amiga mu­sic maker he used called Pro­tracker, and the res­o­lu­tion “was in­spired partly by a par­tic­u­lar old blurry seven-inch TV that I use to play Fam­i­com games”.

Play­ing PICO-8 soft­ware is a straight­for­ward process: just down­load a PNG of the car­tridge, put it in the right folder, then type “RUN” fol­lowed by the game’s name on the PICO-8 com­mand line. But the fan­tasy con­sole also houses a full set of de­vel­oper tools, al­low­ing you to cre­ate games of your own de­sign. The built-in stu­dio is

adorably min­i­mal­ist: there’s a sim­ple text area for writ­ing code (based on the pro­gram­ming lan­guage Lua), a tiny paint pro­gram for draw­ing sprites and tiles, an area for turn­ing those tiles into a map, and a tracker for mak­ing mu­sic along­side an­other for sound ef­fects.

Ev­ery­thing is strictly lim­ited – most strin­gently the code, which forces you to fit your en­tire game into about 8,000 to­kens, or words. “I spent most of my pro­gram­ming time try­ing to op­ti­mise my code so I could fit new fea­tures in,” says So­phie Houlden, cre­ator of the enig­matic PICO-8 ad­ven­ture Dusk Child. “Of­ten I would add a fea­ture and find my­self way over the to­ken limit, so I would have to de­cide which fea­tures I re­ally wanted to keep and which had to go”.

That isn’t a com­plaint, though. “I think it was a case of the con­sole help­ing rather than hin­der­ing,” Houlden says. “It lim­ited what I could do, but it also forced me to de­cide which fea­tures were most im­por­tant to me, so the game is more honed than it other­wise would have been.”

White likens the to­ken limit to a haiku – a form of po­etry with a re­stric­tive word count. This acts as a start­ing point for creators, and pro­vides them with a unique chal­lenge. “And if enough peo­ple do it,” White says, “you end up with this shared ex­pe­ri­ence be­tween au­thors and read­ers about what it means to write po­etry in that for­mat. But the sub­space of pos­si­bil­i­ties in the for­mat is still huge and in­ter­est­ing”.

And for Tow­er­fall cre­ator Matt Thor­son, who worked with Noel Berry on the stand­out PICO-8 plat­former

Ce­leste, “it puts to rest that part of my brain that wants to make the best game ever and lets me just make a game that’s good at what it does. It forces me to zero in on a small idea and ex­plore what I love about it at a fun­da­men­tal level”. The game took only four days to make, but Thor­son says “mak­ing Ce­leste in PICO-8 was so in­spir­ing, and left us with so many ideas, that we’re mak­ing a much larger, full-fea­tured ver­sion of Ce­leste out­side of PICO-8, for PC and con­soles”.

The lim­i­ta­tions also let devel­op­ers avoid things that few coders want to deal with, such as com­pil­ing and im­port­ing, and futz­ing with shaders and set­tings – parts of the process that can stress out some de­sign­ers. “For me, when I’m work­ing in, say, Unity, I can do just about any­thing, which also means all the things I don’t do are my re­spon­si­bil­ity too,” Houlden says. But with PICO-8, “I spend more time wor­ry­ing about what I need to cut to make a game ac­cept­able than what I need to add”.

Lim­i­ta­tions also nat­u­rally en­cour­age the smartest coders to push against – and through – the bound­aries. “Old-school pro­gram­mers and de­mosceners im­me­di­ately jumped on the chance to do ridicu­lous things with PICO-8 like mak­ing 3D en­gines and video en­coders,” White says.

If you’re a new pro­gram­mer, though, don’t de­spair. One clever as­pect of PICO-8’s ap­proach is that every game is open source, so you can open up the code of any­thing you down­load to see how it’s put to­gether. If Ce­leste is too tough, you could crack open the game, find the code for the game’s grav­ity, and re­duce the num­ber to give you a much higher jump. It’s cheat­ing, sure, but it gives you in­sight into how Thor­son and Berry put their plat­former to­gether.

Or you could turn to the PICO-8 zine: a pop­u­lar PDF and print mag­a­zine stuffed with tu­to­ri­als and ex­am­ple code, charm­ingly rem­i­nis­cent of the type-in pro­grams listed in home computer mag­a­zines of the ’70s and ’80s.

Ed­i­tor Ar­naud de Bock cu­rated the ar­ti­cles af­ter fac­ing “a blank con­sole with a blink­ing cur­sor, and a readme


The $50 Pock­etCHIP comes with PICO-8 in­stalled, and fea­tures a 480x272 LED back­lit dis­play, a QWERTY key­board, a hole that turns a pen­cil into a handy stand, and space for a lan­yard so you can sling it round your neck

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