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 LIMITATIONS FORCED ME TO DECIDE WHICH FEATURES WERE MOST IMPORTANT TO ME”