Pico-8 : An 8 bit fantasy console from the makers of Voxatron (IRN Cracktro special!)

For the last couple of weeks I've been playing around with a "fantasy console" from makers of voxatron, lexaloffle. This review was supposed to be a quick report of a cool looking toy I found for making retro style games and prototypes or game jam entries. It started with an innocent posting that made it to the front page of Hacker News, and a quick glance indicated it would be suitable fodder for Indie Retro News. A quick round up of what was going on with some screenshots. Yeah, I'd have this wrapped up in a day. What I didn't expect was what I discovered...

The first thing is that Pico-8 is quite pricey for typical indie 8-bit type stuff. $15. But it turns out that if you already have Voxatron, then pico-8 is included. Hmmm Voxatron. Yeah that sounds familiar... Oh yeah, way back in the early days of Humble Bundle was the Voxatron debut bundle which I happened to get (I bought virtually all of the HIB's for a long while) and sure enough there was a key to associate with a lexaloffle account, and Bingo! I was granted entry into the Pico-8 club.

P.A.T. Shooter
So What is it? A Fantasy Console. So What IS it?

Let's Karate
Pico-8 is a complete 2D game creation environment [code, sprite, map, SFX and music editors] for making games with very tight restrictions. The screen area is a scant 128x128 pixels, a total palette of only 16 colours, an audio device of 4 channels of pure chippy type sounds: square wave, sawtooth, triangle etc. with a med/ST like tracker to control it. no samples here. a maximum of 128 8x8 sprites which are also used to make up maps, a hard limited code size,  and a very cut down API of language functions that only cover the basics: basic math functionality (sin, cos, tan) graphics (filled/outline rect, circle, line, point) and string manipulation. The fantasy part is that it's intended to be thought of as an 8-bit console that never was. maybe existing alongside the NES or perhaps a handheld to compete with the gameboy color. In fact the early concept for the console was a project by lexaloffle's founder, Zep, called LEX500 and names in honour of the Amiga 500 "Though it was more like a Beeb [BBC Micro] than an amiga" says Zep.

Duangle cracktro

P8 has been set up to have all the code, gfx and sound/music for each game squeezed into a self contained 'cartridge' (actually a .png image file with everything encoded into it) and these can be passed around and loaded into P8 as such but they can also be embedded into a web page and posted in a playable form to the lexaloffle bbs (forum). Which brings me to the next point. The community around P8 is simply awesome. The way people have got on board this simple game creation tool is just phenomenal. There's a fantastic sharing of info, talent and completed games. Users who have a particular talent in one area are only too willing to help out others who are deficient in that area. be it coding, pixel art or music. There's even a pico-8 zine, acting as a focused source of info for getting started with the console.

Loading a game

In my quest to discover how easy it was to use, I started making a simple 8-bit style demoscene/cracktro, and while I had the basic sine scrolling text done in about half an hour, my inquisitiveness and thirst for more interesting effects led me deeper into the community. I was helped out getting 3D wireframes working (the trig functions work in a slightly odd way), glitching artifacts, and one user @pizzamakesgames made a fantastic, crazy, bleepy soundtrack for it, for no other reason than he can, and enjoys doing it.

Reset Reset
Pause Pause
Fullscreen Fullscreen
Toggle Sound Sound

(click in the demo area and press X to play)


Ok enough waffling about what it IS, what can it do? Firstly, as mentioned previously, all the games can be distributed as png carts and loaded into P8 directly, or they can be embedded into web pages with a web player (see above). Most of the carts are posted into the lexaloffle BBS (forum) and are all playable directly on the forum page.

And it's a total hive of activity with many gamejam entries, proof of concepts, experiments, music samplers, and other snippets of useful code all being shared and it's always in flux. But here are the highlights so far:

Across the River is a "Get all the things safely across the river" puzzle but with 7 entities and some complex interaction rules like: wolf will eat the monkey if he can't hide when your player character is not around.

Alien Abduction reverses the usual take of defending the humans against the incoming invasion. instead YOU are the abductor.

Celeste is a HARD hardcore platformer (BTW did I say it was hard?) in a similar vein to super meatboy. Jumps and bounces and many, many deaths will ensue

Dusk Child is a very polished puzzle/adventure/platform game where the goal is to re-activate the temple. It's not hugely long or challenging for seasoned adventurers but is a definite shining example of what can be achieved with such sparse resources.

Lemmtris for pico-8 is the latest incarnation of movAX13h's pet project of a fusion between (wait for it...) Lemmings and Tetris, which has existed on various platforms since 1996! The aim is to save the dumb lemmings by dropping tetris shapes into the arena that they can climb over to safety.

Stories at the Dawn is an atmospheric multi-ending silhouette platformer with bags of charm

Pico-man. a very nice and faithful port of a classic. 'nuff said

BLD or Boulderdash like. it's a boulderdash clone and it's very faithful. It's also entered in october's ludumdare, so give it a play ;)

Picoracer-2048. A 2D de-make of another well known classic. slick doesn't even do it justice

Rabu Rabu Monster. A hard-as-nails horizontal scrolling platformer where you can destroy the all the humans

Tempest is a procedurally generated survival game, which although technically a WIP, has most of what's needed for a fully playable game.

Terrain Renderer is a stunning example of some of the non-game concepts being shown off. remember that P8 doesn't have any programming features to make realtime 3D rendering easily possible, which makes this renderer all the more impressive

Tower of Archeros. I'm still trying to understand this one. It's appears like a match three game but it most certainly isn't, and is like nothing I've played before. There are battle elements and the goal is to climb the tower. I'm still figuring out how to do that! again this is highly polished with a beautiful spriteset.
All of the above can be played on the web by clicking on the cartridge images or links above.

Honourable mentions and WIP's

Passengers - A Ludumdare 33 entry where the theme was "You are the monster". You get to decide which immigrants get to come on your boat to safety.

Hollow Seeker - Simple side scroller where you have to hide in gaps in the scenery when it tries to crush you.

Kingslayers - A mini RPG/roguelike

TMNT episode 1 - Still only a playable demo, already showing promise with some very nice character animation.

Succer - a WIP soccer/football game is the style of Sensible soccer

Fazaa - 3D wireframe shooter WIP with a definite source of inspiration

Canvas Vector Drawing - Create vector based drawings!

Of course the scene is rapidly evolving and I've barely scratched the surface. There's games, tech demos, experiments and music only carts, with new carts appearing all the time. It seems like Pico-8 is a perfect storm of simplicity and accessibility, and like a lot of the community, I've totally fallen in love with it.

1) pico-8 homepage 2) pico-8 zine 3) Pico-8 cartridges 4) pico-8 on twitter


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