Trying the PICO-8

I got myself a little present for Christmas. The PICO-8. The PICO-8 is a fantasy console, which is an emulator for a console that doesn’t exist. The PICO-8 comes with its own development and runtime environment, packaged into a single slick application with a beautiful aesthetic.

The PICO-8 sprite editor with some sprites for an animation of a pigeon pecking the ground.

It also comes with a pretty strict set of constraints in which to work your magic.

Display: 128x128 16 colours
Cartridge size: 32k
Sound: 4 channel chip blerps (I assume this is an industry term)
Code: P8 Lua
CPU: 4M vm insts/sec
Sprites: 256 8x8 sprites
Map: 128x32 tiles

The constraints are appealing. Modern development at big companies sometimes seems like being at an all-you-can-eat buffet with the company credit card. Run out of CPU? Your boss can fix that with whatever the best new MacBook is. Webserver process eating RAM like candy? Doesn’t matter, that’s what automatic load balancers and infinite horizontal scaling is for.

With the PICO-8, there appears to be no such negotiation. There’s something liberating about this. By putting firm limits on the scope of what you can create, you know when to stop. If you hit the limit, you know you have to either admit that the project is as done as it’s going to get, or you need to refine or remove something that’s already there. Infinite potential is both a luxury and a curse.

What you get is what you get, and what you get is enough for a wide community of enthusiasts to create some beautiful and entertaining games that you can play directly in the browser, in your own copy of PICO-8, or on one of several fan-made hardware solutions.

The PICO-8 website with a selection of games to play directly in the browser.

My favourite feature is actually secondary to the main function of the console. Cartridges can be exported as PNG files, with game data steganographically hidden within. Each one of the below files is a playable cartridge that can be loaded into the PICO-8 console.

A folder of PICO-8 cartridges.

There’s something tactile that didn’t fully transfer from cartridge to CD and definitely didn’t transfer from CD to digital download. You can’t quite argue that a folder of PNGs isn’t a digital download, but somewhere in the dusty corners of my memory, I recall the sound of plastic rattling against plastic and a long day of zero responsibility ahead.

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