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What Is PICO-8?

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PICO-8 is a virtual machine that runs simple, retro-style games. It has purposely restricted hardware specs including a 128×128 resolution and 32k program size.

You can download and play PICO-8 “cartridges”, but you can also write your own games from scratch. It’s a great tool for game developers learning to program their first game.


PICO-8 in a Nutshell

The PICO-8 “fantasy console” is a basic but full-featured game development environment. It’s not one of the physical retro consoles that you can buy, but a virtual console. PICO-8 is fully implemented in software that you can install on Windows, Mac, or Linux.

You can play many PICO-8 games for free, but to build your own, you’ll need to download the PICO-8 console. It costs $15 and is available from its itch.io home page.

What Does PICO-8 Look Like?

When you run the PICO-8 app, you’ll see a screen that looks like this:

This mimics the screen that 8-bit home computers, like the Commodore 64, used to show on boot. It’s essentially a REPL (Read-Eval-Print loop), a command line that you can use to interact with the PICO-8 interpreter itself. You can use it to type code snippets and experiment with the language.

This command line also supports several commands to interact with PICO-8 programs. You can use the LOAD command to open a different game and RUN to start playing it.

For a peek behind the scenes, press ESC to toggle between the command line and the IDE. The IDE provides several different tools to help you create your games.

Coding

Possibly the most important tool is a code editor to write and edit your programs. Notice how the code editor uses the same low-res screen, pixel font, and limited color palette that belong to all PICO-8 games. It’s fine to get started with, but you’ll probably want to use a proper text editor for more complicated projects.

Graphics

The second icon in the top-right toolbar opens a sprite designer. This lets you create in-game graphics for your player and other characters. You can hone your pixel-art skills and create 8×8 images in 16 colors. PICO-8 uses a sprite map, so with a bit of trickery, you can create smaller sprites or combine them for bigger ones.

You can also use PICO-8’s map editor (the third toolbar icon) to manage your game’s graphics. It can help you design your game’s overall environment or work with more complicated sprite patterns.

Sound

PICO-8 also features a built-in sound editor. It gives you full control over volume, pitch, and speed to compose your own effects. You can even make use of eight rudimentary instruments to alter the type of sound you can produce. Like many of PICO-8’s tools, the sound editor has a learning curve, but is surprisingly powerful once you master it.

The fifth icon, and final section in the PICO-8 IDE, is a music editor. You can use it to combine and loop sound effects, slowly building up a full score for your game.

What Games Does PICO-8 Play?

There are many PICO-8 games on itch.io, and you can play most of them right in your browser, for free. PICO-8 is very popular with game jams: events that challenge developers to create a game in a short space of time. You’ll often see game jams promoted on Twitter.

PICO-8 is also a great option for prototyping a game, to see how well it works in reality. The biggest success story of this approach has been Celeste. The prototype of this acclaimed indie hit is available as a PICO-8 cartridge on the developer’s itch.io page.

Grab PICO-8 Then Go Create

The PICO-8 virtual console is a big success story in the world of indie game dev. Not only can you use it to learn how to develop your own game, you can also play a host of quality free games that others have produced.

PICO-8’s underlying language is Lua, which is often used for game development, or related tasks. So skills you pick up using PICO-8 are also transferable outside of it.



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