So the Anbernic RG35XX (and GarlicOS) sent me down a rabbit hole of searching for games, and somehow I came across PICO-8. The simplest explanation is that PICO-8 is a fantasy console for making, sharing and playing tiny games and other computer programs. To expand on that, it’s a virtual machine and game engine created by Lexaloffle Games. It is a fantasy video game console that mimics the limited graphical and sound capabilities of 8-bit systems of the 1980s.
One of the reasons I got the RG35XX is that I wanted to disconnect from the computer and phone and just focus on something (in this case, playing games) and while playing Tetris (again) and discovering (for the time) all sorts of old Game Boy games is a blast, PICO-8 is something special. These are my observations about PICO-8 and games made with it.
PICO-8 games tend to focus on game play and not flashy graphics. Some games are simple, some are complex. Some are recreations of old games and some are new (?) ideas that haven’t been done before.
There’s a community of people sharing what they make. I wanted to say “people” and not “game developers” because while people who make games might be “game developers” I think there are also just regular people who like making games and sharing them and might not think of themselves as “game developers” in the traditional sense of a “software developer”. The Lexaloffle BBS is basically a feed of “hey, here’s a new game I finished, or I’ve been working on, or my progress so far” and you can check stuff out.
You can play the PICO-8 games in a web browser, and they all seem to be free of ads. You don’t need to visit an app store, pay for a game, give it permission to read all sorts of information about you… you don’t even need to sign up for an account or enter a credit card.
I started doing web development in the mid-1990s and “view-source” was how we learned things. PICO-8 has view-source! You can click the little ‘code’ button and see the code. You can copy and learn from the code, and modify it, and fix it, and… it’s refreshing to be able to do that.
`For the RG35XX there is not an official way to run the real PICO-8, but there’s Fake-08, which has the goal of making PICO-8 games run on platforms that aren’t officially supported. So you won’t see Fake-08 for Windows, macOS, Linux, Raspberry Pi, or for the web. It just fills the gaps left by Lexaloffle.
As you may have guessed when I mentioned the view-source thing above, I have already dabbled with writing code in PICO-8. I don’t know that I’ll ever actually release anything, but hey, it is bringing fun back to programming for me. (For anyone who has written code for themselves/for fun, and for others/for work, you probably know what I mean.) When I was a kid in the 1980s I tried writing an adventure game on the Apple ][+ completely in BASIC. It was fun at first but quickly became frustrating as the lines of code added up and what I wanted to do surpassed my programming abilities of the time. I could probably totally write that game with PICO-8 today.
I should mention that the Anbernic RG35XX may not be the ideal handheld console for PICO-8 games. There are handhelds that can run the official version of PICO-8 (instead of Fake-08) and you just need to load the Raspberry Pi version onto the device. (PICO-8 is $15 for the official runtime, but if you consider you get access to thousands of games it seems like a deal.) Some handhelds also have wifi, which means you can run splore which is basically a browser (or “app store”) for games. You can also run splore in the browser or desktop version of PICO-8 and it’s the best way to check out a zillion games to see what you like.