PICO-8 Favorite Games

I’m going to start off saying I have very little history as a “gamer” when it comes to knowing what the classics are, what came before, and what things are based on. (I don’t even know all the genres.) In many cases I didn’t even read up on these games, I just grabbed the carts and started playing.

All of these games can be found at the PICO-8 web site. I’ve provided links to each below. I play them on an Anbernic RG35XX handheld console, but you can play them on the desktop or in a browser.

A Hat on Time
This game is a blast. It’s a platformer, of which there are many in the PICO-8 world. This is one where you don’t die, or… you do die, over and over again. Unlimited lives! I love that. You need to jump (and swing) over pits and around ash clouds(?) and it’s got simple graphics and minimal colors and it all just works. There are times in this game I get stick and think there’s no way I will go further, but then I figure it out! (Or try 50 times… unlimited lives, remember?)
I give it 8 out of 8 bits!

Barp the Balldragon
First of all, I’m still on the first level! I’m pretty bad at this one, but it’s so damn cute. Barp has some platform work to do, but besides running and jumping be “barps” (burps?) balls at the little creatures who are blocking his way. I’ll keep going on this one or give up. I’m not sure yet.
I give it 5 out of 8 bits!

Captain Neat-O in the Time Nexus
Hey, another platfomer! This one is a rich world with a lot of ground to cover. It’s a tough one, with a lot of creatures and obstacles to get in your way. I’ve put in a good amount of time on this one and more than once I’ve gotten stuck and a little frustrated. It is a fun one though, so I’ll probably keep going.
I give it 5 out of 8 bits!

Feed The Ducks
Okay, this game is wild. You are a cat (bonus points there) and it’s called “Feed The Ducks” so I guess you need to feed some ducks. This one did confuse me a little but I eventually got it. It’s a weird one, but also unique, so it’s a lot of fun. I’m still a little confused by it even after I “won” so I am sure I’ll do it again.
I give it 7 out of 8 bits!

ISOL8: Build & Isolate
Supposedly ISOL8 is an original arcade game inspired by old-school games like *Jezzball* and *Qix*. I have no clue so I’ll believe that. You press the two buttons to make vertical or horizontal lines dividing the screen or sections of the screen based on the lines you’ve made. You need to isolate all the bouncing balls. This is a timing and puzzle(?) game, and it’s a fun low-stakes play.
I give it 7 out of 8 bits!

Murder, Death, Chill
I asm typically not a fan of shooting games, but this one is just so simple and (well, short when I’m playing it) I fire this one up pretty often. You basically move left and right a bit and have to keep shooting (either left or right) when the bad guys come at you. It sounds so simple, and it is! Sometimes simple shooting is all it takes for a good game. Super fun shooting effects dress up the otherwise simple background. (Note: My screenshot is terrible, but the game is not.)
I give it 5 out of 8 bits!

All you can do is jump. Straight up. You can’t even move left or right (on your own). The graphics are simple, the concept is simple, but it just works. This is another game where timing is critical, and you need to map out your moves before you make them. Oh, besides jumping straight up you can also suicide yourself to start over on a level, which I’ve done many, many times. It gets progressively more difficult, so it’s a great challenge with such a minimal game.
I give it 6 out of 8 bits!

Thanks for reading! This was a fun list to make. The goods news is, I have a lot more games I really like! That means there will be a part two coming soon!


TIC-80 Retro Fantasy Computer

As awesome as PICO-8 is, it’s always awesome to have alternatives, and one of the alternatives to PICO-8 is TIC-80. While PICO-8 is described as a “fantasy console” TIC-80 is a free and open-source fantasy video game console for making, playing, and sharing games on a limited platform that mimics the 8-bit systems of the 1980s.

I somehow stumbled upon TIC-80 after I got GarlicOS installed on the Anbernic RG35XX, since it can run TIC-80 programs/games. I downloaded a bunch, and some of them were not good, and some just ran really, really slow, so unplayable, basically. But the ones that do work, work well! And some of them are a lot of fun. (Note: the not running well or fast is due to the RG35XX specifically. Things work fine on a desktop computer.)

TIC-80 being an open source project run by a guy in Poland in his spare time isn’t quite the powerhouse that PICO-8 is, but there’s still a lot of goodness there.

Since I messed around with writing code for the PICO-8 I figured I should do the same for TIC-80. And yes, it’s a sweet sweet retro feel to coding things. It’s like using an Apple ][ (or maybe a TRS-80?) circa the early 1980s. (That’s probably what the 80 in TIC-80 is for.)

Just like PICO-8 you can play games in the browser, you can write your own games (or demos, programs, whatever) and if you’re of a certain age and messed around with computers 30 to 40 years ago, this stuff is heavy on nostalgia and just plain fun.

(The image above shows Continuous Factory and below shows Sonic Mini. You can play them both in your browser!)

PICO-8 definitely has some advantages over TIC-80, but if you prefer open source, are bothered by some of the limitations of PICO-8, want to use something besides Lua (TIC-80 supports Lua, JavaScript, MoonScript, Ruby, Wren, Fennel, Squirrel and D!) TIC-80 might be worth checking out.

And of course if you just want to play games, then just do that as well. Grab a handheld console that can run them, or use the browser or desktop software. Hey, it’s free/open source so all you really have to lose is your time. (Open source joke some people might actually get.)

While PICO-8 has splore to explore games TIC-80 has surf. Just launch TIC-80 and type surf and you can browse all sorts of games and programs. Are there as many as PICO-8? Nope. Not even close. But hey, that’s okay… Like I said, it’s always good to have alternatives.


PICO-8 Game Development System (and Ecosystem!)

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.


Anbernic RG35XX Handheld Gaming Console

I must admit, I did not have “become a gamer” on my bingo card. Back in June I watched the Tetris movie, and I remembered how much fun I had playing Tetris 30(ish) years ago, and then I posted this to Mastodon.

I’d love to get a portable game device that could play Tetris.

I have no idea where to start with this. I don’t want actual Game Boy hardware, just some affordable facsimile.

I’ve seen a ton of devices online, but would love a recommendation from someone who has tried/used some.

I also looked around and found the Anbernic RG35XX which looked like it might work, then read this thread from Dan about the “Game Dad” as he calls it, which sealed the deal. I still went with the cheaper model because I am not a gamer (or am I!?!?) and I really just wanted to play Tetris.

Dan (and others) mentioned how a device like this can get you away from “doomscrolling” on your phone. Instead of opening up some social media app and just scrolling and scrolling… and scrolling… you might engage your mind with some puzzle solving in a game. Now sure, there are apps that are games, but then you’re still on your phone, and the app may have ads, and you may get notifications on your phone. Also, the controls (a touch screen) are not great for many games. And like… I just don’t want to play games on my phone!

There’s that whole idea that gaming can help with your mental abilities as well. (There are so many articles about Tetris or other games being good for your brain I won’t even link to any.) Needless to say, some people have said game playing really helps them deal with anxiety and ADHD.

So I got an Anbernic RG35XX (terrible name!) and used it for about a week before I installed GarlicOS which is a port of RetroArch for the RG35XX. Hey, I’m still not well versed in all of this, but I noticed searching for ROMs in GarlicOS was missing, which I really liked in the stock OS. Well, there are apps for RetroArch, including a romSearch app.

Anyway, I have now played a lot of Tetris. I also played Tetris DX and Tetris Worlds. There’s Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance, each with different versions. Neat! The funny thing is, I actually do have a Game Boy (Camera) which uses my daughter’s old GBA, and I swear I saw a Tetris cartridge somewhere in my office years ago. My daughter also had a Nintendo DS many years ago, and we do have an old Game Cube and Nintendo Wii. (Well shit, now I sound like a gamer! But really these were all casual things for family gaming. I almost never just played games by myself. But now… I do. (We were a big Animal Crossing family back in 2007.)

So yeah, I love this little device. The Anbernic Rg35XX is around $60 USD and you get a zillion old games on it, ready to play, right out of the box… And you can upgrade it to GarlicOS to make it more awesome. Even if I get tired of it and toss it in a drawer in six months, that’s not too bad.

But wait, there’s one more thing. A resource for thousands of games (for free) and the ability to make your own games! I’ll cover that in the next post!


Life-Size Pac-Man


Somewhere along the line of planning Maker Faire Milwaukee I came up with the idea to make some large video game characters, specifically Pac-Man and the Ghosts. Here’s my description of the project:

Pac-Man and your favorite ghosts, but life-size! How large is that? We’re not sure, because what is life? Probably 4 feet tall or more. Take a photo of yourself with Puck-Man! (Note: This is not a functional video game. It’s just fun art.)

Like many projects, I like to keep things inexpensive when possible. Maximum impact for minimum dollars and all that. The plan was to make them from half sheets of plywood, so it would take about two and a half sheets to make the characters and then what was left (and other scrap) could be used for the kickstands on the back. Stacie and I at Brinn Labs brainstormed it a bit, and she and her husband were going to do the cutting and painting, but time got tight so Jason kicked it out on the CNC machine and then got it all painted and assembled. The ghost eyes (both the black and white pieces) are cut and stacked pieces for a little 2.5 dimension (this was Stacie’s idea.)


Did you know Pac-Man was originally going to be named Puck-Man? It’s true!

What’s visual art without an audio element? I also built a small black box named “Tripping Hazzard” [sic] because that’s what John called it when I showed it to him. Oddly enough I did trip over it two days later so I scrawled “Tripping Hazzard” on it with a black Sharpie marker. (Yes, I spelled it wrong. I blame the The Dukes of Hazzard.)

Oh, the box! It plays the audio from the video game Pac-Man! Wacka Wacka Wacka and so on. The weird thing is, about a week after I built it, I heard the sound at Milwaukee Makerspace and Arnold was playing the same video I ripped the audio from on YouTube! That’s weird, just like him.


As for the cutting of the pieces, there was some discussion that Jason and I had about which style of ghosts we should use, and he won because he ran the CNC router. He was kind enough to send me his files so that I could make a miniature version on the laser cutter. I seem to have misplaced those, but I’ll find them soon. (Adrian was kind enough to paint the mini version which we used for a TV promo before the Faire.)

Anyway, in a lighter part of the Dark Room we set up some big Pac-Man and Ghosts and had a sound track for them which made it appear that Pac-Man was continually trying to get away from the ghosts, and I enjoyed that.