A Pico-8 story: How the fantasy console unlocked Frédéric Souchu’s dreams
Pico-8 and the retro-gaming trend
From a neophyte perspective, it must be quite puzzling to observe the console manufacturers investing billions of dollars to battle over super high tech specs while Minecraft and its rough pixelated blocks are holding the best-selling game title. Surprisingly, the big pixels have never been so popular and both gamers and programmers are responsible for that unwavering trend. Indeed retro-looking games are cute and nostalgic to play with, but they also are fun to make and they offer plenty of advantages. It takes a huge weight off the designing process and helps focus on the concept, which is valuable for hobbyists game creators.
When it comes to program a retroish game, there are many options available depending on your goals, skills and commitment.
The hardcore path is to build it the way it was done, no cheating. You could code directly for an existing game system from the 80s and fit in its tiny 40k memory. But, let’s face it: writing a game for the 1983 Nintendo is a trick that not everyone can pull off.
Alternatively, you could create a retro-looking game using a modern engine (like Unity). It’s easy and fun, the result can be amazing but the constraints are imagination and self-discipline. It’s literally like using Photoshop and deciding to work on a 16x16 canvas with 4 colors. It’s very tempting to change the rules as you go.
Between the two, sits Pico-8, a “fantasy console” created by Zep. Pico-8 provides both strict limitations and straight forward creation allowing you to easily make amazing playable creations in a few hours. Alongside the all-in-one suite, Pico-8 also provides a platform to share your creations with the community and a forum to meet other Pico-8 enthusiasts. As you would expect, some of them are insanely skilled.
This is how I met Freds72.
Fred, the computer hobbyist
Freds72 goes by the name of Frédéric Souchu during the daytime. His username gives a hint about his birthdate. He’s a senior software architect working in a payment solutions company. He likes his job and lives a peaceful life in the Paris region with his wife and kids (15, 19 and 21).
At almost 50 year old, Fred has lived through the very dynamic and messy early computer era in France, before the PC became the only option available. “I owned an Amstrad CPC then an Atari ST, quickly sold to buy an Amiga. Neither I nor my friends were into game consoles.” At that time, dozens of computers competed with different shapes, systems, strengths and weaknesses, but all shared the same trait: they were proprietary and seldom customizable.
The most famous magazine dedicated to this activity was TILT — Microloisirs (“micro-leisures”), it focused on anything that could be done with a computer: tools for text, graphics and sounds, games of course and also programming.
“From the very beginning I took notice of the creation aspects of those computers. I was attracted to it right away. This is when I tried to program in assembly, copying entire pages of code from magazines. But I never got very far doing so. I realize now how difficult it was to gather information. All I had was the hardware guide for my Amiga,” said Fred.
In the pre-internet era, when you didn’t know something, you basically had to live with your ignorance. Especially being raised in Le Mans, a 150,000-soul city in France.
“It’s very humbling when you know that some kids at the time, such as Eric Chahi, released complete games on ZX Spectrum or Amstrad. That was out of reach for me. I can’t imagine the dedication required to achieve their goal. I don’t want to diss present game developers by saying that, but these guys were real pioneers, it was way harder back then.”
Fred also tried to take advantage of the graphical capabilities of his Amiga. “I was not a talented designer, but I spent hours modeling objects with Sculpt 4D, letting my computer render [calculate] for whole nights, sometimes resulting in an ugly bad poorly lighted pixel,” he said laughing while remembering it.
Fred definitely had a thing for computers, but he was not ready to dedicate his whole life to create video games. At 19, he moved to Paris to study math and computer science at Dauphine — a very reputed French university. Years have passed, though Fred never totally lost his appetite towards gaming creation: “I played a little bit with Unity and Unreal Engine, but nothing released nor releasable.”
Freds72, the Pico-8 enthusiast
Jump forward to late 2017. Fred reads an article mentioning Pico-8 and falls immediately in love with the minimalist concept and the virtual strict limitations. “As a software engineer, I am used to dealing with software containing millions of lines of code. Thus I desperately need boundaries when I make my games at home, otherwise I tend to keep my professional habits: everytime I start to build a framework, then libraries, etc. Several months later I realize that I work alone and there is no way I can finish a single game this way so I give up! With Pico-8, each game already takes 4 to 6 months. Mainly because I can’t devote a lot of time to this activity — 2 hours a day at most — but also because I love spending time on optimization,” he said, aware of his lack of discipline.
Pico-8 limits your code to only 65.536 characters in a subset of Lua (a modern programming language, very easy to learn), and the number of operations is also capped. There is no room to over-engineer and every bit of code must be useful. The image resolution is the lowest you could think of (128x128), the palette is officially 16 colors, and the sound capabilities are very limited as well.
“The Pico-8 creations look like 8-bit games at first sight, but it’s deceiving. What you can actually create is way more powerful than what an Amiga could pull out in terms of CPU.”
Fred is indeed a Pico-8 magician. Most Pico-8 games are 2D as you would expect for an 8bit-ish console. But Fred has decided to explore the 3D capabilities of the virtual machine, leading him to build his own 3D engine.
“I’ve built everything from scratch. The benefit is that I understand how each pixel is displayed. I know why an item is there because I programmed it.” The young Fred, who was not skilled enough for assembly programming on Amiga, found his revenge on Pico-8.
The learning curve
His first two games are two quick yet-estimable demakes (ie. partial remakes) of well known 2D games: Thunder Blade and Nuclear Throne (renamed Nuklear Klone). Fred is not very talkative about them. “The graphics are a sensitive topic for me. I am pretty bad at it. This is why I prefer 3D, and thanks to the pretty and well balanced colors from the Pico-8 palette, I can go beyond my limited designer skill.”
Out of frustration, he decides to focus exclusively on 3D for his next games with an impressive track record and continually improves his level of production quality.
With The Attack of the Death Star, a demake of an X-Wing simulator released exclusively in Japan in 1991, Fred already shows some serious ability even though the 3D is mostly wireframe and visually as dull as the original video game was designed. He then helps Thomas Cueni (aka Yellowbaron) — a pilot in real life — to add the 3D view to Tiny Sim, a Flight Simulator for Pico-8.
Snow! is Fred’s first original game, a ski simulator. Being an original concept, this is the first time that Fred had to think about his gameplay and realized the importance of “playtesting,” leveraging the Pico-8 forum. Playtesting means basically collecting players’ feedback during the development to improve a game. He removed his first game (Thunder Blade) from his itch.io page (a marketplace for independent video game creators) because “the game is too short and the gameplay lacks balance” and adds “this is something I wasn’t aware of when I started 3 years ago. I want my games to be fun, therefore they need to be tested by other players. Otherwise it’s just a technical demo. It might seem candid to professional game developers, but playtesting is key.”
Visually the frame rate is flawless, the game is colorful and of course pretty fun to play. Thanks to the algorithm that generates the slopes, Snow! has 3 difficulty levels and a fresh experience with each session. Also, letting the computer randomly generate the content is the only way to circumvent the official size limitation of the Pico-8.
Pushing the limits
A limitation that Fred decides to overcome for Virtua Racing Demake, a very accurate porting from the Sega Genesis considering the Pico-8 visual capacities. The frame rate can be a bit choppy from the helicopter view, but it’s as close as you can get and the gameplay is convincing, even in the driver’s seat mode. The Formula 1 is the only car available, but Fred has imported the 3 original circuits from the game, making the content way too big to fit the virtual cartridge official size and therefore excludes Virtua Racing from the Pico-8 game listing interface. “It makes it less accessible for sure, but it is still totally playable within a web page or as a standalone binary, or even downloading it on a Raspberry. My priority was to be able to add content to my game even if it means losing exposure”.
The Virtua Racing Demake drew a lot of attention and not only in the Pico-8 community. Which is good, but Fred hopes that Sega will not claim a copyright infringement for his port. “It’s the first time I told myself: what’s going to happen now? So far so good. I keep my fingers crossed. I mean the game is playable online for free, or you can download it via a pay-as-you-want model. My revenues for that game are barely €80 as of today! Why would they sue me?”
That danger might also come from Bethesda (recently acquired by Microsoft), since Fred teamed up with Simon Hulsinga (aka Paranoid Cactus) to port Doom under the name Poom. “The code is 100% homemade, and Cactus redrew all the artworks from scratch. He did a colossal job!”, he said, impressed by Simon’s skills. “He’s one the few capable of creating really good games but also with an interesting artistic sensibility. So I started the foundation of my 3D engine in March and sent it to him as an invitation for a collaboration. He sent me back a first screen and I was like: damned!”
Indeed, the recent tweets showing off the engine are absolutely stunning and the duo is quite promising. Fred handles the 3D engine while Simon deals with the graphics and the level design. “We decided at the very beginning that we didn’t want to use the original levels. Performance-wise, we weren’t sure of the outcome, but also, it wasn’t very interesting to us. We know that we won’t do better than the real Doom, but it is our chance to show what we can do.” Fred is very enthusiastic about the upcoming release even though something will be missing due to the actual console capacities: “It’s too bad Pico-8 doesn’t provide a proper LAN [local network] multiplayer solution.”
The next episode
Seeing Fred being frustrated by some of Pico-8’s shortcomings and taking more liberty with the original content, it would be natural to think that he is taking a path that would lead him to become an independent game developer. “As a game creator, I am pretty bad actually” he said humbly, then reflecting on what made him hesitate to become professional: “Of course, the economical risk is a huge factor also. Honestly I don’t know. I wouldn’t actively seek it. People making that change are able to take a leap of faith I am not willing to take right now. I could spend 10 years trying with a mediocre result at the end. But it would be a dream for sure: who would refuse to live out of his passion?”
The most emblematic game is Celeste for Pico-8. It was created within 4 days by Maddy Thorson and Noel Berry during a game jam. It is now a best-selling game with 1 million copies, available on pretty any gaming devices.
Some other cool Pico-8 creators:
- Simon Hulsinga (X-Zero, UFO Swamp Odyssey, Pico Tennis)
- Andrew Green (ZedWolf!)
- Tom Mulgrew (8-Ball Pool)
- Johan Peitz (Pico Driller)
- BoneVolt (Scrap Boy, Sonic 2.5 SAGE 2020)
- Electric Gryphon (Comanche ½)
- Matt Hughson (Witch n’Wiz)