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The Pico-8 Corner of a Purely Hypothetical Gameboy Competitor

Lance Noble Aster

did his best!
(he/him)
So recently, I caught Covid-19. As a reward for not dying, I bought myself a RG350P, a pretty solid little emulation platform. Runs for about $100. Buyer beware – the RG351 just came out, and while it can handle N64 games respectably where the RG350P can't, word is that the screen might not be as good. The RG350P runs on OpenDingux (presumably so does the RG351), so it is the beneficiary of software development for a variety of similar handhelds, leading to some surprising ports available for the platform like Descent 1 and 2, the whole Marathon series, and Streets of Rage Remake.


The big thing that excites me about the RG350P, though, is that it happens to be able to run a Pico-8 emulator, tac08. The fact that the Pico-8 has an emulator is deeply funny to me, given what it is, but adds to the charming fantasy of the “device.” For those not in the know, the Pico-8 is a non-existent conceptual console with a built-in, easy-to-use development toolkit and game browser. You can also distribute “cartridges” of games made with Pico-8 via these adorable .png files that have a game's code embedded in them.

I made that skin by the way. I didn't do the icons for the software, but I did do the the top and bottom bars, the icons on the bars, and the FF-style pointer. The wallpaper is a painfully cropped down version of this very important piece of artwork.




I spent a ton of time grabbing so many Pico-8 games (over 100), so I thought I'd periodically do reviews of the ones I play. The majority of Pico-8 games are free, and many can be played in a browser thanks to an embedded HTML5 client, so I'll provide links to the games online when they can be found. The first game in my list is a Pico-8 port of Virtua Racer because it's actually like 14 Pico-8 cartridges that work in tandem somehow and have to be in their own folder. But I'll leave that game for another time so I can talk about a game more representative of the platform instead of the equivalent of running Doom on a graphing calculator.

The second game in my list is 4 Giga Boss Fights by guerragames. 4 Giga Boss Fights is a difficult title to review chiefly because the game appears to generate infinite boss fights, and I consequently cannot identify which four are the giga ones.



4 Giga Boss Fights reminds me a lot of Warning Forever – you take command of one of a selection of spaceships and fight a series of multi-piece boss ships, with each piece having its own attacks. The ship choices appear to be merely cosmetic, as the second and third ships that I unlocked after destroying my 52nd and 56th bosses respectively play exactly the same, and replaced my current ship immediately.

The bosses tend to have surprisingly low HP cores; fights with bosses that don't have more pieces in front of their cores can end in a matter of 10 or 15 seconds. The bosses uniformly are large blobs of neon color, but the way the pulsate and shrink when hit suggest an almost amoeba or slime-like quality to them. All of the bosses explode satisfyingly, and the little victory fanfare does a lot to break up what might otherwise become fairly repetitive music.




The ship has unusual mechanics for a scrolling shooter – as the ship moves left and right, it turns, dramatically altering the direction it is firing in. Additionally, the ship seems to have a bit of aim assist going on – instead of returning to firing straight forward when idling, it fires slightly towards the middle of the screen. The ship can move forwards and backwards, but much more slowly than left or right. The ship auto-fires a basic shot, but every time it lands a hit, it charges the bar on the right side of the screen. Pressing either button will cause the ship to fire an absolutely devastating spread shot that drains the bar rapidly. The power shot bar starts to flash if it's more than half full, and while I can't guarantee it, I think it's even more powerful when used in this state.








4 Giga Boss Fights features three modes: a mode where you get three lives and infinite continues; a mode where you get infinite lives; and a mode where you get one life and no continues, but deal double damage. I've played the infinite lives mode and the one life mode. In the one life mode, at least, you don't seem to be able to get any more lives, but I wonder if you might get a life from a full power shot bar in the three life mode.









I found 4 Giga Boss Fights pretty addictive. You can try it out here and, I'm sure, discover the answers to some of my mechanical speculation. If you give it a shot, I recommend always saving some power shot bar for an emergency. Later on bosses will get lasers, and sometimes those lasers will box you in and start to track to your position immediately, so having power shot available may be necessary for survival.









Unfortunately for me, 4 Giga Boss Fights has an emulation error when run with tac08, causing all the text to appear the same color as the background, rendering the title screen and boss names unreadable.
 
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Yimothy

Red Plane
(he/him)
I haven’t played any Pico-8 games but I’ve been a big fan of the concept since I heard of it. Great thread so far, looking forward to more of it.
 

Lance Noble Aster

did his best!
(he/him)

Allocation by Mush is a tiny Metroidvania where the goal is to get to the room in the bottom right and clear out all the enemies there. Small problem: the world doesn't exist. The protagonist of Allocation, who I'll call Al, doesn't collect new abilities during their adventure. They'll always have the same jump and the same gun that kills enemies in one hit. Instead, in every gray room with a dot on the map, Al finds new rooms of various shapes. From the starting room of the game, Al can reconfigure which rooms are where. It's kind of like Pipe Dream if instead of liquid it was you in the pipes, and also you had a gun.

Every room is unique, and split into four categories based on how difficult the room is to survive. The more difficult rooms, naturally, are more versatile, tending to offer more exits than easier rooms. Al also finds two healing rooms, which will have a fresh healing power-up in them every time they're placed on the map. The only other healing available in the game is by going back to the starting room. This adds a bit of strategy to room placement the further you get in the game. Where do you place your healing rooms? Will you have to contort your route to be less efficient so you can place a pit stop?

My clear time was a mere 11 minutes and change, and while I would have been delighted to have a few more layouts for the pre-placed rooms, I think Allocation fully explores its core idea during this time. I definitely recommend checking it out if you've got a spare few minutes.

Will I play Allocation again? Probably. I wonder how convoluted I can make the route to the end, and there is a run timer...




Alone in Pico by NuSan is a demake of Alone in the Dark. Unlike actual Alone in the Dark, there is no menu, so there's no fiddling with which command you have selected. Having context-sensitive input speeds up Alone in Pico a bit, which is good, because running is strictly prohibited and walking quickly is also strictly prohibited. There's no health in Alone in Pico - if an enemy catches Emily or Carnby, they're just dead, and it's back to the beginning of the game.

This isn't much of a problem because, as you may suspect, Alone in Pico does not contain the entirety of Alone in the Dark. The game ends when Emily or Carnby descend the stairs after the gargoyle puzzle (though now those gargoyles are zombie statues). Still, the 3D is just as impressive in Pico-8 as I'm sure it was running on DOS when Alone in the Dark was released. Also of note are the flat colors used in Alone in Pico's backgrounds, making it impossible to tell if they are pre-rendered or being rendered in real-time. I could easily believe either one.

Will I play Alone in Pico again? Probably not, I've seen all it has to offer, but man is it cool.




BEARRL by Dir3kt asks us the difficult questions: what would it be like if you were a bear with just intensely high metabolism? As science tells us, all bears can do is spend 1 Food to walk in a cardinal direction and kill and/or eat anything they touch. Every time you play BEARRL, a new valley is created with a couple lakes, a load of bushes, and some trees. Trees, bushes, and lakes will prevent your bear from moving through them, but left alone long enough and in the right season they will generate pinecones, berries, and fish, which are more valuable food sources than the flowers that grow on empty spaces.

There is, however, a threat. The valley will also have three houses absolutely full of lumberjacks who will stop at nothing to chop down trees, leaving your bear with less and less to eat in the game's final month. Unless... Surely no one will miss a couple lumberjacks in the middle of nowhere, right? If your bear can push a lumberjack up against an obstacle, they'll be CRUNCHED, and will no longer be a problem.

But once hunting season begins, hunters will appear! Hunters will shoot your bear if they ever line up with them vertically or horizontally. Bears have notoriously poor health care, so a mere two bullets will end your bear. Get immediately adjacent to a hunter, though, and they'll panic, allowing your bear to chase them up against an obstacle and CRUNCH them, too.

BEARRL does have an ending, if your bear survives all the way to Winter and can STOMP their way through snow to their home. But make sure your bear is strong and healthy when they get home for hibernation... Maybe you can see your bear through to next spring, but I wasn't able to.

Will I play BEARRL again? Probably, gotta make it to next spring!
 

Beowulf

Let the Mystery Be
(He/Him)
I've lost track of how the RG350p differs from the RG350m and the RG351...especially since the one I bought in May appears to not have any appended letters, but still runs PSX games fine. I'm curious to try out the PICO-8 "emulator" if you find anything particularly worthwhile.
 

Lance Noble Aster

did his best!
(he/him)
I've lost track of how the RG350p differs from the RG350m and the RG351...especially since the one I bought in May appears to not have any appended letters, but still runs PSX games fine. I'm curious to try out the PICO-8 "emulator" if you find anything particularly worthwhile.
As I understand it, for all intents and purposes the RG350P is the RG350M, except with a plastic case instead of a metal case, and featuring a built-in laminate screen cover. The RG351 has more horsepower but a different screen.
 

Ixo

"This is not my beautiful forum!" - David Byrne
(Hi Guy)
The Pico-8 was included in the giant Bundle for Racial Justice, by the by. I'm happy this thread's here to point me in the right direction to get started with it.
 

Lance Noble Aster

did his best!
(he/him)
OpenDingux platforms that can run tac08, I guess! I haven't looked much into other emulators for Pico-8 games, because they're pretty rare.

Also, to provide some clarification, tac08 only does Pico-8's runtime stuff. It can't do the dev or exploration stuff, so you have to bring your own .p8 or .p8.png files.
 

Patrick

Magic-User
(He/Him)
I’ll probably stick with my laptop, then. Good to know it’s in the racial justice bundle, though.
 

Lance Noble Aster

did his best!
(he/him)
Sorry for the hiatus folks, I was off for two days and you can't write Pico-8 reviews on company time unless you're on company time. Them's the rules, and I did make them. I'm trying to do three of these at a time, but one of my reviews was very short, so you get four.


Bombmans by Raattias is Bomberman! That's it, it's Bomberman. You can play with up to two Real Humans and up to 3 Simulated Humans. It has explosion range ups and bomb ups. If you press the B button (I guess X, in Pico-8 parlance), you get debug info on the states of all the AI, which is neat. Tac08 renders the title screen incorrectly, as you can see from the screenshots.

Will I play Bombmans again? Probably not, I'm not a huge fan of Bomberman. But it's an extremely competent port of Bomberman!




Brutal Pico Race by dhostin is a very F-Zero-y racing game. There are six tracks, and ten vehicles, all with different top speeds and acceleration charts. Slip-streaming behind other racers has a really cool visual effect and is really powerful. There's also a boost system that provides even more speed than slip-streaming. Boosting has an interesting trade-off: the longer boost has been charged, the longer it will last, but after a certain point, the refractory before the vehicle can boost again is much longer. Of course, boosting is going to make your vehicle's handling much worse, so there's value to short boost charges beyond how quickly you can boost again.

I'm a big fan of the Titan and Viper (seen in the second and third screenshots), which have relatively poor acceleration and high top speeds. More complex tracks do give me some trouble, since there's no track map during a race to plan for upcoming turns. Also, I really dig that the tracks all look like you're racing on a less rounded version of the Sonic 2 special stages. Certain segments of track even do the full half-pipe thing!

Did I mention Brutal Pico Race also supports two player split-screen? Because it does! I didn't know how to have a second player control anything on my RG350P, but I did try it out, and there were no issues with the framerate or anything.

Will I play Brutal Pico Race again? Oh, absolutely! There are a bunch of vehicles I haven't tried, and I've only played on Easy AI mode, not Normal or Hard.




BUSHFIRE by Cubehamster (Marnix Licht and Geoffrey Hendrix) is a game about being an Australian firefighter! Bushfire's main gimmick is very Mario Sunshine-esque. Bush Fire, as I'll call the protagonist, has firefighting gear with a portable water tank that must be refill. Bush Fire can aim their water-blasting hose in eight directions. The fires that Bush Fire must fight are in steep caverns, however. Luckily, Bush Fire's equipment has thrown safety regulations out the door and is powerful enough to lift a grown human being off the ground and propel them through the air.

The real challenge in Bushfire is wrapping your head around Bush Fire's air control being reversed from your inputs when using the hose. It reminds me a bit of Cave Story's jetpack 2.0 mechanics, those obviously the controls and nuances are completely different. As neat as Bushfire's mechanics are, it only has one stage. Fire does rescue a koala in that stage, so who can say whether the length of the game is a problem.

Important note, Bushfire is a tribute to Wildlife Rescue in Australia, and asks you to check out wires.org.au to see how you can help!

Will I play Bushfire again? Probably not, but that's really down to the lack of levels. If Bushfire had ten+ levels, I'd probably revisit it.




Lil' Satan's Cake Quest by guerragames opens with a pretty spectacular title screen that has you progressively eat the title in big chunks before starting the game, pretty much exactly what I'd expect from the creator of 4 Giga Boss Fights. Cake Quest reminds me a lot of Gargoyle's Quest. Maybe it's the fact it start in a graveyard and Lil' Satan is a red demon who can hover in place while shooting fireballs. The goal of Cake Quest is simple: eat cakes. I assume Lil' Satan must be out of cakes, because they've taken to murdering innocent skeletons and demons to take their cakes instead. The art in Cake Quest is pretty great, and the hit-stop when one of Lil' Satan's fireballs connects with an enemy is fantastic. Watch out, though, epilepsy warning on this one, as the entire screen flashes when an enemy dies.

One of the quirks of Cake Quest is that once enemies are activated, they never deactivate from distance, which makes it best to take a slow pace, lest Lil' Satan be overwhelmed by charging demons and enemy fireballs from off-screen. It also takes a bit to get used to Lil' Satan's jump – he has air control, but has a brief moment of lag time when he leaves and connects with the ground. For every cake Lil' Satan eats, they get some HP back. Cakes that glow yellow will even increase Lil' Satan's maximum HP, and the more HP Lil' Satan has, the more damage they can deal. Depending on your definition, this may technically mean that Lil' Satan's Cake Quest is a JRPG.

Unlike other games we've looked at today, Lil' Satan's Cake Quest boasts multiple stages of cake-devouring adventure. As soon as the second stage, enemy placement becomes absolutely devious, so be sure to take it slow and eat every cake, which necessitates killing every enemy. The third level might even feature the ever elusive wall cake, less-nutritious cousin to wall meat.

Unfortunately, I did encounter a bug where the second boss fell through the floor while I lead it on a chase through the rest of the level. There's nothing stopping you from doing so, but please fight bosses only in the designated boss-fighting zones to avoid such bugs.

Will I play Lil' Satan's Cake Quest again? Heck yeah, I will. Pardon my language, but I felt it was appropriate.
 
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Lance Noble Aster

did his best!
(he/him)
Today in the Pico-8 corner we've got a pair of pairs.




Celeste by Matt Thorson and Noel Berry is a platformer that uses a series of single screens and a multi-directional dash mechanic. At first, the protagonist, who we'll call, I don't know, Madeline? At first Madeline can only dash once in mid-air, but partway up Celeste Mountain, Madeline gets a power-up, allowing her to dash twice in midair. Madeline can also wall jump, and she can pop balloons by touching them to get her dashes back.

Celeste's mechanics aren't very complex on their own, but the level design is the real standout here, pushing you to use all the nuances of Madeline's movement to not only reach the top, but also collect as many strawberries as you can. Madeline doesn't have to collect the strawberries, and they don't do anything other than add to her strawberry count at the summit, but they're usually placed in inconvenient places that make completing the stage harder if you go for them. Another thing worth noting is how lightning fast you can give a stage another shot – mere seconds – making the difficult platforming a matter of “Okay, this time I'll try doing this” instead of frustrating repetition.

Celeste is a real stand-out title for the Pico-8, practically the flagship title, and I bet that it could be fleshed out into an even bigger and better game. Until we live in a world where you can play that purely hypothetical larger version of Celeste, you should definitely check out the Pico-8 version. And even if such a version should exist in the future, I bet playing the Pico-8 version would be valuable to understand where it started.

Will I play Celeste again? I didn't get all the strawberries, and there's a run timer... So almost certainly. I'm seeing a trend of run timers adding so much to the short games typical of Pico-8.




Celeste X modded by Meep is here as a stand-in for a large number of Pico-8 games. See, one major advantage of Pico-8 is that games distributed as .p8 or .p8.png files also include their entire source code that you can then study or tinker with to your heart's content. This choice makes variants of popular Pico-8 games common, and give so much to the community's ability to grow. See something cool you like in a Pico-8 game? Crack it open and see how they did it, maybe you'll learn from the experience.

As for Celeste X, it's Celeste, but you play as Mega Man X, complete with single-wall jumps and X-Buster. Here's the thing: I can't get past the third screen. Mainly because it features a non-standard Pico-8 control. Tac08 assumes the standard controls of a menu button, an X button, and an O button. Celeste X uses Left Shift on PC for the dash, because Celeste's dash button is replaced by Celeste X's shoot button.

Also it's funny to me that the enemies I saw in that time, Metools and Sniper Joes, are classic Mega Man enemies, not Mega Man X enemies.

Will I play Celeste X again? Almost certainly, but sadly not on my RG350P, since I can't map the necessary controls in tac08.




Charge! by randomhuman is an endless runner about... being Norse I think? Honestly I get pretty Dwarf-y vibes from the protagonist. At the beginning of each segment, Axe Runguy proclaims a curse consisting of a Norse god and a body part, and then must axe as many people as possible a question while not getting shot by arrows. Axe Runguy can do one of two things: axe and shield. Most of the time, axe is sufficient for aggressively disagreeing with fleeing peasants or something. Sometimes, Axe Runguy will encounter an archer, and only has a few moments to raise his shield before getting annihilated by an arrow. Once within axe-range, dealing with archers is the same as dealing with fleeing peasants. Hmm. Deep.

Perhaps, when faced with the charging Axe Runguy that is life, we are all merely fleeing peasants when our arrows are spent.

Will I play Charge! again? Maybe? I'm not often in the mood for endless runners, but the parallax background and the silly curses the game generates are pretty good.




Charge! by DragonXVI has the same name as Charge! and sometimes life is just like that. It's a space-faring roguelike of the traditional turn-based, bump-into-enemies variety. You take your small spaceship and dock with larger, abandoned, monster-filled wrecks, looking for fuel, food, medical supplies, and gear while trying to escape the system. The mechanics are pretty simple – there's an interact button that will let you wait a turn in place or grab everything directly underneath you on the floor. Things are very streamlined, so there isn't an inventory beyond what weapon you have, what space suit you're wearing, and how much fuel you have in the tank.

Charge! reminds me a lot of Void Bastards, one of my absolute favorite roguelites, so it's in good company. The thing that really does it is that when you leave a wreck, you spend your fuel to go to one of three locations next, each with different names and classes of vessel. Each vessel has different common features – such as military vessels having automated defenses but also better gear, and habitats having lots of food – so there's some math to be done based on what you can handle and what you need. If you're low on fuel, you might not be able to reach every option, so it's important not to bail on a wreck before you've explored its depths. On the other hand, no amount of fuel is going to make up for being dead, so there's nuance to knowing when to push your luck and when to retreat.

I want to give a shout-out to Charge!'s absolutely fantastic aesthetics. Unlike many of the decades-old roguelikes it is imitating, Charge! has a gradient of light levels, not just a binary. Combined with the pixel art that pops, the fact you can always see the exterior shape of the ship, the splattering of green blood resulting from combat, and the shadows cast by the walls gives the game a really strong sense of place that's very rare at this resolution.

One complaint I have is that Charge!'s short length means it escalates in difficulty rapidly, and if you haven't happened to find any weapons, you can find yourself hounded by enemies that are immune to your attacks fairly quickly. This is somewhat ameliorated by fighting enemies only being relevant as a source of food, but sometimes it is just impossible to dance around foes in the game's tighter corridors. There does seem to be some enemy in-fighting on occasion, but I've never managed to be present for it, not even with the military bases' automated defense turrets.

Will I play Charge! again? Almost certainly. Charge! really hits a lot of thematic elements I dig, but doesn't feel quite as random and/or hard as other space-themed roguelites like FTL and Space Beast Terror Fright. Also the way your little space-pal hops from tile to tile is very endearing.
 
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