PICO-8 is a fantasy console, which gives a retro visual style to the games created within it. It is defined as “like a real-world console, but without the inconvenience of actual hardware.”
The engine has everything that makes a console a console except physical cartridges. Instead, programs made for the engine are distributed on png images which look similar to cartridges. There are lots of interesting and tiny — but super fun — games made on the PICO-8 console.
As hallmark features PICO-8 games tend to have simple controls; normally two buttons (Z & X) as well as the arrow key inputs. Below, I am going to cover a few of my favorites from the hundreds available.
Celeste by Matt Thorson & Noel Berry
Celeste is an elegantly-made, hardcore platformer following a cold mountain climb. You play a character with pink hair by jumping, including wall jumping, and activating a boost ability to get around the level. Once you use the boost, your hair shifts to blue until you touch back down on a surface, at which point it will to pink. Throughout the level there are occasionally pink balloons floating around — you can jump or boost into these to get an additional boost to use right away. This is crucial to finishing the levels which the balloons feature within. There are also keys, chests, and strawberries dotted around various levels; you can collect the keys to open a chest and reveal a strawberry which, like those floating around each screen, will provide bonus points.
Instead of horizontal levels in Celeste you go up in altitude, reaching the next screen once you cross the top barrier, which is a great feature. There’s quite a challenge to the game, but the new mechanics dotted along the mountain make it very enjoyable.
Lil King by Tom Brinton
You are a king, who has been picked on by his entire kingdom. In order to fix this little issue, you have banished your entire kingdom. Some of your enemies have found out that you are now alone in your castle, and so have decided that it’s the perfect time for attack.
Now, on your own, you must stomp on the ladders of enemies who are trying to scale your castle’s walls. Enemies will set up ladders and then start to climb them, moving towards the top where you are. You can jump into the tops of the ladders to break them down or onto the knight’s heads so that they fall off. As the ladder is being put up, there are spikes towards the top which can hurt you if you are just standing on the wall. You can gain more lives, however, by letting knights carrying hearts make it to the top and collect their dropped heart.
Lil’ King is a simple, yet addictive, game where you strive to survive for as long as possible.
Spaceman 8 by Kometbomb
Spaceman8 is a really fun space game which has you working at a mining colony in space for a week.
It is your job to search through the caves of asteroids for gems and bring them back to company collection areas. There are several types of machines that float around the cave collecting the resources. Each one has a number on it, 1 through 3, which works as a multiplier for the amount of money you will receive for collecting the gems. There are also 4 types of gems which can be collected; small blue ones that instantly give you cash, a small green gem, a medium red gem, and a large yellow gem — each of those need to be brought to a collector.
Bringing these gems back to the collector is tough though, as once you pick up a gem it will hang by a rope from your character, you will be weighed down by the gem, and it can even get caught on the walls.
At the end of the day you will run out of oxygen, so you must make it to the red collector to either go back to your home, or, to take your lunch break. You can then use the money you earn to buy upgrades to make your job easier as you proceed through the week.
Dusk Child by Sophie Houlden
DuskChild is a mysterious platformer that challenges you to explore a strange, enigmatic world.
You are in a world full of secrets, filled with places for you to explore. You play by exploring around the level, reading signs and solving puzzles. The world is filled with several areas, some initially blocked off while others start already available to explore. The world is littered with large, looming statues — these appear to have something to do with your goal.
You will need to gather up strange objects like orbs and gems, as well as more mundane items like a broken bucket. The bucket is quite interesting — it can be filled by waterfalls, but it leaks slowly as you walk around. Puzzles revolve around the use of these objects as to weigh down levers, with most of these unlocking further areas to explore. I do not want to spoil this beautiful game for you, so will simply say that it’s very important to pay attention to the signs and environment around you!
The Ballz are Lava! By Liquidream UK
The Ballz are Lava! Is a simple, yet wildly addictive, little arcade game where you must avoid lava and collect green dots, all while avoiding red dots.
This sounds simple enough, however both types of dots are moving quickly around the screen, and everything is set against a timer. As the timer ticks down, you must quickly collect all of the green dots as to keep moving forward through the levels. As you pick up green dots you will grow in size, making it more challenging to avoid the lava.
You can, once per level, click the screen which will make you shrink down in size, but this can only be done once in th level, meaning you should only use it when necessary. Sometimes though, you even grow in size after using this — especially if you take too long to collect the green orbs.
The longer you take to finish the level, the more small power-ups will appear to help you along. These can be bombs which remove some of the lava, a shield which helps you if you get hit, and a time freeze. The Ballz are Lava! has a potentially unlimited amount of levels — each one with more lava and faster moving orbs than the last. Your goal is to get the highest score possible, trying to keep yourself alive for as long as you can.
Combo Pool by NuSan
Combo Pool was originally a game jam game, one which has since been updated. The game is super fun but does take a while to master. To win the game you need to collide two flashing pink balls, but you can only fire black balls! You must aim your launcher and fire the darkest colored balls from the bottom of the screen out onto the playing board. Balls of the same color can collide to create a new, brighter colored ball — if you create multiples of the new colors on the board you can then bounce those balls into each other by hitting them with more of the balls from the cannon as to continue to make more colors!
Your goal is to get as high a score as possible by shooting out as many balls as you can, while triggering as many combos as you can before detonating the final form. There is a bar at the top of the screen which will warn you when the board is getting overloaded, if there are too many balls (or if you don’t make enough combos) you will lose!
Trying to get the highscore in this fun, color-colliding game is a great way to spent a few minutes.
Marballs 2 by Lucatron
Marballs 2 is a marble rolling game where you must get your ball to the white area of the level. You control the movement and momentum of the ball, but also its ability to jump. You need to scale platforms which are at increasing altitudes as to reach the end of the game.
Sometimes platforms which are lit up will help you jump higher by way of increasing your jump height. In many levels there are other floating white balls around which will need to be collected before the exit will animate.
The game’s levels do get challenging quickly as there are increasing amounts of things which attempt to ruin your escalation, like towers which block off your vision, and strange angled jumps of increasing distance You may well need to retry some levels before you can properly complete it.
Marballs 2 also features a level editor so you can create your own levels in the game and share them with your friends.
Picoban by Carlos Pedroso
Picoban is a sokoban-style puzzle game that will really challenge you.
With only 15 levels, you may think this game isn’t hard — it is (at least for me) though. You need to push small, red blocks around to clear a path for you to reach a green orb. This green orb will then transport you to the next level. This seems extremely simple, but red blocks will not be moved if there isn’t an empty space on the other side. There is no way to roll back one move, so if you make any mistakes, you have to restart the whole puzzle.
As you get deeper into the game, you will find that the red orbs need to be moved onto buttons and that keys need to be collected before you can make it to the green teleport stone. These new mechanics are introduced at a steady pace, and the game feels a lot longer than 15 levels as a result.
Picoban is a really nice, accessible little puzzle game for those who like a challenge!
One Room Dungeon by Trasevol Dog
One Room Dungeon, a Ludum Dare 37 submission, has you running around a series of rooms (arms flailing) and activating white tiles. Once activated the white tiles then change color.
Once all of the tiles are turned, the room around you starts to shake, and you can bash your character straight into any of the four walls to shift to a different room and change all of the tiles within it. As you run through room after room, monsters and bombs will start appearing, as well as special tiles to mess you up. These monsters will chip away at your health if they touch you, so be on the look-out for health tiles to slide over. The rooms will increase in both challenge and intensity as you play this one of a kind dungeon crawler!
Tiny Parkour by Arnodick
Tiny Parkour is the best micro-parkour you will ever find.
Each of these long levels are filled with tiny platforms, stairways, and different routes to get to the end. The title screen is even a parkour course to get you used to playing the game, although it is not as long as the normal courses. To keep you going the right way, there are animated markers which you can follow as well as collect. Sometimes these serve as checkpoints for very challenging points in the game, while often the are just there to give you some direction.
You can play Tiny Parkour zoomed out, seeing the entirety of the level, or zoomed in on your character and the direct areas around you; This will help for more precision jumping. Although these levels may seem overwhelming at first, following the markers and taking your time to plot out where you are going really helps. This tiny parkour course is no joke.
PICO-8 games, although similar in style, cover a large variety of genres of games. These are only a taste of games I have seen out there on the platform. You can also find beautiful animated pixel art made within the restrictions of the console from time to time. It really is an amazing fantasy console.
Please note: A previous and less concise version of this article was, until recently, published on a third-party website, however it has since been removed. In addition to being rehosted, this version has been edited and added to.