And so you want to choose a Fantasy Console

Making a game on a Fantasy Console is one of the best activity for any game development enthusiast. This small, curated, nostalgic “emulators” for consoles that never existed can bring you back to a simpler time when hardware was less capable and developer needed to make every bit of memory and every pixel count.

There is always a reason to play with a Fantasy Console. If you are an experienced developer, Fantasy Consoles represents a good challenge. If you are a new developer, Fantasy Consoles allows you to focus on the game and on the basics of game development without being side-tracked by all the bells and whistles of modern game engines.

But if you are reading this article, you already knows that. You are here because you want to dedicate your time on a Fantasy Console but you do not know which. After all, at the time I am writing, there are more than 40 fantasy consoles on the market and every one of it provides different constraints, different features and entirely different philosophical approaches.

So, how can we chose the right one?

How to choose a Fantasy Console

Luckily, we do not need to go over and evaluate in details all the 40 applications. In my opinion, based on development activity and community, in these days there are only three viable choices: the Pico8, the TIC-80, and the Pixel Vision 8.

Nevertheless, these three Fantasy Consoles cover a huge set of the design space, and they are almost completely three different things.

Therefore, the only way forward is to look in details at each one of them.

Pico8

Pico8 Logo

The Pico-8 is probably the most influential and successful Fantasy Console. It was created by Lexaloffle Games and it literally invented the term Fantasy Console.

A Pico8 game is very recognizable. If you follow a bit the game development community, you have probably already seen a Pico8 game somewhere. They are used for game jams, playable demo and, in some cases, even full games. For instance, one of the well-known success story is Celeste, born in 4 days as a game jam experiment and then developed into a full game in 2018.

A screnshot from a Pico8 game.
Figure 1. A screnshot from a Pico8 game.

Another fun things about Pico8 is that games are distributed in cartridge images. Actual Images. See the cartridge I have posted below? It is not an image of the game, it is the game. Games are encoded inside special PNG files.

This is not a picture, it is the game.
Figure 2. This is not a picture, it is the game.

So, Pico8 was “the first”, but what it brings on the table?

Limitations

Among all the fantasy consoles, Pico8 is probably the most opinionated. It has the most stringent hardware and design limitations. You are forced to use a 128 × 128 pixel resolution, of course, but you are also stuck with a fixed 16 colors palette. Similarly, you have only 4 audo channels and just 8 waveforms. This ensures that Pico8’s games are really aesthetically coherent and uniform with each other. That’s what I mean when I say that you can guess that a game was built on Pico8 just by looking at one screenshot.

However, Pico8 includes one of the most controversial limitations in a game console: the Token limit. Pico8 game’s code is not only limited in size but it also enforces a limit of 8192 tokens, where a token is, in short, a code element. For instance, the statement foo=1+1 consumes 5 tokens: foo, =,1, + and the last 1.

This token limit put a big barrier on the game complexity and length. Even early NES games such as Super Mario Bros. (1985) it is impossible to implement in Pico8 in its entirety even if it would be theoretically possible given the other hardware constraints. You may wonder: why? People favoring this limitation explain that it force the developer to not go crazy with the scope of the game. That is good advice in general but I can feel the void left by all those games that would be possible but are strangled by the token limit.

Finally, Pico8 can be coded only in Lua. There are no alternatives.

Other Info

Pico8 is a proprietary software and it costs about $15. Some people may prefer Open Source Fantasy Consoles. If you are one of them, this is a deal breaker.

On the other hand, Pico8 has the largest community of Fantasy Consoles enthusiast by miles. If you have any problem you can reach somebody for help. This is not so obvious in the other two Fantasy Consoles we will see.

TIC-80

TIC-80 Logo

The TIC-80 is a free and Open Source Fantasy Console (or, as they call it, Fantasy Computer) for making, playing and sharing tiny games. It is developed and maintained by Vadim Grigoruk (a.k.a. nesbox).

A picture from 8Bit Panda, an example game in TIC-80
Figure 3. A picture from 8Bit Panda, an example game in TIC-80

Limitations

As usual in Fantasy Consoles the whole process of creation and execution takes place under some technical limitations. However, they are less strict than Pico8’s. You have a 240×136 pixel display, 16 color palette (but customizable), 256 8×8 color sprites, 4 channel sound (but customizable waveforms), etc.

There is no token limits. Your cartridge needs to be confined in 64 KB (vs. the 32 KB of Pico8) and you can code also in JavaScript (and other more obscure languages like Wren and Fennel).

Another difference with Pico8 is that TIC-80 allows the possibility to use the mouse (both in editing and playing).

Other Info

Even if TIC-80 is Open Source, the binaries of the full-featured version can only be downloaded for $5 on itch.io or compiled from source. The Pro version includes the ability to Save/load cartridges in text format (to use external editors) and the ability to export the game for different platforms.

The TIC-80 is actively developed even if the last official release (0.70.6) goes back to two years ago (24th August 2018s).

From what I see, TIC-80 has smaller community of Pico8 but you have access to the source code and there is frequent activity on the GitHub repository.

Pixel Vision 8

Pixel Vision 8 Logo

The Pixel Vision 8 (also known as PV8) is a unique example of customizable [[Fantasy Console]]. Its main developer is Jesse Freeman with external famous collaborators (in the gamedev community, at least) such as Christina-Antoinette Neofotistou (@CastPixel), Pedro Medeiros (@saint11) for art and Christer Kaitila (@McFunkypants) for music.

As the website says:

“PV8’s gives you full control over all of a game’s limitations such as resolution, system colors, the number of sprites that can be rendered, and even how big a game’s disk is.”

On one hand, this allows PV8 developers to adapt the “challenge” level to their skill and desires. For instance, a developer may want to challenge itself to create very tiny 4-colors “GameBoy-like” game, while other may decide to work on a much less limited environment. On the other, the consequence of a customizable fantasy console is that there is no uniformity in the final product. Games may have completely different looks and feels and much less predictable “runtime” behaviors.

It is also the only fantasy console I am aware of that does no use the command line interface. Instead, its Pixel Vision OS is a fully featured and adorable icon-based file system made up of a desktop, windows, and full drag and drop support.

A small GIF of the Pixel Vision OS in action (from the official page).
Figure 4. A small GIF of the Pixel Vision OS in action (from the official page).

Limitations

As I said, limitations for Pixel Vision 8 are customizable. You can tie yourself as much as you like. However, out of the box, the Pixel Vision 8 includes “pre-build” configurations mimicking famous consoles of the past such as the NES and the Game Boy.

Other Infos

Pixel Vision 8 is currently free and the source code (in C#) is available on GitHub.

Pixel Vision 8 seems to have a smaller community with no clear community hub. However, the platform is currently heavily developed and the developer is really active on many social media and platforms.

Conclusions: what to choose

It is time to decide. If you have read up to this point and still have no preference, I have a clear answer for you: go with the Pico8. The Pico8 has by far the largest community among all the Fantasy Console. This means that it is easier to meet many passionate developers, share your projects, get feedbacks, and receive attention. Moreover, there are many tutorials online to create your own portable Pico8 physical console!

An image of the PicoChip, a portable Pico8 player.
Figure 5. An image of the PicoChip, a portable Pico8 player.

If, instead, you prefer a less limited environment or you like the idea of contributing to an Open Source Fantasy Console, you can go with both TIC-80 and the Pixel Vision 8. The former if you want a more authentic Fantasy Console experience, the latter if you want more flexibility and you want to bet on the most powerful horse in town.

What is your opinion? What is your favorite Fantasy Console? Am I missing some hidden gem? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter. See you next time.

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