Future past: the PocketCHIP and Pico-8

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I’m a daily visitor to The Verge and this week they got me hip to the PocketCHIP, a handheld gaming/computer device thing…and yes, that’s the best way to describe it.

What got my attention first was the PocketChip’s design. It looks very old…like 80s old, and I’m cool with that kind of thing. Growing up with cheap LCD games like those from Tiger has me keen to simple things wrapped in a cool package. The PocketCHIP, however, is anything but simple.

The PocketCHIP

The PocketCHIP is really just a monitor and case for the CHIP mini-computer. The CHIP is a $9 mini-computer (yes, only $9) that can do all sorts of things a normal computer can do..and one of those things is play games…and that always gets my attention. I mean, even the marketing calls out its ability to play video games. Sure, it can do more, but really it’s trying to be a gaming platform.

As I kept diving more and more into the PocketCHIP, I discovered that it will be shipping with a low-level game programming language called Pico-8. As a career programmer and hobby game maker, this also got my attention. So far, everything I’m reading is awesome.

Cool looking device: check.
Plays video games: check.
Can make your own games: check.

Making my own games

Pico-8

Make your own games with Pico-8

But before I got too excited about all of this and placed my purchase for all of the above, I did a little more research to see if this language and platform had some legs. The last thing I want to do is invest in something that has limited support and no community around it. That led me to the Pico-8 web site where there is a large catalog of indie games that are ready to play. Better yet, all the games are also very retro and fantastic. These are the games I love to play…and better yet, the ones I want to make.

I’ve been trying to make video games almost my entire life, ever since my family got our first computer back in the early 90s. I cut my teeth on QBasic and never looked back. I tried my luck with Game Maker, Unity (for Ouya), web games and now I think Pico-8 will be my next gaming challenge.

As I did more research, I found that Pico-8 is a very limited language and it was designed that way. Making these games is akin to making NES or GameBoy games. Very limited disk space, limited memory and limited graphics. But it does come with its own sprite and music editors, very cool. The guy that made Pico-8 super limited intentionally as a way to make people think and come up with great games. I can get behind that.

So now I’m sold but I jumped the gun a bit. I bought a license for the Pico-8 language, which is only $15, so I could start playing around with it, yet PocketCHIP comes with Pico-8 built-in. Oh well…I’m hoping that my jump start with Pico-8 will get me to a point where I have a tiny game almost done by the time my PocketCHIP arrives, then I can just plug in and go.

Pico-8

Just because it’s simple does’t mean it’s not fun.

Another cool thing about the Pico-8 games are that they can be played in your web browser. You can play all the games on the Pico-8 web site right in your browser while you’re killing time at lunch. Then just imagine yourself playing those games on your Casio-era-looking PocketCHIP handheld. Rad.

In the end, I’m sure my little adventure with Pico-8 and the PocketCHIP will end like others before…I get excited at the novelty, make one game and then get bored. But I’m hoping that’s not the case. Part of my plan is make games for my preschooler that she can play on the PocketCHIP. I think it will be cool to let her play something retro-inspired on a device that actually has buttons. Plus, with her being my motivation, it should help me keep my games simple and too the point, which I often struggle with.

The PocketCHIP won’t be for everyone. It’s not limited to wannabe game developers like myself. It comes with access to lots of games that you can just play without worry. You don’t need to program a damn thing if you don’t want to. But for those that like to play as well as create, the PocketCHIP/Pico-8 combo is a very accessible and affordable way to flex those brain muscles.

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Brian is a staff writer at TMA. He races Hot Wheels at RedlineDerby.com while watching cartoons with his kid. You can follow @morningtoast on Twitter.

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