How I Became a Hacker Using PICO-8 on PocketC.H.I.P.

Playing the PICO-8 game Celeste on Mega PocketC.H.I.P.!

Playing the PICO-8 game Celeste on Mega PocketC.H.I.P.!

To be completely honest, I didn’t get PICO-8 the first time I saw it back in October of 2015. At first glance, it was difficult to see why I’d love game developer software.

Now it’s June 2016, PICO-8 ships for free on PocketC.H.I.P. and I can’t stop playing with it.

PICO-8 is a modern interpretation of the 8-bit game consoles of the 1980s. Having grown up with the SNES and the SEGA Genesis, I was game to be thrown back into my childhood. Knowing that PICO-8 provides you all the tools needed to change any aspect of any game is a cool thought, but outside of context, it can be a difficult concept to grasp. Then I became obsessed with Celeste, a 2D jumping, puzzle game, and the gaps began to fill in themselves.


Leveling Up

Celeste is difficult, but in the best way. The puzzles themselves are challenging, as is the execution necessary to complete them. It’s beautifully rendered, the sound effects are fun, and the music is still stuck in my head. It’s the kind of game that you want to be really good at.

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When I started playing, I was anything but good.  I wasn’t able to make the jump on the first level (yes, the first…) so I opened the editor to explore the creative tools PICO-8 offers. Discovering the map editor, I added a few ‘bridges’ to make level one a bit more beatable. It took about a minute and a half to make the change, load the game with my change and beat the first level.

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Of course, level two was difficult as well, but the experience of changing the game was a game-changer for me. In addition to playing, my brain was actively looking what I would change next.


Change Everything

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Celeste looks great as a redhead, but after entering the game editor, I thought “what if she went punky and dyed her hair neon green?”

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After reloading the game with the hair change, I found that when she jumps, her red ‘roots’ show. If this ‘hair trail’ wasn’t in the sprite editor, how could I change it?


No Cheat Codes, Just Source Code

The answer certainly would lie in the source code. Somewhere. To be honest I still haven’t found it. While searching, I was distracted by a handful of other lines of code, namely the line that controlled Celeste’s jump height.

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Thus began an intense period of trial and error, adjusting single values in the code to see what would happen to the gameplay experience. Speed. Acceleration. Gravity. Thanks to the help from a young girl at Maker Faire, I’m now experimenting with removing entire lines. Like the line that controls the death on the spikes. Exploring the source code is now just as much fun as the game itself.


The Game Within the Game

So now Celeste represents two different games for me. One in which I try to become the world’s best Celeste player (on PocketC.H.I.P.). That crown will be hard to win. Tina has been speed running Celeste for a month now, and she is really good.

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The other in which I dig through code to see what I can change. Now that my feet are wet, I’m looking to see what lessons I can transfer to the other games available. It’s a sense of discovery that I’ve not had in a long long while and I hope (and foresee) others having a similar experience. Hacking PICO-8 games is fun and an organic introduction to the way games work.


What lies ahead

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With the tools available, the next step is making my own game. While I’ve not had the time yet, Crunch has! Using the tutorials in the latest PICO-8 Fanzine, he was able to make a game from scratch on PocketC.H.I.P. in around 3 hours. Check out CrunchBall.

I can’t wait to play (and hack) the games the C.H.I.P.ster community creates following Crunch’s footsteps. I’ll see if I can’t get him to write briefly about his experience. You hear that Crunch?! You’ve been challenged!

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Telling stories at and about Next Thing Co.

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PocketC.H.I.P.