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The PICO-8 is a fantasy computer for making, playing and sharing tiny games and demos.

There are built-in tools for development: code, sprites, maps, sound editors and the command line, which is enough to create a mini retro game. At the exit you will get a cartridge file, which can be stored and played on the website.

Also, the game can be packed into a player that works on all popular platforms and distribute as you wish. To make a retro styled game the whole process of creation takes place under some technical limitations: 128x128 pixels display, 16 color palette, 256 8x8 color sprites and 4 channel sound

Setting up

The PICO-8 fantasy computer is an all-in-one creation and execution platform.

Unfortunately, the PICO-8 is a commercial package and should be purchased before you can get started.

You can go to https://lexaloffle.itch.io/pico-8 to purchase and then download the package for your platform of choice (Windows, OSX and even Raspberry Pi).

Getting started

PICO-8 programs are coded using the Lua scripting language.

The main function used for updating the screen (and called either 30 or 60 times a second) is the _DRAW() function, so this function is also a requirement for doing anything with graphics.

Most animated effects will also need to use some kind of a timer, so you are likely to also use the built-in time() function or keep track of your time (t) yourself as well. So a minimal setup would look something like this:

-- your effect code

Here is a single-image PICO-8 Cheat sheet to get you started.

Video display

The PICO-8 has a 128x128 pixel display with 16 colors which can be accessed via a wide range of graphics functions.

Built-in Draw functions

Here are a couple of built-in drawing functions you can use:


COLOR(color) - Set default color
PAL(destindex,sourceindex) - Replace dest colorindex with color from sourceindex
FILLP(mask) -- Set fill pattern for circ, circfill, rect, rectfill, pset, and line

Getting something on screen

Here is a bit of code to get you started:

FOR Y=0,128 DO FOR X=0,128 DO

Which will display an animated XOR pattern.

Color Palette

Unfortunately for us sizecoders, the PICO-8 comes with a fixed palette of 16 colors with size-unfriendly color indexing (https://lospec.com/palette-list/pico-8).

Luckily, the PICO-8 provides a PAL(source,dest) function that lets you swap the color index of each color, but these are quite costly at 8-10 bytes per colorswap call.

Colorindex table

One of the easier ways to get a nice color-ramp without using the PAL function is to use a color indextable like so:


This method gives you the most freedom in terms of building your custom ramp of colors.

Color index shuffling

Alternatively, you can shuffle your color indices a bit to get 'somewhat workable' colors.

A couple of examples for this are:

  • color+4 / pal(4,0) - Replaces color index 4 with 0(black) for a 4-shade Grayscale
  • color&7*2 - Black, purple, brown, white
  • (color&7)^2 - Black, blue, brown, yellow

But feel free to experiment yourself as well and let us know on Discord if you find something cool.


The PICO-8 does not allow you to poke the sound registers directly, but instead works with the SFX(effectindex) command to generate sounds. However we are allowed to poke the piece of memory that holds the sound effect data, like so:


PICO-8 vs TIC-80 Sizecoding

If you are familiar with TIC-80 sizecoding, but less with PICO-8. This chapter will help you point out the main differences between the 2 platforms:

  • Performance on PICO-8 is more limited. The use of instructions/tokens (inside and outside loops) will have a performance/token penalty.
  • Less code to work with (for a typical 256byte intro 229 characters vs 300-400 characters of LZ compressed code on the TIC-80)
  • Code-editor = Escape (prepare to have your desktop filled with screenshots by accidentally pressing F1 ;-)
  • All alphabetic letters can be tugged against numeric chars (0..9) on PICO-8
  • Math functions don't need the MATH. prefix (SIN, COS, ATAN2, SQRT, SGN, RND, etc.)
  • No integer divisions are needed anymore for logical operations
  • The PICO-8 has custom characters available in the font (character numbers 128+).
  • The PICO-8 Lua variant supports x+=value / x-=value
  • The XOR operator is ^^ instead of ~
  • Warning: The POKE4 function pokes 4 bytes intro memory instead of a nibble. Nibble poke is not available.

Final optimisations and P8 Cartridge Release

When you are happy with your intro and want to get it ready for release, it becomes time to look at squeezing those last bytes.

Final optimisations can be done by stringing as much code together on single lines and removing any extra spaces and whitelines.

Here are a couple of other tips and tricks that help you squeeze those final bytes:

  • You can always directly stick a letter A..Z after a number 0..9 or a bracket.
  • Make sure to reorder variable assigments and code around to make use of optimal letter/number squeezing.
  • Unlike the TIC-80 , no integer divides (like //1) are usually necessary for doing logical operations.
  • Using a GOTO loop construction like ::L:: <yourcode> FLIP()GOTO L will save you 1 character over FUNCTION _DRAW() <yourcode> END
  • You can alias functions that you are going to use more frequently, e.g. S=SIN or R=RND
  • Using decimal values instead of hexadecimal will save 1 character (32768 vs 0x8000)
  • Did you know that the T() shorthand version of the TIME() function is also available?
  • Remember that ?"text",x,y is a shorthand for PRINT("text",x,y), however it does require its own newline (2x enter) to work

The most common way to create tiny intros for Pico-8 was to use the raw .P8 format which contained the raw LUA code + a minimum header of 27 bytes:

pico-8 cartridge


Followed by your raw Lua code, so this leaves:

  • 101 characters for a 128 byte intro.
  • 229 characters for a 256 byte intro.
  • 485 characters for a 512 byte intro.
  • 997 characters for a 1024 byte intro.

The number of used characters can be made visible in the bottom right of the PICO-8 code editor, so that you can keep track.

You can edit the cartridge with the above header in an external editor or find and strip them down from your internal PICO-8 cartridge folder (type FOLDER to jump directly to your cartridge folder and/or edit the PICO-8 config.txt to save your P8 cartridge files elsewhere).

Tiny ROM Export

With the release of PICO-8 0.2.4c it is now also possible to export the lua codeblock directly to .p8.rom PNG ARGB data, using the following export option:


This results in a P8.ROM file that roughly matches the number of characters used in the LUA code, giving you slightly more space to work with.

Additional Resources

Sizecoding on the PICO-8 is still in its infancy, but luckily there is already plenty of information to get you started!