Exploring Picotron

Lately I’ve been playing around with Picotron, a recently released “fantasy workstation”.

What is it?

If that sounds at all similar to the PICO-8 fantasy console, that’s because it is! Picotron is made by the same developer and in some ways feels like a sequel to PICO-8 (while also feeling quite different in other ways).

Now if you haven’t heard the term “fantasy console” before, imagine a retro game emulator made for a system that never existed. Many of the popular fantasy consoles I’m aware of come with integrated game development tools that encourage experimentation and sharing.

So what makes a “fantasy workstation”? Same idea, but picture a retro computer in place of a game console. Picotron still has a lot of the DNA of PICO-8, but it now features a bigger and higher resolution screen, more performance, and a floating window desktop environment.

If you’re curious about any of the details, I’d recommend checking out the Picotron homepage then coming back here.

How is it?

I dabbled in PICO-8 a bit. I open it now and then to check out the cool new things that have been made for it, and I even started a couple game prototypes that never became anything. I suspect I’d probably have gotten more into it if I had a handheld device that ran it.

Picotron, to me, is much more interesting. Don’t get me wrong, PICO-8 is amazing and the community behind it is constantly putting out really impressive projects. But I see a lot of potential with Picotron.

Part of that is because of the surface level differences. I really appreciate the extra resolution Picotron provides, for starters. PICO-8 often feels just slightly too blocky for me. There’s also the matter of the two emulating different types of devices, a console and a desktop workstation. Personally, if I’m on a computer already, the workstation just feels more natural.

There’s one, more interesting difference that you discover as you start to explore Picotron more.

If you dig into it, you start to see that Picotron is more customizable and extensible than it first looks. You can code up your own live wallpaper or screensaver. You can create your own collections of games or software saved in folders around your desktop. You can write your own commands. You could even create your own development tools and launch them side-by-side the integrated ones with a startup script. Based on my digging I suspect you could even go as far as writing your own window manager.

The main reason I’m liking Picotron so far is that it feels decently open ended and hackable, which I guess you’d expect it to be with it being a fantasy workstation instead of a console. Yeah, you can develop games on it (and I imagine that’ll be the primary use for a lot of people), but it’s also capable of more.

What’s it like to use?

So far I’ve published a Picotron recreation of the Pong Wars website that I saw getting shared around a little while back. I think it makes for a nice live wallpaper!

I only ended up touching the code editor for this project, and I had to brush up on my Lua. The editor especially is where I was grateful for Picotron’s higher resolution (well, compared to the PICO-8!). The code editor is a bit simplistic but perfectly usable for simple projects like this one. I’m looking forward to getting familiar with more of the features in the future.

The main downside right now is that there’s no full API documentation yet with Picotron being so new. You can mostly get by with a combination of Picotron’s user manual and PICO-8’s API documentation since the two APIs have a lot in common. If you still can’t find what you need, you can look at the code of any of Picotron’s bundled software for examples, or downloading and looking at the code of others’ programs is also really easy. In a way, that’s part of the fun of checking out Picotron right now. The community is in an interesting stage where everyone is figuring things out together.

At this early stage Picotron feels part toy, part serious tool. That’s exactly what I’m liking about it. Picotron recaptures the fun and wonder that I think used to be easier to find in computing.

Here’s a couple more links if you’re still curious about Picotron.

— JP

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