Curious Case of PICO-8 Flying
Updated: May 30
I was vaguely reminded of something during a discussion about childhood flight games and sims. A classic "what sparked your interest in simulated aviation?" conversation. Many late nights ago, I searched for a helicopter game for Amiga personal computers produced by Commodore in the mid-1980s and early 1990s. To my surprise, I found what appeared to be the entire first level of the game uploaded to a website. Trying to figure out if this was piracy or video game preservation, I was confused to see that it was released on the PICO-8 game console, a platform I had never heard of in years of video game collecting. You can imagine my face when I finally realized this was a demake of the original game I remembered on a "fantasy game console." A brief search for more flight-related games pushed me deeper into the platform and left an impression on me.
The development of PICO-8 as a platform is an unusual one. PICO-8 was created by Joseph "Zep" White and is a product of childhood nostalgia, combating boredom, and life of programming from New Zealand to Japan. It evolved from a design exercise referred to as LEX500 to practice for a general scripting component in its sister platform to an easy to access and program fantasy game console. Quoting the official website will describe what this concept is better than I can:
"A fantasy console is like a regular console, but without the inconvenience of actual hardware. PICO-8 has everything else that makes a console a console: machine specifications and display format, development tools, design culture, distribution platform, community and playership. It is similar to a retro game emulator, but for a machine that never existed. PICO-8's specifications and ecosystem are instead designed from scratch to produce something that has its own identity and feels real. Instead of physical cartridges, programs made for PICO-8 are distributed on .png images that look like cartridges, complete with labels and a fixed 32k data capacity."
While remaining within the limitations of a 16-color display of 128x128 pixels and 4-channel audio output, PICO-8 programmers have created games in just about every genre possible. With either keyboard and mouse or USB gamepads, most of the flight titles in the PICO-8's cartridge library are flight-themed shoot'em ups or flight arcade games that are demakes of existing retro games or are inspired by those same games.
In my case, the title I was reminded of was Zeewolf (1994) for the Amiga. What I found instead was Zed Wolf (2020), which was so similar it genuinely fooled me for a short time. Try it for yourself below:
Other notable flight titles include a near-perfect demake of X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter: Attack on the Deathstar from the Sharp X68000, Comanche 1/2 inspired by the series of the same name from NovaLogic and Endless Sky, an original arcadey flight shooter. However, I can't discuss this subject without mentioning Tiny Sim by Frederic Souchu and Thomas Cueni.
Tiny Sim is the first flight simulator for PICO-8 based on the Cessna 172R Skyhawk with a Garmin G1000 glass cockpit. The flight model was designed using observations of an actual pilot of the same aircraft throughout the game development process. The flight model is a bit more advanced than most would expect, as even the effects of wind on the flight path and indicated airspeed.
As detailed in its 34-page manual, the aircraft has many of its vital systems in working order. Horizontal Situation Indicators, navigation radios, glideslope indicators, GPS waypoints, instrument landing equipment, and similar systems are available on the Primary Flight Display screen and Multi-Function Display screen. Certain airfields have very high frequency omni-directional range (VOR) equipment and precision approach path indicator (PAPI) lights to further assist with landing.
The manual also includes a flight school section to help players get familiar with their aircraft systems and practice exercises to prevent stalls, different landing approaches, and coordinated turns. Basic airport information and an aeronautical chart are also provided.
In its own way, it is charming how the flying games on this fantasy console invoke feelings of nostalgia. Though this article mentions a small selection flight themed games, there are a few other titles beneath specific search terms (flight, plane, jet, etc.) on the official website. But, developers who create games for this console can distribute or sell them as they see fit, anywhere they want to. Who knows how many other flight arcade or flight simulation releases are out there for the PICO-8?
About the Writer
Aaron "Ribbon-Blue" Mendoza
Co-founder of Skyward Flight Media. After founding Electrosphere.info, the first English Ace Combat database, he has been involved in creating flight game-related websites, communities, and events since 2005. He explores past and present flight games and simulators with his extensive collection of game consoles and computers. Read Staff Profile.