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Making a handheld Pico8 console, part 1

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A while ago I found out about a "fantasy console" named Pico-8, which is a nifty little target for writing constrained games and thought "how hard could it be to build a hardware version of this?" (that could run some unmodified games) which has sent me down quite a deep rabbit hole

The Pico-8 console has well defined (although mildly vague) specifications:

  • 128x128, 16 color display
  • 4 audio channels, 8 waveforms
  • 6 button controller, per player
  • Games are written in Lua (~5.2)
    • Up to 2Mb of Lua memory may be used
  • Games are packaged as "Cartridges" which are specified as:
    • 32KB data
    • 128x128 pixel sprite sheet
    • 128x32 tile map
    • 64 sound patterns
    • 64 music patterns

My initial idea was to implement this on an RP2040 mostly so I could name it "Pico on Pico" (and because the toolchain is quite nice); this later proved pretty unworkable.

Getting started

As a first step, I went through the FAQ which shows an animated "hello world"; this is a perfect first program to write.

The demo source looks like this:

function _draw()
  for i=1,11 do               -- for each letter
    for j=0,7 do              -- for each rainbow trail part
      t1 = t + i*4 - j*2      -- adjusted time
      y = 45-j + cos(t1/50)*5 -- vertical position
      pal(7, 14-j)            -- remap colour from white
      spr(16+i, 8+i*8, y)     -- draw letter sprite

  print("this is pico-8", 37, 70, 14)
  print("nice to meet you", 34, 80, 12)
  spr(1, 64-4, 90) -- draw heart sprite
  t += 1

and is supposed to render like this:

There are some things of note in this example snippet:

  • The function _draw is called automatically by the game loop
  • There are some engine-defined functions (the "console API"?): pal, spr, print, cos
  • Non-standard Lua syntax: t += 1

The basic engine

Pico-8 operations mostly either put sprites on screen or alter the draw state (which makes future operations behave differently).

My implementation at this stage was:

  • Parse cartridge format (text-based)
  • Implement spr (copy a sprite from the cartridge to framebuffer)
  • Implement cls (blank the framebuffer)
  • Implement pal (swaps indexes on palette, making future spr render with different colors)

And yes, this was missing print, but that'll come later

Displaying something on screen

I knew from the beginning that doing embedded-only development was going to be too painful, so I should write the game "engine" in such a way that it could be (mostly) used on a desktop environment, with some kind of pluggable back-ends for embedded targets.

Started by following Lazy Foo's tutorials as SDL seemed like a reasonable level of complexity/abstraction for my skills (which, in this area, are zero).

After I managed to display something on my screen, I followed this tutorial on embedding Lua in C, which was surprisingly easy, although, obviously, Lua5.2 does not support the custom Pico-8 extensions to the syntax, so I altered the hello world for now.

Running on hardware

With something basic that'd display on SDL, I wanted to define a reasonable abstraction for the different backends, I settled with this API

bool init_video(); // false on failure to init
void video_close();
void gfx_flip();
void delay(uint16_t ms);
bool handle_input(); // true to quit
uint32_t now();

and started writing the implementation for the Pico. For display/video, I chose an ST7735-based display only based on the fact that it'd ship quickly and there seemed to be some drivers already implemented online.

I cloned the drivers, compiled the Pico port and got something on the display:

which, while it made me very happy, it had some pretty clear issues:

  • It is so slow
  • Colors are wrong (top-most "hello world" should be white)
  • The curve (path? arc?) followed by the words is incorrect

Improving the ST7735 driver

The driver I found online had a lot of features, drawing lines, shapes, words, colors, etc, but I needed none of that, all I needed was blitting entire framebuffers to screen.

When looking at the driver code, I saw that the blit operation was calling set_pixel in a loop, which is very slow, as it has to start an SPI transaction each time. I replaced this function with my own send_buffer, which would just send the entire framebuffer in one go.

While I was poking in the driver, I also changed the expected color format from BGR to RGB, and this was the result:

Improving the developer experience

The dev cycle up to this point was pretty atrocious, to get a build onto the RP2040 I had to:

  • Unplug the pico
  • Press bootsel while re-plugging the pico
  • Mount the pico
  • Drag & drop the new files

All of this.. to see my code crash slightly farther down the line.

So I added a "debug step" into the input polling function: a mechanism to reset into "Mass storage" mode when receiving "r" over usb-uart.. at least I could skip the "unplug, press, replug" part.

    int c = getchar_timeout_us(0);
    switch (c) {
    case 'r':
        reset_usb_boot(0, 0);

This snippet improved my dev life dramatically.

Afterwards I also added a udev script that automatically mounts & copies the latest build to the RP2040 when it is detected. This means that pressing "r" over UART will end up with a new build in the pico in ~8s.

Supporting Lua language extensions

As Pico-8 uses a "custom" Lua, which has some language extensions but most importantly, it uses fixed-point arithmetic, I looked around a bit and luckily found z8lua: A Lua fork for the Pico-8 syntax

Integrating z8lua into the build was trivial at first. It built and ran just fine on the SDL port, but when I tried to run it on the RP2040 I got tons of type-casting errors, as the RP2040 is a 32 bit architecture.

After hours of manually casting to proper type widths (fork here), it finally compiled, but it would crash immediately on the Pico. Took me a while to figure out that luaL_checkversion can return errors, and the error it returned was perfectly clear:

bad conversion number->int; must recompile Lua with proper settings

I then changed LUA_INT32 and LUA_UNSIGNED, fixed more type casts and managed to run z8lua on the Pico. Now it has support for the += operator, yay!


You can find the repo with the sources + schematic here.