PICO-8, a fantasy console created by Lexaloffle, deviates from the modern definition of a console, dissociating itself from high-end hardware, complex control schemes and expensive peripherals, in favor of simple game-creation and sharing. An all-in-one development system and emulated console, PICO-8’s harsh graphical and coding limitations force developers to streamline and minimize assets in their games. Once PICO-8 is installed, hundreds upon hundreds of free games are instantly available in the form of virtual cartridges, courtesy of Lexaloffle’s vibrant development community. One cartridge in particular that I’ve grown quite fond of is Hug Arena by Benjamin Soule, a simple arena fighter with an interesting hook: instead of attacking or killing enemies, they must instead be hugged, and forced to love the player.
Hug Arena is extremely simple to play. The arrow keys control movement, and a hug can be performed on enemies within a specific radius with a press of the Z key. It’s a simple control scheme, but when five or more enemies are on the screen at once, the game’s difficulty skyrockets. Certain enemies shoot projectiles that must be dodged before going in for a hug, while some will opt instead to chase the player. A love-bar at the bottom of the screen decreases as hugs are performed; love can be regenerated through the passing of time, or by cozying up to previously-converted enemies. As screens are cleared and the levels progress, the player can upgrade their power, speed, or love bar to more easily take on tougher enemies.
A standard play session of Hug Arena generally lasts 5-10 minutes, unless the player is well-seasoned and able to quickly progress to later levels. While its sound design and graphics are quite stark, the game is nonetheless a joy to play, as it nails its concept so cleanly and simply. To top off the experience, as with all games running in PICO-8, with two taps of the ESC key, the player is able to view and rummage through the game’s code, which provides quite an insight into the game’s development process.
Hug Arena isn’t deep, but it’s a great game to pick up and play for a quick challenge. As PICO-8 carts are free with the download of the virtual console from Lexaloffle’s website, I highly recommend making the $15 purchase, especially if you’re interested in PICO-8, or game development in general.