Pixel Session Vol. 1

words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Trasevol_Dog for PC, Mac, and Linux, originally released in 2016.
Pixel Session Vol. 1 is a collection of five arcade-style games developed using Pico-8, a tool developed specifically for the creation of chunky low-rez arcade titles. The software offers a hard limit of 16 colors, 8x8 sprites, 4-channel audio, and a resolution of 128x128 pixels, with a total “cartridge” size of 32 kilobytes. The game collection comes as a set of zipped files, with only the first game, Descent, unlocked from the start. Each of the other zipped files is password protected, and progress is made by getting a high rank in one game, which reveals the password to unlock the next (or you can cheat, if you’re naughty).

Each game focuses on a different set of mechanics, although the games are united by a similar visual style and (very short) looped chiptune tracks. Controls for each game are easy to learn, with a set of pictographs on the title screens indicating the directional controls and one or two action buttons. As with classic arcade machines, most games increase in difficulty quite quickly as they ramp up in speed, pump out more enemies, or ask more of the player’s dexterity, while the goal is to achieve the highest score possible. When killed, the player is given a rank and returned to the title screen, and his high score is saved.

Of all the games in the collection, Descent is the most straightforward actioner. The player takes control of a black stick figure standing on a tower of blue and red beams that continually rise toward the top of the screen. Red beams have the letter “Z” written on them, while blue beams have the letter “X”, and pressing the corresponding keyboard letter causes the beams to disappear.

As the player descends, bouncing rings enter from the left and right sides of the screen. When standing on solid ground, these rings are pretty easy to deal with, as jumping onto them causes them to be destroyed. However, since the player is always descending, rings may drop down from much greater heights, making their movements less predictable.

Getting hit by a ring causes the player to lose one unit of health from his 3-heart meter, as does pressing the incorrect “Z” or “X” key. Getting scrolled off the top of the screen results in an instant game over.

From a scoring standpoint, the rings do very little, adding just a single point to the counter, whereas destroying a beam grants the player 10 points. As such, rings are generally best avoided, and players are encouraged to destroy beams quickly, which further adds to the risk as rings fall from greater heights, making them more difficult to avoid. The lower the player descends, the more quickly these rings are spawned, and some rings move more quickly than others, further adding to the complexity.

Lightner is the easiest game of the bunch, offering a slower-paced casual experience, especially when compared to Descent. Here, the player is able to freely wander around and enclosed arena, firing off a long electrical beam, and enemies caught between the player and the end of the beam are killed.

However, there is no timer and enemies move slowly, so there is also no pressure to wipe out enemies with any kind of speed. Instead, the player may fire off a long beam at the start of the game and then wander slowly around the environment, destroying every enemy that spawns into play. Enemies occasionally hug the walls, making them harder to reach, but they’ll eventually meander to their demise if the player waits long enough.

Players earn two points for each enemy killed and an ever-increasing bonus as waves are cleared. Once the player has mastered the basic controls, achieving the top rank can be done in just one or two attempts. This also makes the game the least like a traditional arcade title, as such games were designed to offer challenging experiences that enticed players to pump in additional quarters in order to make progress, with most offering very little room for dawdling.

In B1g Br0th3r, a giant eyeball is constantly watching you as you as words rise up from the bottom of the screen. Every so often, black static appears in a vertical line, signaling the player to move out of the way before the beam solidifies and cause him to take damage. The player character can sustain a single hit, after which he automatically engages a shield, but getting hit again before the shield can recharge results in death.

The words that rise up are color-coded, with neutral words appearing in white, generally positive words appearing in green, and negative words in red. Your goal is to touch five of the green words as you move slowly around the screen, and once five have been touched, all of the green words begin flashing, and touching one of these sends the player to the next level.

It’s not enough to simply touch the words, however, as players must touch them and move away in order for them to count, and it’s possible for them to be destroyed by the black static beams as well. Touching a red word causes the black static beams to become significantly wider, making it more difficult for the player to steer clear of them before they engage. Green and red words disappear after being touched, but white ones do not, and standing on them too long can push the player up off the top of the screen for an instant kill.

As the player moves from one level to the next, the black static beams engage more frequently. Due to the game’s dirty visual style, it can sometimes be difficult to visually separate safe areas from those that are about to be burned by static beams, especially while trying to focus on the ever-rising words, which makes it difficult to make productive moves to get to the next level.

Charging Panic is a game about creating clones and charging batteries. At the beginning of the game, the player is able to create a single clone, and buttons occasionally appear on the floor of the environment. Walking onto a button - or leading your clone over to stand on it - causes the adjacent meter to slowly charge. Once the meter is filled, it disappears.

Things escalate quickly as each successful charge results in the ability to create a new clone, and chargers grow more complex as well, offering ones with two buttons, then clusters or rows of four, and so on. If a charger has nine buttons, you have to lead nine of your clones over to it and get them positioned to stand on each of the buttons… but enemies are constantly sweeping in to kill them.

Floating red rings occasionally enter the arena and move slowly around, destroying any clones on contact, but you are able to attack and destroy them. As such, this is very much a game about managing resources, as the clones must to do the work of charging, and the player must create new ones, defend them, and lead clusters of clones to new chargers as they pop up.

The pace of the game steadily increases with large numbers of chargers popping up all over, and very little time to charge them. You can slow their depletion by having just some of the buttons depressed, but if a charger reaches zero, it disappears, taking one unit of your health along with it. After three mistakes, it’s game over.

Chroma Cannon is very simple and not overly challenging. You take control of a turret in the center of the room, which you are able to spin 360 degrees clockwise or counterclockwise. Along the outside of the room, worms move in concentric circles approaching the turret. Each worm is a different color, and the player must change the turret to the color of the worm in order to destroy it.

Each time the player scores 1,000 points, he moves to the next level, where he must cycle through a different set of colors. Colors continue to change, and worms get faster with later levels, but the core gameplay does not grow more complex. In fact, simply spinning the cannon and mashing the FIRE button, while occasionally cycling colors will get you pretty far.

Aside from the speed increase, the only real complexity comes when a pair of worms overlaps one another, or when the colors are visually very similar, such as yellow and orange. Getting a high ranking on this final game presents the player with a code to unlock the end credits sequence.

Pixel Session Vol. 1 was developed by Trasevol_Dog, a prolific Pico-8 developer who enjoys creating prototypes and entering game jams.