The most impressive thing about the Playdate is that it’s being made at all. Portland, Ore.-based Panic announced its new portable gaming handheld back in May, and has been clear from the start that it’s a deliberately niche, retro product. That’s fine, but it’s also a portable system, which means it’s a part of the video game industry rapidly being overtaken by mobile devices. In a day and age when even a cheap cell phone can usually run some great games, there aren’t many reasons to have a second, games-only machine in your pocket or bag.
The portable gaming market has also traditionally been a dangerous place for any company that isn’t Nintendo, which has had a hammerlock on the portable space for decades. The last real attempt to complete with Nintendo’s handhelds was Sony’s PlayStation Vita, which never quite got off the ground and was quietly discontinued this past March. Even Nintendo has quietly let its 3DS system wither on the vine lately, in favor of focusing on the Switch’s portability and bringing several major Nintendo franchises to iOS and Android.
With all of that in mind, the Playdate looks on paper like it ought to be dead on arrival. It’s a retro-styled handheld device, running old-fashioned 2-bit black-and-white games on a 2.7-inch screen, for a launch price of $149 (release date is scheduled for 2020). Its creator, Panic, makes applications for iOS and started publishing video games relatively recently; its second major release, Untitled Goose Game, came out in September to surprisingly universal acclaim.
What I appreciate, though, is that according to Panic, the Playdate primarily exists for the sheer thrill of having made the device itself. I’d like to see it find an audience, if only because it’s one of the crazier moves I’ve seen lately, and video games in general could always use a little more applied craziness.
I had a chance to go hands-on with the Playdate during PAX West, and my first impression is that it’s even smaller than it looked in its early publicity stills. The Playdate weighs about five ounces, and is roughly the size of a large pad of sticky notes. Its design recalls the original 1988 Game Boy to some extent, and I think that made me expect it’d feel more substantial than it does. It’s got a pleasing responsiveness to its face buttons, with a surprisingly loud speaker built in, although its weightlessness kept throwing me off.
The Playdate comes standard with a rotating analog crank controller that folds out from the right side of the unit. That controller was used to play the only Playdate title available for play at PAX, Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure.
Crankin’s was made by Keita Takahashi, the notoriously idiosyncratic Japanese developer who created the cult franchise Katamari Damacy. You play as a robot, who due to a series of distractions, is constantly running late for a date with his girlfriend. Crankin only moves forward when you turn the Playdate’s crank, and you can turn the crank backward to make him retrace his steps.
The trick to the game is that there are a number of obstacles between Crankin and his girlfriend, such as low-flying birds. What Crankin does with his day takes place independently of those obstacles, but you can rewind or fast-forward him along his route by turning the crank, and in so doing get him out of harm’s way.
For example, Crankin often bends over to smell a flower right after he leaves his house. You can rewind him to that point on his trip, while he’s kneeling, in order to avoid a bird that would otherwise hit him in the face. If you can get Crankin past all the obstacles in his way and reach his date, you pass the level and move on to the next, more complicated stage.
It really does feel like discovering some lost Game Boy prototype from the late ‘80s. Turning the crank is slightly awkward, but figuring out the precision and timing needed to get Crankin to relative safety is tricky, particularly with some of the later gimmicks. It’s a simple, absorbing puzzle game that I’d imagine would be great for kids.
Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure is the first in a planned “season” of 12 games that will come with the Playdate at launch. Each one will be released once a week for 11 weeks following the system’s debut, and each one is being kept a secret until they actually appear on your system. They’ll be wirelessly transmitted to your Playdate automatically once they’re available.
There may be more seasons of games for the Playdate in the wings, depending on how its launch goes. According to Greg Maletic, director of special projects at Panic and my tour guide for the system at PAX West, Panic has tentative plans for where to go next with the Playdate, including a list of 9,000 developers who’ve expressed interest in making new games for it. “We didn’t want to make a device, throw it over the fence, and say, ‘We can’t wait to see what you do with it!’” Maletic told me.
It’s hard to make any further predictions about the Playdate. It’s easy to be cynical about its chances in the current games marketplace, but weirder things have happened than an ’80s-retro wireless content platform finding an audience. A lot will depend on the rest of that first season of games and the Playdate’s launch window.
Since PAX West, Panic has been quiet on the subject of the Playdate, which I’d imagine owes a fair bit to the overwhelming popularity of Untitled Goose Game. It’s currently tentatively planned to release at some point in 2020, though the Playdate’s Twitter bio leaves that question conspicuously open.