If things go as expected, four new video game handhelds will launch this year. And everyone is primed to offer something different. The next Switch will have a brighter, more vibrant OLED display; Valven Steam Deck is a gaming computer in your hands; and the Analogen Pocket handheld creates the original Game Boy hardware while adding modern upgrades such as a better LCD screen and the ability to connect to an HDTV.
And then there’s Panic’s Playdate. While the aforementioned handhelds are almost consistent with technical updates, Playdate offers something a lot weird. It looks kind of like a Game Boy coming from an alien world. There are familiar elements like the D-pad and face buttons, but many of its games are controlled by a crank that opens to the side. And these games are only available in black and white, and will eventually be released as part of the weekly mystery drops.
It sounds weird and fascinating, and in the last few days I had the opportunity to get into the parallel universe of PlayDate from an almost final version of the device. It definitely is Is weird – but it also makes it exciting.
The most striking thing about Playdate is its electric yellow color scheme. It stands out in the world of smartphones, which are mostly black tiles. It is also a square measuring 76 x 74 mm, unlike the more general rectangle, and is only 9 mm thick. Basically, it’s small. About half of the front has a glossy 400 × 240 display with a glossy D-pad and A and B buttons underneath, just like in the original Game Boy. There is also a home / menu button in the upper right corner, a right shoulder lock button and a headphone jack and USB-C port at the bottom. A small but surprisingly loud speaker runs to the right of the screen. So far, nothing too weird until you see a silver crank protrude to the side. The PlayDate crank is about an inch long, and when not in use, its handle opens nicely to the side of the device.
The company says the version on which the player is made is the final hardware (the software is still being changed) and it is a great device to keep. The body of the Playdate has a comfortable matte construction that is both comfortable and stain-free, while the buttons – and the D-pad in particular – are satisfactorily clickable. If you have big hands, it can be a little cramped because the pillow and buttons are very close together, but I found it comfortable enough for long sessions. Most importantly, it’s fun and playful. This is clearly a device designed for playing video games.
The screen is similar in the same way. It is sharp but is completely black and white and has no backlight. It’s kind of like playing games on a high-end Kindle. It is not reflective, unlike a switch, for example. I had no problem playing games outdoors in the sun, even with games with dark graphics. With a good touch, when the handheld goes to sleep, its display turns into a simple analog clock. No backlight is a scam, but at least it means the Playdate has a long battery life; Panic promises eight hours of continuous gameplay, and it turned out to be true after spending time on my short device.
There were four games in my preview unit, and they all differed greatly. Probably the most significant is Crankin Introduces: A Time Travel Adventure, from Katamari creator Keita Takahashi. It’s basically a platform game about a guy who’s late all the time for dating. To get on time, he has to avoid floating butterflies, literal obstacles and loading pigs. The twist is that you do not control the nominal Crankin directly. Instead, you move him back and forth over time. The game is completely controlled by a crank that allows you to either move forward or backward in his obstacle-free functions. So if a butterfly floats past, for example, you might want to move Crank forward to the point where he’s bent over the smell of a flower, so the fault passes by. It took a while to figure out what to do, but once I understood the concept, the game became fun.
Elsewhere is Your lost marble, a combination of a visual novel and a puzzle game. In it, you follow a young girl named Prota who works in some sort of scientific institution that studies memory. I’m not claiming to understand that, but for some reason Prota is able to access certain memories by playing a classic ball-maze puzzle. It’s weird, but the crank fits in well when you turn it to move the maze around the ball in search of memory. Your lost marble It also looks good, with big, bold character portraits that take advantage of the hardware’s limited features, and with some really silly and hilarious writings. It’s a fun, weird remix of genres that feels at home on Playdate.
The most surprising game I played was Saturday Edition. It was surprising because it is straightforward. It’s a classic point-and-click-style adventure, and it doesn’t use a crank at all (at least from what I played); instead, you use the D-pad and buttons to roam the city, collect clues, and solve puzzles. It’s stripped down enough to make it feel comfortable to play with just two buttons, and the grainy graphics make it feel like a long-lost PC game. If nothing else, Saturday Edition is a good indication that Playdate is home to non-silly crank-controlled games. It works well enough for more traditional titles as well.
The rounding of the quartet is Wiping Whitewater, an arcade-style surfing game that I can’t say much about because I couldn’t figure out the controls. According to what I can tell, you have to use the crank to spin the board and ride the wave, but no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t stay on for a few seconds at a time. It is entirely possible that this is a “I” problem, but it shows that the unique nature of crank guides can lead to steeper learning curves than usual.
One thing I couldn’t experience with my Playdate is actually one of the most important aspects of the device: the surprise. When the handheld finally boots, new games will be released “Seasons.” Basically, every season, a new mystery game appears on your Playdate once a week. The release is the same for everyone, making for a kind of unique meeting viewing-style experience. The entire Playdate offering depends a lot on what these games are like, as well as the community discovery process. A few days on the handheld has made me excited about what mysteries are in store.
Playdate pre-orders will open on July 29th, the first batch of which is expected to be delivered “by the end of this year”.