Wireframe

Don't Panic!: How the Playdate injects a bit of whimsy into handheld gaming

By Ryan Lambie. Posted

Well, here it is: the world’s first hipster handheld. Announced in 2019, this is Panic Inc. and Teenage Engineering’s artisanal, craft beer take on a portable console: it’s retro, cute, and wilfully offbeat. Its talking point is, of course, the crank on the side – an addition that seems so counter-intuitive that it positively invites attention. How does it feel? Is it much more than a gimmick? The only way to find out, really, is by trying it out for yourself.

Measuring a diminutive 76 × 74 × 9 mm, the Playdate’s considerably smaller than most mobile phones or other handheld gaming devices on the market – Valve’s Steam Deck looks positively titanic by comparison. But it’s also weighty and solid, and even the crank, which folds out from an aperture on the side of the console, feels like it’ll stand up to hours of frantic twiddling.

The form factor isn’t all good news, though: the Playdate’s size and sharp edges means it feels a bit uncomfortable in the hands after prolonged use. Then there’s the monochrome display: its pixels are pin-sharp, but the lack of a backlight means that it’s not always easy to see. Sit in a dimly-lit room or outside on a sunny day, and you’ll likely find the screen eye strain-inducing at times.

Hardware gripes aside, Playdate’s interface fizzes with creative glee. Where most modern consoles take themselves incredibly seriously, Playdate aims to disarm you at every turn; switch the handheld on for the first time, and you’re treated to a charming interactive animation that shows you how to use the crank. Waking the device up from its sleep mode requires you to tap the power button on the top; a pair of cartoon eyes will open up with each press.

Then there are the games. These are added to the Playdate automatically, bundled together in seasons, and appear on the handheld as little gifts waiting for you to unwrap. The notion of games as digital surprises is a delightful one, and goes some way to justifying the Playdate’s quite hefty $179 retail price. That sum gets you 24 games, dished out regularly over the course of 12 weeks; at the time of writing, Panic hasn’t confirmed a second season or whether it’ll be free or not (“We’re lining up more games, and we’re working on cool ways to distribute them,” is the line currently on the firm’s website), but it’s quite simple to obtain games directly from indie developers and side-load them onto the device yourself.

Inevitably, the games we’ve encountered in the Playdate’s first season are a mixed bag. Genres range from arcade action to puzzlers to top-down RPG, so there’s something to suit most tastes. Diego Garcia’s birdwatching-themed adventure Casual Birder is adorable, though we’d argue that the Playdate’s form factor makes it a somewhat inhospitable venue for lengthier experiences. The ones we found ourselves gravitating more towards were the games I could pick up and enjoy for an idle few minutes here and there; Star Sled and HYPER METEOR offer fun twists on Asteroids, and make good use of the crank.

Ah yes, the crank. We should talk about that in a bit more depth, shouldn’t we? In some games, it’s a natural fit; in others, its usage feels forced. Surfing game Whitewater Wipeout makes superb use of it, with small turns of the crank altering the trajectory of your board as you cut through the waves. It’s in the games where you’re asked to frantically turn the crank that things go awry; turning it makes the entire device shift and wobble in your hand. Couple this with the unlit screen and you’ll find it’s sometimes difficult to see what you’re meant to be doing from one moment to the next.

Some duffers aside – Battleship Godios is a shooter where you catch your own bullet as it bounces back off enemies, which would be nice if you could actually see the bullet – there are some inspired moments in this first wave. My favourite’s Pick Pack Pup, a puzzler that doubles as a takedown of late capitalism in general and Amazon-style fulfilment centres in particular.

It’s games like these that point to where Playdate might head over the next few years. Its price and quirkiness mean it’s never going to appeal to everybody, but then it clearly wasn’t designed for a mass audience. It’s aimed at a specific kind of gamer, and a particular stripe of indie developer, and it’s how the latter will respond to the Playdate that has us most intrigued. The console’s open source, and Panic have already provided a suite of free dev tools to help foster a creative community around the device. And if it can throw up clever titles like Pick Pack Pup at launch, then who knows what other developers will make in the future?

Turn the page, and you’ll find out more about the Playdate’s nascent indie dev scene, and just what those creators think about this cheeky little handheld.

Top of the Pups

Just when we thought there wasn’t much scope for innovation left in the match-three puzzler genre‭, ‬along comes‭ ‬Pick Pack Pup‭ ‬to prove us completely wrong‭. ‬Its twists on established mechanics seem subtle at first‭, ‬but quickly snowball into something strikingly unique‭. ‬As a canine warehouse worker‭, ‬it’s your job to package up items and ship them off to customers‭. ‬Match three or more items‭, ‬and they’ll automatically get boxed up‭. ‬Click on a box and it’ll be shipped‭. ‬If you want to score more points‭, ‬then you can create several boxes of matching items and ship them off all at once for a bonus‭. ‬It’s an ingenious‭, ‬furiously addictive puzzler‭, ‬made all the better by a hilarious wraparound story‭, ‬largely told via comic book panels which you scroll through by turning the Playdate’s crank‭.‬

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