Panic’s Playdate handheld isn’t for everyone, and that’s OK

Nearly two years after the Playdate made its public debut, Panic’s quirky gaming handheld with a crank is ready for the masses. The company recently announced that the Playdate will be available for pre-order on July 29th for $179, with a ship date of later this year. I’ve been playing with a “press preview” version of the Playdate for the past couple of weeks, and while it’s not perfect, I still think it’s an incredibly charming handheld with a lot of potential. The question is whether there’ll be enough interest — from both developers and consumers — to keep it going for the long haul.

For the uninitiated, the Playdate is not just Panic’s first-ever gaming handheld; it’s also the company’s first piece of hardware, period. Panic made its name making Mac software like Transmit and Coda, and has recently ventured into publishing indie games such as Firewatch, Untitled Goose Game and the yet-to-be-released Nour: Play With Your Food. From its inception, Panic wanted Playdate to be a different kind of handheld; instead of something mainstream like Nintendo’s Switch, it was supposed to be more like the Game & Watch devices of yore, but with a modern twist. “We didn’t want it to be too cool, but we didn’t want it to be too goofy,” said Cabel Sasser, Panic’s co-founder.

Thanks to a design collaboration with Teenage Engineering, known mostly for making quirky audio gear, the Playdate certainly fulfills that brief. The hardware is tiny; about the size of a stack of Post-It notes (76 x 74 x 9 mm), and has a black-and-white screen. But its most unique design feature is its fold-out crank, which acts as an additional game controller. It’s this combination of silly and adorable that adds to the Playdate’s charm, and I’ll fully admit that I fell for it the first time I tried a prototype back in 2019.

Playdate
Engadget

The aforementioned preview unit I have on-hand is the final hardware, though the software isn’t quite there yet. Everything is similar to how it was two years ago. The button placement is the same, with the D-pad and A and B buttons under the display, the menu button on the right, and the lock button sitting on the top (you activate the Playdate by pressing the lock button twice; pressing it again will enable standby mode). All the controls feel responsive enough, with a pleasant clickiness. On the side is the mono speaker, which is surprisingly loud and clear given its size. Underneath is a 3.5mm headphone jack plus a USB-C charging port.

Most important to me, however, was that crank, which is housed on the Playdate’s right side. To access it, simply flip it open to reveal a small rotating yellow handle, which you can then use to rotate the arm backwards or forwards. The whole contraption feels a lot more solid than I remember; the rotation feels silky smooth, but it isn’t so loose that it continues to spin when I let go. This is a good thing, as it allows for more precise control, which turns out to be quite important in certain games. Internally, the Playdate has a 180 MHz Cortex M7 CPU, 16MB of RAM, 4GB of Flash storage, Bluetooth, and 802.11 bgn 2.4GHz Wi-Fi.

The Playdate is molded from what Panic says is an extremely durable engineering thermoplastic, and the screen is laminated to a hardened glass face. That aforementioned crank is also pretty solid; it’s made out of stainless steel, and the handle is plastic with a stainless steel core. The Playdate will likely survive the occasional jostle in your pocket or bag. But if you want to keep it completely free of blemishes, Panic does offer a cover for $29 (You could also purchase the Playdate bundled with the cover for $199).

Playdate
Engadget

While I do like the hardware for the most part, I have to admit I have a somewhat love-hate relationship with the screen. One of the reasons Panic chose to go with a Sharp Memory LCD was because of its super-sharp pixels that use very little power (Pebble aficionados might recall that its eponymous smartwatch used Sharp Memory LCDs as well). I agree that the black and white images do look very crisp, especially in bright sunlight. However, the Playdate lacks any kind of backlight or front light, which means it’s terrible in dim environments. Maybe it’s because I live and work in a relatively dark room, but I found this rather annoying. At one point I had to position a book light underneath the Playdate just to play a game on the couch.

I should note that the Playdate does last a long time in between charges. I’ve left it unplugged for nearly two weeks now, and even though I’ve played a few hours every day, it still has over half of its battery life left.

I also noticed an “Upside Down” mode in the Settings menu, which turns the screen, well, upside down. When asked, Sasser said that this is an experimental mode for left-handed users who want to use the crank with their left hands. He did say, however, that this is feature is still subject to change.

As wonderful as the hardware is, the real value of the Playdate is the content. Though the device costs $179, it will now come with 24 different titles instead of the initial 12 (it’ll also ship with 4GB of storage instead of 2). My preview unit only came with four games however: Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure, Lost Your Marbles, Saturday Edition and Whitewater Wipeout.

Playdate
Engadget

I had already played Crankin’ a couple of years ago when I tried the Playdate for the first time. Designed by Katamari Damacy’s Keita Takahashi, the only controller in this game is the crank, which you’ll use to hurry Crankin along his path to meet his girlfriend, Crankette. Spinning it forward will move him forward, while spinning it backward will get Crankin to do the same. The trick is that you have to navigate various obstacles like bees and birds, which exist outside the flow of time. So as you rush along, you have to position Crankin in such a way that he can avoid them. For example, you’ll want Crankin to bend down to smell the flowers exactly when the bees fly overhead.

That might seem like a relatively easy premise, but the obstacles get more complicated as the levels progress, forcing me to replay them several times before I can get them right. Currently, I’m stuck on level five despite multiple attempts. Guess I’m not going to see Crankette any time soon.

I much prefer Lost Your Marbles, which was designed by Sweet Baby Inc & Friends. In this game, a girl named Prota is going to work for a cat scientist named Marbels (no that’s not a typo), but unwittingly brings her dog Minty along on her first day. Let’s just say that things don’t go well, and Minty eventually goes missing. Somehow, Prota also, uh, loses her “marbles” in the process. As Prota goes around town trying to find her dog, you answer questions by using the crank to roll a marble around an obstacle-filled construction, making sure that the marble hits the answer you want (It’s not explicitly said, but my guess is that the marble puzzle here represents Prota’s brain).

Playdate
Engadget

I found it a little tricky to control the marble, so I ended up picking a lot of what I thought were incorrect answers. But I soon found out that there’s really no such thing as the wrong answer in this game. That’s because the weirder the answer, the more hilarious the story becomes. For example, when you’re picking the photo for Minty’s missing dog poster, one of the options is for her butt. I didn’t mean to select it, but I did so accidentally. I know this all sounds incredibly silly, and it is, but I also found the whole thing very amusing.

Saturday Edition, on the other hand, is a lot more serious, at least on the surface. Developed by Chris Makris, this is a point-and-click style adventure game which doesn’t use the crank at all. Instead, all navigation is done via the D-pad and A and B buttons. In this game, you play the character of John Kornfield who’s had a long history with aliens, but is currently on Earth.

The game opens with him in his apartment, and the cops are knocking on the door. Using the controls, you’re able to interact with various elements in the apartment like listening to the answering machine or opening the microwave. The game suggested to me that it’s a lot wiser to exit the apartment via the fire escape instead, so I did. I’ll admit that I haven’t gotten very far in this game — I’ve so far only been to his office and the nearby shopping mall. I do find the story quite intriguing so far, but I’m going to have to sink in a few more hours before I uncover all the game’s secrets.

Playdate
Engadget

Last but not least is Whitewater Wipeout, by Chuhai Labs. All you have to do here is surf for as long as possible, performing tricks along the way to earn points. Like Crankin, the only controller here is the crank, which you’ll use to move the surfboard. The highest score I’ve achieved so far is 35, which is not great at all. There will eventually be a global leaderboard which you can use to compare your skills to others.

If it isn’t obvious by now, my favorite games are the ones with a heavy story element, such as Lost Your Marbles and Saturday Edition. I am not very good with hand-eye coordination, so Crankin’ and Wipeout are not really my thing. I’ll also add that after a week or so of playing the same four games over and over, I got bored pretty quickly.

Thankfully, however, the Playdate will definitely be getting more games. As part of its $179 price, the console actually comes bundled with a season’s worth of titles — 24 games in total. The first two games will start downloading the moment you activate your Playdate, and then you’ll get two games every Monday thereafter for 11 weeks.

That is, fundamentally, the sticking point with any console like this — as quirky and glorious as the hardware is, it’ll live and die in the amount of new games you can add to this on a regular basis. The indie gaming community has already embraced the Playdate wholeheartedly — tens of thousands of developers have already expressed interest in making games for it — and the company announced that they’ll be able to sell software and games that can be sideloaded to the device.

There’s no denying that the Playdate is a fairly niche device — it’s an indie handheld made for indie games — and that’s the very thing that is so appealing about it. But it’s unclear if interest in the Playdate will last beyond its initial release.

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