A playdate with Playdate

It wasn't so much the hardware that made the Playdate an enticing proposition to me. Nor was it the admittedly great track record of both Panic and Teenage Engineering. The thing that truly won me over was the attitude; the Nintendo-philosophy applied outside of its native Nippon setting. Others have tried this, but often with a misguided sense of nostalgia or an equally misguided sense of hitting it big in an "obviously untapped" market. Ouya, Intellivision Amico, Atari VCS. Even Nintendo had a few blunders with the Game Boy Micro and the Pokémon Mini.

Panic somehow didn't care. It's quite enlightening to listen to the first episode of the Playdate podcast and realise this all started as a nice 5 15-year anniversary clients & partners gift. Because, while the device is even fashionably late to celebrate Panic's 10 25-year anniversary1, it feels like a gift. It's not a new platform that will compete with the Big Three. Neither is it going to be a paradigm shift in the tradition of the Wii, Nintendo DS, and Nintendo Switch (Nintendo is freakishly good at that particular branch). This is a tiny device that plays games. Its only purpose is to delight and to provide fun. And it's doing a fine job so far.

The hardware is pretty much immaculate. Sure, you can moan and complain about the screen not having a backlight and being 1-bit (giving it less 'colour' depth than even the original Game Boy), but that's trying to make it into a full-fledged console again. Its yellow casing makes it small slice of yellow with a somewhat odd metal protrusion. Folding that protrusion out will turn it into a crank to turn in turn. Functionally, the crank is the same as being able to move a joystick in a fixed circular motion. Aesthetically, it's the lynchpin of the Playdate.

Your other interface options are a d-pad, two action buttons, a pause/menu button, and a power button. So the crank instantly commands attention when playing games. It can be gimmicky, but in the case of the Playdate, that's a strength rather than a flaw. The size of the device, combined with the sharpness of its screen (and its amazing reflectiveness when lit) and its solid build quality, gives the Playdate a certain desirability. The same one that makes one play with a business card holder, or snap off and on the battery door of a remote control. It begs to be fidgeted with and the crank makes sure there's a physical outlet for all your fidgeting needs.

So how does it play? Well, liked the mixed indie bag you'd expect. The first two games Whitewater Wipeout and Casual Birder are two very different beasts. The first is a simple score hunting arcade game straight from the classic California Games: use the crank to position you and your surfboard on a rolling wave trying to score points through tricks. The second is a tongue-in-cheek birder simulator. Go out in a Pokémon-esque gameworld to photograph birds and snap the legendary bird, while a cast of characters gets in your way. The crank? It's used to adjust the focus on your camera.

Both games are fun, though I've spent the most time so far on Bloom, which is an indie game available for side-loading onto your Playdate at itch.io. It's a perfect fit in my opinion: in it you play as a graduate drop-out starting her own flower shop while a light visual novel plays out through text messages. It's a real-time idler where you can plant and sell flowers. A very tiny and familiar loop, but the story playing out in quick to-and-fro's messages is strangely compelling even though its pacing and triggering of follow-ups could do with some tweaking. The crank? Used to move the lift between your apartment and the roof where your flowers grow (oh, and to crank out a daily gashapon).

None of these experiences are as meaty as full-fledged (portable) console outings, but again, that's not the point here. I find the experimental nature of both the Playdate and its games enthralling. There's a punk vibe throughout the entire experience that reminds me of the zany world contained within the Game Boy Camera. While the hardware reminds of a NeoGeo Pocket: superficially close to a Game Boy but surprisingly more powerful when the games put some thought behind it. Starting up the Playdate for the very first time puts a playful ceremony front and centre that's more at home on a Nintendo console, but at the same time it's infused with a Western sense of showmanship. It's pure joy. And it manages to hold on to that joy throughout the device. Even when its games may lack it.

Is this worth the $179 asking price then? I would definitely say so. Taking into account the weekly games you get for free, the fact that Panic has made ample tools available for side-loading and indie development, and the appeal of the hardware itself, this is catnip for anyone into the more experimental side of gaming.

1 Oops, it wasn't 5 going on 10, it was 15 years going on 25 instead! Thanks to @gingerbeardman for pointing that out.