Playdate looks to the past to reimagine the handheld (and hand-cranked) console of the future
Oregon-based software developer Panic is getting into the hardware game with a handheld game console that features a hand crank. Called Playdate, it looks like a Gameboy made for (or by) a Minion, doesn't have a color screen, receives new games weekly like a TV show and, yes, there's a weird mechanical handle on the side – but not for power.
Panic has been cranking out (pun intended) software for Macs for over 20 years, with its flagship FTP application, Transmit, being a staple in many Mac-based web studios. This isn't Panic's first foray into gaming though, having funded and released Firewatch in 2016 and set to release Untitled Goose Game (for Windows, Mac OS X and Nintendo Switch) later this year. Still, moving into gaming hardware from a purely software-based business model is a big leap. But this is what makes the project so exciting for the Panic team.
Announced yesterday, Playdate is at once familiar yet completely new. It sports a D-pad and two chunky buttons and has a hi-res black and white screen that isn't even backlit. It's not as retro as it first appears though, coming with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, USB-C port, and a headphone jack. And then there's that quirky crank on the side of the unit.
You could be forgiven for thinking it is some kind of eco-power generator, like that found on emergency electronic gear, but it's actually a control input device. Some games will use the crank exclusively, others not at all.
Playdate comes with 12 games, or at least it will do, because they're not built-in. Instead games will be delivered weekly, one-at-a-time, via Wi-Fi, in seasons. Every Monday will be a new "play date", hence the name. When a new title arrives, the new-game-light at the top of the Playdate console flashes alerting the owner to the next installment. The plan is to avoid pre-announcing the games, so that each weekly delivery is a complete surprise. That is, except for one.
In the initial offering for Playdate, Crankin's Time Travel Adventure, from designer Keita Takahashi (creator of Namco's Katamari Damacy), the crank is used to manipulate time, literally shifting the character back and forth chronologically while trying to get Crankin' to his date with Crankette.
The roster of guest game designers Panic has managed to assemble is impressive. As well as Keita Takahashi mentioned above, there's indie-game legends like Bennett Foddy (QWOP), Shaun Inman (The Last Rocket) and Zach Gage (FlipFlop Solitaire, Really Bad Chess). This should provide a little reassurance for gamers skeptical of a handheld from a company with no history in the industry.
On the physical design side, Panic has teamed up with Swedish consumer electronics studio Teenage Engineering, creator of the OP-Z pocket synth/sequencer and well noted for a quirky approach to both design and user experience. In fact, Playdate's crank concept originated with the Teenage Engineering team, which should come as no surprise to those familiar with the firm's paradigm-busting design ethos.
Playdate is a small, near-square 74 x 76 mm (2.9 x 3 in), and is also very thin at only 9 mm (0.35 in). The 68-mm (2.7-in) black-and-white, low-power LCD has a resolution of 400 x 240 pixels, but this isn't your old Gameboy screen, as Playdate's display is much higher resolution, with no grid lines or blurring. It's not designed to replace your home console or other gaming platforms, nor to compete with them for market-share. Instead Panic hopes that Playdate will be a fun, quirky, pocket-sized addition to existing gaming devices.
At US$149 Playdate isn't what you'd call cheap, but for a limited-run, unique – very unique – take on handheld gaming, this price-point may not be such a problem. Those familiar with Panic's history with software will be aware of its commitment to quality, with products unashamedly positioned at a price point that reflects that quality fairly. That being said, it's worth noting that your $149 also includes the entire season of 12 games – so, maybe not such a bad deal after all. Subsequent seasons will depend on sales and interest.
Playdate will be available to pre-order later this year, with shipping expected to begin in early 2020. If you're interested, Panic recommends you sign up to the waiting list ASAP.