Are You Ready for the Playdate?

2020 will be swanky and cranky

Daniel J. Ware
Oct 20 · 5 min read

Panic — the company, not the emotional state — is in the news again recently, having published the Melbourne-developed Untitled Goose Game. Given the company’s notoriety at the moment, we thought it might be a good time to revisit their other major project: the bizarre (and apparently forgotten) Playdate. Announced back in May, the Playdate is a handheld console that Panic is set to release next year. Designed in collaboration with the Swedish consumer electronics company Teenage Engineering, the Playdate is a weirdly enticing and puzzling proposition.

Starting out in software development for Mac and later also working on iOS applications, Panic itself has been around twenty years. They made the move into the video game industry back in 2016 when they published Campo Santo’s Firewatch, which received much critical acclaim for its distinctive gameplay and immersive story. Playdate represents their first foray into the world of gaming hardware.

Cranking it up a notch

Cringe-worthy puns aside, first looks at the Playdate raise eyebrows and beckon deep existential questioning. It is indeed a unique object to look at. Obviously the most distinguishable point about it is the presence of a small crank that flips out from the side.

Wait: an old-school, analogue mechanism attached to the side of a game console?

Yes, indeed. Despite the apparent oddness of the old-school appendage, the crank somehow manages to look as if it feels right at home alongside the Playdate’s small and sleek body. Of course, the crank itself is intended to be used as a controller component in games — some upcoming titles will utilise the crank as their only gameplay instrument, although others won’t use it at all.

There’s something about the Playdate that harks back to previous generations of gaming consoles while maintaining a sense of sleek modernity. Panic is going to cram Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and USB-C into its petite frame, along with a headphone jack (I guess people do still use them!). By all means, the Playdate is a modern gaming device, “both very familiar, and totally new.” It will certainly be interesting to see what kind of gamers will be attracted to this new device.

An introductory price point of $150 USD is fairly affordable, but then again the Playdate only features a black and white screen — one that doesn’t feature a backlight. It seems to be a bevy of completely different design ideas combined. Masterfully, it somehow avoids looking like a hacked together creation. There’s of an air of elegance in its different features and smooth, yellow body.

A season of games

Another unique facet of Playdate is its “season of games.” The Playdate Season is a 12-strong collection of games that will be released one-by-one each week for players. It’s kind of a weird way to go about releasing games, but by all accounts everything that Panic is doing with Playdate is designed to go against the grain. At this point it appears that there’s only one season of games planned initially, which are included in the console price.

Those who buy a Playdate after the beginning of the season will be able to receive the games already released, but it’s unclear if they have to be bought separately and manually downloaded, or if they’re still free. It could just be a way of persuading interested buyers in preordering the console before its release in order to secure more funding. Until its release, there’s no way to know how this economy of games will work, or if there will be many (or any) games from outside sources available.

The games in the season will be produced by Panic and in collaboration with many notable indie developers, including Keita Takahashi, Bennett Foddy among others. Takahashi’s game will be called Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure and Foddy’s is simply titled Zipper. Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure will use the crank to control timeflow within the game, as players avoid obstacles so Crankin can make it to his date in time. There’s no available information about any of the other games at this point. Panic themselves said each game will be kept secret until they’re “magically delivered” to the Playdates.

Unique among…one

Other than wondering the point of a mechanical crank on a small handheld console, the other prominent question with the Playdate is where it actually fits into the video game market. Is it supposed to be a direct competitor to existing handhelds? Or is it supposed to be a niche offering for gaming purists? Could it perhaps even be an attempt to craft an artistic object that also doubles as a handy console?

Panic answered some of these questions on their website, but they don’t delve deep into detail. In essence, Playdate is meant to be a “complementary” device. This seems like Panic believes it to be a legitimate market offering, yet is it enough to simply be complementary and still succeed? Those wanting casual gaming can simply pull out their phones and fire up Candy Crush or Clash of Clans, titles that seem to feed off short, intense bursts of attention from players.

It’s also unclear what kind of technical specs Playdate packs, or even if any of the games will be graphically demanding of the device. This shouldn’t be too concerning, but keep in mind that Panic has only really worked on software in the past, never creating physical hardware like this. The console will boast a custom operating system designed by Panic, with games written in Lua or C for developer accessibility.

2020 vision

With the release of Playdate looming ever closer, the gaming world will soon know for sure if Panic’s handheld console is legit, or just a pretty piece of nostalgia. One thing is certain however, and that is that the gaming has never suffered from innovation or change. It’s a brave and commendable project for Panic. I for one hope that is succeeds.

With little experience in gaming and hardware, it would be a great story for the company if Playdate took off. The first units of Playdate will ship early in 2020. For more information on the device and its quirks and charm, check out its website at https://play.date/.

Daniel J. Ware

Written by

I write and play games, hopefully for a living some day.

Super Jump Magazine

Celebrating video games and their creators

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