It was love at first sight. Its neat square frame with smooth, rounded corners. The polished hollow rivets in each corner holding the shell together. The shade of funky, pleasant Super Mario-Block yellowish-orange. That grayscale screen. The classic NES-style controls… and that crank, that bizarre piece of hypnotic ingenuity.
Playdate is a novella of a portable game console. It’s a boutique zine of a Nintendo Game Boy. Even I could’ve guessed that it comes from Portland, Oregon.
Produced by small software developer and game publisher Panic, which recently published Campo Santo’s Firewatch and the upcoming Untitled Goose Game from House House, the Playdate is a new portable console due out in 2020. It’s about the size of a smartphone squashed down into a square with a D-pad, two buttons labelled A and B, and an honest-to-goodness hand crank on its right side, which neatly slots into the device when it’s not in use.
Even the 2.7-inch screen is unique. Panic calls it a “premium” black-and-white screen: it’s like a classic Nintendo Game Boy screen in that it lacks colour or a backlight, but it runs at a higher resolution of 400 x 240 and is highly reflective, similar to the Kindle’s matte screen. There’s also none of the grid lines or blurring that you see on older portables, meaning that its visuals are sharp and clear.
Alongside all this high-end retro-chic oddity comes a catalogue to match, which is like WarioWare turned into a platform. Playdate’s “Season One” will include 12 games in total and will release weekly over three months. Panic has already revealed the first title Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure, a puzzle-adventure from Katamari Damacy creator Keita Takahashi that uses the Playdate’s crank exclusively for its controls.
However, in an interesting move, Panic isn’t planning to fully reveal the rest of the platform’s catalogue – which includes games from Bennett Foddy (QWOP), Shaun Inman (The Last Rocket, Retro Game Crunch) and Zach Gage (TypeShift, Really Bad Chess) – until the games are already released and downloaded to devices. Even if you receive a Playdate mid-season, you’ll start at the beginning of the three-month period and receive each game weekly (though there’s a shortcut to catch up to the season at its current point, whether the season is finished or only part-way through). It’s the video game version of an event calendar.
Panic is selling the Playdate as an “experience” and for a certain type of someone – which I definitely am – it’s a compelling premise. It’s almost beside the point to ask whether it’s worth the $150 ($AU220) or not because Panic isn’t selling a product as much as a cutesy speakeasy in the palm of your hand. Even the AR feature on the website says as much, letting you see a 3D render of the Playdate in ‘your’ world, seducing you with its adorability.
Playdate gives off a vibe similar to prime Nintendo – not necessarily because it looks incredible but because it has the same (from the outset anyway) mix of tactile hardware design, the sort that you can feel in your hands just by looking at it; and warm toy-like aesthetic, something I find myself appreciating more and more as I get older.
However, the Playdate is also something of a curio. With stock described as “very limited” and pre-orders opening later in the year, it already feels like a cult NEOGEO X-style rarity. In this way, the Playdate is like a niche offshoot of the Apple ethos; Panic is selling a membership as much as a product. It’s a high-end game jam wrapped up in a retro-ish handheld, leveraging its start-up trappings into an indelible experience.
Some would say that the Playdate and its otherwise modest appeal isn’t worth this sort of anticipation, as if it was suddenly going to rock the proverbial boat of gaming in any way. It absolutely won’t – but it’s also impossible to know whether that’s true or not, and that’s what’s so compelling about it. It’s the artsy limited-run Game Boy designed in Portland that’s so suited to Kickstarter or Indiegogo but somehow, almost by magic, exists outside them. It’s something that you’ll probably never see in-person (if quantities are truly that limited) or even remember a year from now, let alone actually hold one and play its stock of presumably exclusive titles.
It also connects with the rush of retro consoles and collections since the Nintendo NES Classic in 2016. The SNES Classic, the NEOGEO Mini, the PlayStation Classic, the upcoming Sega Mega Drive/Genesis Mini, the recent compilations like the Capcom Beat ‘Em Up Bundle and Konami’s Anniversary Collection titles; as we head into the eighth generation’s twilight years, there’s a hunger for anything that’s even mildly nostalgic of the lighter games from bygone eras.
In an age where publishers are deprioritising physical media in favour of digital downloads and cloud streaming, the Playdate is a perfectly-timed and tasteful throwback to the medium’s kitschy period (just like everything else from the 90s). It only has a few buttons and an unlit screen, it’s made for $1,000 smartphone tastes, and appeals to an attentive base of gaming and tech enthusiasts with its experimental crank and crop of acclaimed creators. Like contemporary Nintendo at their best, the Playdate looks to be a heartfelt reminder of the whimsy that simpler, earnest games and platforms can still invoke. We’ll have to wait and see how the thing actually turns out but its reveal is a stirring reminder of gaming at its most delightful.
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Also published on Medium.