At some hazy point in the last few years, however, video games quietly agreed on a universal way to control them. PlayStation, Xbox, and Switch controllers have stylistic differences and ergonomic approaches, but are fundamentally the same. Consequently, the types The number of games being created has also been reduced, because the input possibilities of a controller naturally influence the design possibilities. The Wii’s motion controls were a fascinating, albeit short-lived, departure. Same with the Kinect. PlayStation 5’s Dual Sense is cool but not revolutionary. The mouse and keyboard are still important, but without a doubt, the domain of the driver has influenced many designers who exclusively take advantage of what a mouse and keyboard can offer.
“Then naturally, what about a crank?” is the ringtone for Playdate, a lovely yellow handheld from Panic, a 25-year-old company known largely for Mac software until it started flirting with gaming a few years ago, publishing as much fire watch Y Untitled Goose Game.
The Playdate looks like a hypothetical Game Boy Mini, an abandoned prototype from Play out loud from Nintendo’s 90s! Marketing campaign, when he made colored Game Boys, including one with a yellow that looks a lot like the one Panic wore on Playdate! At first glance, the Playdate looks normal. There is a d-pad and two main buttons, B and A, in the same order as the Game Boy. Extras (home button for choosing games and changing settings, charging port, lock button) don’t stand out. What is striking is the metal slab on the side, which can be gently pulled out to reveal a small crank that is extremely rewarding to move around, while feeling like it’s going to fall off at any moment and never break.
I am unabashedly delighted with the gimmicks of the video game interface, no doubt fueled by having spent a lifetime, both in hobby and career, surrounded by games. It probably explains why I was so captivated by games like Dance Dance Revolution and Samba de Amigo; When I was a teenager, my room was full of PlayStation and Dreamcast accessories. I was immediately on board with things like Wii and Kinect, and spent hundreds of dollars investing in early VR technology that is now in a box. (I still really like VR and motion controls, for what it’s worth.) If you give me a new way to interact with a game, you can bet I’ll be interested, which is why all the other lovely things about Playdate: its high-resolution black-and-white screen, the games delivered weekly in a “season “have receded into the background in front of that freakin’ wacko freak.
There are no requirements for games on Playdate to use the crank, but in my experience with the first wave of 24 games, I had access to all of them at once: normal Playdate owners will get two games a week over the course of 12 weeks, the ones that were I used it a lot.
Most of my real-life experience with cranks has come from bike maintenance, while the vast majority of my wider experience with cranks has been in video games like Resident Evil, where the only way to progress is by inserting a jewel red in a tiger mask, revealing a crank that will open a hidden door to the secret lab that has been hiding in plain sight.
What stands out most about the crank is how smooth it feels. There is no tension or feedback, and it will move as fast or as slow as you do. The circular motion can tickle your brain in unexpected ways, as it’s new and a bit unintuitive, depending on the game. A featured game for Playdate, omazarhas players turn the crank to move an orb around the edges of a circle, as players move from one circle to the next, toward an exit. omazar frequently plays on the player’s directional confusion. “I’m cranking forward, which makes my sphere move counterclockwise, which means when I get to the next sphere, which will change direction, I have to crank back.”
Now do that real quick.
Several times this week my wife has yelled across the room “are you okay?” It’s a perfectly acceptable question to ask, once it’s clear you’re asking someone who’s cursing under her breath as she waves her hand angrily in a circle over and over again. My wife has accepted me doing a lot of silly games over the years, but this made her uneasy.
I’ve spent a lot of time muttering nonsense about Crankin’s Time Travel Adventurea new game of katamari damacy Y watt designer Keita Takahashi, where players, time and time again, don’t show up on time. It’s the best game I’ve ever played on Playdate.
Each level is a new attempt to reach that date, and full of new obstacles to make that task more difficult. It doesn’t seem like avoiding a butterfly should be difficult, but booting up, players do not have direct control over the main character. Instead, Playdate’s proverbial crank is turned to advance your character’s animation back and forth. How fast you turn the crank determines how fast your character moves, allowing you, for example, to stop turning while your character leans over to look at a flower, thus avoiding said butterfly.
The first few puzzles are fairly simple, alternating back and forth earlier, levels later, giving way to much more sinister tasks. Some advanced stages of booting up requires players to turn the crank as fast as humanly possible, then stop on a dime to avoid an oncoming obstacle, before returning to the race. The mental and physical gymnastics required to complete some puzzles is extraordinary and satisfying.
Some games use the crank less than others, such as scrolling through story panels in the corresponding puzzle Pick Pack Puppyand others, like the one inspired by Zelda Ratchetwhere the players light a lamp, they are less inspired than superficial. inventory hero, an idle RPG where combat happens automatically as players manage a constantly changing inventory of gear, doesn’t seem to use the crank at all. It’s just a nice game on a hand-cranked device.
(An adorable aside: the device detects when the crank has been removed from the device or put away, and one game actually uses this as a mechanic. It’s that good!)
The initial lineup of games also runs the gamut in scope and genre. There are a handful of arcade-style action games built around a single hook, with players trying to achieve a high score, which bounced back pretty quickly. (Chasing the score does nothing for me.) Others are full adventure games that suggest a number of hours before the credits roll. Many more, however, are puzzle games focused on enjoyable use of the crank. Those are the ones I keep coming back to, and those are the ones I want the most on Playdate.
booting up alone, I have spent more than four hours inside, a pleasant surprise that continues to surprise me.
Ultimately, the crank proves to be more than a gimmick, but combined with the small actual footprint of the Playdate itself, it’s somewhat awkward to hold. I play a dozen hours of video games every week and my hands don’t get tired, but in several sessions with Playdate, sessions that usually lasted around two hours, I had to put the device down and take a break. because the tension was becoming unbearable. There just isn’t an easy way to hold the Playdate still, move the crank, and interact with the other buttons (or d-pad) on a regular basis without turning your fingers into pretzels, or approximating the old Monster Hunter claw technique.
My hands aren’t that big either. I expect that different sizes of hands will produce different rules.
The screen is also a mixed bag. The black and white is striking, and the screen is very nice and sharp. But because it’s not backlit, you have to think about how you’re using the device.
“The screen is black and white, and it’s beautiful,” read an official FAQ about the Panic screen. “It doesn’t have a backlight, but it’s super reflective. It’s an aesthetic like no other.”
They are definitely right about that! The Playdate is useless in the dark, and while you’d think plopping down on the couch at night with a lamp would suffice, I was often moving my body or adjusting the amount of light in the room to accommodate the Playdate. It’s certainly functional in low-light situations, but hardly ideal, and I regularly found myself thinking of the silly light fixtures I once bought for old Game Boys.
This stylistic approach has resulted in a gorgeous device, but it’s not without real trade-offs.
However, offsets are not inherent defects. They are choices. The last device I reviewed was the Steam Deck, Valve’s take on the laptop that promises to let you take your Steam library—most of it—on the go. It mostly delivers, but it does so with an all-encompassing device and the kitchen sink. It has mouse and keyboard gaming trackpads! Gyroscopes for more precise aiming! One million buttons on the front and four hidden buttons on the back! It has a fan that works like it’s powering a train and a battery that goes off in an instant!
With Playdate, all you have to do is look at your device to see where Panic said “no” to many different ideas. With the Steam Deck, you get the impression that Valve kept saying “yes”. How else do you explain a device that has 24 finished games waiting in the wings, but the folks at Panic are slowly releasing them over three months because they want them to feel fresh and amazing? (Their website even allows you to hide upcoming games as “spoilers.”)
I say this as someone who loves the Steam Deck, prototype though it may be, though I admit that what makes Playdate feel so personal is precisely because its appearance and construction immediately communicate a host of human choices that can elicit delight. Y frustration.
Some of that frustration also extends beyond the physical device, like realizing that Panic is making the device in Malaysia, but claims you cannot sell Playdates to anyone who lives there. Instead, the company has a form people can fill out “so we can keep you informed.”
Global manufacturing is not easyespecially during COVID-19, but it looks bad.
The biggest questions I have are unanswered, because it takes time and distance and games that study better than this device is capable of, which this review can’t provide. What’s here is novel and fun, and it certainly points to a device that could extend beyond its “hey, that’s cool” status. But it is impossible to know if it is a platform or a really fun toy.
It is, to say the least, a very fun toy.
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