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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Playdate, the Pocketable Game Console, Prepares for Preorders

More than two years after it was first introduced, Panic's Playdate finally has a preorder date: Thursday, July 29. This charming and bright yellow handheld video game console has a unique crank on its side, and its $179 price includes 24 games developed exclusively for the device.

You won't be able to play all 24 games right away, though. Panic will deliver two games every week to the device over Wi-Fi for three months until all 24 are in the system. This encapsulates Season 1's games, and unfortunately, Panic doesn't have much to share on Season 2. 

“We’re waiting to see how many people are interested in the Playdate before determining how games are distributed in the future,” a Panic spokesperson wrote in an email. "We’ll adjust as necessary. Everything is currently on the table, but nothing has been decided." (Panic, which is primarily a software company, has published successful games for other platforms, including the popular Firewatch.) 

I've been playing with a preproduction version of the Playdate for a little more than a week. It's a fun little gadget for the short moments in your day when you're twiddling your thumbs, like when you're waiting for the train. It's about the size of a deck of Post-Its and easily fits most pockets. 

The games I've tried so far—Crankin's Time Travel Adventure, Lost Your Marbles, Whitewater Wipeout, and Saturday Edition—don't necessarily have the depth or longevity of games you might be used to on handhelds like the GameBoy, but they can be surprisingly challenging. 

But unlike modern mobile games, with their in-app purchases, ads, and clunky touchscreen controls, the Playdate's physicality is what makes it fun. Especially the crank. Pull it out and start spinning it as a control mechanism for games. Not all titles use the crank, but the ones that do stand out. You can work the crank to make a surfer perform tricks on a wave, move a marble to a certain goal, or control time. (Sadly, while it seems ripe for it, there's no fishing game yet. Let me reel in some fish, Panic!) 

Games like Crankin's really gave me a hard time, because you need to be quick and precise with the crank. You will fail a lot. But there was a great sense of accomplishment after I finished a level. 

On the hardware side, there's a USB-C charging port, a headphone jack, and a mono speaker that fires directly at your face. The speaker gets surprisingly loud and makes fun retro sounds. The only part of the device that might be problematic? The 1-bit black-and-white screen. It looks great, but it's not backlit, so you need to be near a light source to play. At night in my apartment, I kept angling my body toward my lamp just to see what was going on. That means no Playdate in the dark.

I'll have a full review with a lot more detail in the coming weeks, after I've spent more time with the Playdate.

Panic is making it easy for just about anyone to create games for the device—the programming environment runs in a web browser. It's also easy for Playdate owners to sideload games made by others onto the device. So if Season 2 won't arrive for months, there might be other indie games you'll be able to play while you wait for the official ones to arrive.

Along with device preorders, there are two accessories you can snag: a magnetic cover to protect the screen and a dock you can magnetically attach the Playdate to if you want to wirelessly recharge it. The dock also doubles as a stereo Bluetooth speaker and comes with a yellow pen and pen holder.

Preorders start at 10 am Pacific on Thursday, July 29. Panic says it expects to ship its first 20,000 units in 2021, but the company didn't say exactly when you'll get yours. Whenever you do, happy crankin'!

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