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Little, yellow, different. This indie handheld game system breaks lots of rules.
Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets.
Every night, before I go to sleep, I put my little yellow buddy into a sock and leave it by my bedside. It’s square, has a screen and it has a skinny crank that pops out from one side, like a tiny tail. It’s my gaming friend. The Panic Playdate is my favorite gaming fidget toy.
Panic’s bizarre gaming handheld was announced years ago, something that seemed whimsical and almost like a joke. It has the look of a product you’d see on an episode of Portlandia: a small, twee device in Pikachu yellow, with a Game & Watch-esque black-and-white screen, that plays games and sometimes uses its side crank for inexplicable reasons. Delightful and lovely and unexplained.
Gaming handhelds have made a big comeback lately, with the OLED Nintendo Switch, Valve’s Steam Deck, Qualcomm’s push into gaming hardware with Razer, and even the Analogue Pocket. The Panic Playdate is the tiniest, quirkiest one of the bunch. Panic — a company best known for developing beloved indie games like Firewatch and Untitled Goose Game — never made hardware before, and the $179 Playdate feels like an impossible dream item. It’s real, and it’s been a joy to play.
Panic’s concept for how the Playdate works turns the concept of consoles on its head. There’s no game store. Instead, buying the system gets you 24 games in a “season” that will pop onto the handheld, two games at a time, once a week for 12 weeks. The games are part of your game library once they’ve appeared. It’s a gaming advent calendar in a little yellow box.
The games are all new, and all indie efforts. The lineup includes new games from Keita Takahashi (creator of Katamari Damacy), Zach Gage (maker of SpellTower and Really Bad Chess), and tons of developers and small game studios that are new to me. The freshness and experimental nature of the games reminds me of indie game jams, or the early days of game development on the iPhone. Or the sorts of weird ideas that sometimes come out of Nintendo.
The system should be arriving now (or soon) for those who already preordered. Order now, however, and you can expect it to arrive sometime in 2023. Panic quotes international orders including applicable taxes and shipping, for example, $238 for the UK (£185 converted) and $203 for Australia (AU$275).
Here are my impressions so far with it by my side, constantly, for the last few weeks.
The Playdate next to the Analogue Pocket (left) and Nintendo Game & Watch (bottom).
The Playdate is tiny. Like, Game & Watch tiny. It’s square and fits in the palm of my hand. Panic’s collaborative design partner, the Swedish company Teenage Engineering, gave this handheld a really sharp modern spin on a retro design. It’s about 3 by 2.9 inches (76 by 74mm), and 9mm thick. While it slips easily into my pocket, I’d worry about the screen scratching. It doesn’t include a case, but there’s a cover that’s sold separately for $29. I’ve stuck mine in a sock. A clean sock.
I didn’t have a better travel case for the flight, sorry.
All the games download over Wi-Fi, onto an included 4GB of storage. Games can be deleted and redownloaded, or game updates installed. Unlike handhelds like the super-retro Analogue Pocket, the Playdate has no cartridges… but it also has online connectivity, unlike the Pocket, so system updates are easy. (Downloading all 24 games included with the Panic Playdate’s first season of games still left 2.4GB free.)
The Pocket’s features are extremely minimal: a D-pad, two buttons, a speaker, a USB-C charging port, a headphone jack. A microphone and accelerometer, too (which not many games use yet). And… a crank.
The crank tucks away when not in use.
The Playdate is entirely defined by its kooky crank. No game system has had a built-in crank before (has it?). The thing pops out from the right edge, flips up and spins smoothly. It feels like a fidget toy. It’s soothing. I’ve cranked it absent-mindedly as I’ve stared out my window, losing track of time as I contemplate my existence on this planet.
Anyway: It spins. And many games use the crank as an extra analogue control. To rewind time, to play back audio samples, to focus a camera and take pictures of birds, to stir potions, to steer a ship, to tilt a puzzle. It’s not essential, but it’s so charming.
I keep being reminded of Nintendo Labo, actually. Nintendo’s works of absurd genius added all sorts of magic cardboard accessories to the Switch and came with whimsical games, like if Wes Anderson made a console. That feeling’s back big time with the Panic Playdate.
It’s gone everywhere with me.
But, unlike Nintendo Labo, this Playdate is tiny and super portable and isn’t made of cardboard. In fact, it’s extremely nicely built: The plastic housing feels solid and satisfying, the crank well-made. The 2.7-inch, 400×240-pixel, black-and-white screen doesn’t have backlighting, but it’s crisp, and animations look really smooth on it. The speaker is sharp! I’ve only been using the thing for a few weeks, so it’s early days, but I’m impressed. The D-pad is slightly too creaky for my taste, though.
In my childhood summer camp days, where I’d keep a pile of Game & Watches in my bunk cubby (and later, a Game Boy), the Panic Playdate would have been welcome magic. It seems to slot right into my sense of what games were back then, and many of the Season 1 games play with classic game design in new ways, blending arcade, RPG and puzzle formats.
The Playdate’s display is always on, like E-Ink, but with a much faster refresh rate. The system goes to sleep instead of turning off, and displays one of three clock displays, so it becomes, literally, a game and watch.
I’ve found that I’ve gotten days of use before needing a recharge, although I play in fits and spurts. It’s a system that fits quick sessions of play.
Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure, one of my favorite weird Playdate games.
Part of the magic of the Panic Playdate is its gift of two games a week, which literally appear on-screen as cute wrapped packages each time they’re beamed in overnight via Wi-Fi. While Panic has already announced its game lineup, details on the actual games are scarce. I feel like I’d be spoiling things by explaining all of them, but I’ve played parts of all of them already; a press preview version of the season accelerated the game reveals from once a week to once a day.
Getting two games a day sounds fun, but I started feeling like I was being buried in presents. Playing two at a time would have slowed things down and made me appreciate the games more, most likely. But hey, this was a review process.
While I had fun playing most of them, they do have an indie, rough-around-the-edges feel. But also, pretty brilliant. Games like Whitewater Wipeout, one of the first two games that pops up on the Playdate, are my favorite: the surfing/arcade game is simple, crank-controlled and addictive. My kids destroyed my attempt at a high score. Games like Snak, Hyper Meteor, Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure and Battleship Godios continued that quick, addictive arcade-like feel.
Other games, like Casual Birder (an RPG-like game involving snapping photos of birds and talking to people), Spellcorked (a potion-making game with various emails and reviews to sift through) and Sasquatchers (an Advance Wars-like turn-based cryptic-spotting game) have lots of story progression and text, which can be hard to read on the Playdate’s small screen. It’s great to have some longer-form games, though. (Some of those games also have multiple save states in case you’re sharing with family.)
Whitewater Wipeout, one of the first two games you’ll get, is one of my favorites: simple board-spinning arcade fun.
Panic made a few of the games. One, sort of based in the Firewatch universe, called Forrest Byrnes: Up In Smoke, is a quick platforming microgame. Another, called b360, is like a mix of Tempest and Breakout, using the crank to rotate your paddle.
One baffling thing, though: There’s no fishing game! How did a handheld that has a crank… have no fishing game? Sorry, I digress.
Some games also had some early bugs: I had a few freeze-up crashes, with Panic promising that updates would be coming to fix them. The Playdate always restarted quickly when these things happened, and save states seemed intact.
Some games were so unusual that I had a hard time figuring out how to play them. There aren’t any instruction manuals, and on-screen instructions were sometimes cryptic (for me).
But my kids keep trying to pry the Playdate from me, which should prove that the games are winning us over.
There are supposedly other games coming as well, sold separately, that can be loaded onto the Playdate much like the way I loaded indie games onto the Analogue Pocket. I was given access to one of these nonseason games, Bloom, which is a flower-planting game with unfolding text messages from friends that start to tell a story about the person you’re playing as. I’m not sure where it’s going, but I’m enjoying the discovery.
Panic may indeed have future seasons of games, too, and I hope so: I already want to play more.
Pick Pack Pup, a puzzle game with a factory-worker storyline.
Panic has a website-based game-creation tool called Pulp that’s designed to build games easily to play on the Playdate, and my 13-year-old son gave it a try. He loved tinkering around: He has Scratch programming experience, and the site’s tools started to make sense to him after a while. He quickly built a quirky maze game, and had fun checking it out when I loaded it onto the Playdate.
Panic’s Playdate website has user accounts where Playdates are registered, and where other game files can be uploaded, then downloaded by the handheld over Wi-Fi.
Panic has a set of PC-based tools for mirroring gameplay for streaming, and for gameplay capture. The Playdate also has a screengrab function built into the game’s software.
The Playdate next to: the Analogue Pocket (left), Nintendo Switch OLED (top), Game Boy Micro (right), Zelda Game & Watch (bottom).
The saddest thing about the Playdate is that, unless you preordered one already, you’re probably not getting one for a while. Panic said it already sold out of its first run, and that preorders are now backed up to 2023. I hope that changes, since the Playdate seems like a great gift for gamers who already have everything else. I love the system’s focus on fun and inventive whimsy, and its support of indie developers.
And I just love using it. I’m often panicked lately, and I like to play. The Panic Playdate seems like it was named and made for my current perpetually stressed, slightly nervous state of mind. And it’s comforting. Charming. It makes me smile. I’m all for game experiences that do this for me. It’s what I play games for in the first place.