Hands-On With Playdate, The Crank-Based, 1-Bit Handheld Coming Later This Year | IGN

If you’re old, like me, you probably remember an ad campaign for the pain reliever Nuprin. Its tag line “little, yellow, different,” was famous enough to be referenced in Wayne’s World, and it’s also a perfect way to describe the Playdate, the monochromatic, idiosyncratic handheld from Panic Inc. 

It’s a neat little device, and learning about Panic’s developer-friendly model for distributing both a Playdate SDK and a web-based dev tool got me excited about the future before I even got to use the Playdate. It was my actual time with the device that has been excited about its future as the weird little handheld you’ll almost certainly see on public transportation in cities with prominent tech and maker scenes.

Crank it Up

Square, with rounded edges, it’s about as thick as my iPhone and is honestly smaller than I was expecting it to be. It measures a mere 76 × 74 × 9 mm and only about half of that is the screen. The rest of the space is dedicated to the D-pad, A and B buttons, menu button, speaker, and the crank.

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The crank is where the Playdate really differentiates itself from other handhelds. That feels like I’m selling the experience a little short, since the entire device is marketed as something both familiar and outside the norms, but the crank is the most obvious and novel part of the Playdate. Yes, it has a tiny black and white screen and its hyper banana yellow color is the of the sort we haven’t seen since the N64, but trust me, the crank is the wildest and weirdest thing the Playdate has going on.

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The preview unit I was sent came preloaded with 4 different games: Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure, Lost Your Marbles, Saturday Edition, and Whitewater Wipeout. With the exception of Saturday Edition, the games take advantage of the crank controller as a primary means of manipulating the on-screen action.

For Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure, the crank’s utility is immediately obvious. You control the passage of time, and the main character, by rotating the crank. Forward, and the character moves forward. Backwards, and he moves backwards. Time is also bound to these rules, and it presents a clever and interesting take on a sidescroller.

Lost Your Marbles, which is something like a visual novel with marble-based puzzles, also utilizes the crank to maneuver your marble around the playfield. It’s a cute, weird game with snappy dialogue, cute characters and crank-based marble puzzles. It feels right at home on the Playdate. I did think it a little interesting developer Sweet Baby Inc. chose to go with crank-based marble controls rather than the Playdate’s built-in accelerometer (which I only discovered through the Playdate SDK, but more on that later).

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Saturday Edition eschews the crank entirely, at least for the bit I played. It’s something like a Sierra Online adventure game with travel stuck on a single axis. I’m pretty fond of its style and presentation, and I’d probably have spent a lot more time with it were it not for the final game preloaded on the preview Playdate, Whitewater Wipeout.

Whitewater Wipeout became my favorite of the games I had the chance to play once I figured it out. You’re a surfer, surfing a gnarly wave, and you score points by doing tricks. The runs start off slowly: you only have enough speed to pull of a single 360 at first, but smooth landings boost your speed to where you can quickly begin pulling off insane 1440s. It requires using both the D-pad and the crank, and it took me a while to adjust my brain to its methods. Once I did, I was hooked. I’m really hoping they turn on the global leaderboards as I’m fairly certain my high score of over 500,000 puts me among Earth’s greatest Whitewater Wipeout players. 

img-7735-1626968744049 Hands-On With Playdate, The Crank-Based, 1-Bit Handheld Coming Later This Year | IGN

However, in playing Whitewater Wipeout so obsessively, I did run into an issue with the ergonomics of the Playdate. To spin the crank, manipulate the D-pad and hold onto the device tightly enough not to drop it required me to clutch it in the weirdest position with my somewhat large hands. It was mildly awkward at first, but by the end of a few runs it started to become flat-out uncomfortable. In fact, I biffed more than a few attempts because the Playdate shifted positions in my grip when trying to pull off a sick quadruple flip off the top of a perfect tube. Bummer.

Development Right Out of the Box

If you’ve ever wanted to make your own games, Playdate seems like the perfect place to start. You can start creating your own “room-based game with no code” using Pulp, Playdate’s in-browser game editor. Or you can write scripts to fill things in a bit more, but the web-based developer environment is something I’m personally really interested in. I wish I could have had a chance to try it out, but I did install the Playdate software development kit on my Windows machine and poke around inside. 

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The SDK is obviously more technical than the browser-based Pulp editor, but anyone familiar with development tools should have no problem finding their way around. Playdate games can be written either in C or in Lua, neither of which I’m familiar with. There’s a healthy number of examples, as well as documentation, and I feel like with my limited background in coding, if I really wanted to try and figure it out I could. If you’re already familiar with C or Lua, you shouldn’t have any trouble jumping right in, and you can test your game on either the emulated Playdate included in the SDK, or sideload them onto your actual Playdate. You can even use the Playdate to control the virtual Playdate. It’s pretty cool stuff, if you’re technically minded enough to take advantage of it all.

If anything, the Playdate’s $179 price tag caused me a little bit of pause, but I came around a bit once the SDK and web development tools were announced at E3. I still think $179 is too much for a casual audience, but if you have an idea for a game rolling around in your head and you want a novel way to create and distribute it, the Playdate seems like the way to go. I still think $179 is a tough sell, but Panic had way more of a positive response than anticipated when it was first announced, which means demand should carry its price tag.

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My initial impressions of the Playdate are definitely positive, weird ergonomics aside. It’s such an interesting idea with simplicity cooked right in. The 1-bit graphics remind me of my earliest computer days exploring the intricacies of our Macintosh 512K, while the simple D-pad and 2-button layout is instantly familiar to anyone who clutched a Gameboy in their youth. But then it throws in a crank as a control option, just for the hell of it. 

It reminds me of the earliest days of the Nintendo DS, when developers didn’t quite know what to do with its controls and dual-screens. Eventually people figured it out, and the results were legendary. I’m not trying to say Playdate is going to be the next Nintendo DS, but rather I feel like the novelty of its control scheme will eventually lead to some really interesting and innovative creations. The willingness of Panic Inc. to throw open the doors to anyone with the know-how and passion to make their own games is what will drive these interesting and innovative experiments, and I’m really looking forward to future games, even if some of them do make my hands hurt.

The Playdate can be preordered in the US from Panic for $179 beginning right now.

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