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Panic Playdate: Mixing retro gaming style with the new

When you think about handheld gaming in 2022, your first thought might be the Nintendo Switch (and then maybe Valve’s Steam Deck). But it’s undeniable that Nintendo’s console is top of mind for this segment.

They aren’t the only player in the game, though. (Pun unintended.) There’s a software maker who wants to put its stamp on the market by focusing on a particular thing: a quirky gaming device. 

Panic’s Playdate handheld console mixes the look of a retro Game & Watch / Game Boy Pocket with some unusual hardware. Yes, that’s a crank. And yes, you’ll use that in some of the games.

Panic might be familiar to you if you use some of the Mac software and a handful of games its turned out. But the company started conceptualizing the Playdate as far back as 10 years ago. (We’ve read an interesting story on the crank’s history, which I’ll link below.) 

Panic’s co-founder Cabel Sasser reached out to Teenage Engineering designer Jesper Kouthoofd for collaboration to celebrate Panic’s 15th anniversary. Teenage Engineering is known for making stylish synthesizers, and Sasser wanted them to help “manufacture something incredibly special” for Panic’s most loyal customers. And so began the journey to develop the Playdate we see now.

Through this collab, we get this cheery yellow square console that looks like it’s small enough to fit in many people’s hands. Panic promises “perfectly clicky” buttons and a crank that’s “silky smooth” to use.

That crank is probably the most distinctive thing about the Playdate. It’s not designed as a manual way to charge the device. Instead, it acts as an analog controller that flips out from the side to let you precisely dial in the action. It won’t be available on all the games that run on this console, but some developers have built it into their games.

And if you’re wondering why everything is in black and white, it’s because it has a monochrome (black and white) display. It’s not backlit, but Panic says it’s “super reflective,” which may help it be more visible.

Don’t expect to play your favorite console games on the Playdate. Instead, you’ll get 24 games during its “first season” drop. “Season” might be an apt term given the games won’t arrive included in the Playdate all at once. You’ll get two new games on Mondays each week for 12 weeks. Think of it like waiting for a two-episode drop of your favorite show.

Panic also encourages users to create games if they’re knowledgeable enough. The SDK is available to download for free without requiring special hardware. And its own Pulp game maker is accessible through a web browser. And if you want to sideload games, that’s possible, too. You can get more info here.

When it comes to hardware, the Playdate gets Wi-Fi, a “surprisingly loud loudspeaker,” and a “peppy little processor.” Bluetooth is said to be coming soon.

Panic also plans to sell accessories to accompany the Playdate. There’s the Stereo Dock that you can place your Playdate on when charging, which also makes it look like an old-school monitor. It even has a stereo Bluetooth speaker and a pen (with the pen included). 

If you’re looking for a way to protect the Playdate, Panic also offers a cover for it priced at USD 29. It’s aligned with the Playdate’s screws and secures itself over the handheld magnetically.

The Panic Playdate isn’t cheap by any standard. It retails for USD 179, and that doesn’t include shipping yet. You do get a USB-C to USB-A charging cable for your device. Another downside to it is that orders are already backed up to 2023. The early birds who pre-ordered this when it first launched have started to get their Playdates.

We’re not sure if the unusual device with its unique software distribution method will work in the long run. But we’re here for experimentation. That mini drops of the games will help with that overwhelming feeling you get when you have too many options available at once.

Extra reading: “The 8-year process behind Playdate’s glorious crank” (Polygon)

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