The Panic Playdate has weirdly stuck with me in a year full of new gaming hardware.
The year 2022 was a blur. More travel, for me. More surprise trips to hospitals. Fewer memorable gadgets. I can’t recall deep last memories of any particular iPads, or laptops, or phones, or watches, or even VR headsets. The things of 2022 didn’t supplant my interest in things from 2021 or earlier.
And yet, I kept carrying around a little yellow thing in my pocket. A thing with a crank. A little, silly, unjustifiable, charming, fidgety, comforting thing.
The Panic Playdate has been my favorite gadget of 2022. It’s not even close. If I go anywhere, I pack a standard set of things: laptop, maybe iPad, phone, maybe Switch, maybe Kindle. The Playdate has entered that bundle. It slides in my pocket when I’m heading out somewhere. I fiddle with the crank and play little games.
The Playdate is a weird mini handheld game console. It’s like a mutant Game Boy, an alternate reality Game & Watch. It’s an indie thing, a fringe type of prototype-feeling device. The Playdate doesn’t play everyday games: just ones in an included season of indie exclusives, plus a bunch of random games made by developers on sites like itch.io.
I reviewed the Playdate back in the spring — and yeah, I’m still having fun with it.
I was always into things like the Game Boy or the Nintendo Game & Watch when I was a kid. I carried little puzzles and magic tricks and fidgety things to school. I like AirPods for their nice little magnetic flip-case. The Panic Playdate’s design alone is appealing. I was sidelined for a month or so this year recovering from surgery, and it stayed by my side, a little buddy I played the indie game Bloom on. I sunk into the story, the simulated text messages from friends in the game, the gardening of a little plot of land with flowers. It’s made me wish Nintendo really made a new Game Boy/Game & Watch Classic. Maybe the Playdate is enough of that thing to make me satisfied.
I’m usually hopping in and out of VR headsets. The Playdate often felt like the flip side of something that big and fully immersive, and yet it’s immersive in its own small, inviting way. Everything about the Playdate’s design feels like part of the experience. In a sense, every game made for it feels like a piece of its crank-enabled charm.
It’s gone everywhere with me. Scott Stein/CNET
The Playdate has also made me aware of my own interests in indie games and has made me more attentive to that experimental space. Sites like itch.io feel like the bustling future of gaming, where ideas are riffed on and quickly shared. I’m more excited about this type of emergent zone than the high-end, high-production games on consoles. It’s gotten me checking for weekly updates, just to see what new experimental Playdate games might appear.
Early days on new products give me these types of feelings: the first months of the iPhone’s App Store or the launch of the Oculus Quest or the Nintendo Switch. I guess I’m addicted to the feel of the new. The Playdate’s unique and limiting qualities seem to be a challenge that indie developers are rising to, and some of its games are already my favorite ones this year.
A Joke That’s Worth 99 Cents is just a game where you bounce a little big-butted person using your crank, on a little Playdate inside your Playdate, while someone slowly tells a long joke. Survive as long as you can. My kids love it.
Crunky is also a quick arcade-like survival game and perfectly tuned to just be addictive like the best old Game & Watch games.
Some of the included games on the Playdate’s advent-calendar-like Season One are little joys I revisit all the time: Whitewater Wipeout’s surfing-high-score challenge, Omaze’s kinetic puzzles, the elevator arcade gaming of Flipper Lifter, Pick Pack Pup’s match-3 puzzle story, the Asteroids and Tempest-like gaming in b360, Star Sled and Hyper Meteor. The types of games I loved those little handheld Game & Watches for are here in multitudes.
It’s not all perfect. The Playdate isn’t even available to buy right now, even if you wanted to: it’s backordered until 2023. It’s not a multiplayer device. I don’t use it all the time. The screen is small and it isn’t backlit. The battery life is inconsistent. And yet, I remain interested in its games. I keep browsing for new indie efforts on Itch. It’s become a little box of mystery. I absolutely adore the whole thing.
Sometimes a bit of joy is all I want in a gadget. Tools are great, and well-made platforms are useful. But the Playdate comforts me.
This year had a lot of “boring but good” products: new laptops, incrementally better phones and watches and headphones and TVs. Those have been fine. But I’m not going to remember any of them this year as much as I’ll remember this little yellow hand-cranked thing.