The Playdate Proves What Video Games Have Been Missing Are More Cranks

What’s here is novel and fun, and gestures at a device that could extend beyond its 'hey, that’s neat' status. But is it a platform or a fun toy?

Apr 18 2022, 5:00pm

At some nebulous point in the last however many years, video games quietly agreed on a universal way to control them. The PlayStation, Xbox, and Switch controllers have stylistic differences and ergonomic approaches, but fundamentally, they’re the same. Consequently, the kinds of games being made have narrowed, too, because a controller’s input possibilities naturally influence design possibilities. The Wii’s motion controls were a fascinating, if brief, deviation. Same with the Kinect. PlayStation 5’s Dual Sense is cool but not revolutionary. The mouse and keyboard remain important, but undeniably, the controller’s dominance has influenced many designers exclusively taking advantage of what a mouse and keyboard can offer.

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“So, naturally, what about a crank?” is the pitch from the Playdate, a charmingly yellow handheld from Panic, a 25-year-old company largely known for Mac software until it started flirting with games a few years back, publishing both Firewatch and Untitled Goose Game

The Playdate looks like a hypothetical Game Boy Mini, an abandoned prototype from Nintendo’s 90s Play it Loud! marketing campaign, when it made colored Game Boys—including one with a yellow that looks a lot like what Panic used on the Playdate! On its face, the Playdate looks normal. There’s a d-pad and two main buttons, B and A, in the same order as the Game Boy. The extras—home button to pick games and change settings, charging port, lock button—don’t stand out. What does catch one’s eye is the metal slab on the side, which can gently be pulled out to reveal a tiny crank that is extremely satisfying to move around, simultaneously feeling like it’s going to fall off at any moment and never break. 

I am unabashedly charmed by video game interface gimmicks, no doubt fueled by having spent a life, in both hobby and career, surrounded by games. It probably explains why I was so taken by games like Dance Dance Revolution and Samba de Amigo; as a teenager, my room was littered with PlayStation and Dreamcast accessories. I was immediately onboard with things like the Wii and Kinect, and spent hundreds investing in early virtual reality tech that now sits in a box. (I still really like VR and motion controls, for what it’s worth.) If you give me a new way to interact with a game, you can bet I’ll be interested, which is why all the other charming things about the Playdate—its high-res black-and-white screen, games delivered weekly in a “season” format—have taken a backseat to that weird goddamn crank.

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There’s no requirement games on the Playdate use the crank, but in my experience with the first wave of 24 games I had access to all at once—normal Playdate owners will receive two games per week over the course of 12 weeks—the ones that stood out very much used it.

Most of my experience with IRL cranks have come from bike maintenance, while the vast majority of my broader crank experience has happened in video games like Resident Evil, where the only way to progress is by inserting a red jewel into a tiger mask, revealing a crank that will open a hidden door to the secret laboratory that’s been hiding in plain sight.

What stands out the most from the crank is how smooth it feels. There’s no tension or feedback, and it will move as fast—or slow—as you do. The circular movement can tickle your brain in unexpected ways, because it’s both new and slightly unintuitive, depending on the game. One highlight game for the Playdate, Omaze, has players turning the crank to move an orb around the edges of a circle, as players move from one circle to the next, towards an exit. Omaze is frequently playing with player’s directional confusion. “I’m moving the crank forward, which is causing my orb to move in a counterclockwise fashion, which means that when I reach the next orb, which will swap directions, I have to move the crank backwards.”

Now, do that really fast.

Several times this week my wife has shouted across the room “are you okay?” It’s a perfectly acceptable question to ask, once it’s clear you’re asking it to someone who’s swearing under their breath while furiously winding their hand in a circle over and over again. My wife has accepted me doing a lot of goofy things with games over the years, yet this disturbed her.

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I’ve spent a lot of time muttering incoherently over Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure, a new game from Katamari Damacy and Wattam designer Keita Takahashi, where players, over and over, fail to show up to a date on time. It’s the best game I’ve played on the Playdate.

Each level is a new attempt to arrive at that date, and filled with new obstacles to make that task hard. It doesn’t sound like avoiding a butterfly should be tough, but in Crankin, players do not have direct control over the main character. Instead, the Playdate’s proverbial crank is rotated in order to advance your character’s animation forward and backwards. How fast you turn the crank determines how fast the character moves, allowing you to, for example, stop cranking while your character bends over to observe a flower, thus avoiding said butterfly. 

Early puzzles are simple enough, alternating between moving forward and backward before, levels later, giving ways towards much more sinister tasks. Some advanced stages in Crankin require players to wind the crank as fast as humanly possible, then stopping on a dime to avoid an upcoming obstacle, before heading back into a sprint. The mental and physical gymnastics required to complete some puzzles is extraordinary—and satisfying. 

Some games use the crank less than others, like scrolling through story panels in the matching puzzler Pick Pack Pup, and others, like the Zelda-inspired Ratcheteer, where players power a lamp, are less inspired than perfunctory. Inventory Hero, an idle game RPG where combat happens automatically while players manage a constantly shuffling inventory of equipment, doesn’t seem to use the crank at all. It’s merely a cute game on a device with a crank.

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(One adorable aside: the device detects when the crank has been removed from the device or tucked away, and one game actually makes use of this as a mechanic. It’s so good!)

The initial lineup of games run the gamut in scope and genre, too. There’s a handful of arcade-y action games built around a single hook, with players trying to achieve a high score , that I bounced off pretty quickly. (Score chasing does nothing for me.) Others are full-fledged adventure games that suggest a number of hours before hitting credits. Many more, however, are puzzle games centered around enjoyable uses of the crank. Those are the ones that I keep coming back to, and those are the ones I want more of on the Playdate. 

Crankin alone, I’ve spent more than four hours in—a pleasant surprise that keeps surprising. 

The crank proves ultimately more than a gimmick, but combined with the tiny real estate of the Playdate itself, it’s an awkward thing to hold. I play a dozen or so hours of video games every single week and my hands do not get tired, but in multiple sessions with the Playdate, sessions that usually lasted around two hours, I’d have to put the device down and take a break because the strain was becoming unbearable. There’s just no easy way to hold the Playdate still, move the crank, and interact with the other buttons (or d-pad) regularly without turning your fingers into pretzels, or approximating the old Monster Hunter claw technique.

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My hands aren’t all that big, either. I expect different hand sizes will produce different rules.

The screen is a mixed bag, too. The black-and-white is striking, and the screen is so pretty and sharp. But because it’s not backlit, you have to think about how you’re using the device. 

“The screen is black and white, and it’s beautiful,” reads an official FAQ about the screen by Panic. “It has no backlight, but it’s super reflective. It’s an aesthetic like no other.”

They’re definitely right about that! The Playdate is useless in the dark, and while you’d think plopping on the couch in the evening with a lamp would be enough, often I was moving my body around or adjusting the amount of light in the room to accommodate the Playdate. It’s certainly functional in lower light situations, but hardly ideal, and I regularly found myself thinking about the goofy light accessories I once purchased for old Game Boys

This is how I would want to lay. Usually, I'd flip around.

This stylistic approach has resulted in a gorgeous device, but it’s not without real tradeoffs. 

Tradeoffs are not inherently flaws, though. They’re choices. The last device I reviewed was the Steam Deck, Valve’s take on the portable computer that promises to let you bring your Steam library—nearly all of it—on the go. It mostly delivers, but does so with a device that’s everything and the kitchen sink. It’s got trackpads to accommodate mouse and keyboard games! Gyroscopes for more precise aiming! A million face buttons and four hidden in the back! It’s got a fan that runs like it’s powering a train and a battery that zaps in an instant! 

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With the Playdate, all you have to do is look at the device to see where Panic said “no” to a lot of different ideas. With the Steam Deck, you get the impression Valve kept saying “yes.” How else do you explain a device that has 24 finished games waiting in the wings, but the people at Panic are going to slowly roll them out over three months because it wants them to feel novel and surprising? (Their website even lets you hide upcoming games as “spoilers.”)

I say this as someone who adores the Steam Deck, as prototype-y as it might be, while recognizing what makes the Playdate feel so personal is precisely because its look and build immediately communicate a bunch of human choices that can trigger delight and frustration. 

Some of that frustration extends beyond the physical device, too, like the realization Panic is manufacturing the device in Malaysia, but claims it can’t sell Playdates to anyone who lives there. Instead, the company has a form that people can fill out “so we can keep you posted.” 

An error occurred while retrieving the Tweet. It might have been deleted.

Global manufacturing isn’t easy, especially during COVID-19, but it’s a bad look. 

The biggest questions I have are unanswerable, because it requires time and distance and games that better study what this device is capable of, which this review cannot provide. What’s here is novel and fun, and certainly gestures at a device that could extend beyond its “hey, that’s neat” status. But it’s impossible to know if this is a platform or a really fun toy. 

It is, at the very least, a really fun toy.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).

Tagged:

Game Boy, playdate

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