Panic made its name through high-end Mac software, but more recently, the company moved into gaming, publishing indie hit Firewatch and the upcoming Untitled Goose Game. Now, the developer is expanding its work in games and moving in a very unexpected direction. Today, Panic unveiled Playdate, a tiny, yellow Game Boy-like device with a black-and-white screen, a few chunky buttons, and… a hand crank for controlling quirky games developed by indie stars like Keita Takahashi and Zach Gage.
The company says that it wanted to create “something truly different in the world of video games.” From the looks of the Playdate, it managed to do just that. “The yellow color immediately made Playdate feel approachable, friendly, and impossible to resist,” says Panic co-founder Cabel Sasser.
First, the hardware. The device is incredibly tiny, measuring in at 74 × 76 × 9mm, with a 2.7-inch display. It looks a bit like a stretched-out iPod Nano. The Playdate features a reflective black-and-white screen with no backlight, two face buttons, a directional pad, and a hand crank that neatly slots into the side of the device. The crank doesn’t power the handheld as you might expect; instead, it’s a unique control option. “Think of the crank like an analog stick but one you can turn endlessly,” Panic says.
As for the screen, Panic says that, while it sounds incredibly lo-fi, it’s a bit more high-end than you might imagine. “On the surface, it might be tempting to compare the screen to, say, the Game Boy,” the company says. “But Playdate’s display is quite different: it has no grid lines, no blurring, is extremely sharp and clear, and has much higher resolution. It sounds odd to say, but: it’s truly a ‘premium’ black-and-white screen.”
Other features include Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, USB-C, and a headphone jack. The handheld runs on a custom OS built by Panic, and it has a battery that recharges with the USB-C port. (“We don’t have final numbers yet, but early playtime results look promising,” the company says of battery life.) If you’re wondering why the hardware looks so slick, it was designed in collaboration with Teenage Engineering, the Swedish company renowned for its beautiful synths. They came up with the crank idea.
The hardware isn’t the only unique thing about the Playdate, though. Instead of buying cartridges or game downloads, the hardware will come bundled with what Panic is calling a “season” of games. That means 12 titles, each designed specifically for the Playdate, will release over time. When you first power on the device, you’ll get access to one game, and a new one will unlock each week after that.
While we don’t know much about the games themselves, Panic has assembled a crack team of indie creators to design experiences for the device. The first game to unlock is called Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure, and it’s designed by none other than Katamari Damacy creator Keita Takahashi. Here’s the basic premise:
This game uses the crank exclusively to control the flow of time, backwards and forwards. Your goal? Get Crankin’ to his date with Crankette while avoiding an ever-increasing series of ridiculous obstacles — obstacles that aren’t affected by the time control. Will Crankin’ make it to his rendezvous on-time? (Spoiler alert: no)
Other contributors include Qwop creator Bennett Foddy, The Last Rocket designer Shaun Inman, and Zach Gage, the mind behind inventive mobile games like Really Bad Chess and Flip Flop Solitaire. “The games will remain a surprise until magically delivered to your device,” Panic explains. Once a game unlocks, it’ll be available to play forever, and Panic says it’ll consider additional seasons depending on how sales of the device go.
The Playdate is expected to ship in early 2020, and it’ll cost $149 when it does. If you want to get in early, preorders will be happening later this year. Panic says that it’s still “figuring out” which countries the device will ship to.