In a world that’s often besotted with any and everything new, gaming is a place that genuinely new or different ideas don’t always find a place. The hardware cycle is even more set in stone, with the big three – pour one out for Sega – dominating the headlines and the marketplace with their own take on what gamers want.
But what if we don’t know what we want? What if we’d like to be surprised by a piece of hardware, and even more so with the games that appear for it? That’s what Panic – publisher of Firewatch and Untitled Goose Game and a maker of a range of developer apps on Mac – are banking on with the Playdate and I’m 115% onboard for it.
It looks like someone stretched out a Yellow Game Boy Pocket and stuck a crank on the side of it, and in some ways that’s exactly what they have done. It’s got a 400×240 black and white screen, a D-pad and two standard buttons, which is about as Game Boy as it gets, but then there’s the crank on the side of it and they’ve popped some WiFi in there so that games can be delivered to it wirelessly. But just as we can’t see the data whizzing through the air, Panic have decided that they’re going to keep the games for the Playdate a secret, delivering all twelve of them one week at a time. It sounds mental, and when it releases in 2020 it probably will be, but it’s gloriously exciting, bold, silly and lovely.
Hardware manufacturers don’t do this. Sure, Nintendo is all about breaking with conventions, but even as they try to engage people in new and interesting ways, it’s still done with an eye to making something that’ll be a huge commercial success. Playdate is both retro and undeniably hip, but it’s not something that has been made with the intention of shifting 70 million units.
It plays into the wonderful side of this industry that has become so important to the development of niche ideas, and where artistic boundaries are still there to be pushed. It’s basically the indie game scene in bright yellow hardware form, and I didn’t even know I needed that till it appeared yesterday. With games coming from a range of developers including Katamari Damacy’s Keita Takashi it seems as though Playdate’s games have every intention of being as attention-grabbing as the hardware itself.
Take Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure, as the sole example that Panic have shown. We don’t know what the game itself will involve, outside of a particular white on black visual style and that the crank works as a way to wind time back and forth. Sure, you can get the same effect from spinning an analogue stick on a gamepad, but it wouldn’t feel the same, it wouldn’t be one of those examples where game and hardware are so perfectly entwined and almost designed for one another.
It’s not supposed to replace your Switch, or, har-de-har, your PS4 or Xbox One. It’s not supposed to replace anything, but it feels as though it’s been created to bring a little bit of joy into your life. We’re obsessed with what’s next – I spent last night decrying the release schedule for the rest of the year, while planning my life around it – so the idea that you can untether yourself from that is glorious. There’ll be a little flashing light on the Playdate when a new game appears, it’ll already have downloaded so you can pick it up and just jump straight in to something new.
Maybe that sounds horrendous to you. Maybe the idea of a black and white screen without a backlight is laughable, even if it is about four times the resolution of the Game Boy, and there’s not going to be a sniff of a AAA game for it. At least not in the modern sense. But then, not everything that exists is going to appeal to everyone. If it’s not for you, then you won’t be fussed, though I can guarantee if you see someone out in the streets merrily cranking away at their Playdate you’re going to want to have a look over their shoulder.
I’m not sure about what the etiquette is for sharing another person’s crank though. You might need to ask them to dinner first?