My first 3 weeks with Panic’s little handheld
Handheld systems are my favorites. It’s arguably a problem. From SNK’s Neo Geo Pocket Color, to Dreamcast VMUs, to everything Nintendo’s ever made, you name it and I’ve probably spent an unreasonable amount of time poking and prodding it in suboptimal lighting conditions. So when I saw Panic’s announcement for a tiny yellow square with a 1-bit display and a crank that they preemptively denied the gimmickry of I knew I had to try it. I’m sure you understand.
First impressions were strong. I’m picky when it comes to handheld hardware, but the engineering on this thing is just lovely. Solid shell with light texturing, clicky tactile buttons that feel responsive, a smooth-movin’ crank that locks with a magnet, and an especially nice Paperwhite-esque screen. As such there’s no backlight and it seems the long battery life may be a direct result of this. Being able to play this thing outside in the sunlight and see perfectly has been a treat during these warm-but-not-quite-horrible-yet days. I also got the little purple cover, meaning this device’s color scheme looks like it was built to play a WarioWare game that doesn’t exist (yet).
What’s surprised me most over about 3 weeks of play is that it’s surprisingly comfortable! I was worried about potential for hand-crampiness what with its tiny form factor and my hands being beaten to pulp, but unless I was cranking like my life depended on it I found it perfectly fine. The edges on the shell’s front and back panels could have been a bit more rounded than not at all but I never found that to be a serious issue, even when playing particularly action packed games.
Of course, none of this matters if there aren’t games to play on the thing. Fortunately Panic has its early adopters covered with what they’re calling “Season 1”, a collection of 24 games dripfed 2 at a time every Monday. This distribution model is a little funky but it’s kept me reliably glued to the gadget for the last few weeks. Let’s talk about what I’ve played thus far!
Well it sure teaches you how to crank. That’s nice I guess?
In terms of the game there’s really not a lot to talk about. Crank to spin the board, attempt to stay on top of it until you cannot. Then look at the global high score board in fear. That’s about it, and as such it feels like a partial tech demo with nice presentation. Really nice presentation though, especially in the smooth animation that shows off just how good the Playdate can look in motion.
Now this made for an excellent early impression! What we essentially have is a point-and-crank adventure. Walk around, use items on things, talk to everyone, you know the genre conventions. Now we have the addition of taking pictures of birds while focusing your shots with the crank. Taking photos of your average local fauna is as easy as 1-crank-3, but they quickly begin to require equal parts puzzle solving, adventure game logic, and speedy fingers as you line up your shot and desperately attempt to focus on the fly.
As CB is an adventure game it feels against the intended experience to overly detail its charms here, but what needs to be made clear is that this game bleeds personality. It’s consistently very funny both in the dialogue and the excellent spritework, with expressive character portraits giving immense flavor to this town full of folks that are all really, really into birds. Every discovery surprises and delights in equal measure and that makes Casual Birder feel the true intro to Playdate. This is the game that assures new players that there is, in fact, more to this thing than a spinny analog stick.
Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure
I imagine I am far from alone when I say that Keita Takahashi announcing a Playdate exclusive was a major motivator for buying the thing. I’ve tried to play as much of his work as possible but that’s remarkably challenging when some are live event installations and others are defunct browser games, so I was determined to not miss this one. Like much of his output it’s wonderfully weird. Unlike the rest of his output it’s FUCKING HARD.
Crankin’s adventure is a brutal one, appropriately masochistic for a robot who, per the game’s official website, shows up late to dates on purpose so that his girlfriend Crankette will punish him. She also picks spots that he can’t get to easily to exacerbate this. It’s a Whole Thing. Look, if they’re happy.
This plays out in a…well, it resembles a platformer but it kind of isn’t that. Crankin has a preset movement pattern for each date (level) that you move forward and backward in with the crank. What this turns into is an increasingly elaborate exercise in trial and error as the universe finds increasingly creative ways to justify Crankette’s thirst for violence.
I’ll admit I haven’t beaten this one yet. 50 levels of ultra-tight trial and error takes its toll. This feels like Takahashi’s NES game – technically not long, especially once you know what you’re doing, but incredibly challenging to make up for it. It demands and inspires the same masochism in the player as it does Crankin himself, and while I’m not quite there yet, it’s at least starting to hurt less.
I think I am actually too stupid to operate Boogie Loops. I used to make stuff in Mario Paint Composer and have noodled around with other similar widgets successfully, but I have never felt more inept than this music program with a twerking anthropomorphic pizza slice has made me feel. You can change tempo and add/remove notes, I got that, but getting this thing to produce anything even approaching music felt more daunting than learning the actual real piano, which I’ve done.
However, as it is more of a tool and not a game, I’m recusing myself from coverage or opinion-having. You win this round and every round in the future Boogie Loops. I’m sure someone will make cool stuff with you, but I am not that someone.
Lost Your Marbles
Where the first two weeks each had a game that was “for me” and one that generally wasn’t, week three gave me more to play than I was prepared for with two rock solid additions. Lost Your Marbles is a 2D marble physics game about the challenges of decision making. After getting your brain mildly scrambled in a scientific demonstration gone wrong, Prota has to run all around Pomegranate Town to find her lost dog and take care of her other obligations. This portion is essentially a charming comedic visual novel, shepherding you from location to location as Prota’s day gets weirder and weirder.
The gameplay kicks in when Prota’s offered choices. Due to the aforementioned scrambling she has a tendency to struggle with literally any uncertainty, and this manifests in wrangling marble rolling sequences with the crank tipping the level. Smack the marble into a lightbulb (which contains a solution to the current problem) enough times and you’ll crack it open, locking in that choice. Thing is, Prota has as many bad ideas as good ones. You could find yourself being perfectly responsible one moment and serving your dog a cactus sandwich the next. Things can go off the rails fast, and the game is fully aware of this. You should just roll through with the results of your choices, positive or negative – after all, life’s more fun when you make bad choices now and again!
And it’s in those choices that the game offers reasons to revisit. You’ll get through your first run of LYM pretty quickly, only to realize that there are a lot of potential divergences. We’re talking 10 endings, and while I haven’t gotten all of them yet I do want to, and that’s a good sign.
Pick Pack Pup
I won’t bury the lede – Pick Pack Pup is my favorite game from the first quarter of season one. There are many reasons for this. Puzzle games are a personal sweet spot, and this one constantly finds new ways to shake up its formula and keep you on your toes. It’s a surprisingly effective piece of satire that’ll resonate with just about anybody. And arguably most importantly, it’s disgustingly cute. There are several dogs, and they are (almost) all good boys to a fault.
The gameplay of PPP starts off as simple as a match 3 game can be, but it starts throwing wrenches almost immediately. Real time pressures, tight point requirements, item switchups that will surprise you, and all sorts of other assorted shenanigans up to and including guest appearances. It’s novelty within novelty, a matryoshka doll of shipping boxes, each of which contains a shinier puzzle to mentally chew on.
Puzzle games have a tendency to be especially replayable and PPP is no exception. Of all the season 1 games this is the one I keep coming back to, largely thanks to alternate modes that allow you to play it outside of its linear story structure. Did I love that story? Of course! But score chasing is what keeps me packing boxes. This game alone has made taking my Playdate everywhere I go worth it and I cannot wait to see what else the next nine weeks have in store. If any of them even approach this game’s quality I fear I won’t be able to put the machine down.
Before we go, how about some extra recommendations? Itch.io has been a fantastic place to find sideloadable Playdate titles for when you want a fresh shot of novelty on the yellow square. I’ve been trying loads and wanted to quickly shout out some of my favorites:
Conquest of Helios – You like grand strategy games? You like Risk? You want something in between that’s also 1-bit? That’s Conquest of Helios! It’s a shockingly deep little thing with a lot of asymmetry in its varied starting nations and strategic approaches. I almost wish there was a way to play this in multiplayer, but the wait between turns would make me regret it. This thing’s scope is perfect for the Playdate and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The Wizard’s Apprentice – Jongjungbu strikes again with a game especially close to my heart. Illicit commodities training AND wizards? This was practically made for me. Buy low, sell high, get mugged by knights, buy low again, get screwed by demand bottoming out the value of love potions, realize your loans have been accruing ludicrous interest the entire time and you’ll never be debt free, lay down on the ground, try not to cry, cry a lot. The financial experience in a nutshell, and it’s one tasty magic nut indeed.
A Joke That’s Worth $0.99 – Despite as of yet not hearing the entire joke this thing has elicited more laughter among friends I’ve shown it to than any other game on the system. If it’s that funny already, imagine how good the punchline must be! Seriously though, imagine it, because you almost certainly won’t hear it either. It’s a really long joke. Some would even say it’s the longest joke in the world.