Video Games

Portland App Maker Unveils New Handheld Game Console—With a Hand Crank

Indie developer Panic's new Playdate console looks like a yellow box of joy—and it's already a source of controversy.

By Marty Patail May 30, 2019

Portland app maker Panic has long been a darling of the developer community. Known for making elegant, if niche coding tools like Coda, Transmit, and Prompt, Panic has thrived since 1999 by largely staying behind the scenes. But in 2016, Panic signaled consumer-facing ambitions by bankrolling game developer Campo Santo's critically-acclaimed game Firewatch, a first-person mystery adventure set in Wyoming's scenic wilderness. (We previewed the game in our February 2016 issue.) 

On May 22, Panic unveiled the next stage of its game publishing evolution—and the first piece of physical hardware they've ever produced: Playdate, a bright yellow handheld game console, with a 1-bit monochromatic screen and, yes, a hand crank. With only two buttons, traditional D-pad, and a 3-inch square screen, the $150 device seems primed to inspire small, but highly experimental games. The announcement included a video of one of the first 12 games, Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure, where players use the crank to control the flow of time in order to solve puzzles—a gameplay mechanic that wouldn't be unfamiliar to those who played 2008's indie masterpiece Braid. Playdate will feature a 12-game "season," with a new game released every week after the console's launch. 

Despite a flurry of positive press, the system almost immediately became embroiled in controversy. In a blog post published shortly after Playdate's announcement, an organizer for an LA-based experimental game event—also called Playdate—revealed emails sent in 2018 by Panic's cofounder Cabel Sasser asking them to modify or tweak their name to avoid confusion. The organizers (as well as many on Twitter) read the emails as bullying a queer and feminist–friendly event and Sasser ultimately apologized, insisting that he wanted both the console and the event to coexist peacefully.

Whatever happens with the name controversy, Playdate will release "early 2020." Panic is accepting signups for pre-orders here

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